The moral crisis of the 1920s
The moral crisis of the 1920s
After World War One was over, everyone was happy that they could go back to their country in peace. Everyone was spending, people were working, almost everyone was (relatively) happy. However, there were people that were not so happy. There were those who wanted to stop funding the Germans with the proceeds from their beer. There were those wanted the opportunity to tell differing views on creation in their classrooms. Also, most notably, there were women who were tired of being forced to be housewives and demanded to be treated as equals among the men. The crisis in values that occurred during the 1920’s, as insignificant as it might seem today, forced Americans to reshape their way of thinking and make changes that left important effects on the years to come.
Contrary to common opinion, prohibition was not created to stop drinking. There were already laws against intoxication and many dry areas around the country (dry meaning in alcohol – not in water.) Also, drinking was on the decline. There were two main points to prohibition: preventing foreign enemies from profiting, Americanizing immigrants, and shutting down the saloon. “It was designed to kill the liquor business in general and the saloon in particular; but at the same time the amendment was not designed to prohibit either the possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages.” (Kuzirian 178) Of course, (in a perfect world) this would’ve ended drinking completely, but that was just a side effect.
During the 1920’s and before, most of the nations liquor was made in foreign lands or by foreigners in the United States. The Irish made most of the whiskey, Germany controlled most of the beer industry, and Austro-Hungarians controlled the wine industry north, in Canada. Much of the agenda of prohibitionists was to stop the profiting of these groups because of nationalistic views. The fact that Germany was our enemy during World War I was the biggest problem, though. “Why allow disloyal German-Americans to run their breweries during the war or after it, for that matter?” (Kuzirian 177)
Unlike the common perception, saloons weren’t just hang outs where laborers went to relax and get free lunch. Actually, saloons were far more unsavory than that; they were a central location for prostitution, crime, and most were the backbone of the political machines. It’s no wonder that people wanted these awful places closed by any means necessary. Also, the government wanted to Americanize the immigrants (especially the Irish, obviously), which included getting them to: hold a steady job, and not spending all their time in the pub/saloon.
If “The Great Experiment” had been a success, then our country would have probably been a much different and productive place. However, it was obvious that it was impossible to separate the Irish from their whiskey, and by the end of the 1920’s, it was obvious that prohibition was not going to work. In the words of a great philosopher, “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.” (Dylan) However, unlike prohibition, both sides in the next crisis had a convincing argument.
During the 1920’s, if not before then, the United States became more modern; social paradigms were being changed, and Scientists, philosophers, and teachers were discussing new theories about our origins and criticizing parts of the Bible. Out of this change came those who want that “old time religion”: the Fundamentalists.
Fundamentalism is the belief in the literal interpretation of Bible; that everything that is written in the Bible is true, no matter what. These people cling to their religion because they had nothing else to hold onto. Fundamentalism was “a caricature of culturally unenlightened individuals bent on preserving tradition at the expense of progress.” (religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu) Yet, surprisingly, Fundamentalism was one of the most successful religious movements in the twentieth century. They were behind the temperance movement and the anti-communist movement. However, it was not until Tennessee vs. John Scopes that the fundamentalists had to defend themselves against the Darwinists, and vice-versa.
During the Scopes trial – affectionately know to the American public as “The Monkey Trial” – John Scopes was on trial for disobeying Tennessee’s anti-evolution statute, a law that made teaching evolution illegal. Though the entire trial was a publicity stunt, because of its publicity, the result had far-reaching effects and set legal precedent for the nation. The fundamentalists were out to remove evolution from every classroom in America. The Tennessee law was just a technicality and a precept.
What was decided during the Scopes trial was whether America would continue to believe in freedom of speech even if their religion came into question. Indeed, it was standard in history “to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.” (Darrow) Yet, at least in this case, that did not happen. And, as it turned out, yes, freedom of speech would be upheld, just not here. John Scopes was convicted by the court, yet the verdict was overturned two years later, setting legal precedent. Today, evolution is a standard part of the curriculum in most states. However, the debate and complications between Fundamentalism and Modernism still continues.
Just recently a law was struck down which had for years ordered teachers to read a disclaimer before teaching evolution that said that evolution is only a theory and should not cloud your judgment as to the truth of creationism. As said by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, “It took 300 years to get over the idea that it was not irreligious to say that the planets revolved around the sun, I hope this battle won’t take another 300.” (Fields-Meyer 1)
While the crisis of prohibition occurred in the bars and Creationism versus Modernism occurred in the south, there was another change that occurred in the cities: The Flappers. In the 1920s, a new generation of woman was born (well, they were born before then, – it would be very improper, of course, to have smoking infants – but they started entering into society at this time). “She smoked, drank, danced, and voted. She cut her hair, wore make-up, and went to petting parties.” (About.com) She was a Flapper.
During World War I, while the young men were in Europe surrounded by death, fighting for the war of their parents, the patriotic women were at home in the United States working in factories. During the war, both genders had aggressively broken out of the social structure. When the war over, the last thing either gender of young people wanted to do was to go back to their old hum drum niche in society: after being surrounded by killing, the men wanted to be merry, not working. And most women were not satisfied to “go back into the kitchen” after the war was finished. “During the war, both the boys and the girls of this generation had broken out of society’s structure; they found it very difficult to return.” (About.com)
The Flapper challenged all modern perceptions of what it was “proper” for a woman to do. Was a woman supposed to drive? Well, looking at the roadways these days, one must wonder, but that is another topic entirely. Anyway, the Flapper constantly challenged the old-time morals and beliefs – the largest of which comes to mind are chastity and modesty. Young women were considered “easy” (although, one must bear in mind that their parents version of “easy” would be somewhere along the lines of kissing before marriage) and immodest because their skirts weren’t as long and their dances were more risqué. However, every generator thinks that the next is less modest and more risqué, and the Gibson girl generation was no different.
During the course of the 1920’s, there were many events and crises that, good or bad, changed the way we live and learn today. And just as the 1920’s continued making, modifying, and setting the standards and rules that their forefathers made, we today must keep in mind that what we do today affects our future generations as well. We are writing history. I hope we write it well.