Ken Burns and Me– Charles Ambler’s Brief Career as a Talking Head

Let me admit it up front.  It was an indirect connection.  My local public TV station in El Paso, KCOS, decided to produce a short piece on “Prohibition on the Border” that would be tacked on to the third segment of Ken Burns’s documentary on Prohibition.  Judging from the relatively small number of comments along the lines of “hey I saw you on TV last night,” I’m guessing that not that many local viewers made it to the end of the third night.  I certainly didn’t.  But I set the record button so that I would be sure not to miss my own insightful commentary.

I found myself strangely reluctant to watch.  Finally, several nights later, battling insomnia, I fast-forwarded through the eminent historians (although it seemed to me some odd choices?) recruited by Burns to get to the really significant stuff—me.  After about 30 seconds I’d had enough and put off watching it all the way through for several more days.  Bad camera angle. Creepy voice.  Aging professor.  Hair loss.  Too painful.

Charles Ambler, Expert on Drugs

The process had begun during the summer when I got the call from the local producer.   I would be willing to participate.  My research on alcohol in Africa and a couple of semesters teaching a course on “Drugs in the Modern World” apparently made me think I’d have something to say about prohibition on the border.  I assumed in any case it would come to nothing.  But in September I met with the two producers and talked for an hour or so about the national and global history of prohibition and about its local impact (something that I knew a little about thanks to papers that several students had written for me).

Good Clean Fun, Post-Prohibition

Several weeks later I went to the lobby of El Paso’s leading downtown hotel to be filmed—its  ornate décor and the Tiffany dome in the bar meant to evoke the 1920s.  For an hour or so I responded to questions.  I told the history of El Paso’s 1918 unsuccessful referendum on prohibition and the anti-Mexican backlash it provoked.  I talked about how that backlash played out in the emergence of the KKK in the city in the 1920s and its connection to the wet-dry debate and to efforts to close the bridges to our neighbor city in Mexico, Ciudad Juárez.  I emphasized the enthusiasm and promise that many felt for Prohibition and the positive impact that Prohibition had in El Paso and elsewhere—from the point of view of those who supported it.  Not surprisingly, I got questions about the links between Prohibition and the current drug war that torments the border region.  I focused on discussing the growth of alcohol production in Mexico during Prohibition and the development of smuggling enterprises that would later move the drugs trade.  At the same time I cautioned against making easy comparisons, citing the huge public health impact of (legal) alcohol consumption today and the questionable benefit of making it legal for people to purchase heroin and cocaine.

Three other “authorities” were also filmed although we never had any chance to interact:  two colleagues of mine from the University (Howard Campbell, of Anthropology, and Tony Payan, of Political Science, both of whom have published on the drugs trade) and one non-professional historian, Bob Chessey, who is writing a history of border life and trafficking.  All of that footage was distilled into just ten minutes, alternating images and talking heads woven together by a ponderous PBS-style voiceover.  All of my efforts to suggest some alternative perspectives were sacrificed to a clear narrative argument summed up in the last seconds:  in the midst of the current drug war we have lessons to learn from Prohibition—that efforts to ban drugs breed violence and are bound to fail.

Predictably enough, given El Paso’s tendency to deny its history of ethnic and racial conflict, the relationship between alcohol and drug regulation and ethnicity didn’t make the cut.  Still this brief ten minutes may be of some general interest.  Former El Paso City Councilor and now candidate for Congress, Beto O’Rourke, made national headlines several years ago for promoting a seemingly innocuous resolution (at first successful then retracted under pressure) calling for a reconsideration of US drug laws.  I wonder to what degree the drug reform argument of “Prohibition on the Border” had been determined before any of us were ever interviewed?  And I wonder too how widespread nationally has been the “natural” conclusion—drawn in this program–that the national Prohibition experiment teaches us that drug prohibition is bound to fail.  You can look for yourself– but please, no criticisms of my hair.

5 thoughts on “Ken Burns and Me– Charles Ambler’s Brief Career as a Talking Head

  1. Is there any possibility of gaining access to these original hour long or so interviews of scholars done by Texas PBS in transcript or video format?

  2. Thanks for sharing this. It seems almost inevitable that the types of arguments academic historians like to make will get collapsed into clear, straightforward narratives. This does’t seem particularly problematic to me – anyone who writes about the past takes a bunch of messy data and tries to make sense of it and, in the process, invariably leaves a lot of complexity out of the story. So in one sense the producers of these types of documentaries are really just doing the same thing that academic historians do – taking a lot of material, mucking around with it, and shaping it into a coherent narrative understandable to their intended audience.

    So, at least for me, the real issue in participating in things like this isn’t so much the collapse of complexity into clear narratives, it is that someone else is in control of the final narrative structure that gets produced. It troubles me to have my work linked up as evidence for narratives that I think are wrong, or that I don’t agree with for some other reason. (I actually declined to be interviewed for the “Stoned Ages” documentary because I was concerned that his would happen.) I know this happens all the time – I’m not in control of how other people use my scholarly work, for example – but there is something about potentially having my face attached to an argument that I disagree with that is of concern to me. On the other hand, declining to participate in things like this doesn’t really seem like a good option either – these stories are going to get told, after all, and perhaps by our participating in them they end up more to our liking than they otherwise would be?

    Anyway, I’m obviously a bit confused about how to think about these types of issues. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this, such as whether or not you would choose to be interviewed again, knowing how the final product came out.

  3. From my understanding, please correct me if I’m wrong, you’re saying that the way the interviews were edited works to support the theory that drug prohibition is an untenable policy mirroring alcohol prohibition, and also suggests that it can only be rectified through a legally regulated market. You do not feel that represents the message you went into the interview representing.

    This documentarian clearly had an agenda of tying 30,000 deaths to what he saw as a comparable policy situation of the past. I’m very curious about your alternative perspectives on his theory. If not by legally regulating drugs, thereby controlling the market with courts instead of guns, then how do you see the violence and instability in Mexico resolving?

    My problem is I can’t envision any alternative resolution to the violence in Mexico besides legalization. That, and I value Mexico’s freedom from drug cartels and their mass murder far more than I value America’s freedom from addictive drugs.

  4. As Joseph Gabriel noted, it’s inevitable that when we are interviewed (especially on film) that we will find the “complexity” and “nuance” that we love so much as historians stripped away. I was by no means surprised to see it happen. I do wonder how the narrative that was presented was developed? On Julia’s point. I try to distinguish between advocating for a policy change that I think is necessary and desirable (drug reform in the US as a strategy to reduce drug violence in Mexico) and making an argument that “history shows” that this is what we need to do (when of course history is full of that complexity and nuance and mixed messages). Probably even more relevant to Julia’s response, however, was the editing out of the discussion of linkages between alcohol regulation and racialized politics. Exploring the implications of those linkages would go some distance toward helping us understand the challenges that legalization represents as a goal. Here in El Paso, Texas, where we watch at close hand as the lives of our neighbors, relatives, students, colleagues, etc. are disrupted or even ended, a city council resolution calling for a “study” of US drug policy resulted in such political pressure that the council was forced to withdraw the resolution. In that climate, I find it impressive that a public tv station would advance a drug reform narrative. But I also find it a bit irresponsible.

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