The Devil in Babylon: Fear of Progress and the Birth of Modern Life

by Allan Levine
436 pages,
ISBN: 0771052731

Post Your Opinion
Changes that Scared Early 20thc Canadians
by Clara Thomas

Allan Levine, a Winnipeg historian and well-known writer of both histories and the Sam Klein mystery series, has written a fast-paced and abundantly informative study of early twentieth-century social history. He centres his work on the lives and careers of individuals, giving each chapter an intimate, personalized flavour, the foundation of his work's persuasive excellence. In eight chapters and a summary conclusion, "Fear and Progress", he informs his readers of the pressing questions of the day, from "The City" with its proliferating sky scrapers, to "The Sins of Hollywood", discussing all the pressing preoccupations of masses of people who were living in a dizzying era of change and speed.
His title comes from one of the many evangelists who viewed with alarm the world around them and preached thundering sermons against it: "The only reasonable ground for true optimism. . .is to accept the reality of Satan and the only solid ground for hope is to believe that the devil, the arch enemy of God and man, has promoted, inspired and now directs all of the wickedness of the world. . . ." In his opinion, this included everything from bobbed hair and short skirts for women to the wondrous new radios and aircraft. There were strong forces ranged against any and every agent of so-called progress, and Canada by no means escaped their hysteria. Every discussion begins with specific conditions and their roots in the United States (and sometimes, as with the suffragettes, in England), and proceeds to its manifestations here at home. Consequently, every chapter is a brief, condensed history of its particular topic, ideal for teaching or study groups and fascinating to read as well. I happen to have grown up in the twenties and thirties and for one of my generation it is perhaps especially interesting-so many remembered concerns.
In Chapter V, "Booze", Levine begins with a quotation from Al Capone, one of the many gangsters who sprang up and flourished after 1919 when prohibition became law: "I make my money by supplying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am. Everybody calls me a racketeer. I call myself a businessman. When I sell liquor it's bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it's hospitality." Levine goes on to give us a short history of the troubled years of prohibition, including an outline of Canada's Bronfmans and their hugely successful and profitable operation. Prohibition was the culmination of decades of struggle in both the States and Canada. By 1916, when most of our provinces had adopted some form of prohibition, one journalist called it "a drastic break with the past in popular behaviour. It is a drastic revision of our social economy. . .it is an inevitable revolution." World War I was the catalyst for the success of the legislation. Our reformers, Nellie McClung for instance, linked the struggle with patriotism and sacrificing for our brave soldiers. In every town and village women's groups were busily propagandizing against "the demon of drink." In 1919 the Canada Temperance Act was passed to be followed by a referendum in 1923. Nor were the entrepreneurs such as the Bronfmans alone in their operations-the Hudson's Bay Company, for one, was implicated in the liquor trade as well.
The "Drys" made the most extravagant claims for a golden age which they were sure would inevitably follow prohibition, and of course they were speedily proved wrong. Until World War II and for some time after, bootleggers were a part of every community-the "noble experiment" had proved to be both unpopular and unenforceable. Many citizens, both American and Canadian, had become habitual law-breakers, and gradually in the U.S., in the depths of the Depression, the early days of Roosevelt's first term, and more slowly in Canada, the rigid laws were repealed. Fiorello La Guardia, a future mayor of New York, had the right words: "In order to reinforce prohibition it will require a police force of 250,000 men and a force of 250,000 men to police the police." On either shore of the Great Lakes, the rum-runners made large profits-about two hundred dollars a trip. Many of these were humble family affairs (one of my uncles, for instance, and his brother) managed without undue censure by their neighbors and with, certainly, a great deal of looking the other way by the police.
Chapter III, "The Survival of the Fittest" is the most difficult of Levine's chapters for Canadian women to digest happily. In it he tells the story of the eugenics movement, one of the manifestations of "social-Darwinism". It proves beyond a doubt that none of us, with the best of intentions, can avoid the prevailing context in which we live. It is hard to admit that our "Famous Five", the women who spearheaded the long struggle to have Canadian women recognized as "Persons" and whom we revere as leaders in the struggle for women's rights, were also deeply implicated in the drive to sterilize the unfit and otherwise segregate all those who were not considered worthy citizens. Murphy's book, The Black Candle, was a diatribe against the dangers of the "yellow peril", the Chinese, whose presence, predominantly in British Columbia, was feared and deplored as an opium-riddled group who brought nothing but disgrace upon our nationhood. They must be obliterated, she believed and preached, and certainly their children must be assimilated and made true Canadians by whatever means necessary.
The leader in the battle for sterilization of the unfit was Dr. Helen MacMurchy, one of the first generation of medical doctors to have graduated in Canada. Her book, The Almost: A Study of the Feeble-Minded, was a bestseller and Dr. MacMurchy was much in demand as a speaker and proselytizer for the cause. We are now appalled at the evidence of the harm done: the injustice and inhumanity of the movement spilled over into residential schools and into shocking individual cases of gross violation of basic human rights. MacMurchy firmly shared the common belief that "every mental defective is a potential criminal" and even maintained that they accounted for "the vast majority of alcoholics, juvenile delinquents, unmarried mothers, and prostitutes."
Chapter III also includes an engrossing account of the Scopes trial of 1925, the notorious case that involved William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, the most noteworthy trial lawyers of their day, in arguing for and against evolutionary teaching in the schools. Scopes himself was a young teacher in Tennessee who rebelled against the state law forbidding evolutionary teaching and agreed to allow himself to be used as the defendant in a test case. The trial attracted enormous publicity all across the United States and Canada, Bryan thundering impassioned fundamentalist orations against Scopes, and Darrow with equal skill and conviction but less sound and fury, pleading the cause of science and reason. The judge decided against Scopes, but only imposed a nominal fine of $100.00. The warring factions remained as convinced of their beliefs as when they began. Today they are lined up as passionately as they were then: in 2000, opinion polls showed that a bare majority of Americans believed that humans were the products of evolution. In the spring of 2005 the Museum of Creation, a 25-million dollar construction, opened near the Ohio-Kentucky border, an achievement of the Creationist evangelist Ken Ham, the author of "The Answers in Genesis", the basis of the Creationist movement.
This chapter illustrates perfectly the difficulty Levine faces throughout his work. Each one of his topics is huge, a fruitful field for historians and sociologists for the last eighty years. He does a remarkable job of compression, and his text is always fast-paced and eminently readable, but at times the reader is bound to be threatened with overabundance. His footnotes and end notes are likewise detailed, making his book an ideal study resource, but also making it necessary to read and digest it in judicious segments. From the introductory "The City", to the concluding section "Fear and Progress", he treats us to an overview of the 20th century that encompasses all the major concerns of the populace as they were thrown off-balance between the onrush of change and relentless progress and the seemingly constant threats to established, conventional customs and beliefs. Only a chapter on Sports, to detail the enormous growth in the public's interest, especially in baseball, football and hockey, over these decades, is lacking. Sports, of course, were not perceived as a fear-provoking development and so do not fit logically into Levine's stated subject matter.
His book is a whirlwind tour through the years. It repays reading and re-reading. I wouldn't have missed a single page. Trust me-you'll feel the same.

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