BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. We are who we are because of who we were and where we've been. This week's disheartening display is a legacy. Some could trace it to the nation’s founding but its direct ancestor was born in the middle of the last century. This is the stuff of culture war. It is a war of backlash in the name of God, family, public safety and national security against the ascension of civil rights, secularization, political correctness and other affronts to so-called “traditional values.” WNYC's morning call-in show hosted by Brian Lehrer has documented the past six decades of culture war for a new series called “The Eights.” Brian, formerly the host of this very show, comes back for a visit. Hey, man.
BRIAN LEHRER: Hi Bob, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: What happened in ’48, and I’m thinking, actually, specifically of Eleanor Roosevelt?
BRIAN LEHRER: So, in 1948, there seemed to be a tremendous amount of national unity.
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We were coming out of a few decades of the rolling traumas of the Great Depression and World War II. People wanted to start families and settle down and all that stuff. We were trying to lead the world in establishing norms of international behavior, as well as norms of international trade. So the World Trade Organization was formed in 1948. There was also, in the very first years of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
FIRST LADY ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: This may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s hard to see what might have been controversial about human rights declarations, except for maybe this: Our own nation was in violation. We were deeply segregated. Justice was “whites only.” There was a certain “physician, heal thyself” character to this declaration, no?
BRIAN LEHRER: Certainly, there was all this pent-up demand, if you want to call it demand, among African Americans for this moment that had maybe been squashed by the Depression and by World War II, those rolling national traumas. But now if there was relative peace and tranquility and relative prosperity, there was more room in our politics for the civil rights movement to break out.
BOB GARFIELD: A couple of other things that were going on in ’48, the House Un-American Affairs Committee was in the spotlight, a petri dish for the red scare that would so dominate the ‘50s. And then there was this new household appliance, television. And both of those things would, in their own ways, define kind of opposite self-images for Americans.
BRIAN LEHRER: Maybe in that moment of apparent relative national unity after World War II, something like McCarthyism had to break out. Maybe it's just human nature for people to look for the enemies within. And with respect to television, it's funny. One of the things that I expected to hear from some of our oldest listeners calling in who remembered the advent of television in 1948 was that it started to atomize us. And I thought people would say, oh, television, everybody started looking at their screens. Instead, people talked about how television united them with their neighbors in those very earliest days when not that many people had televisions.
WOMAN: Well, in order to see The Milton Berle Show, I had to go around the corner to a friend’s apartment. She wasn’t a close friend but she became my friend.
I courted her so that I would be invited to see The Milton Berle Show on Tuesday nights. That was my only way to see it. And then…
BOB GARFIELD: So let’s skip ahead just 10 years, 1958.
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The context was historic prosperity, other economic domination in the world and, and our wistful memories, speaking of television, seemed to coincide with Leave It to Beaver suburban tranquility. But, as author Fred Kaplan told you, alienation was breaking through.
FRED KAPLAN: A key moment happened on January 2nd of ’59, was that the Russians launched a rocket called the Lunik, also called Mechta, which meant Dream. And this was the first rocket that broke through the gravitational pull of the earth and started rotating around the sun like a planet. Now, this was made a big -- Time Magazine referred to this as a turning point in the multi-billion-year history of the universe. [LAUGHS]
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BRIAN LEHRER: A lot of things, in a way, were getting ready to break out of their orbits. You could see it in space, you could see it in jazz, you could see it in poetry and you could see it in the way the civil rights movement was continuing apace by 1958. It should have been becoming clear, if it wasn't, that that movement would not stop.
BOB GARFIELD: By 1968, the level of societal alienation had actually become a metric. Tell me about the Harris Poll, please.
BRIAN LEHRER: The Harris Poll began in 1966, and one of the things that they did was ask people, almost every year, five questions that had to do with how alienated they felt. And they called it Alienation Index, so questions like how much they feel heard by people in power. And in 1966, the Alienation Index out of 100 was what we would now consider very low, as 29, and it went up and up through the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and it never came back down. And people were getting alienated in polarized directions. So there was the Timothy Leary style dropout, tune in, turn on.
Don’t politic. Don’t vote.
These are old men’s games
Impotent and senile old men
That want to put you on to their old chess games of war and power
BRIAN LEHRER: At the same time, people with more traditional values felt like the world was starting to get away from them. The Supreme Court had issued rulings limiting prayer in schools. The counterculture seemed to not respect traditional markers of authority. Spiro Agnew --
BOB GARFIELD: Nixon's vice president and proto-culture warrior. BRIAN LEHRER: -- really started to express that.
SPIRO AGNEW: The student now goes to college to proclaim rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated in a contemporary antagonism known as the “Generation Gap.” A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.
BRIAN LEHRER: The culture wars really broke out in the ‘70s. As feminism was rising, there was a backlash by people who were concerned about the breakdown of the family and the loss of traditional roles. Evangelical churches that had previously felt it was their obligation to stay out of politics started to feel like it was their obligation to get in, so we got Jerry Falwell as a public figure by around 1978.
JERRY FALWELL: Abortion is not a Roman Catholic issue, it is a moral issue that concerns the human rights of unborn babies who, by the hundreds of thousands, are being murdered.
BRIAN LEHRER: And that movement helped fuel Ronald Reagan's presidential candidacy of 1980 and helped propel him to that victory.
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BOB GARFIELD: I want to skip to 1988. This was the year that presidential candidate George H. W. Bush derided his opponent, Michael Dukakis.
GEORGE H. W. BUSH: And he said, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU.
BOB GARFIELD: It was the year that Rush Limbaugh went on the air nationally.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Your guiding light through times of trouble, confusion, murkiness and despair, Rush Limbaugh.
BOB GARFIELD: The newest, Pat Buchanan, the founding conservative voice on CNN's political sparring show Crossfire, who further burnished his resume by actually putting a name to the culture wars.
PAT BUCHANAN: There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War, itself but this war is for the soul of America.
BOB GARFIELD: One thing we learned by Crossfire and the cable TV politics that would follow was that Gil Scott-Heron was wrong. The revolution would be televised. [LAUGHS] And this gets us to 1998, the Clinton administration, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the Starr Report. They were made for and, I would argue, perhaps, maybe made by, TV events.
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MALE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, welcome to Fox News Channel.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: This is Fox NewsHour…
BRIAN LEHRER: Fox News started in 1996 in the environment where Bill Clinton was sort of this lightning rod for everything from the 1960s culture wars that people could choose up sides over -- draft dodging, pot smoking. And it culminated, of course, in the 1998 televised spectacle of the impeachment but not removal from office.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I did-not-have-sexual-relations with that woman.
BRIAN LEHRER: One of the really interesting things to me about Clinton was that he was trying to strike a bargain, a sort of center-left bargain that would end the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s. He gave the right its due, as he expressed it, on some of the things that really disturbed a lot of people around the country, like crime. And so, there was the big crime bill, which now we look back as having helped to start mass incarceration. There was welfare and the big welfare reform of 1996 that Clinton and the Newt Gingrich Congress came to yes on. But he was really trying to be the one who ended the culture wars, [LAUGHS] and it really, really failed. I don’t know if this is jumping ahead too much to 2008, but when Obama came in after his iconic speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention --
BARACK OBAMA: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America.
BRIAN LEHRER: -- and came in with some things that he thought were going to be compromises with the right, like Cap and Trade to fight climate change, a market-based solution that the right had kind of endorsed and Obamacare, which had been Romneycare but, like with Clinton's attempts to compromise, the right would not have it.
BOB GARFIELD: The 2008 election was another inflection point. It seemed like we were at least heading in the direction of a post-racial world. Yet, that pesky Harris Poll and its Alienation Index showed something that maybe wasn't apparent at the time but is certainly, in retrospect, very, very clear.
BRIAN LEHRER: Remember, it had started in the first year of the Alienation Index, 1966, at just 29 out of 100, and through the Obama years it went up every year and peaked at 70 out of 100 in 2014 and then the same thing in 2016. The Harris Alienation Index soared in almost every group. Certainly, the financial crisis, which had started in earnest in 2008, drew the Tea Party on the right but also the Occupy movement on the left, the left seeing too much corporate power in America, the right seeing too much liberal cultural power. Those were all still in play. There was certainly the extra factor of a black man in the White House, the undercurrents of racism that allowed a lot of white Americans to believe the birther claims. All of these were peaking at the same time.
BOB GARFIELD: And so, here we are, present day. Now, the Harris Poll still measures alienation but the Brian Lehrer Show commissioned a poll to study what, if anything, could possibly unify Americans. And in this week's broadcasts you delivered some findings.
BRIAN LEHRER: Yes, and I think the chronic nature of the culture wars get revealed in various ways in the poll. For example, we asked, who does more good than harm, who does more harm than good in America today and tested various groups of people. So 49% said the Trump administration is doing more harm than good. That’s right down the middle. We also tested the perception of people with ideas you might associate with Trump supporters, people who thought the president is the victim of a witch hunt; 47% said people who think that are doing more harm than good. Americans who think white people are often discriminated against, which would be a lot of Trump supporters, 43% said they’re doing more harm than good. Members of the NRA, 42% said more harm than good. Anything within 10 points of 50-50 reads to me like a battleground issue, not a consensus.
Similarly, when we asked who's doing more good than harm, 53% said teachers around the country striking for better pay. So it’s over 50 but it’s just barely over 50, so that's divisive. Forty-two percent (42%) said feminists and MeToo activists, more good than harm. Just 38% said gun control activists were doing more good than harm. None of these things had 70%, 80%, 90%. And so many of what we think of as the cultural fault lines today were hitting those divisive 40s and 50s.
BOB GARFIELD: Common ground is slim pickens.
BRIAN LEHRER: But it’s not entirely absent, for almost 90% of respondents said they would feel more included, less alienated if health insurance and health care costs were more affordable; 71% said more laws to prevent climate change, that's very interesting, but when they try anything in particular to do it, it turns out to be very divisive. And over 80% said they would feel more included if women had more power and respect in society. Even 70% of men said that. So, in theory, there are places where there are opportunities for unity.
BOB GARFIELD: There is a moment in the series when you said something that was perfectly reasonable but also it struck me as a perfect microcosm of our nation's struggle. It sounded like this.
BRIAN LEHRER: I mean, one way to look at this whole history of post-World War II America that we’ve been doing these last six weeks is that it's a history of social progress and backlash and social progress and backlash.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I agree. Civil rights, Miranda warnings, secularization, desegregation, globalism, social welfare, I call that social progress. But there is a very large cohort of Americans who view that same list as social retreat, social decline, social engineering, government interference, even tyranny. And the very fact that you and me and our fellow so-called “elites” see the word “progress” as a given, not as, say, a viewpoint is a major source of the alienation and the rage.
BRIAN LEHRER: What you and I might more easily call social progress than some other people would, many of those things tend to get accepted over time. So, for example, many people who feel alienated by the Black Lives Matter movement today would probably not argue that Jim Crow laws of the old South should still be in effect in the United States. I think we see it in terms of gay rights too. That was such a culture wars lightning rod but I think we’ve started to move toward a national consensus that legal gay marriage is more good than bad. How many people think anymore that there should be separate listings in the want ads for men's jobs and women's jobs? So I think progress and backlash is a legitimate model for looking at so many things that then start to be seen as basic respect of individuals.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, optimism noted. And yet, having listened [LAUGHS] -- binged, actually -- to your programs in the last few days, it seems to me that your voice betrayed a kind of melancholy, if not abject despair. Where has this exercise of chronicling the evolution of the culture wars left you as a broker of ideas and just as a citizen?
BRIAN LEHRER: It has left me somewhat melancholy about those things that seem so resistant to change. And they go right back to America's original sin, which is the legacy of slavery and the way white people view black people and today, with the immigration wars, black and brown people, in general.
There is a more optimistic framework, however, through which we could look at the present. And it actually happens in the county of my birth, Queens, New York, which is maybe the most diverse place in America; it's about 45% foreign born. And a caller to the final segment in the series said, look at Queens as a model of America for 10 years from now, 2028.
MALE CALLER: As we blend as a nation, we will get to know one another. I don’t think I’m being Pollyanna. All you do is walk through Queens. If you’re a racist in Queens, you would have to kill yourself.
So there you have it.
BRIAN LEHRER: In Queens, people basically get along. It's not the Tower of Babel but if you're a racist in Queens, you’re going to be the one who’s ostracized, and maybe that’s the United States of tomorrow.
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BOB GARFIELD: From that caller’s lips to God’s ears. Brian, thank you very, very much.
BRIAN LEHRER: My pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian Lehrer is the host of the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, which this week concluded a series on the history of the culture wars. It’s titled “The Eights.”
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That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder and Jon Hanrahan. We had more help from Kate Brown and Meg Harney. And our show was edited -- by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Greg Rippin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
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