Prohibition, Civility, and Political Discourse
After enjoying episode two of Ken Burn’s “Prohibition” on PBS tonight, I happened to catch him addressing the National Press Club on CSPAN3. (Available online at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/KenBur)
What a performance! He spoke about our loss of civil discourse and our inability to compromise, comparing today’s loggerheads with the Civil War and Prohibition eras. He said movements for sweeping legislation to settle moral questions such as abortion or gay marriage were unlikely to be successful in the light of American skepticism of such solutions after the experience of Prohibition. We will however continue to suffer such wedge-issue politics because the media feeds on the controversy.
He addressed the obvious parallels between Prohibition of the 1920’s and the war on drugs, noting that marijuana is America’s largest cash crop. He said that the two differ in that alcohol has been used throughout the ages while marijuana has been but a sub-culture. Drug violence would not end with legalization because we would be unwilling to sanction the use of cocaine and heroin, so their violent trafficking would continue.
Burns has spent his career making documentary films for PBS and the NEH. He defended these entities against those who would shut them down, noting that they also receive complaints about their conservative bias. He spoke of his friendship with William F. Buckley, who appeared on PBS and PBS only for 30 years. Rather than bias, his films concern themselves with the facts, which are neither Democratic nor Republican. He assembles his teams of experts, consultants and researchers from across the spectrum, and tries to present an average. He says that “newspapers are essential to the survival of our republic,” and that much internet reporting consists of rumor and innuendo. Public broadcasting, while underfunded and much maligned, provides the best in childrens, science, nature, history and news programming. “No other venue would permit me to do as deep a dive, without commercials.”
I knew that Burns was intelligent, but boy was he articulate. He spoke his piece without a halt or stammer, without a misstep. He took questions after, smart as a whip, without a pause. Even if he had been provided the questions in advance, which he apparently hadn’t, it would have been an amazing feat to memorize his responses. I would suggest you have a look at this show if only to remember what a public speaker ought to sound like; you sure won’t see anything like it watching this year’s debates.