Old Values vs. New Values

47. Old Values vs. New Values

The Jazz Singer Poster
"In every living soul, a spirit cries for expression — perhaps this plaintive, wailing song of Jazz is, after all, the misunderstood utterance of a prayer." --text of the opening title card from The Jazz Singer, 1927, Hollywood's first feature-length "talkie."

Not all Americans embraced the new way of life. Many saw the United States as a civilization in decline. The original purpose of the Puritan city upon a hill seemed to be slipping away in the pursuit of materialism and self-gratification. The morals of the Victorian Age were forgotten in the age of Freud and the flapper. Immigrants brought new cultures, religions, and languages to the increasingly complex American mosaic. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution brought a widespread suspicion of socialists, radicals, and labor unions. There were those in America who clung tenaciously to the values of the past. They would not give up without a fight.

The first group to feel the heat were suspected Socialists. The wave of postwar strikes touched off an anti-labor sentiment across America. Fears fueled by the Russian Revolution touched off a witch hunt for potential threats to national security. Immigrants, whose numbers had been transmuting the American ethnic fabric, became targets for intolerance. Ethnic purists succeeded at slamming the open door for immigrants shut. Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan gained in popularity as working-class Americans took aim at African Americans, immigrants, Catholics, and Jews. The churches of America were similarly torn by the struggle between old and new. Modernists reconciled the theories of Charles Darwin with scripture, while fundamentalists persisted with a strict interpretation of creation theory.

Throughout the struggle, America's political leadership remained remarkably aloof. The White House was occupied by the most conservative Presidents in a generation during the decade of change. Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover seemed content with the status quo, and delegated much of the decision-making to Congress and key Cabinet members. Businesses took advantage of the laissez faire approach.

By the end of the decade, America was on the brink of something special. An industrial revolution was now complete. The United States had proven itself as a global power in acquiring an empire and intervening in the First World War, yet lacked the physical destruction of the conflict that plagued the European continent. The standard of living was rising faster than anywhere in the world. Indeed, when Herbert Hoover took office, he predicted that America would soon see the end of poverty. No one predicted the sheer calamity that was so soon to follow.

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