I have spent January as a strict teetotaler. With an exquisite timing that the Marquis de Sade might have appreciated, I also spent the month reading an absorbing book about Prohibition, a history to make a man thirsty if ever there was one.
"Last Call," written by Daniel Okrent, was published in 2010 to rave reviews, but I only got around to reading it now at the suggestion of a friend, the happiest way for good books to find their audience. The pre-Lenten fast was my own dumb idea.
But it happens pretty much every January. The Christmas and New Year revels leave me in such full figure that a button is likely to fly off with the force of a small caliber pistol putting passers-by in peril.
At that moment, I swear off booze but also bread and bonbons, which is to say candy of all types. In short, I give up fun. One day, after thin doctors vouch for it, I shall popularize my BBB diet in a book and make many others miserable.
The poet T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, but apparently he never went dry in January. Why can't I remain fat and happy? Why do this to myself? To prove to myself that I can. My liver thanks me. My wife thanks me, because my snoring disappears as I trim down. Apparently, the human tuba does not put out the same volume of noise when it is smaller.
Being on the wagon has other compensations: You can read a book on the back of the wagon, as there is nothing else much to do in the way of entertainment. And "Last Call" gave rise to an insight beyond the scope of the book. It made me feel a bit better about our own age, although some parallels haunt both eras.
Certainly, politics are crazy today, but there's comfort in knowing that as outbreaks of insanity go, Prohibition has the present age beat.
What ironies abounded back then. The people's freedom to buy drinks was specifically outlawed in the Constitution, the very document that protects the people's freedoms. A major impetus was religious duty to a savior whose first miracle was to turn water into wine.
In the process, America made itself the world's laughing stock. Winston Churchill, the famous statesman and expert in alcoholic beverages, said Prohibition "was an affront to the whole history of mankind."
Those who gave the nation Prohibition were a strange coalition that brought together religious conservatives who wanted to exorcise the demon rum and progressives who wanted to advance causes such as women's suffrage.
It lasted from January 1920 to December 1933 and was a disaster, breeding hypocrisy and contempt for the law like poisonous mushrooms. It also put the federal government more squarely into the lives of ordinary Americans. On the bright side, people did drink less overall and snoring no doubt abated.
What ironies abound today. We have a small political faction severe as the old drys but instead railing against the intoxicant of federal spending, an issue which did indeed need attention just as the dive saloons of yesteryear were an invitation to a hatchet.
Of course, this being America, everything gets taken too far. The drys of yesteryear made the whole nation as miserable as one of my Januarys. Today's Tea Party, averse to compromise, has been happy to shut down the government in honor of a Constitution that is all about establishing a functioning government dependent on compromise.
In its quest, the Tea Party mimics the best tactic of the Anti-Saloon League, which was to use the power of a dedicated minority to intimidate politicians and control the political agenda.
Excess doesn't make a good antidote to excess, not in 1920, not in 2014. Back in Prohibition, the 1 percenters at last looked down their refined noses at the obvious signs of craziness. It was the Depression that mostly ended the farce -- banning liquor didn't seem like the nation's top priority anymore -- but a rich and influential group finally organized to defeat it.
In the same way, establishment conservatives are now trying to decaffeinate Tea Party congressmen or pour them down the drain so the Republican Party can appeal to a broader group of sober-minded voters: those who still hold the quaint idea that members of Congress are there to make government function, not make it dysfunctional.
This is encouraging and it hasn't even taken years to happen. I'll drink to that. Is it February yet?
Reg Henry: firstname.lastname@example.org. or 412-263-1668.