The Atlantic Monthly, October 2009

atlantic october 2009Mark Bowden starts his piece, “The Story Behind the Story,”  by recounting TV coverage of the announcement that President Obama had nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court.  Within minutes of the announcement, Bowden turned on Faux News and was impressed by the depth of their reporting.  He then turned to MSNBC, which was airing precisely the same report, using precisely the same quotes from Judge Sotomayor.  Flipping through the channels, he found that every station was airing the same report.  Curious, he looked into the matter.  The report apparently originated as a post on a conservative blog called verumserum, which not only did the TV channels’ work for them, but even did a better job of trying to be fair to the judge, giving far more of the context in which she made her remarks than did any of the broadcasters. 

Andrew Sullivan asks George W Bush to apologize for promoting torture.  Sullivan is oh-so-sure that Bush didn’t know what was being done in his name.  It reminded me of something about Cuba I read in Reader’s Digest when I was a teenager.  The reporter described ordinary Cubans’ habit of looking at injustices and sighing “If only Fidel knew.”  I had the reaction I was supposed to have, which was to feel sorry for those poor benighted victims of tyranny and certain that Americans would never delude themselves into letting a leader off the hook that way.  Whether there was any truth to Reader’s Digest‘s  description of Cuba I don’t know, but I do now know that we in the USA are not immune from the delusion it attributed to the people of that island. 

Benjamin Schwarz’ review of some new books about the economic slump of the 1930s contains an intriguing sentence, “The defining characteristic of the middle classes has always been their orientation toward the future.”  That sounds like the summary of some sociological theory.  Mrs Acilius is a sociologist; I should ask her if she recognizes the summary and can identify the school of thought in which such a claim might have arisen.  The backbone of his piece is a discussion of Robert Stoughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s 1937 study of life in Muncie, Indiana, Middletown in Transition:

The seminal book—really the starting point for the others—is Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown in Transition (1937). The Lynds, husband-and-wife sociologists, had first descended on “Middletown”—the then-prosperous if stratified city of Muncie, Indiana—with their team of researchers in 1924, during the boom years. For the next 18 months, they dissected the everyday lives, habits, and attitudes of its inhabitants, concentrating on the middle classes. The book that resulted, Middletown (1929), remains a classic of immersive sociology and the most incisive and complete portrait of American bourgeois life in the 1920s. Having taken this minute snapshot, Robert Lynd and a smaller team returned to Muncie 10 years later to see what had changed in the intervening period, which included the darkest years of the Depression. They interviewed the city’s industrial barons, plant workers, and prostitutes; chatted up its teachers, prosecutors, and real-estate agents (although all sources were anonymous, this much of their identities can be gleaned); and pored over its newspaper files and tax rolls. Mostly, they seem to have gossiped, lingered over dinners, and played bridge with the members of a stratum that ran from the “less-secure business class” to the engineers and middle managers, the young married set, and the well-established doctors, lawyers, and executives in the lower-upper class. The fruit of their sojourn, Middletown in Transition, reveals, fact by fact, detail by detail, anecdote by anecdote, the “staggering, traumatic effect” of “the great knife of the depression,” which “cut down impartially through the entire population, cleaving open the lives and hopes of rich as well as poor.”

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