Given the myriad forms of madness evident on our planet, I think many of us tend to assume that our own era is uniquely perilous.
Our times are indeed perilous. But all times have been perilous.
Recently, while happily spending a Christmas gift card at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, I picked up a fascinating book called “Deadline Artists — Scandals, Tragedies, and Triumphs,” edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis.
It’s an anthology of some of the better newspaper columns published by various ink-stained wretches over the past century and a half.
The book is a terrific read. Many of these columnists could really write.
It’s also a refreshing — or bracing, take your pick — reminder that the old saw is eerily true: the more things change, the more they really do stay the same.
Name almost any hot-button issue in the news now, and you’ll find that it was news 40 or 70 or 100 years ago.
Here are a few examples:
Acquaintance rape by celebrities. In “A Woman Tells: Seduction Led to Murder,” Kentucky’s Irvin S. Cobb recounts the murder trial of Harry Thaw, who shot the famous architect Stanford White on the roof of Madison Square Garden.
The column, which appeared in the New York World on Feb. 7, 1907, features the emotional testimony of Thaw’s wife, Evelyn. She says her husband killed White after she told him that when she was 16, White, who she’d thought was just a kindly adult friend, had drugged and raped her.
After she regained consciousness, he apologized, claimed he couldn’t help himself and implied that he’d done the same to other girls.
Big oil’s corruption of government. In “Wanted: A Wet Nurse for the Oil Industry,” which appeared in the Tulsa Daily World, Will Rogers mocks the tawdry purchase of President Warren G. Harding’s administration by the oil industry, and the U.S. Senate’s inability, or unwillingness, to effectively investigate it. This piece is from Feb. 10, 1924.
Conflicts in the culture wars. In “Arguments at the Scopes-Monkey Trial,” from the July 14, 1925 Baltimore Sun, H. L. Mencken rails against the “buffooneries” of the religious “clowns” who oppose the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools.
Controversy over capital punishment. Gene Fowler of the New York American takes us inside Sing Sing’s death house to describe in graphic — nearly pornographic — eyewitness detail the electrocutions of Ruth Brown Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, for murdering Snyder’s husband. In “A Woman Burns,” from Jan. 12, 1928, Fowler shows the condemned prisoners’ terror, and the medieval cruelty of death in the electric chair.
Mass murder with a semi-automatic weapon. In September 1949, a disturbed World War II veteran goes on a rampage in East Camden, N.J., killing 12 innocent people with a war-souvenir German Luger pistol. Meyer Berger of the New York Times documents the carnage in one of the most thoroughly reported columns I’ve ever read.
Worry about the effects of mass media on our political system. Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast — although advertised beforehand and peppered with announcements that it was fiction — caused a panic. Countless Americans thought the country was being invaded by Martians. Many desperately clamored for the government to fight back.
In “Mr. Welles and Mass Delusion,” published on Nov. 2, 1938, Dorothy Thompson of the New York Herald Tribune argues that this debacle shows the dangers posed by radio.
Public education has ill-prepared citizens to think critically or employ even basic logic, she says, and thus they’re easily deluded not just by melodramatic entertainment, but potentially by the ravings, threats and fear-mongering of demagogues who seem to be rising everywhere.
“If people can be frightened out of their wits by mythical men from Mars,” Thompson writes, “they can be frightened into fanaticism by the fear of Reds, or convinced that American is in the hands of sixty families, or aroused to revenge against any minority, or terrorized into subservience to leadership because of any imaginable menace.”
Speaking of which …
Despair over demagogues. Several columns explore columnists’ angst about demagogues who’ve seized power here and abroad: Huey Long in Louisiana, Benito Mussolini in Italy, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in Washington, D.C.
Here’s an excerpt from “The Death of Senator McCarthy” by Harry Golden in the Carolina Israelite, May 5, 1957:
“The conservatives nearly always tolerate the demagogue while he’s destroying liberals. The conservatives may even know that their turn will come next, but they usually take this calculated risk. ‘Let him knock their heads together,’ they say, ‘we’ll take care of him in good time.’ … But it never works out the way the conservatives would like to have it; especially if the demagogue knows how to consolidate his position before he finally goes after his early ‘allies.’”
I swear, this seems practically verbatim from pieces I’ve read about the election of Donald Trump and the ascendancy of authoritarian leaders in Europe.
There’s plenty more in Deadline Artists that resonates, but I’m out of space.
I’ll end by pulling out another truism from my stockpile, this from King Solomon: There is nothing new under the sun, he said.
I find it discouraging that we keep fighting the same battles again and again, endlessly.
The good news is that so far, the republic has managed to survive them all. My prayer is that our run of luck, and occasional good sense, will continue.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.