Dispatches | November 07, 2006

Thinking about the election, I’m reminded of politics in the good old days.  The scandal mongering and cheap shots of current politicians look tame by comparison with the extremes of political rhetoric from the American Revolution through most of the nineteenth century.  Newspapers were associated with parties and causes, and slashing, inflammatory rhetoric was commonplace, without even a pretense at objectivity.  Articles brimmed with fierce ad hominem attacks in which the subject was called not just names but long lists of the ugliest names the journalist or speechmaker could conjure. 

Mark Twain recounted learning such journalism in his comic sketch “Journalism in Tennessee,” in which a young writer who goes to the South for his health is taught how to “edit” his first article with terms like “inveterate liars . . . that ass . . . the besotted blackguard . . . that crawling insect,” while his mentor, the editor-in-chief, is shooting and being shot at by various other editors and local politicians.  Twain intended the story as a joke on small-town Southern journalism, but he might just as well have applied it to journalism in the cities. 

Even the relatively moderate and humane New York journalist Walt Whitman resorted to the malignant rhetoric of the day in some of his newspaper articles, for example in one of his anti-immigration articles, where he speaks of the “coarse, unshaven, filthy, Irish rabble.”  Newspapers all over the country casually indulged in racism, regularly using the word “nigger” in headlines. The most offensive, ignorant, vituperative media commentators today would hardly surprise nineteenth-century newspaper readers.

Why do we imagine that such things are new?  Sex and sensationalism in popular entertainment, for example:  from the early days of the penny press in America — the l830s — cheap, sensationalistic entertainment was widely available.  The gothic genre was among the most popular, and it was typically thinly disguised pornography full of the delights of necrophilia, incest, murder, stabbings, putting women onto racks and torturing them, and so on.  Edgar Allan Poe’s gloomy tales were unremarkable in their time and pale by comparison with fiction like George Lippard’s salacious The Quaker City, which was the best-selling American novel before Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Lippard portrayed the “governing” class as engaged in all kinds of sadistic, sexual- and blood-dripping outrages.  Historians of popular culture have lately been rediscovering how much pamphlet pornography was available during this period, as well–cheap, rudely illustrated, straight porn.   

Alas, for those who need an easy answer or a paranoid theory with which to comfort or promote themselves, the brutality that we witness and that sometimes affects our lives, was not invented by Hollywood, or crack cocaine, or the CIA, or by the narcissism of baby boomers, or by newly intemperate politics, or the blunderings of George Bush, the federal deficit, the breakdown in family values, nor even — I hate to admit — the mind-numbing zombiefying tripe that pours out of television.  Statistically speaking, there were no good old days.  Brutality is never invented, it only floats around like a specter, finding new neighborhoods to haunt.  The Garden of Eden, as in Katherine Mansfield’s classic short story “The Garden Party,” is only a convenient myopia, lasting until one goes out and looks around.

Speer Morgan

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