Source: Fay Voshell
Students of American history will recall the colorful figure of Carrie Nation, who in her enthusiasm for the temperance movement, took to whacking up saloons with a hatchet. The six-foot-tall Nation would later go on to earn her a living from her notoriety by selling small axes as souvenirs.
Nation’s avid co-laborers in the temperance movement would later succeed in passing legislation prohibiting all alcohol consumption.
The broad sweep of what she and others saw as a deleterious influence on individual and national health and welfare accomplished little in the way of removing the scourge of alcoholism.
But the temperance movement did assist in accelerating the rise in criminal enterprises, fostering a general contempt for civil authorities and an undermining of civil authority, particularly in the big cities; which saw a tremendous explosion of criminal enterprises interested in supplying booze to the thirsty American public. Law enforcement was often diverted from pursuit of serious criminality and government corruption while officers’ energies were consumed by arrests of alcohol-consuming citizens and smashing barrels of beer.
But in addition to nearly decapitating law and order, Prohibition eliminated something enormously important to American democracy, as John Grinspan pointed out in his New York Times article, titled, “The Saloon, America’s Forgotten Democratic Institution.”
Grinspan wrote the American saloon, rather than always being the stereotypical den of iniquity, was often a place where “survivors of the Industrial Revolution could drink and debate, politick and speechify. The new American proletariat took full advantage of their relatively open political system, voting at higher rates than rich men. More than the beer, saloons provided a gathering place in a nation with little public space for working-class men to argue the issues or meet the candidates.”
But, “…[D]uring the heyday of saloon politics, in the 1870s and 1880s, the well-to-do began to question the entire logic of voting rights for all. They worried that they were being outvoted by the working classes, whom they dismissed as ‘the stupid, the lazy, the drunken — the whole mass of scum and dregs of society.’ So reformers moved to crush saloons, knowing that when ‘removed from the beer keg and the tap, local political clubs die young.’”
In other words, the elite of the day thought the deplorables of society should be deprived of places in which their voices could be freely expressed lest they wind up voting out the entrenched power players who sought “to snatch democracy from the working classes.”
In short, the power players of politics found the easiest way to get rid of resistance was to shut down the places where potential resistance might lurk. Powerful interests sought to break down any rival political structures, including the grass roots civic networks, some of which were saloons.
Due to the draconian responses to COVID-19, America has been seeing the temporary triumph of the new ax wielders. A whole network of institutions that are the bedrock of neighborhoods are under attack, including shops, bars, pubs, restaurants, concert halls, movie theaters and churches. Even some church choirs are silenced by a ‘no singing’ rule.
The smashers of neighborliness and camaraderie are, like Carrie Nation, doing so in the name of righteousness and the improvement of American’s physical health—a principle that seems fair enough.
But if the health of Americans was truly the issue, there would not be so much arbitrariness and inconsistent application of rules and regulations. The people who are under the laws of the new Prohibition can see the inconsistencies clearly. It seems odd to them that COVID-19 virus is apparently far more active in churches, small businesses, and eateries, than it is in densely packed crowds of protestors whose righteous ideology apparently immunizes them from the virus’s deleterious effects.
It even would be acceptable if it were a sensible means of protecting one’s and others’ health. Most reasonable people are open to sensible precautions. But even when the State has allowed the denizens of the cities and small towns it is “protecting” from the virus to gather, government officials continue to regulate venues in ways that have nothing to do with health but which make the public discourse and camaraderie of bars, cafes and eateries nearly impossible.
For example, recently the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board updated their COVID guidelines to define the acceptable purchase of alcohol at a restaurant or bar. If you want a drink, you have to purchase a meal, defined as “food prepared on the premises, sufficient to constitute breakfast, lunch or dinner.” Just to be absolutely clear, “a snack, such as pretzels, popcorn, chips, or similar food, does not meet the definition of a meal.” Also, no drinking after eating your meal! “Additional drinks may be purchased while the customer is consuming the meal, but no further drinks may be purchased after the meal is finished.”
Not only is the customer told when, where and how to eat and drink, but more arbitrary regulations ensure no friendly give and take is allowed. Customers who formerly enjoyed shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow discussions have been replaced with expressionless, masked and muffled anonymous clients who sit at tables six feet apart from one another, only daring to lower their masks to eat, not to talk. Meanwhile, the familiar senior citizen coffee klatsches at McDonald’s have been abruptly disbanded and sausage biscuits are now impersonally dispensed from the takeout window.
What do all of the minute regulations have to do with public health? Not very much.
One cannot help but wonder if in addition to suppressing free discourse, something else is at work; namely H.L. Mencken’s view of puritanism, which he called “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
G.K. Chesterton knew about that fear. His ballade against the punitive spirit of progressive puritanism certainly is pertinent today:
A Ballade of an Anti-puritan
They spoke of Progress spiring round,
Of light and Mrs Humphrey Ward–
It is not true to say I frowned,
Or ran about the room and roared;
I might have simply sat and snored–
I rose politely in the club
And said, `I feel a little bored;
Will someone take me to a pub?’
The new world’s wisest did surround
Me; and it pains me to record
I did not think their views profound,
Or their conclusions well assured;
The simple life I can’t afford,
Besides, I do not like the grub–
I want a mash and sausage, `scored’–
Will someone take me to a pub?
I know where Men can still be found,
Anger and clamorous accord,
And virtues growing from the ground,
And fellowship of beer and board,
And song, that is a sturdy cord,
And hope, that is a hardy shrub,
And goodness, that is God’s last word–
Will someone take me to a pub?
Prince, Bayard would have smashed his sword
To see the sort of knights you dub–
Is that the last of them–O Lord
Will someone take me to a pub?
A few decades ago, Cheers was one of the most popular television shows in America. Set in a bar in Boston, Massachusetts, the show featured a group of locals who met to have a drink, relax and socialize. The show’s main theme song was “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”
Places like Cheers are vanishing overnight, and with them what is comfortable, neighborly, agreeable and sociable. Philadelphia’s McMenamin’s Tavern, a favorite pub located in Germantown, is in danger of disappearing. The waiter who has known you for the last twenty years and who brings you your favorite microbrew without asking what you want is now out of a job.
People who knew who you are and with whom you amiably rubbed elbows at the bar or in the pew, are now excised from your life. At the local café, it’s been your neighbor you’ve been talking with. It’s your neighbor whose business you’ve been supporting. The camaraderie, humor and mutuality of belonging to the human race is there at the local tavern. The mutuality of the faith community that recites creeds, sings hymns and prays together is found when meeting in person, not in cyberspace. ‘Tavern’ and ‘tabernacle’ spring from the same Latin root, taberna.
Just as bad, the demise of the familiar pub, the neighborhood restaurant and cafes; and the shutting down of church fellowships seems to have left protest marches as the only viable outlets for free speech.
Something is profoundly wrong with a society when the only acceptable and freely chosen social gatherings are protest marches rather than humble camaraderie as the unifying emotion. Something’s desperately amiss when the chief form of socialization is angry protest. It’s on the local level that true diversity exists, not on the macro stage with blaring megaphones drowning out all other voices.
As Grinspan wrote, “…[T]he point of the saloon was never the lager. It was the shared institution. Today it often feels as if the only shared spaces are big-box checkout lines and fast-food parking lots. What we need, more than tweets or memes, is the kind of civic life that transpires when men and women gather face to face and, as a fan of old saloons put it, “political matters ebb and flow free as froth on the beer.”
For the love of Philadelphia and other cities, bring the civic life back. Bring back places like Joe’s Pizza; McMenamin’s Tavern, Tenth Presbyterian Church meetings at the Black Sheep pub; and Zion Baptist church dinners and prayer meetings.
Citizens might begin bringing back their local civic life by nonviolent means, opening up and going to pubs, restaurants and churches in defiance of the State’s overreach.
As for those who fear viral infections, be they COVID-19 or free public association and discourse in all its manifold forms?
Just stay home.