G.K.Chesterton (1874 – 1936) visited the United States twice, in 1921 and 1930.  I have recently been reading Sidelights on New London and Newer York and Other Essays, published in 1932 after his second visit.

One of the essays has particularly struck my attention:

A Monster: The Political Dry

which deals with the effects of Prohibition, something against which he wrote regularly and vehemently.

For all that the social reformer once said against Saloons, he can now say against Prohibition; and he says it.  It was once argued that the harm done by the Saloon went far beyond drunkenness.  It is now certain that the harm done by the Volstead Act goes far beyond the denial of drink.  It was once alleged that the Bar was working with an organization of vice.  It is now certain that the Federal Law works by an organization of crime.  Perfectly innocent private citizens, men who not only had no liquor on their persons, but had never used it in their lives, have been murdered by gunmen in the name of the Government of the United States.  People have been shot at sight, not only without trial, but practically without suspicion and without reason.  Men have tried to make Drink illegal; and have only succeeded in making Murder legal. 

Now over here in Blighty, we have the impression that US law enforcement officers are rather free with their firearms, and it was this last sentence that brought to my mind recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.  It may occur disproportionately when those citizens happen to be of Afroic ancestry, and we have similar though much less severe tendencies over here.  However, this side of the Atlantic efforts to “combat racism” seem to have negative effects, probably because they are put in place by those for whom everything is a political football. 

Reading on, one finds this:

Perhaps the strangest symptom of a strange situation is something almost horrible in the humour of that situation.  Of course, no serious person could ever have taken Prohibition seriously.  But the only really serious part of it is that it prevents people from taking anything else seriously.  Something that is supposed to be grotesque (God knows why) about the subject of beer has spread a froth of frivolity over all sorts of topics [so that] facts in the social situation that would have been normally regarded as a subject for horror are now almost inevitably regarded as a subject for humour. 

This utterly unnatural inversion is a psychological fact, and is not the least of the facts that combine to tell against Prohibition in the minds of really serious men.  The very fact that Al Capone has become a sort of burlesque brigand, who might appear in a masquerade, illustrates the loss of something that has hitherto been a true psychological deterrent of crime.  He is really and truly part of a masquerade, for he is safe behind a mask because it is a comic mask.  The scar of Scar-Face actually has a disarming effect, like the red nose of the old music-hall comedian. 

which might be of especial interest to residents of Chicago.  But does this not shed considerable light on the development of humour in the 20th Century?

However, I have to be careful if I attempt to write anything critical about the USA, especially since it is a country I have never visited.  But this opening passage from the first essay in the first section, NEW LONDON, is something I try to bear in mind.

WHAT embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but absence of self-criticism.  It is comparatively of little consequence that you occasionally break out and abuse other people, so long as you do not absolve yourself.  The former is a natural collapse of human weakness; the latter is a blasphemous assumption of divine power.  And in the modern world, where everybody is quarrelling about the urgent necessity of peace, nobody notices how this notion has really poisoned the relations of nations and men.  Thus the Irishman would never have minded the English saying he was mad; or even that he was murderous and slanderous and cruel.  There was something to be said for the assertion; and Irishmen were often ready, if not to admit it about themselves, at least to admit it about each other.  The trouble began when the Englishman advanced the obviously ludicrous proposition that he himself was sane; that he was practical and sensible and well-balanced.  No wonder a whole nation went wild at so fantastic a fancy as that.

So I would be pleased if Americans especially would read Chesterton’s article, and after consideration, let me know if they see anything in it.