The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

June 24, 2008

Hysterical News Story of the Day

The headline on this Associated Press story gives it away: “Everything seemingly is spinning out of control.” Based on this story, one hopes suicide hotlines are well staffed.

This story is an example either of the lack of fortitude of American culture today, or the excessive self-centeredness of American culture today — the idea that we are unique not just in the world, but in world history, that no one has ever dealt with anything worse than what we deal with today — or probably both. Why, as the story notes, “a barrel-scraping 17 percent of people surveyed believe the country is moving in the right direction,” the least since the survey in question began … in 2003.

That’s right. No previous generation in American history has ever had to deal with high gas prices, or bad weather, or or an ugly-looking presidential race. Any presidential scholar knows that Barack Obama and John McCain and their supporters are pikers compared with those who worked in, say, the presidential campaigns of 1796 (“His Rotundity” John Adams, accused of wanting to marry off one of his sons to one of King George III’s daughters to create an American monarchy, vs. Thomas Jefferson, described as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father”), 1800 (by now, Adams had come to have “hideous hermaphroditical character,” and of Jefferson opponents wrote, “Great God of compassion and justice, shield my country from destruction”), 1828 (when one of the big issues was the wives of candidates Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams), 1860 (Abraham Lincoln, “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman,” vs. Stephen Douglas, said to be “about five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way,” with only the Union itself at stake), 1876 (to get Rutherford Hayes all the Electoral College votes they could, the GOP agreed to end Reconstruction, which led to all the evils of the Jim Crow South), 1884 (Grover Cleveland, who fathered a child while he was not married, vs. James Blaine, who concluded a letter admitting to shady railroad dealings with the advice “Burn this letter!”, which was not followed) and 1928 (Republicans claimed the existence of a secret tunnel from New York City to the Vatican, through which the pope would advise Democratic candidate Al Smith).

No previous generation in American history has ever had to deal with inflation, or unemployment, or a weak dollar. No previous generation in world history has ever had to deal with the results of bad weather. Woe is us. One wonders what would happen in this country if we ever actually really had bad times, of the scope of the Great Depression.

The ridiculousness of this state of mind boggles the mind. My grandmother, who died last year at age 98, lived through, in her adult lifetime, the Great Depression and World War II, in addition to divorcing one husband and burying two others, and experiencing the death of her first grandchild before he reached two years old. My parents started a family in the midst of the bad days of the Cold War; they have vivid memories of the Berlin Wall crisis and the Cuban missile crisis, when there was good reason for thinking our way of life — maybe their actual lives — had just days remaining.

I was a history minor in college. After that, one of my duties at various newspapers I worked at was compiling that staple of small-town newspapering, the old-time news column. This was more interesting than I thought it would be at the time, because newspapers of the past serve as primary history, providing a window into popular thought of the time. Newspapers of the late 1930s were pretty foreboding reading as they chronicled our descent into the second world war of that generation. Newspapers of the 1940s not only noted war dead and injured, but increasing rationing, with every kind of raw material being diverted to the war effort. Newspapers of the 1960s were equally foreboding reading as opinion writers wondered what was becoming of a country where assassinations and riots were becoming commonplace.

Amity Shlaes’ book on the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s failures in dealing with it, The Forgotten Man, points out that many Americans in the 1930s saw the Great Depression as the new normal, not an economic downturn (though steep) caused and worsened by bad policy. In January 1938, with, after nearly five years of the New Deal, unemployment at 17.4 percent and the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 121, Shlaes writes, "There was a new sense of permanence about the Depression. Being poor was no longer a passing event — it was beginning to seem like a way of life. Roosevelt's prophecies about America seemed to be coming true — the country might be like old Europe, frontierless, something out of Dickens."

The one rational note in the AP story, from American University historian Allan J. Lichtman, points out that “the U.S. has endured comparable periods and worse, including the economic stagflation (stagnant growth combined with inflation) and Iran hostage crisis of 1980; the dawn of the Cold War, the Korean War and the hysterical hunts for domestic Communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s; and the Depression of the 1930s.”

You’ll note that we did in fact survive two World Wars, the seemingly-endless Great Depression, the Cold War and Jimmy Carter’s presidency. (My wife and I were born when Lyndon Johnson was president, and LBJ is someone whose legacy has gone decidedly downhill as time passes.) I suspect our country will even survive a Barack Obama presidency, though I am not eager to experience one. Gasoline prices of $4 per gallon, slow economic growth and Brett Favre’s retirement are not, I believe, a sign of the end times.

(For your future reference, the
end times will arrive on either Sept. 29 or Nov. 11, 2011, or sometime in 2012, or perhaps 2014, or 2016, or 2017, or 2023, or October 2028, or 2034, or 2038, or 2060, or 2076. Then again, the end-of-the-world predictions of 1925, 1954, 1990, 1997, 2000, 2001 and 2006 did not come to pass, nor did any of these predictions. Perhaps you should read Matthew 24:36 and Matthew 24:42 for further guidance.)

The flip side of this is that anyone expecting things to radically improve as the result of the election of any particular candidate in November is in for a dramatic disappointment. Our lives are still mostly up to us, or at least up to us in the really important areas. The mass media helps to make things seem worse than they actually are due to its focus on the coasts, which are subject to more economic ups and downs than those of us in flyover country. (The East and Gulf coasts also are subject to hurricanes.)

Life is shorter than we all think it is, and to waste a moment thinking about twaddle like this AP story is to spend a moment you’ll never get back.

Update: For those who pay attention to end-of-the-world predictions, this site suggests you not be in “southwest California” July 8. What is their evidence? Why, the fact that Florida beat Ohio State for the NCAA Division I football and basketball national championships.

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