SEWALL:Culture’s shifting sands on moral standards

No more clear line on right and wrong?

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Sixty years ago juvenile delinquency and what to do about it suddenly drew a round of national soul searching. We no longer even use the term. We think in terms of juvenile monsters.

Yesteryear’s hoods and troublemakers seem quaint and innocent beside today’s appalling school murders, gang rapes and teenage mayhem.

Yet those bad boys and girls of the 1950s were not the doll-like, smiling, dancing John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John caricatures that Hollywood later concocted. They were the early warning signals of anomie – amped up 60 years later with rap lyrics, hardcore porn and violent video gaming.

After World War II, law-abiding Americans wanted their children to avoid contact with a bad juvenile element, even if it meant picking up and moving. Their fears were integral to the nation’s suburban explosion and the 1960s turn toward sunbelt conservatism.

Demagogues rose to political power exploiting worries that juvenile delinquency was a “highly contagious disease,” when it was in fact a forewarning of broad rebellion and cultural revolt.

Postwar rebels came in different regional shapes and flavors. “Catcher in the Rye,” first published in 1951, idealized a troubled 17-year-old in New York City, not exactly a delinquent but a very edgy young man. There was often a prurient angle. Grace Metalious’s runaway 1956 bestseller “Peyton Place” sold 32 million copies.

In 1955, Natalie Wood and James Dean starred in “Rebel without a Cause.” Two years later, “West Side Story” put gang wars to music on Broadway.

The demon of casual, wanton sex lurked most often behind the delinquency issue. Middle-class parents nationwide worried about their children, who had unprecedented freedom and access to cars. Illegitimate births were suddenly rising, especially in the ghetto. 

Public figures got into the act. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, author of “Coming of Age in Samoa” (1928) and a largely forgotten figure today, was then on every progressive reading list.

Always eager for an audience, Mead toured the country, claiming that anti-social juvenile behavior was not a problem among adolescent Samoans because they had loose attitudes about sex. The celebrated Kinsey reports on America’s randy sex habits added fuel to the 1950s fire.

University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman later documented an emerging youth culture that no longer had proximity to older generations and seemed to prefer its own exclusive company at the expense of traditional authorities.

Out-of-wedlock births, divorce, desertion and homosexuality had been historically ostracized. Intact mom-and-dad families had been protected and privileged by law and convention. This would rapidly change, the eminent Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin predicted, if America’s sexual obsessions continued to spiral upward. 

An emergent Dionysian and “sensate” culture, Sorokin said, would lead to the collapse of traditional families. 

Americans generally look at things differently today, applauding the changes in the traditional family since then. Promiscuity, premarital sex, extramarital sex, divorce, homosexual unions and out-of-wedlock births are normalized.

Another great Harvard sociologist, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had drawn unwanted attention to family collapse in 1965, would finally conclude the nation could not – had to a large degree lost the capacity to — police wayward behavior.

Cultural progressives of the 1950s derided any “Victorian” worries as “puritanical.” Yet as a result of social changes then beginning, armies of children grow up in bizarre domestic situations today, often without fathers.

We insist there’s no problem—but we don’t believe it.

Put together violent, porn-saturated electronic entertainment and armed, shame-free, unparented young men. Crazy things happen. 

Most Americans love the idea of a rebel. Many shrink from ostracism of juvenile anything, especially if abuse or bullying somehow enters the picture.

Who is delinquent? A sociopath? A truant, an unwed mother, a rapist of drunken and unconscious girls, a meth addict or a mass murderer? Where does anybody rightly draw the line? 

Instead of minimizing or deriding “Victorian” alarm over delinquency and rising challenges to family formation after World War II, we should consider the broad social consequences of these changes two generations later.

Gilbert T. Sewall is director of the American Textbook Council in New York City and co-author of “After Hiroshima: The USA since 1945” (1978).


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