Monday, October 16, 2017

Marching Back to the 1920s

Welcome to the 1920s – again.

It may be the 21st century, but American society is awash in nostalgia, virtually duplicating events that occurred close to 100 years ago.  Then, misguided zealotry led to the 18th Amendment to ban the sale of alcohol along with efforts to control immigration.  At the same time, society was pushing cultural boundaries that disturbed and outraged the older generation.

Sound familiar?

1920s anti-business cartoon
The parallels are striking.

Economically, the Roaring 20s were an era of high profits and emphasis on capitalism.  Buoyed by America’s new position as the world’s greatest economy after World War I, businesses expanded at a rapid pace. The stock market soared, reaching record highs.  Republican leaders sought limited regulation and rolled back any efforts to rein in unbridled growth as the masses muttered against the wealthy.  The same thing is happening now.

In the 1920s, conservatives pushed back against science, passing laws preventing the teaching of evolution.  The famed Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 was the climactic event of the decade.  Climate change is the buzzword these days, with conservatives like Gov. Rock Scott of Florida banning the use of the term while President Donald Trump now leads the chorus of deniers.  As president, George W. Bush even had reports altered to match his mistaken anti-Climate Change views.

Evolution hasn’t lost its ability to enrage either, despite all the accumulated evidence in its support.  Legal efforts to force students to learn the Bible-based creationism have failed so far, but not through lack of effort. 
Immigrants in the 1920s

Back in the 1920s, the anti-immigrant movement was so strong that, in 1924, Congress passed the first immigration laws limiting newcomers.  Media and books were filled with outrage against the immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, calling them "lazy" and "dirty."

The current unwarranted complaints about Hispanic immigrants could be taken directly from diatribes against European immigrants in the 1920s.  The law served as a wall against the millions hoping to relocate here in the same way the Trump wall would.

Too short?
In the 1920s, women began to feel more liberated.  They demonstrated their independence by wearing shorter skirts, bobbing hair, and becoming more uninhibited in their behavior.  Jazz soared in popularity with its wilder “jungle” beats, according to opponents.

Today hip hop and its spinoffs bear the brunt of criticism.  Women, too, are being attacked for taking any kind of aggressive stance or seeking increased independence.  Hillary Clinton suffered because of such an attitude in her 2016 presidential campaign.

The conflicts in society encouraged bigots in the 1920s.  The Ku Klux Klan was revived, leading to riots in Indiana at Notre Dame University against the hate group.  Anarchists were the terrorists then, but Neo-Nazis today would feel right at home in the 1920s. Communism, too, was a widespread target then, although not as much these days with the fall of the Soviet Union.  Nevertheless, the far-right John Birch Society still spews its animus.  Anti-Semitism was particularly strong in the 1920s as well, matching the rise in that form of hatred endured now.
Police with a suspect

Racism was more overt then, but just as prevalent.  For example, Flo Ziegfeld, producer of the Broadway hit Showboat, delayed production because of his fear of a backlash from its anti-racism message.  Race riots were not uncommon as well as murder.  Such shameful behavior still debases our society today, typified by police shootings of black suspects.

The presidents then, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, either acquiesced to the bubbling animosities or did not nothing to discourage them.  Today, Trump is even more enthusiastic and less restrained.

Given the parallels, it’s interesting to see the results. 
Common Depression sight

The 1920s ended in a deep depression that scarred a generation before forcing the survivors into the maelstrom of World War II.  That, in turn, led to more progressive policies about race while reducing religious interference into daily life and increasing the emphasis on scientific study.  By the 1960s, society became freer as women took more control of their own lives.

The older generation today looks back on those days with a sigh.  However, instead of trying to revert to an 1960s era, which saw the passing of the Voting Rights Act and anti-discrimination laws and encouraged freedom of expression, they are reaching back to an earlier time when hatred predominated.

The results are likely to be similar and just as awful.

Once was enough, thank you.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University.   He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  A recent book, Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.