Origins of the Culture War

People who complain about Hollywood’s attacks on traditional virtues usually get hit with the charge that they are paranoid and overreacting; that they fail to take into account the extent to which Hollywood is merely catering to changes in public tastes; that the movies of today are a result of societal change, not a cause.

These are not easy propositions to refute. We have no hidden camera exposés of studio executives discussing why they switched from making movies such as The Robe, The Bells of St. Mary’s and The Song of Bernadette to Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, or why television programs such as I Love Lucy and Perry Mason were replaced with shows about sleep-around young people such as Friends and Sex and the City.

So might it be true that the studio big-wigs have been motivated by a need for high ratings and big box office receipts more than by ideology? I say no. I contend that there has been a conscious effort by counterculture activists in Hollywood to undermine traditional values in the name of what they consider social progress. How can I say that if I have no proof? I recently came across a program on the History Channel entitled “Comic Book Heroes Unmasked.” It might not qualify as “proof,” but it is at least circumstantial evidence. Check your listings to see if they are going to re-broadcast it. They usually do that at the History Channel. It is a revelation.

The show focused on how comic book superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Captain America were deliberately transformed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, from their role as all-American defenders of traditional values into characters with a markedly left-wing agenda. Mind you, this is not my interpretation of the theme of the show. The comic book writers and executives who did the deed were interviewed. They boasted openly of their successful effort to bring comic superheroes into the modern age and make them “relevant.”

Who are these writers and executives? I never heard of them before; I doubt you would recognize the names. But who they are is less important than what they were. The show featured photos of them as they were back in the 1970s, interspersed with interviews with them as they are today. Today they are pudgy and stodgy older men. Back in the 1970s they were “them.”

What do I mean by “them”? We could get into a long and convoluted discussion of the defining characteristics of the counterculture activists of that era. But we shouldn’t have to. It is within bounds to use some shorthand here: the people who transformed the American comic book were individuals who would have been called “beatniks” or “hipsters” at the time — the precursors to the hippies.

Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. That was the case with the counterculture activists of the late 1950s and early 1960s. They dressed and wore their hair the way they did to make a point. They would have been insulted if you did not think them adversaries to the values of mainstream America. That was what the ratty hair and beards and beads and sandals were all about. They were making a statement. It was a non-conformist uniform. That was why they sat cross-legged in the park where everyone could see them, quoting passages from Allen Ginsberg poems or strumming their guitars and singing folk songs about militarism, intolerance, religious bigotry and capitalist exploitation of the masses.

It was this crowd that took control of the comic book industry in the late 1960s. They didn’t mind it when Superman and Captain America tore into Japanese militarists and Nazi racists. But they didn’t want them engaging the Communists in the same way during the Cold War. Not all totalitarians are the same in the Left’s view of the world.

They didn’t want them allying themselves with the police in a war on crime, since, as enlightened people know, crime is caused by societal injustice not by criminals. They did not want them representing middle-American values because middle America was Richard Nixon’s America, filled with sexism and racism and corporate greed. They didn’t want them to stand in the way of the sexual revolution by continuing to champion outdated notions of chastity and chivalrous behavior.

I am not making this up. The comic book became a tool in the culture war. The program featured panels of the superheroes, in their new roles: Green Lantern, Captain America and Superman bug-eyed in anger over greedy executives, taking on racist small town sheriffs, questioning the role of the military in Vietnam. Newer superheroes, unfamiliar to me, were depicted in sexually-charged scenarios, both homosexual and heterosexual. And, I repeat, those responsible for these changes were proud of what they had done; they waxed nostalgic, convinced they had changed America for the better.

I submit that the same process took place in Hollywood films; that the producers and screenwriters of the late 1960s who introduced nudity, foul language and sleep-around heroines to our films were up to the same thing as the comic book writers on the History Channel. They were not reacting to a change in the audience; they were trying to change the audience.

Am I saying that films like The Song of Bernadette and television programs such as I Love Lucy would be hits if they were made today? No, that is unlikely. The American people have changed since the 1950s, standards have loosened. The counterculture of the 1960s made its mark. But Hollywood was not a spectator to those changes. Like the people who transformed the comic book into its modern identity, the folks in Hollywood were agents of the counterculture.

You can see why they assumed this new role. In the America represented by the pop culture heroes of old, the left-wing show business elites were soft, sexually promiscuous, materialistic, self-centered lowlifes, dismissive of traditional values. Captain Marvel and Hopalong Cassidy lived by codes that were the antithesis to the 1960s’ paean to “drugs, sex and rock and roll.” By transforming the movies as they did, the Hollywood crowd was seeking to transform themselves and people in their social circles from smarmy libertines into liberated free-thinkers dedicated to lifting mankind from its medieval (i.e., Christian) past. “And that,” as Clark Kent used to say, “is a job for Superman.”

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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