Culture wars: change and reaction

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How far is the term ‘culture wars’ justified?

In some ways the title is misleading. Sometimes what we might call the forces of ‘reaction’ – such as prohibition, the KKK, the ADL – were themselves the sources of change in 1920s America. ‘Reaction’ began before the war was over, and was manifest in America’s political, economic and social isolationism and the growth of intolerance.

The same people who felt threatened economically during this period tended also to be those who expressed social intolerance and reaction against the trends of the time. In particular, rural Americans – the farming community that benefitted least from the economic changes of the 1920s, which saw so many farmers go out of business – reacted against city culture which they saw as degenerate, un-Christian and therefore un-American.

In 1919, returning soldiers, who – having just fought a war for their country – found themselves in competition with African-Americans and immigrants for jobs at home. In reaction, they formed groups like the American Legion and the American Defense League (ADL) aimed against the infiltration of American society by foreign influences.

Trade unions whose members felt threatened in the employment market by the new technologies and processes, by the arrival of blacks from the south and of immigrants from abroad, were susceptible to promoting the ‘red scare’ about the infiltration of communists, anarchists and law-breakers in society – even though much of that was directed by industrialists against the unions themselves.

Much of the reaction took a religious form – the KKK, the CWTU, the ADL, the ASL and a range of other groups whose acronyms we can list, all associated themselves with a form of traditional Christianity that underpinned their behaviours and which was defended at the the Scopes Trial of 1925 in Dayton Tennessee. The ‘culture war’ was represented at the most extreme level by the KKK (which combined suspicion of feminism, jazz music, blacks, immigrants, Jews, political radicals and catholics). The KKK took the law into their own hands, carrying out ‘lynchings’ as if these were themselves a kind of religious observance to which locals would flock in their Sunday best.

At a legal level, state legislatures in rural areas passed,socially conservative laws reflecting a Christian Puritanism they took to be authentically American. Ohio, for example, brought in laws about the length of dresses. Smoking was banned in North Dakota until 1925. Most notably of all, America listened to the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) and their allies in the Christian Women’s Temperance Union (CWTU), enforcing prohibition at a local level before finally adopting the 18th amendment, in a nation-wide ban on the production, sale and transportation of alcohol.

Ironically, apart from the economic and technological Revolutions driving change, nothing did more to transform 1920s culture than prohibition. Prohibition catalysed the very moral decline it was designed to prevent. Nothing did more to glamorise alcohol, the Jazz culture of the speakeasies, the moral decadence of the flappers and the corruption of ordinary Americans than a law that the state lacked either the will or the resources to enforce.

All this suggests that the term ‘culture wars’ is entirely justified and, it would appear, still describes aspects of American political and cultural life today. In recent years it has been represented by the ‘Tea Party’ and by social conservatives in America who remain hostile to immigration, to liberal values and, in many cases, to racial integration. The religious rhetoric remains the same and is on display at large sporting events like the NASCAR rallies where drivers routinely fall to their knees and lead a mass audience in prayers and a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Meanwhile, New Yorkers look on in bemused disbelief. Racially, America is no longer divided in a de jure sense, following the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but despite the election of a black president, the de facto segregations remain as strong as ever, as the events in Baton Rouge in 2016 illustrate. The more things change, it seems, the more they remain the same.


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