A few hundred years ago I brought my daughter to the Tenement Museum in the lower east side of Manhattan. I wanted her to see how my grandparents had lived just a mere hundred years before. My grandfather fled Tsarist Russia and my grandmother came from Poland in the 19-aughts (I don’t know what that’s called. The aughties?)
They both got out before the famed Iron Curtain fell. They lived a few blocks further uptown, but the conditions were the same. If you have immigrants in your background that went through Ellis Island, or even if you don’t, it’s worth the trip.
We also took a walking tour around the area. At the time the lower east side was mostly filled with German Jews who were mostly tailors. It was the garment district of the day.
Further down town there was what could loosely be called a department store. The owner of the store would come out on Saturday afternoons onto a balcony and preach the wonders of capitalism. He would extoll his listeners on the virtues of hard work and frugality and the evils of union organizers, communists, socialists, and other vermin. He also ran a sort of savings bank where the locals could deposit a few cents a week until they could buy passage over for their relatives still in the Old Country.
Up the street was the socialist newspaper. The editor would also come out on Sunday and give his sermons on the necessity of workers coming together and building a socialist workers’ paradise instead of living under the crushing weight of capitalists, robber barons, aristocrats, and other vermin. Back then any major city had several privately owned presses devoted to socialism, communism, capitalism, and any other ‘ism’ in the dictionary, each with its own propaganda and appeal. You could read the same story with five different slants and five different selective edits. Or puzzle over why it was reported in this publication but ignored in that one.
My mother in law told me a story of when she was the editor of a newspaper in Stamford, CT. They were in competition with another paper and the business was cut throat. She managed to get a certain picture of some politicians published on the exact same day as their competitor. Theirs showed four people in the photo. The other paper had only three. It was obvious that they were both the same picture, but that one had had one member air brushed out. Trotsky would be proud!
Today over 95% of the media in this country is owned by one of six huge corporations. Draw from that what you will. Politifact.com is put out by one that is still independent. For now.
In the evenings, after working ten to twelve hours, people would congregate in the pubs on the first floors of the brown stones. They’d eat, read the papers and discuss the issues of the day. Politics, what the ‘Little Flower’ was doing in town hall, sports, science advances, or whatever was current. People participated in government by keeping informed, debating (shouting matches), attending public meetings, and listening to the candidates lie. I won’t say the government was any better back then, but at least people participated. At least they were informed. They knew they were being lied to by the other guy.
They say that television changed that. There’s a reason it’s called the Boob Tube. Marshall McLuhan’s vision of people being better informed, learning languages and history, art and science, etc., never really happened, except, maybe, in public television or the Learning Channel before it gave in to sensationalism.
The restructuring of education during the sixties had an effect, too. The classical liberal arts education was watered down and sterilized. Before, it was understood that by the end of high school a student was proficient in the liberal arts, loosely defined as: grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy (well, science in general.) That basically meant that by twelfth grade a person should be equipped with all of the mental tools to function in society. Then you could go on to a trade school or a university or just get a job and do just fine. You were the informed citizen that Thomas Jefferson so valued in society.
I won’t drone on about the Good Old Days or How These Kids Today (Have It Too Easy/Too Hard/Are Too Stupid/Too Smart/Too Lazy/Too Whatever.) As anyone who has studied history knows, the good old days never existed. Let’s just call them the Different Old Days.
Oh, what the heck. Why not? What’s the use of being old if you can’t talk down to young people? At least then people were expected to know something of whence they came. History was in the present. Look at old movies from the thirties and think in terms of what it was assumed the audience knew. References to classic myths, literary or historical characters were left unexplained. Groucho Marx could make a quip about Croesus. Fawlty Towers could have Basil say he was waiting for a new wall ‘as long as Hadrian’ and expect to get a laugh. (It seems the dumbing down took a little longer in England.) Or the Lincoln/Douglass debates. Granted, they were mostly name calling and posturing, but the audience had an average eighth grade education and could still follow.
Well, things change. Things become the same. I’m not really going anywhere with this. Just some mental stumbling on a rocky slope.