Today, the world is sinking into crisis--really, into a whole series of crises--just as it was 80 years ago. In Europe Britain is leaving the European Union and Spain is threatened by civil war. The Middle East is riven by a new Thirty Years' War between Shi'ite and Sunni powers, which has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran to the brink of war over Yemen and destroyed the nations of Iraq and Syria. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has just begun a massive purge of the royal family, the government, and Saudi society as a whole. Turkey, for more than 80 years a westernized democracy, has become a dictatorship and the government has locked up tens of thousands of citizens. The Philippine government is murdering thousands of citizens as part of a drug war. Tens of thousands refugees have fled Burma for Bangladesh. War threatens on the Korean peninsula. The Chinese government wants recognition as one of the world's great powers, a status that the United States sill disputes. War over nuclear weapons threatens the Korean peninsula. Separatist movements threaten several major African states. Socialist Venezuela is in a state of economic collapse, and dictatorship threatens there. And in the United States, the ruling Republican party, dominated by megarich energy producers, is trying to undo the political achievements of the last century to remove obstacles to the accumulation of wealth.
The situation was equally serious, if not more so, exactly 80 years ago. Civil war was raging in Spain, where General Franco was using the Spanish colonial army to try to subdue the elected government and the workers, while Italy, Germany and the USSR intervened on behalf of their preferred sides. The brutal, bloody Sino-Japanese War was sweeping down the Chinese coast and into the interior. The recovery of 1933-36 had been interrupted by a new, severe worldwide recession. Hitler had consolidated power in Germany, although his great political offensive of 1938 lay a few months away. The USSR was in the midst of Stalin's great purge.
To show how our world differs from theirs, I am going to compare the front pages of the New York Times from today and from November 10, 1937, exactly 80 years ago. What will readers find there today, and what did they learn then?
Reading from the left hand side of the front page of the 1937 paper, we find three stories dealing with the war in China. One details the day's fighting, the second reports a speech by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain expressing the hope that the UK and the US might reach a "closer understanding" on the crisis in the Far East, and a third reports that the Japanese government wants the German government (which had ties to both sides) to mediate the crisis. Next comes an obituary for the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, J. Ramsay MacDonald, who had died at sea. (I do not think any retired British PM's death would rate a headline above the fold today.) Then comes a local story, about a dispute over the presence of police officers at the count of ballots in the recent New York city elections. And on the far right of the top of p. 1 are two stories on federal economic policy. In one, which is quite technical, President Roosevelt asks the nation's utility companies to change the way they value their assets, which will in turn lower their rates, and the very last story,. in column 8, reports various Administration ideas to use federal funds to ease credit, stimulate enterprise, and get the nation out of the recession without returning to the deficit spending of FDR's first term.
Moving down the page, we learn that the government of Quebec has invoked a new law to ban a Communist newspaper. In New Jersey, the CIO--the more left wing of the nation's two national labor blocs--announces a plan to form a new party to challenge the state's Democratic machine. Joseph P. Kennedy, the Chairman of FDR's maritime commission, proposes an increase in subsidies for the construction of merchant ships. And at the bottom of the page, Mayor LaGuardia, fresh from re-election, announces that he will demand the end of a Transit Board. That makes a total of eleven front page stories, divided among foreign, national and local news.
Today's front page, by contrast, has only six columns instead of eight (a change that dates, I believe, to the 1970s), and only six stories instead of eleven. Only one of them is foreign, dealing with President Trump's surprisingly friendly speech in Beijing, in which he blamed his predecessors, not the Chinese, for our trade imbalance, and sought cooperation dealing with North Korea. Two other stories deal with the Republican tax cut proposals, the first detailing the Senate plan and how it differs from the House version, and the second arguing (under the heading "News Analysis") that the middle class is unlikely to reap much of a benefit from the plan. The last three stories are the most characteristic of our time. In column 1, we read of a debate in Texas over whether video of the church shooting in Sutherland, Texas, should be released to the public. Next, five women accuse the comedian Louis C. K. of exposing himself to them. And last but not least, the Times tries to catch up with its rival the Washington Post, reporting that Judge Roy Moore, who is on the verge of election to the U.S.
Senate, dated, or tried to date, four teenage girls nearly 40 years
ago, and did some largely (but not completely) unclothed petting with
one of them, then aged 14. The other three women interviewed by the Post were
between 16 and 18, admit that they were not bothered by Moore's
attentions at the time (when he was in his early 30s), and do not allege
any sexual relations with him, consensual or otherwise.
How has this happened, and what does it mean?
Clearly, both the Times and its readers--as well as dozens of other newspapers around the country--took their obligation to stay informed about world, national and local affairs much more seriously in 1937 than they do today. In addition, as I discovered while writing No End Save Victory, the Roosevelt Administration had focused the nation on its attempts to create more employment, regulate economic enterprise, promote the rights of labor, and make better use of our national resources, whether individual Americans or newspapers agreed with those efforts or not. Since the Progressive Era, government at all levels had enjoyed a very creative period in which the nation was taking a great interest. Today, our ruling party is trying to finish undoing nearly everything they did--a process that began in the 1980s, if not earlier, and has continued apace under both Republican and Democratic administrations. On the foreign front, this was (although no one knew this for sure in 1937) late in the era of two world wars, and Americans were accustomed to the idea that events in faraway plans could affect them as well. Just two months earlier, FDR had shocked the nation by declaring that the "contagion" of war would reach the United States if it could not be halted. Americans still took world events very seriously all the way through the Cold War, but their interest has ebbed since then.
And what about the three stories with no counterpart in 1937?
Semi-automatic weapons were not readily available to citizens in the 1930s, and while mass shootings took place, they took the lives of only a few people at a time, not a few dozen, as they do from time to time today. No national, politically powerful organization frightened our politicians away from imposing restrictions on gun ownership. More importantly, perhaps, newspapers regarded themselves as the primary source of the news, of telling the public what had happened, instead of commentators on videos generated by the citizenry with their smart phones. As the news has become more visual, beginning with the advent of television, it has become more emotional and much less verbal. The Times story on the fate of the Sutherland videos illustrates these trends.
And meanwhile, the educated elite of the United States has become extremely concerned--or obsessed--with sexual misbehavior by well-off and powerful men. We have had so many court cases and news stories about Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Hastert, Newt Gingrich, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and many more, that any new story--for instance, about Louis C. K.--is instantly newsworthy. So is any story, even a 35-year old one, involving a political figure's sexual behavior. The kind of behavior detailed in those stories today undoubtedly was taking place in 1937 and possibly on a larger scale than it is today, but it didn't make the news. Most would say that was because of deference towards white males. I think that is partly true, but I think it also reflected a different sense of what serious newspapers were for.
I am depressed that forty years after the first breakthroughs by the modern woman's movement, problems in the workplace do not seem to have gotten a great deal better. I reject most of the easy answers as to why this is so but I have no better ones to offer. My question for my readers today is different. Could the citizenry and the leadership of the 1930s have coped with the enormous domestic and foreign problems they faced if all their newspapers had been been just as full of such stories as ours are now? And will we be able to give sufficient attention to the parallel problems that we face if we spend so much time illuminating the misbehavior of the rich and powerful--and continually expanding the definition of newsworthy misbehavior, as the Washington Post story about Moore certainly did?
We shall not be returning to the political and news culture of the 1930s any time soon. The question is whether we want to continue down the path we have been on for the last few decades, or to shift our focus back a bit towards the actual business of politics and government. To the extent that the public is distracted by personal misbehavior, I expect that the rich and powerful will continue to thrive. The Cosbys and Weinsteins among them may be disgraced, but in a sense, they will be battlefield casualties in our new class war, one which the 1% will easily be able to absorb. We clearly need a new set of rules and procedures for relations between the sexes, especially in the workplace, and I hope they can evolve relatively quickly so that our attention can shift once again to other matters of concern to every citizen.