Ken Burns on Prohibition, Pot, and PBS

“Slavery was our worst idea,” says legendary documentarian Ken
Burns. “I’m not sure that Prohibition was second, but it’s really
up there.” In his five-and-a-half-hour film Prohibition,
which aired in three parts on PBS in October, Burns takes an
in-depth look at one of the most controversial episodes in U.S.
history. Working with his longtime collaborator Lynn Novick, Burns
explores the causes, failures, and legacy of the nation’s “Noble
Experiment” in banning alcohol. 

Burns’ previous works on topics such as the Civil
War, baseball, and jazz were critical and commercial successes,
helping to revitalize the documentary form and start rich
conversations about race, history, and politics.
Prohibition likely will do the same. 

“There were all these factions, left and right, black and white,
that were for [banning alcohol],” he says. “It [is] too easy to
dismiss it as purely a retrograde, conservative attempt to pull the
country back to some good old days that never existed. It was a
much more complicated dynamic.” The documentary stresses the role
of Progressive legislators in pushing the 18th Amendment.

Burns, a self-described “Democrat for life,” eschews doctrinaire
activism in his art, bringing decades-old stories to life through
the eyes of colorful characters, written testimonials, and period
music. “The telling of history need not be Castor Oil, the dry
recitation of dates, facts, and events,” he says.

Despite the immense popular appeal of his work, Burns is no fan
of “the market” when it comes to making films. While Bank of
America is a major funder of Prohibition, he says that in
a commercial television setting the company probably would have
exerted editorial pressure on the finished product. He says
corporate money and commercial outlets, even on niche cable
channels, come with too many strings and compromises attached. And
he worries that the proliferation of cheap production and
distribution technologies, while a cause for optimism, leads to
audience fragmentation. “People can seek their own self-satisfying
sources of knowledge,” he says, which “is hugely dangerous.” Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat
down with Burns in New York City in October. For video of this
interview, visit

reason: Why is Prohibition in vogue these days?
There seems to be a real interest in this period, in re-examining

Ken Burns: There’s always a superficial
interest in Prohibition. You’ve got gangsters; everybody wants to
be able to kill the people who piss them off. You’ve got women who
are seemingly promiscuous; the flapper dancing with the short skirt
and the bobbed hair on top of the tables. 

But in every case is the understanding that Prohibition reveals
a lot more. This is the story of single-issue political campaigns
that metastasize with the most horrible unintended consequences,
including creating organized crime. This is about the demonization
of recent immigrants. This is about a whole group of people who
feel like they’ve lost control of their country and want to
re-exert that control by imposing on these newcomers some new law.
It sounds so familiar.…It resonates with today’s themes.

reason: What are the parallels with today? Is
the parallel directly to the drug war?

Burns: No, I think it’s less to that. Alcohol
is used by every culture since there have been human beings. Drugs
are a subcultural thing. Alcohol was something everybody did, so
eliminating it required a great act of faith to take place. Drugs
are not favored by a majority of people. While there are lots of
similarities and the possibility of taxing and regulating marijuana
is a hugely interesting consideration, once again, it’s unintended
consequences. You have to be careful. 

[Prohibition was] so much like our political moment: lack of
civil discourse, the demonization of immigrants, smear campaigns
during presidential elections, all of this sort of single-issue
campaigning. All of that stuff resonates with today, because, in
fact, human nature is the same. Prohibition brings out and reveals
to us our essential dichotomy, not between us as much as within us.
The generosity and the greed. The Puritans and the prurients. The
sincerity and hypocrisy. The Saturday night at the bar and the
Sunday morning in church. 

reason: Your previous documentary, about
America’s national parks, called them America’s best idea. Would
you say Prohibition was our worst?

Burns: It’s close to being our worst. Slavery
was our worst idea. I’m not sure I’d put Prohibition second, but
it’s really up there. For the first time in our history, we had an
amendment—which were usually about expanding human rights—that
actually restricted human rights. It was put in there, ironically,
as an amendment because we thought it would be enshrined in the
Constitution and therefore never be repealed. But of course it’s
the only amendment that’s been repealed, which shows that at least
we have some intelligence and woke up to the hypocrisy.

(Interview continues below video.)