It Was an Awful Year. No, Not Last Year. Any Year.
“Things are not getting worse; things have always been this bad.” — Molly Ivins
There were a lot of terrible stories in 2015: ISIS, Boko Haram, mass shootings, police killings, natural disasters, political gridlock, sexual assaults, and that’s just for starters. After spending five minutes on my laptop, I might believe the world is going to hell in a handcart and the apocalypse is nigh.
It isn’t. In December, The Atlantic published a story titled, “2015: The Best Year in History for the Average Human Being.” It reported that, throughout the world, most trends are moving in the right direction: poverty, child mortality and hunger reached record lows, more diseases were eradicated or contained, more countries held democratic elections, human rights abuses were less frequent, and more children were attending school. Domestically, unemployment dropped to its lowest rate in eight years and the homicide rate reached its lowest point in nearly 50 years. The Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change accord (Supreme Court notwithstanding) show that we can still address serious international issues. Perhaps progress isn’t as rapid or as continuous as I wish — too often it’s one step forward, one step back — but statistics show that mankind has never been healthier, wealthier, or safer.
I doubt anyone posted the Atlantic story on your Facebook timeline. Good news is boring. We would rather fume about the Pharma Bro than discuss the successful testing of Ebola and malaria vaccines; we post more statuses about Kim Davis blocking same-sex marriage in one county than we do celebrating the Supreme Court ruling that made it the law of the land in all 3,143 counties. Our preference for the distressing anecdote over the incremental progress report causes us to sometimes lose perspective, like Jim Imhofe holding up a snowball in the Senate during a winter storm, thinking it disproved global warming.
Cable and social media follow the old local news mantra, “If it bleeds, it leads”: CNN begins wall-to-wall coverage, Fox News and MSNBC assign blame to the left or right, the crazies come out on Twitter, Facebook friends post their outrage, lather, rinse and repeat. In the old pre-cable/Internet days, we would encounter bad news in the morning newspaper and on the evening news, then go about our business the rest of the day. Now we sit at our desks hitting refresh to remain conscious of the story, like a toothache that never stops throbbing. Since we’re connected on the Web to seven billion people, there are always a lot of throbbing toothaches.
When I saw a link to a year-end recap of 2015’s “infuriating news,” I thought: Was there ever a year that wasn’t filled with infuriating news? I decided to look back at the year I was born, 1951. Cable and the Internet didn’t exist. Only a quarter of American families owned televisions, and you couldn’t record or stream I Love Lucy if you missed it live. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs weren’t born yet, and when the Census Bureau received its first computer, the 29,000-pound UNIVAC I, it was front page news. The American economy was strong and post-war optimism was high. It was an era that some consider “the good old days.” But was there also a lot of infuriating news that would have inflamed social media, had it existed?
Hell, yeah, there was.
Tragedy, whether natural or man-made, was frequent. Avalanches in the Swiss Alps killed 240 people, while 4,800 perished in typhoon floods in Manchuria. A train derailment in Pennsylvania took 85 lives and a Japanese train fire killed 106. Forest fires devastated the American West, while the worst flood ever to strike the Midwest killed 17 people and displaced 518,000. In Pont-Sainte-Esprit, France, seven people died and dozens more were hospitalized after being poisoned by bread mold. I counted at least five airplane crashes. Wolf Blitzer would have been too busy to ever take a day off.
In 2015, we hotly debated whether to put boots on the ground in the Middle East. In 1951, we would have debated boots already on the ground in Korea, where 326,000 American soldiers were fighting and 54,000 would be killed; the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge that fall, for example, resulted in over 28,000 casualties among all the participants. We would have also hotly debated the Congressional legislation that lowered the draft age to 18 ½ and lengthened service time to 24 months.
When President Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command in Korea, some Republicans wanted to impeach him; fortunately, there was no Rush Limbaugh to inflame them further. Still, Truman’s approval rating was lower than Richard Nixon’s after Watergate. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican nationalist who attempted to assassinate Truman was convicted and sentenced to death. (Truman later commuted his sentence.)
Although there was no ongoing war in the Middle East in 1951, the region was still volatile. The leaders of Jordan, Lebanon, and Iran (as well as Pakistan) were all assassinated, there was fighting between Syria and Israel, Egypt fired on British troops, and the Syrian government was ousted in a military coup.
Elsewhere, China annexed Tibet, South Africa revoked the voting rights of mixed-race citizens, and Juan Peron’s government seized the popular Argentinian newspaper, La Prensa. Would we have looked up from our cat videos to tweet our outrage at these suppressions of rights?
Since the 1952 Presidential candidates had the good sense to wait until 1952 to start campaigning, there would have been no #ReadyForAdlai or #ILikeIke hashtags to annoy our Facebook friends. If there had been a Daily Show in 1951, it would have mocked not Donald Trump’s demagoguery, but Joe McCarthy’s (though I found no evidence that McCarthy ever mentioned his penis size in public).
McCarthy began 1951 by welcoming the new Senator from Maryland, John Marshall Butler, who had ousted the incumbent Democrat, Millard Tydings. McCarthy helped defeat Tydings, who chaired a Senate investigation that was critical of McCarthy, by forging a photo of Tydings with the head of the American Communist Party. Unfortunately, there was no snopes.com to instantly debunk it.
The Hollywood blacklist was ongoing; the House Un-American Activities Committee continued to hold hearings on the “Communist influence” in the entertainment industry. Lionel Stander, who had already filmed two movies in 1951, was named in a HUAC hearing as a former member of the Communist Party; he would not appear on a TV or movie screen for the next ten years. Competing clips of Rachel Maddow c. 1951 applauding those who refused to name names and Bill O’Reilly c. 1951 condemning them would have gone viral.
You might have had your own chance to stand up for principles: many organizations — the University of California was one — forced people to sign loyalty oaths as a condition of employment. This would have inspired a lot of Facebook statuses quoting — or often misquoting — George Orwell’s recently published 1984.
The fear of the “Red Menace” was pervasive. The U.S. began nuclear testing in both the Nevada desert and the Marshall Islands in 1951; the Soviets were also testing. One can easily conjure sarcastic memes about ducking and covering. In the March 22 New York Times, next to a report about actor Larry Parks’ testimony before HUAC, were stories on two cases of alleged treason that are still controversial today: Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. If the Rosenberg trial had been live-streamed, one can only imagine the flame wars that would have occurred in online comment threads.
One thing that surprised me about 1951 was the gun violence. Granted, nobody was shooting up shopping malls, but violence was as common then as it is today — a homicide rate of 4.4 per 100,000 people versus 4.5 per 100,000 now — and often as irrational. Browsing through a few issues of the Times, I found several stories that would have inspired memes about “‘Murika and its love of guns.”
The front page of the March 6 edition had a story about a 24-year-old man in Pearl River, NY (only a few miles from my home) who, while walking through town, took out his shotgun and fired at a crow in a tree. He missed — but struck gunpowder in the nearby fireworks manufacturer, igniting an explosion that demolished five vacant buildings. According to the article, “Frightened out of his wits, he jumped into the river and swam away.”
I admit that the story made me laugh, since nobody was injured. Less funny were the shorter stories on page 19, about two small children wounded by gunfire in Manhattan’s Madison Square, and on page 20, about an aide to Jersey City’s mayor shot to death in a bar after a political argument. Nor were these stories in the December 26 issue amusing:
- In Greenwich, CT, an 18-year-old was arrested for killing his father after the father, angry that Christmas dinner was not ready, took the Christmas tree out into the yard and began shooting the decorations.
- In Washington, DC, a 62-year-old man shot his younger brother after a Christmas Eve quarrel. Police found the body under the Christmas tree.
A February 26 story that began, “Two middle-aged Texans shot each other to death early today in a gun duel reminiscent of the Old West,” and a July 2 story, about a South Carolina teenager who killed two people and wounded five others in a café because he was angry that his song didn’t play first on a jukebox, sounded like fodder for a 2015 liberal blog post.
You weren’t even safer driving in 1951. There were more automotive fatalities in the U.S. than today, even though the population has since doubled and the number of cars on the road has tripled. If you were traveling, it was probably in a cloud of cigarette smoke; nearly half of American adults smoked, 2 ½ times the rate today. There were almost 29,000 reported cases of polio in the United States, about 28,900 more than were reported worldwide last year.
However, one thing stands out while reading 1951 news summaries: It is a story of straight white men.
While researching one of the stories below, I noticed a brief Chicago Tribune article that reported 58 people arrested in a vice raid at a Chicago gay bar. It wasn’t because they changed their Facebook avatars to rainbows.
This year, we might see headlines about our first woman President. In 1951, women were almost invisible in the news, unless you were looking at advertisements for kitchen products. Of the 35 photos depicting people in the February 15 Times, only eight showed women: three brides, two fashion models, one actress, one head of a charity drive, and one of enlistees in the Women’s Air Force.
The only female Senator was Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith; a second would not be elected for another ten years. Only ten women were serving in the House of Representatives, and none — zero — in Truman’s Cabinet. We would have circulated a Photoshopped picture of Eleanor Roosevelt holding a cardboard placard reading, “A woman’s place is in the House … and the Senate,” but a lot of people would have been aghast.
Only two African-Americans were serving in Congress. Only six of the major league baseball teams had been integrated. Like 21 of the previous 23 ceremonies, the Oscars were so white that there no non-white nominees; there was also only one presenter of color. Jim Crow still ruled in many states.
If you liked the bigotry and racial violence of 2015, you would have loved 1951. Had social media existed, there might have been a desperately needed #BlackLivesMatter movement.
In October, Johnny Bright, the quarterback for Drake University and a Heisman Trophy candidate, became the first prominent African-American to appear at Oklahoma A&M as a visiting player. He was not greeted warmly. In the first seven minutes of the game, he was assaulted three times by a white defensive tackle, suffering a broken jaw. The story is remembered because front-page photos in the Des Moines Register later won a Pulitzer Prize.
That was the only racial incident mentioned in Wikipedia’s news summary of 1951; not because there weren’t many others, but because they rarely even qualified as local news. Notably, the Wikipedia recap doesn’t mention Melvin Womack, nor Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin, nor Harry and Harriette Moore, nor Henry Fields Jr.
Melvin Womack was a 27-year-old Florida fruit picker who was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in an apparent case of mistaken identity. No criminal charges were filed. The story appeared in the local Orlando paper — but only 50 years later, when the white daughter of Womack’s employer decided to research it.
Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin were two of four young African-Americans railroaded in the rape of a white woman in what became known as the Groveland case. In November, a sheriff shot Shepherd and Irvin while driving them to a court session; he claimed that they attacked him, even though they were handcuffed. When a deputy arrived and found Irvin still alive, the deputy shot him again. Today, Larry Wilmore would air several outraged segments about the story; then, it only merited several paragraphs on page 60 of the Times.
Harry T. Moore, the executive director of the Florida NAACP, demanded that the sheriff be charged with a homicide, but — and tell me if this sounds familiar — no criminal charges were filed. On Christmas Day, Moore and his wife Harriette celebrated their wedding anniversary. After they returned home, a bomb detonated under their bedroom floor. This killing made the front page of the Times, and President Truman received many letters and telegrams. An FBI investigation concluded that the Klan was responsible, but — feel free to repeat after me — no criminal charges were filed.
No cell phone or dashboard camera recorded the May 26 police shooting in New York of an unarmed African-American named Henry Fields Jr. after he fled a minor traffic accident. I can’t tell how frequent this type of killing was, since these stories barely registered as news, but a former New York Congressman remarked about Fields’ death, “This is the latest in a long series of police murders of innocent Negroes.” The only reason this story received four paragraphs in the Times is because the Brooklyn D.A. found the killing so egregious that he took it to a grand jury. Do I have to tell you that no criminal charges were filed?
In Cicero, IL on July 11 and 12, 4,000 white people rioted when a black family moved into a previously all-white apartment building. Police and firemen called to the scene did little to stop the violence, and the riot didn’t end until the National Guard arrived. A Cook County grand jury was convened and — you guessed it — no criminal charges were … Wait, that’s not true, they did file charges — against the black family’s lawyer and the landlord and her representatives for “inciting a riot.” (A federal grand jury later indicted several people for civil rights violations.)
“Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy.” — Louis C.K.
I consider myself neither optimist nor pessimist. Some problems improve while others get worse; old problems are solved while new ones are created. The problems that are solved are quickly forgotten while the new ones become our latest obsession. Sometimes we forget how bad the past really was.
But neither am I an alarmist. I believe that, on average, the world improves a little each year. My corollary to the Ivins quote above would be, “Things aren’t getting worse, progress allows us to see how bad things have always been.” Although I mock the hysteria sometimes endemic to social media, I consider the technological and scientific advances that created it to be important progress. Without it, stories like Tamir Rice and the Flint water crisis would be limited to local newspapers, the 337 people exonerated by the Innocence Project would still be behind bars, and Bill Cosby might still be drugging women.
When I feel inclined to echo the alarmists, I remind myself that I wrote this while sitting at a desk in a wheeled office chair in a climate-controlled room, reaching for a steady supply of fresh brewed coffee with callous-free hands, taking medicine that controls conditions that might have killed me decades ago, pounding away on a device that links me to nearly all of the knowledge in the world, allows me to have books delivered to my front door, and lets me stay connected to friends around the world. If my ancestors time-traveled from their farms and sweatshops to 2016, and listened to me complaining, “Did you hear about that idiot in the news?” they’d reply, “You’re kidding, right?”
At least once a day now, while shaking my head over some insanity in the news, I ponder the changes since I was born and remind myself: These might seem like the worst of times, but they are often the best of times.