In the ’40s and ’50s, fear was abound. We had just come out of a devastating economic and social crisis, then we entered another world war, crime rates were rising, and finally, the residual effects of World War II and what was happening politically and idealistically around the world was seeping into the social psyche.
There was a palpable national fear that had people hyper-focused on protecting democracy and our children (the physical manifestation of our nation’s future).
This fear took shape within the government and society: Hoover, McCarthy, McCarran, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Wertham, Kefauver, the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee To Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in the U.S., and of course… us.
We were afraid. We saw what was going on in the world and how it was invading our shores. We needed, wanted protection. And we wanted to protect those we love: our children.
Organized crime and radical political thought and agendas were tearing apart the moral fabric of our nation. They were destroying the home, the family. Popular media such as movies, music, and even worse, comic books, were influencing our children. We were looking at a full implosion of what America was built on and stood for and certain authorities were not going to let that happen. There was a real problem, that needed real fixing.
Or was there?
To use poor Hamlet again: “The play is the thing.”
Who were we trying to flush out? And were they a real threat?
What was the origin of all this fear and paranoia? Were these threats real? Inflated? Manipulated?
Much of Diagram for Delinquents will be addressing the juvenile delinquency scare and debate in the ’40s and ’50s. During this period children were a developing culture, a recognizable set in society, a direct marketing target. The mass media became a force between child and parent; and parents competed with peer and mass culture. So any threat to the family became highly controversial as to avoid the loss of traditional family structure. Local and national groups, like The Children’s Bureau, believed that mass culture, particularly films and crime comic books, were responsible for the rise of juvenile delinquency in the U.S. Part of the discussion inferred that social class was a contributing factor in the structural and cultural interpretations of delinquency and that lower-class values had infiltrated youth culture.
To shed light on that we have interviewed individuals that have studied the era and this phenomenon. Most importantly may be Dr. James Gilbert and his ground-breaking book: A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s. The book is a rich study of the impact of popular culture on society, an issue that will forever be a discussion in the world.
In Cycle of Outrage, Gilbert writes:
Even if there was an increase in delinquency, status crimes, and real crimes by adolescents during the 1950’s, the public impression of the severity of this problem was undoubtedly exaggerated.
The book shows us that the the great fear of juvenile delinquency in the 1950’s rests on three important factors:
- An unmeasurable but probable increase in juvenile crime and attention to those crime.
- A shift in law enforcement agencies to crack down on juvenile crime
- Changes in youth behavior were interpreted as criminal behavior
It is an emotional, important, and complicated discussion. One that may yield some answers, but continues to leave questions. One question is: What is happening within the American family in the forties that it seems like children are becoming increasingly out of control? Here’s a part of that question and answer:
Next week, look out for some words from award winning comic book author Brian Azzarello!