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3 November 2021

How the culture wars began

Jon Ronson’s Things Fell Apart seeks to discover the origins of today’s hyper-polarised political battle lines.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Did an ambitious kid who wanted to make it in Hollywood in the 1970s accidentally spark a seismic shift in US politics, resulting in the murder of a New York doctor and laying the groundwork for one of the most contentious fronts in the modern culture wars? That’s the suggestion explored by the journalist Jon Ronson in Things Fell Apart, a new eight-part series that seeks to discover the origins of today’s hyper-polarised political battle lines. He hopes to find the “pebbles thrown in the pond creating the ripples” – ripples that have since grown into waves of animosity.

I admit I found the programme harrowing. The opening episode, “1,000 Dolls”, traces the anti-abortion movement back to one man: Frank Schaeffer. When making a documentary about religion and the arts, Schaeffer’s desire to create a showreel that would impress producers drove him to include anti-choice propaganda. In this and subsequent work, his artistic decisions were designed to grab attention. One scene showed “ghostly children”, representing aborted foetuses, “with their faces painted white, wandering the Earth like melancholy French mimes”. Another sounds like something from a horror film: a doctor standing on a rock in the Dead Sea, surrounded by dolls – “a thousand naked toy babies”.

At the time, US evangelicals weren’t concerned with a woman’s right to choose. But when feminists protested the film, evangelicals rallied in response. A mentally ill activist, inspired by Schaeffer’s film, shot an abortion doctor in front of his wife and children.

Of course, we can’t blame cinematography for this death, nor for the political momentum behind the Texas law enacted this summer that effectively bans abortion and will lead to women dying. But listening to Schaeffer, who now regrets his ghoulish film, I found myself clenching my fists in fury that he didn’t find another way to get noticed in Hollywood. The next episode – on the “textbook wars” that led to the bombing of a school – promises to be just as dark.

[See also: What do our kitchens say about us?]

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This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained