Sunday 26 July 2015
My aunt just dropped off a pile of old books (including a copy of Gone with the Wind published in September 1936) and magazines. Both my mother's and her sister's idea of housecleaning is to swap their clutter from one's house to the other's.
What caught my eye in this stack of old publications was a year-in-review edition of Newsweek published December 29, 1980. Among discussions of such weighty topics as the failure to resolve the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis and the pitfalls in the construction of the proposed MX missile system, the magazine worried about the precarious state of the nation's savings and loans associations, a prescient observation of a situation that would have disastrous effect on the nations's economy later in the decade. As history has borne out, the writers knew their stuff.
Tonally, this issue could have been published yesterday. The lead column is a pointed essay on the failure of the assassination of John Lennon to weaken the NRA's stranglehold on America's stillborn gun control debate. (That argument is parodied in a brief mention of J.R. Ewing's assassination on Dallas in the magazine's centerpiece article.) More than one page mentions the dangers of government bloat and political patronage. In fact, most of the issue is given over to the sorts of End Times discussions about the state of the world that you hear today on Fox News. The takeaway here is that the world has been a shitty place for at least the past 35 years. In its own way, that's kind of comforting.
While the tone and subject matter is familiar, the presentation isn't. I challenge you to find a 2015 news magazine, either in print or on television, where articles quote philosophers and Shakespeare or make off-the-cuff allusions to the Battle of Agincourt. It seems the democratic Internet — where free speech goes to die — has put the nail in the coffin of that style of academic writing. In 2015, pulled quotes from Twitter are the closest we come to educated commentary.
This dumbing down of the national discourse was a danger that the magazine was well aware of. (Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 masterpiece Network, in which an insane man is made the face of the evening news because that's what people want to see, is referenced elsewhere in this issue.) All of page 59 is devoted to warning of the coming of a newspaper focusing on national popular interests, "tentatively called USA Today." In hindsight, that might have been among the first signs of the current Apocalypse.
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