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The Politics of Boardwalk Empire: Prohibition and the War on Drugs

agent nelson van alden The Politics of Boardwalk Empire: Prohibition and the War on DrugsBy Tim Rodgers

In one of the final scenes of Boardwalk Empire’s “21” we see Agent Nelson Van Alden having a quaint dinner with his wife Rose.  There is an awkward moment when the maitre d asks the couple if they want any spirits with their dinner with a kind of a wink-wink and a nod.  Without Prohibition, it is unimaginable to think that you couldn’t enjoy a nice glass of wine with your dinner and you would be breaking the law by doing so.

Rose Van Alden is shocked at the proposition, but Nelson reassures her that this is OK, that they are in Atlantic City or sin city if you will, and this is typical if not acceptable. There is a brief moment when the viewers perceive that Agent Van Alden has succumbed to the overwhelming societal norms of alcohol consumption in Atlantic City, and has given into a sort of nullification of not enforcing the Volstead act especially in a moment with his wife sitting down having a romantic dinner.

The Restaurant is crowded, there are people all around enjoying spirits, and Agent Nelson witnesses a bus boy carting a crate of champagne into the storage room.  In any other place in the world other than Prohibition Era United States, this would be common place.  But the viewers are instantly snapped back into reality when Agent Nelson sucker punches the maitre d and has the establishment raided.

That “typical” or “normal” moment we experience everyday in life was turned upside down by the Volstead act.  The government raided what any normal person today would consider legitimate activity.  Furthermore, this disconnect we witness with the Federal Task Force and the citizens of Atlantic City is strengthened by the notion that the majority of the people aren’t complying with it, they don’t agree with it, nor support Prohibition.

Let’s say that Agent Nelson really decided to purchase a bottle of Champagne for him and his wife that he hasn’t seen in quite some time.  The viewers would not have been that surprised.  In fact, it seemed kind of normal and kind of where the moment was taking us in that scene.  This situation is not what Prohibition intended, a married couple of responsible adults enjoying a fine beverage in an appropriate moment and setting.  Rather, it was supposed to prevent the alcohol dependent abusive father beating his wife and kids, or the coal miner in West Virginia drinking a quart of beer to steady his hands for another day of life threatening work.

Smash cut to the “X” Township police officer finding a roach in a college student’s ash tray.  The officer weighs in his mind whether or not to enforce the letter of the law versus the paperwork, time spent, and bigger and better fish to fry.  He lets the kid off with a warning instead.  I’m sure this scenario happens 1000 of times every day.  But the question is, can we draw this comparison to Prohibition & the “War on Drugs?”

We can make a pretty good case that there some similarities to Prohibition and the legalization drugs. One of the strongest cases is that notion that the mere outlawing of them creates an underground market which spawns criminal enterprise.  Secondly, there is a notion that the criminal justice system is being overwhelmed with “petty” drug offenses, and is diverting our resources from other more serious and violent crimes.

Of course I’m not the first to talk about the de-criminalization of drugs nor do I support legalizing them.  In fact I understand that taking drugs is a pretty big deal.  So here are some contrasts that are important to note.  First, alcoholic beverages are and were ingrained in our society from a traditional standpoint and the consumption of beer and wine have strong cultural and religious historical implications.  That’s why it seemed so odd or rather so “normal” that a maitre d offered his patrons a cocktail with their meal.

If the maitre d offered Agent Nelson and his wife a joint or some peyote it would have seemed out of place.  There is no typical custom for that behavior, it seems and still is out of place in our society for the most part.  (I know the guy reading his “High Times” magazine in Amsterdam disagrees)

Therefore, I don’t think the answer is to decriminalize drugs simply based on the societal norm and tradition aspect.  One of the main reasons that Prohibition didn’t work in the first place was because the majority of people didn’t support nor adhere to the Volstead act.

I think the majority of people today understand the dangers and implication of narcotics and inherently support the current laws that criminalize drugs.

So what is the answer?  I don’t have one, but what I do know is that the show “Boardwalk Empire” is a brilliant show by merely being set in Prohibition Era United States.  Its great execution provokes very interesting and salient discussions about our own society today.  Whiskey Goldmine will keep bringing you interesting aspects and angles about the show.  I’m going to get me some Canadian Club and sit back.  See you next week!

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