A Peek at America before 1950 and the Assault by the Left

Picture a neighborhood composed of low and middle income families, each with two parents, no homeless people, no street drugs, safe to walk the streets at night. Is this the figment of an overactive imagination? Well, it is in fact a peek at a neighborhood in New York City where the son of immigrant parents read The New York Times every morning in high school, before orchestra rehearsal. Me. The principal, strongly authoritarian and well loved, opened a weekly assembly of highly diverse youngsters by reading a psalm from the Bible. Tough-as-nails, yet tenderhearted teachers passed on a tradition of excellence in thought, expression, and civility while preparing us for a wide range of careers in a free and independent America. 

This typical school of 1940s New York City had higher standards and grade profile than any counterpart today and operated on a budget far smaller in equivalent dollars than any current public school budget. In these “backward” times, the schools were free of substance abuse problems, sexual promiscuity, and identity problems. There was an abiding respect for the authority of teachers and parents and for the dignity of every person regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. There were clubs in my school for religion, for foreign languages (including Latin). A Reporters’ Club recorded significant events for the school paper. There were toy drives for a local hospital . . . The list of extracurricular engagements was long.

I think it’s revealing that dictionaries in these “retrograde” times did not prefix definitions of words referring to high moral standards, such as virtue, with the phrase “regarded as.” It did not have to be stated that opinion or “point of view” is not a valid basis for morality.

Where were we coming from? Where was I coming from? Well it was not from vengeance against America’s “sins,” real and imagined – the basis for any ideology that dismisses the human flaws in every person, including saints and heroes. The journey I took – we took – was down-to-earth and mindful of the power that gave us life, known worldwide as God by people of every degree of intelligence.

A childhood flashback and reflection will perhaps help bring some focus to a past that still speaks to the present. This was before World War II . . .

At a street in Brooklyn that was closed to traffic for several blocks, archways with curlicue designs were raised on wooden posts . Bunting and lights trimmed a parade route for a feast. At twilight the ornate arches burst into sparkling color, as the lights entwining them went on. The smell of roasted nuts, sweets, and sundry aromas of Italian cuisine floated through the air in eddies, as curb-side vendors turned the street and sidewalks into a mile-long buffet of deli-grade food. People thronged and milled along the chain of  carts and tables, ate, drank, and gabbed in block-party style.

Before long there was a boom of drums, a splash of cymbals, a blare of brass and woodwinds from the direction of the church and la processione began. Musicians in white shirts played robust marches, while men in shirtsleeves carried la Madonna di Pompei along the route. When the preciously sculpted symbol of the Holy Mother returned to the front steps of the church, fireworks filled the sky with brilliant streaks of light and volleys of artificial thunder that thrilled little Tony (me) to his core.

Festa – a unity of faith, family, friends, food, and fun – was to these 1940s Mediterraneans in Brooklyn as natural as breathing. And equally natural to these “backward” folk making their home in America was a freedom of thought and action within limits trespassed only by the mad. As a child, when you took a turn that way, you were brought back with appropriate corrective action. Any moppet philosopher thus checked, who asked why, was perhaps secretly admired but it was made clear that what is right and what is wrong was not for him or her to decide. You questioned established wisdom like you questioned the need to eat.

It was the job of parents to transmit time-honored wisdom and the job of children to learn it. Later, after completing the needed study on matters of vital importance, the child thinker could discover for himself the ironic truth, missed by many an intellectual, that in order to move freely in life’s journey, one must heed restraints imposed by fundamental constants of life – regardless of who we are and where we come from. This is the break-off point, from which so many stray, to be gathered by activists for movements that lack genuine concern for those they pull into their fold.

Mid-20th century saw a rapid loss of understanding regarding timeless constants relating to the fundamentals of life. “We are living at a time when the status of man is undergoing profound upheavals,” observed Igor Stravinsky in 1947. “Modern man is progressively losing his understanding of values and his sense of proportions. This failure to understand essential realities is extremely serious. It leads us infallibly to the violation of the fundamental laws of human equilibrium.” [1]

What this composer touched on, and what has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians throughout human history, is the vital importance of achieving a harmony between what is changeable and what is not changeable, which is well expressed in the plea: “God, grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” [2]

Although the childhood experiences mentioned above prove nothing regarding the cultural health of America in the first half of the twentieth century, they point to a co-relation between family-with-faith-in-God – linked to eternal constants of life – and the attendant wellbeing. As I grew into an adult, during the war-ravished 20th century, I became more than ever aware of the need for a harmony between what belongs to the state and what belongs to the people or, as scripture codes it,  “what is Caesar’s” and “what is God’s” [3].

In 1950, as I entered a classroom before the start of a college class session, I saw on a blackboard the words “Damn the Absolute!” Was the student insane, I thought? Was he not cursing himself? Can you do away with what makes you tick? In my mind this was an implicit death wish, for if you break away from what got you here in the first place and made it possible even for you to breathe, you are in essence committing suicide, spiritual if not physical. 

It would not be long before radical distortions of reality, dressed in endearing language, would be fed the public in the news, on campus, even in church, in order "to demolish beyond hope of repair the engine of Western metaphysics" – to use the words of J. Hillis Miller, an outspoken academician of the political Left.

The Absolute that was being condemned (“demolished”) is – let’s face it – the very Absolute raised  by liberals themselves who have said, “If there were no God, one would have to be invented.” Well, there is no need to invent God or even to “prove” the existence of God with rationales that manage only to prove what one already believes. What is really needed, especially among those who would govern people or improve their lives, is to wake up.

A sober comparison between life in America before and after mid-20th century shows what has been lost and what has been gained at the hands of Leftist agents of “change,” raising necessary questions not asked or answered by most people of influence in America. How, for example, has the “progress” pushed by Leftist activists improved life for all of us today? Is it possible that loving, not hating, one another (a Christian constant), in an atmosphere of freedom and independence  – so despised by the Left – is an important clue to why living in America was better before than after the “progress” thrust on America? Is it possible that swinging a wrecking ball against “the West,” in pursuit of a world populated with virtual zombies instead of real human beings, was not such a good idea, after all?

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[1] Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971]

[3] Implied in the injunction “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25)

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Anthony J. DeBlasi is a veteran and lifelong defender of Western culture.

Graphic credit: Public domain vectors

Picture a neighborhood composed of low and middle income families, each with two parents, no homeless people, no street drugs, safe to walk the streets at night. Is this the figment of an overactive imagination? Well, it is in fact a peek at a neighborhood in New York City where the son of immigrant parents read The New York Times every morning in high school, before orchestra rehearsal. Me. The principal, strongly authoritarian and well loved, opened a weekly assembly of highly diverse youngsters by reading a psalm from the Bible. Tough-as-nails, yet tenderhearted teachers passed on a tradition of excellence in thought, expression, and civility while preparing us for a wide range of careers in a free and independent America. 

This typical school of 1940s New York City had higher standards and grade profile than any counterpart today and operated on a budget far smaller in equivalent dollars than any current public school budget. In these “backward” times, the schools were free of substance abuse problems, sexual promiscuity, and identity problems. There was an abiding respect for the authority of teachers and parents and for the dignity of every person regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. There were clubs in my school for religion, for foreign languages (including Latin). A Reporters’ Club recorded significant events for the school paper. There were toy drives for a local hospital . . . The list of extracurricular engagements was long.

I think it’s revealing that dictionaries in these “retrograde” times did not prefix definitions of words referring to high moral standards, such as virtue, with the phrase “regarded as.” It did not have to be stated that opinion or “point of view” is not a valid basis for morality.

Where were we coming from? Where was I coming from? Well it was not from vengeance against America’s “sins,” real and imagined – the basis for any ideology that dismisses the human flaws in every person, including saints and heroes. The journey I took – we took – was down-to-earth and mindful of the power that gave us life, known worldwide as God by people of every degree of intelligence.

A childhood flashback and reflection will perhaps help bring some focus to a past that still speaks to the present. This was before World War II . . .

At a street in Brooklyn that was closed to traffic for several blocks, archways with curlicue designs were raised on wooden posts . Bunting and lights trimmed a parade route for a feast. At twilight the ornate arches burst into sparkling color, as the lights entwining them went on. The smell of roasted nuts, sweets, and sundry aromas of Italian cuisine floated through the air in eddies, as curb-side vendors turned the street and sidewalks into a mile-long buffet of deli-grade food. People thronged and milled along the chain of  carts and tables, ate, drank, and gabbed in block-party style.

Before long there was a boom of drums, a splash of cymbals, a blare of brass and woodwinds from the direction of the church and la processione began. Musicians in white shirts played robust marches, while men in shirtsleeves carried la Madonna di Pompei along the route. When the preciously sculpted symbol of the Holy Mother returned to the front steps of the church, fireworks filled the sky with brilliant streaks of light and volleys of artificial thunder that thrilled little Tony (me) to his core.

Festa – a unity of faith, family, friends, food, and fun – was to these 1940s Mediterraneans in Brooklyn as natural as breathing. And equally natural to these “backward” folk making their home in America was a freedom of thought and action within limits trespassed only by the mad. As a child, when you took a turn that way, you were brought back with appropriate corrective action. Any moppet philosopher thus checked, who asked why, was perhaps secretly admired but it was made clear that what is right and what is wrong was not for him or her to decide. You questioned established wisdom like you questioned the need to eat.

It was the job of parents to transmit time-honored wisdom and the job of children to learn it. Later, after completing the needed study on matters of vital importance, the child thinker could discover for himself the ironic truth, missed by many an intellectual, that in order to move freely in life’s journey, one must heed restraints imposed by fundamental constants of life – regardless of who we are and where we come from. This is the break-off point, from which so many stray, to be gathered by activists for movements that lack genuine concern for those they pull into their fold.

Mid-20th century saw a rapid loss of understanding regarding timeless constants relating to the fundamentals of life. “We are living at a time when the status of man is undergoing profound upheavals,” observed Igor Stravinsky in 1947. “Modern man is progressively losing his understanding of values and his sense of proportions. This failure to understand essential realities is extremely serious. It leads us infallibly to the violation of the fundamental laws of human equilibrium.” [1]

What this composer touched on, and what has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians throughout human history, is the vital importance of achieving a harmony between what is changeable and what is not changeable, which is well expressed in the plea: “God, grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” [2]

Although the childhood experiences mentioned above prove nothing regarding the cultural health of America in the first half of the twentieth century, they point to a co-relation between family-with-faith-in-God – linked to eternal constants of life – and the attendant wellbeing. As I grew into an adult, during the war-ravished 20th century, I became more than ever aware of the need for a harmony between what belongs to the state and what belongs to the people or, as scripture codes it,  “what is Caesar’s” and “what is God’s” [3].

In 1950, as I entered a classroom before the start of a college class session, I saw on a blackboard the words “Damn the Absolute!” Was the student insane, I thought? Was he not cursing himself? Can you do away with what makes you tick? In my mind this was an implicit death wish, for if you break away from what got you here in the first place and made it possible even for you to breathe, you are in essence committing suicide, spiritual if not physical. 

It would not be long before radical distortions of reality, dressed in endearing language, would be fed the public in the news, on campus, even in church, in order "to demolish beyond hope of repair the engine of Western metaphysics" – to use the words of J. Hillis Miller, an outspoken academician of the political Left.

The Absolute that was being condemned (“demolished”) is – let’s face it – the very Absolute raised  by liberals themselves who have said, “If there were no God, one would have to be invented.” Well, there is no need to invent God or even to “prove” the existence of God with rationales that manage only to prove what one already believes. What is really needed, especially among those who would govern people or improve their lives, is to wake up.

A sober comparison between life in America before and after mid-20th century shows what has been lost and what has been gained at the hands of Leftist agents of “change,” raising necessary questions not asked or answered by most people of influence in America. How, for example, has the “progress” pushed by Leftist activists improved life for all of us today? Is it possible that loving, not hating, one another (a Christian constant), in an atmosphere of freedom and independence  – so despised by the Left – is an important clue to why living in America was better before than after the “progress” thrust on America? Is it possible that swinging a wrecking ball against “the West,” in pursuit of a world populated with virtual zombies instead of real human beings, was not such a good idea, after all?

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

[1] Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971]

[3] Implied in the injunction “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25)

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Anthony J. DeBlasi is a veteran and lifelong defender of Western culture.

Graphic credit: Public domain vectors