Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

National Post -- June 4, 2005

The Devil in Babylon: Fear of Progress and the Birth of Modern Life

Allan Levine
McClelland & Stewart, 436pp, $36.99

by Ian Garrick Mason

The Devil in Babylon begins and ends with skyscrapers. Completed in 1913, New York City’s 60-story Woolworth Building represented “the culmination of three decades of dramatic industrial and technological change”, Allan Levine writes in his introduction; along with the other skyscrapers and bridges being constructed around it, the tower symbolized the idea of progress.

Levine’s book focuses on the ways in which our society was shaped a century ago by contending forces of progress and tradition. The epicentre of this conflict was the city, he argues, specifically the crowded urban neighborhoods of immigrants who had come to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by their hundreds of thousands.

The rapid demographic change that this migration represented stoked fears among traditionalists that North American society would be overwhelmed. Chicago’s population in 1890 was nearly 70% foreign-born, and Rudyard Kipling, visiting the city in 1899, compared it to Calcutta: “Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages. Its water is the water of the Hughli, and its air is dirt.” Even for idealistic social reformers, immigration and cultural decline seemed connected. “To live in one of these foreign communities,” wrote Robert Hunter in Poverty (1912), “is actually to live on foreign soil.”

Meanwhile, significant change was arriving in other forms. Many women were using the increased leisure time granted them by domestic machinery to educate themselves, to pursue careers, and, inevitably, to demand equal political rights. Industrial capitalists who had brooked no interference in the management of their businesses now faced labour movements of growing power and sophistication. Darwin’s work on natural selection called religious beliefs into question. And technology, that old disrupter of settled lives, threw motor cars, radio, and motion pictures into the mix.

Reaction to all of this change ranged from grumbling to campaigns of outright repression. Fearing anarchy, management and governments fiercely opposed organized labour: between 1873 and 1937, Levine notes, over 700 Americans died in violent clashes between workers and police. During the post-WWI “Red Scare”, zealous U.S. government lawyer J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer organized the mass arrest of four thousand suspected radicals, detaining them for weeks without any outside contact. In words that could have been spoken by a member of America’s current administration, Hoover argued that granting bail and thus allowing access to lawyers “defeats the ends of justice”.

Hoover was but one of a remarkable cast of characters. Many are household names today: Nellie McClung, Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan. Others are not, though they ought to be: Jane Addams, who founded Hull House to help the poor of Chicago and who promoted cultural diversity over assimilation; Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch, who preached a human-centred “social gospel”, and whose best-seller Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) would influence Martin Luther King, Jr.; British suffragette Emily Davison, who decided to draw attention to her political cause by walking out in front of the King’s horse during a race at Epsom Downs, and who, with her death under its hooves, succeeded.

Levine tells all of their stories skillfully and with obvious enjoyment. But his real contribution is to reveal the complexity of their beliefs. Henry Ford’s democratic and inventive spirit, for example – the spirit that brought affordable cars to the masses and revolutionized the automobile industry – was accompanied by a paternalistic, almost oppressively interventionist compassion for his workers, and by a paranoid anti-Semitism that he made all too public by turning the Dearborn Independent into a propaganda sheet for his conspiracy theories. J.S. Woodsworth, founder of Canada’s first socialist party, the CCF, was also an opponent of immigrant labour. In Strangers Within Our Gates (1909), he ranked nationalities by their ability to assimilate to Canadian values: “The Orientals cannot be assimilated,” he stated flatly.

All of which makes for a fair-minded, fascinating, and well-balanced book. However, a significant flaw remains. Though the word is used throughout the book, Levine is nowhere able to define exactly what he means by “progress”. Is it capitalism unleashed, or capitalism restrained by regulation? Increasing personal liberty, or morality-bolstering censorship? Though he occasionally admits to “difficulties in determining precisely who was a traditionalist and who was a modernist”, he does not attempt to settle the issue, and therefore leaves his basic thesis everywhere implied but nowhere proven. In his conclusion, Levine observes that the erection of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings reassured Depression-era New Yorkers that “the march of progress could not be halted”. Readers might find it reassuring too, if only they knew what it meant.

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