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Waging War Without End, Amen: America's 70-Year Cultural Battle : Values: Woody Allen is just part of the latest skirmish in the long struggle over what America used to be and what it has become.

August 30, 1992|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler, the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor/Doubleday), is working on a book about Walter Winchell

NEW YORK — So now Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has dragged beleaguered Woody Allen into the electoral fray, adducing him as an example of the sort of family values Bill Clinton and his amoral band allegedly endorse. This, of course, comes after the Republican Convention, where Dan Quayle divided the country into real Americans and unreal ones, and his wife Marilyn cursed the counterculture of the '60s; where Pat Robertson excoriated godless Democrats, and Patrick J. Buchanan declared holy "cultural war" on feminism, homosexuality, rock music, Hollywood, the press and all the other so-called liberal bogymen. This is civil war, said speaker after speaker, and the 1992 election would be Fort Sumter.

In truth, however, the GOP Convention and the current campaign are skirmishes in what may be America's longest-running conflict. It is a war that, for all the Republican posturing, has less to do with moral purity than with arresting the inevitable change in American society, less with wresting America from liberal elites and returning her to the "people" than with restoring America to another, now gasping elite.

The real Fort Sumter in this cultural war was fired upon in the '20s. Before then, America seemed safely under the control of a conservative, genteel elite of educators, religious leaders, professionals and businessmen. The dominant culture was orthodox and homogeneous. The idea of a popular culture hadn't yet emerged because the mass media hadn't yet emerged. Good and bad were unambiguous. And Buchanan could sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that his America was the America.

But during the '20s came the change. The country shifted from an essentially small-town, merchant and agrarian society of white, native-born Americans to an increasingly urban and industrialized society of immigrants and minorities. Of course, America had been undergoing this transformation for decades, but in the Roaring Twenties these forces not only erupted, Americans also became self-conscious about them--self-conscious about a division in their country and about having to choose sides. In Willa Cather's apocalyptic words, "The world broke in two."

What turned these demographic shifts into cultural issues was the emergence of a whole congeries of things that challenged the dominant social order. Jazz, the movies, flivvers and flappers, bathtub gin, D. H. Lawrence, the shimmy and the Charleston, tabloid newspapers and a hundred other emblems of social promiscuity testified to the country's sudden moral endangerment. Sound familiar?

Racing to the parapets to defend the old genteel culture from the urban hordes, critics insisted that aliens were destroying the country by subverting its values. Many believed it was a conspiracy led by Jews and Catholics, who controlled the film and the music industries, and hatched in New York--that all-purpose symbol of un-Americanism.

The issue was joined in the 1928 election, when Herbert Hoover faced off against Alfred E. Smith and the soul of America seemed to lay in the balance. Smith was everything the old order detested. He was a Wet, cigar-chomping, derby-hatted, raspy-voiced, Catholic governor from the American Sodom of New York. The election became as much a plebiscite on the new cultural scheme Smith seemed to represent as on GOP economic policy--especially since Smith and Hoover agreed on many political issues. Smith appealed, said one opponent, "to the aliens who feel that the older America, the America of Anglo-Saxon stock, is a hateful thing which must be overturned and humiliated." Sound familiar?

Of course, Hoover won, the Great Depression hit and most combatants in the war for America laid down their arms to forge a kind of cultural popular front. But the war hadn't ended; it was just suspended--as it always is when economic issues eclipsed status issues. It resurfaced during the prosperity after World War II, with the conservatives wielding a powerful, new weapon. Whether they knew it or not, cultural conservatives of the '20s had been taking on democracy by attacking the emergent social classes. This not only robbed their position of some moral authority; it doomed it to failure since the ratio of immigrants, minorities, urban-dwellers and industrial workers to white native-born, small-town Americans was increasing.

But what if America's cultural agenda wasn't a matter of popular choice? What if democracy didn't set the agenda but an intellectual elite, contemptuous of traditional American values, did? Sound familiar? By injecting an Eastern intellectual elite into the debate, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other postwar conservatives not only dramatically reconfigured the battle lines of the cultural war--now it wasn't WASPs against everyone else, it was everyone else against an elite--they conflated their domestic jihad with the international jihad against communism.

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