Daily Nock

By: | Post date: December 28, 2017 | Comments: No Comments

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Having an odd habit of sticking with a single writer for weeks at a time has its benefits, mainly due to the discovery of gems that would otherwise go unnoticed.  Reading several Nock essays each day for a week gets you through a large chunk of his work, and one of his best is “Prohibition and Civilization“, an essay where Nock describes the ugly sterility of a society that attempts such feats of social control as alcohol prohibition:

“Prohibition, as a policy, has had a great deal of public attention, but the kind of civilization connoted by prohibition has had very little. This is unfortunate, because the general civilization of a community is the thing that really recommends it. The important thing to know about Kansas, for instance, is not the statistics of prohibition—as most writers on the subject seem to think — but whether one would really want to live there, whether the peculiar type of civilization that expresses itself through prohibition is really attractive and interesting(…)

(…)By far the greater part of the power and permanence of a civilization resides in its charm. It is surely noticeable, for instance, that wherever French civilization once strikes root, it remains forever. The border provinces, the Province of Quebec and our own State of Louisiana, are as obstinately and unchangeably French as ever they were. The reason is that French civilization satisfied the human instinct for what is amiable, graceful and becoming, and men cleave to it. It appeals to them as something lovely and desirable, rather than as something merely rational and well-ordered, which is the chief appeal of the German type. Under the State Socialism of Germany one is continually confronted with the social relations and consequences of practically every move one makes. The principle of prohibition is extended to cover an endless range of conduct (though, significantly, drink is exempt). The home scheme of social fife is ordered with excellent and obvious rationality, but it is devoid of charm, it has no savor, and all its reasonableness cannot make up for the deficiency, cannot make the normal spirit really enjoy it. One feels the same restlessness and perverseness under it that William James declared he felt under the regime at Chautauqua. One doubts whether such smooth-running social order is worth having at the price. I remember some years ago, after a long time spent in observing the ghastly perfections of German municipal machinery, I came home ready to rejoice in the most corrupt, ring-ridden and disreputable city government that I could find in America, if only I might draw a free breath once more and forget the infinity of things that are verboten.

(…)The civilization of Socialism, however, is rational. It has that sound merit, just as civilization of one Latin type has the merit of beauty and amiability. But Puritan civilization has neither. It has all the flat hideousness of Socialism, without the rationality which Socialism has managed to redeem by its contact with great world-currents of thought. Puritanism is essentially a hole-and-corner affair, with its arid provincialism untempered by contact of any kind. Its ideals are grotesque and whimsical; its methods are unintelligent—the methods of dragooning. Mr. Keeler must forgive my plain speaking; it comes of a sincere desire to resolve his doubts about the sanity or integrity of the brute mass of us who look unmoved on the progress of prohibition in Kansas. We cannot accept prohibition without accepting the civilization that goes with it, for prohibition cannot stand on any other soil. To get even the attenuated benefit of prohibition in Kansas, our community-life must become more or less like that of Kansas, and we ourselves more or less like Kansans; and this is wholly impossible and unthinkable.

(…)The advocates of prohibition ought to get a clear grasp of the fundamental objection to their theory, and meet it with something more substantial than feeble talk about the influence of “the liquor interests.” Our objection is to Puritanism, with its false social theory taking shape in a civilization that, however well-ordered and economically prosperous, is hideous and suffocating. One can at least speak for oneself: I am an absolute teetotaler, and it would make no difference to me if there were never another drop of liquor in the world; and yet to live under any regime of prohibition that I have so far had opportunity to observe would seem to me an appalling calamity. The ideals and instruments of Puritanism are simply unworthy of a free people, and, being unworthy, are soon found intolerable. Its hatreds, fanaticisms, inaccessibility to ideas; its inflamed and cancerous interest in the personal conduct of others; its hysterical disregard of personal rights; its pure faith in force, and above all, its tyrannical imposition of its own Kultur: these characterize and animate a civilization that the general experience of mankind at once condemns as impossible, and as hateful as it is impossible.