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Prohibition: A Movement of Prudish Killjoys or Righteous Revolutionaries?

A new book reenvisions temperance as a global struggle on behalf of the oppressed and exploited.

Now that cool pastors drink craft beer, American Protestants’ erstwhile obsession with banning booze can seem downright weird. Or maybe just quaint? Was the nation’s brief experiment with Prohibition an instance of no-fun church folks run amok, one of the last gasps of an overweening Puritan superego?

That’s what the true villains of the story would want you to think, or so Mark Lawrence Schrad argues in his new book, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition. Taking aim at the widespread perception that temperance movements were all about “moralizing ‘thou shalt nots,’” he proclaims that they were, on the contrary, “a progressive shield for marginalized, suffering, and oppressed peoples to defend themselves from further exploitation.”

Crucially, in Schrad’s telling, prohibition was never about raining on the individual drinker’s parade. Rather, it was a tactic to combat predatory liquor traffickers and the empires that benefited from their nefarious work. It is only because the capitalists and imperialists so often prevailed in these struggles, Schrad suggests, that we remember temperance activists as prudish killjoys rather than righteous revolutionaries.

Resisting ‘alco-subjugation’

United States historians have tended to reinforce such misconceptions, Schrad contends, because they have usually failed to view American temperance movements in wider world context. To be sure, this is not easy to do. For Schrad it meant tracking down leads in 70 different archives housed in 17 different countries and strewn across five continents. But the payoff of that hard work is tremendous: a story that is, as the subtitle promises, truly global. …

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