Cinema, History, Media, recent, Sport

‘Cancel Culture,’ Roaring Twenties-Style

The term “cancel culture” has become hotly contested of late. Critics say it is indiscriminately used to describe different degrees of mass opprobrium produced by transgressions that range from the trivial to the criminal. Now, while mob justice is never a particularly good idea, it is certainly true that some instances are more serious than others. Probably the worst kind involves a serious accusation made against a public figure, who is then investigated and cleared, but whose life and reputation are never allowed to completely recover.

I was reminded of this reading Claire Lehmann’s recent essay about the fate of Giovanni da Col, a young man driven from the journal he founded amid accusations of sexual and financial impropriety, despite the fact that these claims had been investigated and found to be baseless. Woody Allen, meanwhile, had his career belatedly derailed by the reemergence of child molestation allegations, first made by his estranged partner Mia Farrow during an ugly custody fight in 1992. These claims, too, were thoroughly investigated at the time and dismissed, but that has not prevented shame and reprisals 25 years later.

Injustices like these are obviously not unique to our time. If we look back 100 years or so, to the 1920s, we find similar instances of persecution and shunning that outlast vindication of the accused. It may be of little consolation to da Col and Allen today, but history has not been kind to those who participated in these campaigns and a lot more sympathetic to its victims.

During the so-called Roaring Twenties, prizefighter Jack Dempsey was one of America’s biggest celebrities, his fame surpassed only by that of Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, and a few stars of the silent screen. But in January of 1920, the San Francisco Chronicle published a letter by Dempsey’s ex-wife, Maxine, in which she accused the heavyweight champion of having illegally conspired with his manager and others to evade the draft during World War I. This was an explosive accusation. The war was still fresh in the minds of most Americans, many of whom had fought in it and/or lost loved ones in it. The idea that the country’s most famous fighting man might have illegally shirked his obligation to fight for his country struck many as scandalous. Soon editorial writers were calling Dempsey a slacker, a coward, or worse. In his biography of the champ, Jack Dempsey, The Manassa Mauler, writer Randy Roberts quotes this wretchedly wrought editorial from the New York Times as typical of the media pile-on that occurred after Maxine’s letter was published:

Dempsey says that he is not a draft dodger. Technical facts sustain him. His adherents assert that his negative patriotism, negative actions, brings [sic] him forth from the slacker shadows and put him, head up and dauntless, in the clear light of noble duty, nobly done…Dempsey, whose profession is fighting, whose living is combat, whose fame is battle; Dempsey, six feet one of strength, in the glowing splendor of youth, a man fashioned by nature as an athlete and a warrior—Dempsey did not go to the war, while weak-armed, strong-hearted clerks reeled under pack and rifle; while middle-aged men with families volunteered; while America asked for its manhood…There rests the reason for the Dempsey chorus of dispraise.

The main “technical fact” that sustained Dempsey’s argument that he was no draft dodger was the simple truth: he had been granted a 4-A exemption by the draft board in San Francisco, his home at the time. In the World War I era, a man could be exempted from military service if he could prove that he worked in an industry vital to national security, or if he could prove that he was the sole support of his family. Dempsey applied for an exemption on the grounds that he was the sole supporter of his wife, his parents, his widowed sister, and her children. This was true except for the fact that Maxine, a prostitute by trade, frequently grew bored during Dempsey’s long road trips and returned to her old profession, which meant she was not entirely dependent on Dempsey. It is understandable why Dempsey might have wanted to leave that information off his exemption request.

In his biography, Roberts points out that Dempsey was hardly the only celebrated American athlete to have avoided combat during WWI:

During a time of war, an athlete is placed in a unique position. Most men who return safely after serving in the military during their twenties can resume their normal occupation when they are discharged. But if an athlete is forced from his occupation for two or three years during his prime, the results can be disastrous.

He notes that Babe Ruth enlisted in the Massachusetts Home Guard, a reserve unit, which allowed him to serve both his country and the Boston Red Sox during the war years. Likewise, writes Roberts, “Bill Tilden literally served out his stint in the Signal Corps giving tennis lessons to his commanding officer in Pittsburgh. Hundreds of professional athletes followed this path, technically doing their duty but not missing a single season of athletic competition.”

Today, a prominent individual can find himself in the hot seat for behavior engaged in years ago (appearing in blackface, making a gay joke, etc.) which wasn’t all that controversial at the time. Likewise, back in the twenties, some hyperpatriotic types began retroactively trying to shame celebrities who had employed technical gambits during the war years to avoid combat. Still, the controversy surrounding Dempsey’s 4-A exemption might have died out quickly had Maxine (possibly prodded by a newspaperman who was paying her to keep the story alive) not continued to heap coal on the fire. Soon she was telling the Chronicle’s readers that she had letters written in Dempsey’s hand that proved her accusations. Before the end of January 1920, many American Legion posts had adopted resolutions condemning Dempsey’s war record—or lack thereof. Very soon the US Attorney’s office began looking into the matter.

By February, however, Maxine had tired of the game. She met with US Attorney Charles W. Thomas, the government’s point man on the case, and confessed that everything she had said about her ex-husband was untrue. She claimed she made up the charges because she had falsely believed Dempsey to have had an affair with another woman during the time that he was married to Maxine. Now Maxine had learned that her suspicions were ill-founded and wanted to clear her ex-husband’s name. She described him as “a wonderful man and husband” who had always supported his large extended family.

Alas, Thomas was already committed to his prosecution of Dempsey. He secured a grand jury indictment against Dempsey and his manager Jack Kearns for conspiracy to avoid the draft. The trial, held in San Francisco, was a national sensation. Thomas put Maxine on the witness stand and forced her to recount the work she did as a prostitute back in 1917, when she was still married to Dempsey but estranged from him. He also put two of her fellow prostitutes on the stand, to verify that Maxine was a working girl in 1917 and not dependent on her husband’s financial support. According to Roberts, “Although each of the women spent an hour or more in recounting events that had no bearing on the case, both agreed on one important thing: Jack Dempsey had never sent his wife a penny.”

The next day, Dempsey’s defense attorney, Gavin McNab, cross-examined Maxine extensively, eventually forcing her to concede that she had initiated the scandal in the hope of benefitting financially from it. Here’s Roberts again (the material he quotes is from contemporary newspaper accounts of the trial):

As McNab pressured, Maxine turned bitter. With “apparent enjoyment” she told of her adventures as a prostitute: “So eager was she to dwell on the sordid details of her life in one city after another that she ran ahead of the questions.” Dempsey sat silent as Maxine made it “unmistakably clear” that she tired of marriage after several months. For her the “underworld” life of prostitution and crime was preferable to holy wedlock. If she confessed that Dempsey did send her some money—the only part of her testimony germane to the case—she also accused him of being stingy and hard to live with.

The Dempseys’ marriage was largely a sham, but it was a complicated one. While Jack lived and trained in San Francisco, Maxine stayed with his Mormon parents in Salt Lake City. McNab was able to produce witnesses from the Salt Lake City offices of Western Union who provided written proof that Jack had wired considerable amounts of money to both his wife and his parents during the war years.

All of that might have been enough to earn Dempsey an acquittal, but the coup de grace to the government’s case came the following day when McNab put Dempsey’s mother, Celia Dempsey, on the stand. As Roberts notes, “Her story might well have won Dempsey’s nomination for sainthood.” Described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a little white-haired, wrinkled woman with hands gnarled by hard work and shoulders bent by years,” she testified that her husband was crippled by arthritis and suffered from both addle-mindedness and melancholia. She also cared for a daughter, Effie Clarkson, who suffered from various physical afflictions. Her sons Johnny and Joseph had been exempted from the draft due to ill health. Another son was stabbed to death while selling newspapers in Salt Lake City. Without Jack, she told the court, “We wouldn’t have had anything.” She noted that after Jack defeated Jess Willard for the world heavyweight boxing title, he sent his family $20,000, so that they could buy a house.

Dempsey himself eventually took the stand and noted that he had raised $330,000 for the war effort by fighting in charity events. He also noted that his efforts as a recruiting officer in Philadelphia helped inspire several hundred young men to sign up for work in shipyards that built naval vessels. He also testified that, when he had the money and knew where to find her, he always sent Maxine support checks.

He was followed to the witness stand by Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy (not the future president), who testified that Dempsey had been in the process of enlisting when the war ended and the Secretary of the Navy ordered that enlistment be halted.

It took the jury only ten minutes to acquit Dempsey of all the charges against him. Alas, it took the public and the press a lot longer. Cliff Wheatley, a sportswriter for the Atlanta Constitution, opined in a column that Dempsey’s reputation was forever tainted by the scandal and that he was unworthy of holding the honor of being heavyweight champion. Wheatley argued that all patriotic Americans ought to hope that Dempsey would lose his title in an upcoming bout with Frenchman Georges Carpentier, who had fought valiantly in WWI. And, indeed, though the bout was held in New Jersey, the crowd heavily favored the foreigner (who was knocked out by Dempsey in the fourth round). Even Carpentier’s 1975 obituary in the New York Times rehashed the incident: “Considerable American public opinion favored Carpentier because he was a war hero, while Dempsey was considered a slacker who had avoided military service.”

Roberts sums up the damage done by the scandal in these words:

The draft issue did not end in 1920. Throughout the rest of his career Dempsey heard the word slacker often attached to his name. While walking down the streets of New York, boxing in exhibitions, or even acting on the Broadway stage, he would inevitably encounter questions…Always sensitive on the subject, he suffered psychologically from the cheap insults. A friend, Dan Daniel, said that one of Dempsey’s happiest days was when he enlisted for World War II. Only then could Dempsey let the issue sleep in his own mind.

Curiously, Dempsey’s 1920 trial in San Francisco would not be the biggest or most salacious celebrity trial in that town during the Roaring Twenties. The very next year, film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle would be put on trial for the alleged rape and manslaughter of an actress named Virginia Rappe, who died four days after attending a party in his room at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The evidence against Arbuckle was weak. Rappe was examined by a hotel doctor on the day of the party and found to be suffering only from extreme alcohol intoxication. She was taken to a hospital, where a woman named Bambina Maude Delmont, a short-term friend of Rappe’s who had attended the party with her, told doctors that Rappe had been raped by Arbuckle. Rappe was examined by a physician who found no evidence of rape. She died the next day, after which Delmont repeated her rape accusation to the police, who turned over their findings to the district attorney. The case probably would never have been brought to trial if San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady hadn’t hoped to use the publicity from the trial as a springboard to the governor’s office. The story was exaggerated and sensationalized by a media culture that recognized that celebrity sells. According to Wikipedia, certain groups that claimed to be upholders of public morals called for Arbuckle to be executed.

It took three trials to settle the matter (Arbuckle was defended by Gavin McNab, the same attorney who handled Dempsey’s defense). The first jury voted 10-2 in favor of acquittal. The second jury voted 9-3 in favor of conviction. The jury in the third trial deliberated for only six minutes before declaring Arbuckle not guilty. The jury also took the nearly unprecedented step of issuing an apology to Arbuckle for the ordeal he had been through. It read:

Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed. The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.

Alas, the acquittal didn’t do much for Arbuckle’s career. Here’s Wikipedia again on the aftermath:

Despite Arbuckle’s acquittal, the scandal has mostly overshadowed his legacy as a pioneering comedian. His films were banned after the trial and he was publicly ostracized. The ban was lifted within a year, but Arbuckle only worked sparingly through the 1920s…He later worked as a film director under the pseudonym William Goodrich…Arbuckle died in his sleep of a heart attack in 1933 at age 46.

Dempsey and Arbuckle were both innocent men. Dempsey’s career recovered from the scandal his legal troubles engendered. Arbuckle’s didn’t. Both men suffered serious psychological distress from which they never recovered.

Arbuckle has received some posthumous vindication from fiction writers. His story has been lightly fictionalized in novels such as Scandal in Eden, by Garet Rogers, Devil’s Garden, by Ace Atkins, and I, Fatty, by Jerry Stahl, all of which are sympathetic towards their protagonist. I know of only one novel that deals with both the Dempsey and Arbuckle scandals. Published in 1984, Shirley Streshinsky’s A Time Between is the story of Hallie Duer, a pioneering young feminist newspaperwoman who finds herself covering both trials for the fictional San Francisco Times (a stand-in for the Chronicle). Streshinsky uses an interview between the fictional Hallie Duer and the historical Gavin McNab, to highlight interesting similarities between Dempsey and Arbuckle:

“It seems to me [said Duer] that Dempsey and Arbuckle have some things in common. Both are from poor families, they had to work their way to the top, they knew hard times.”

McNab picked up, “Dempsey lived the hobo life and married a prostitute,” he said. “Both were born into a social stratum where drinking and womanizing were part of life. It isn’t surprising that Dempsey could move into the Hollywood crowd. He and Arbuckle have some mutual friends—did you know that? Then, when they become celebrities, their fans want to pretend—and want them to pretend—that they live a middle-class Methodist life, pure as the driven snow…the thing is, both Dempsey and Arbuckle are strong, silent men who are innately decent. Dempsey’s trouble was caused by a divorced wife who was put up to it by a sportswriter. Arbuckle’s troubles started with a sad incident, and were compounded by a liar [Delmont] and an ambitious politician [Brady] who tried to amplify those lies and have them accepted as truth. I suspect both Dempsey and Arbuckle will carry scars from their San Francisco trials till the end of their days.”

The 1920s—and the cases of Dempsey and Arbuckle in particular—offer warnings in these overheated and confusing times about the dangers of trial by media and a rush to judgment. Reputations and careers, once tainted by accusation may never recover, even if those accusations turn out to be based on nothing but hearsay and lies or motivated by nothing more noble than score-settling. There are those who may argue that people like Dempsey and Arbuckle are acceptable collateral damage in the fight over values. But it is more important still to ensure that we establish the truth of the matter at hand, and that the punishment fit the crime…should one turn out to have been committed at all.


Kevin Mims is a freelance writer living in Sacramento, CA. His work has appeared in numerous venues including the New York Times, National Public Radio’s Morning EditionSalon, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinMims16


  1. I find this article fascinating. It implies that there might have been a ‘high period’ in journalism, possibly as a result of the McCarthy era, in which journalists, although as story-hungry and amoral as ever, were at least willing to hold themselves to relatively high ethical standards, in terms of maintaining a veneer of objectivity, differentiating opinion from news, obtaining independent and trustworthy verification of news, and minimising harm.

    On the surface level, it might appear that the modern fall in journalistic standards could be the result of journalistic activism, with journalists content to spread a particular worldview, in return for less compensation. But I think the rise in clickbait journalism alongside activism speaks of a level of job insecurity and desperation that is analogous to the types of journalism highlighted by the article. The problem is that they are all competing for the same space- the roughly 8% of Americans who self-identify as progressives, many of whom don’t even bother to read on a regular basis, and prefer their media through their phones. The historic fear that pre-Second World War journalists must have felt, in their desperation to avoid unemployment and the breadline, must be at least superficially similar to the desperation of young modern day journalists, especially when one considers the unforgiving terms of their student loans (at least in the US).

    They have deluded themselves into thinking that the 2% of Twitter users who post 90% of the content are representative of the literate American population, as a whole. This is untrue, and it’s little wonder that both readerships and audiences are shrinking for the mainstream media, whilst the audience of Fox continues to grow, as it positions it’s news journalism (as opposed to its editorial or opinion content) closer to the centre. In the past, Roger Ailes, whatever tarnish stains his modern legacy, was highly successful in understanding that there was a hole in market, for conservative news.

    Now the great and untended constituency that has no natural political home, is the mass of moderate and centrist voters, who feel disillusioned with the political polarisation tearing the West apart, and yearn for media providers that would make us all a little more rational and sane. Fox has successfully intuited that the days of manufacturing consent are over, and it is time to tailor their message to their audience, in order to expand. One only hopes that the Liberal media can come to the same conclusion, and stop pandering to this tiny proportion of the population that has stopped growing (because each new generation instinctively rejects the ethos of the last). A more centrist media, might after all, offer a broader tent, in which all are welcome.

  2. I believe there was such a high period in American journalism. I would describe it as loosely spanning the early 1940s to about the mid-1960s.

    We know what American journalism has become since then, but prior to that, newspaper work was a very shabby business indeed, particularly from 1900-1910.

    I highly recommend the biography of Damon Runyon, written by the late Jimmy Breslin, for a taste of what that was like.

  3. “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
    -Thomas Jefferson

    “If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast”
    -William Tecumseh Sherman

    “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”
    -William Randolph Hearst

    There was a brief window where journalistic standards existed, and the profession was lifted out of being seen by many as a form of prostitution. Not coincidentally, it was during the same generation that, estimating based on 22.47% of men being aged 20-49 in the USA, and the population being 133,000,000, and 15, 650,000 serving, 52.8% of eligible men had seen military service.

    Many of the “great journalists” cut their teeth or spent time writing for the Stars and Stripes.

    So a generation whose childhood was marked by privation and rising international tensions and journalistic jingoistic lies on the world stage, whose youth was spent fighting, moved on to demand journalistic standards and integrity.

    This same era saw an unprecedented level of respect and collaboration “across the aisle” -seriously, the yellow journalists of the latter 19th century sound very much like Maddow today- and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that generation spent time in combat situations together. Hard to hate political opponents when a member of that tribe took a bullet for you.

    Laying that aside and returning to the article:

    “Cancel culture” is a fascinating phenomenon- the very language used to describe it as the same as television programs going off-air. The Shane Gillis item, where someone handwaved his “finding his way in front of a mic within days” shows part of the problem- to these “cancellers,” the people being cancelled are just like shows they dislike being cancelled, there are no human effects, possibly driven by their excellent acrobatics at dehumanizing their opponents.

    Regarding the specifics in the article, the behavior of Brady is no different than Mike Nifong Angela Corey, or Marilyn Mosby. The best part of Freakonomics- the reason I was glad it was popular- was because it raised the very important point of checking motiviations, or in its own words, “What are you incentizing?”

    Mike Nifong was eyeing an upcoming election when the Duke scandal broke. Angela Corey, the same with Trayvon Martin. Mosby, Freddy Gray. If they did not act, they would anger key electoral demographics in their neighborhoods and potentially stall their careers. If they acted and turned out to be correct in the guilt of the accused, their swift action would serve them a bright future.

    Well, Nifong hid evidence, Corey over-charged, and Mosby didn’t even read the situation correctly (One statute she was correct by Maryland law but not Baltimore law, another was brand new and training for the officers was scheduled for the following week). But if they had not acted, it would have been career suicide.

    Regarding Dempsey: Women are more protected and have more rights under modern Western law than men. Men are presumed to be the default party at fault in cross-gender disputes. Legally, men carry more responsibility because they carry more accountability. Good luck getting most feminists to allow that to be recognized, though- modern feminism has a disgustingly distinct paternalistic “women need more protection” element that’s counter to the original movement ideal of female equality; which inherently demands equal feminine accountability.

  4. Oh, come on. Defending Woody Allen? He molested his daughter and then married her afterwards(!) As if that made it OK? Jerry Lee Lewis was cancelled for the same thing, and yet people still support Allen. Woody Allen supported Roman Polanski, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. Polanski, the man who had a 13 year old girl over to Jack Nicholson’s house without a chaperone, took photos of her in a bathing suit, gave her a glass of champagne, gave her a quaalude, and then screwed her in a hot tub, California style. Who is surprised they are two peas in a pod? Harvey Weinstein dismissed it out of hand, calling Polanski’s rape “this so-called rape.”

    More than 100 industry leaders and prominent authors – including directors Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Neil Jordan – have signed a petition asking that Polanski be released from Swiss custody. “Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by this decision,” the petition says.

  5. Good to know that everything old is new again. The cancel culture of the 1920s was also led by women. At least the legal system worked for Dempsey and Arbuckle. One thing that was different—in those days you generally had to be charged with something to be “canceled.” And you could often start again in a new city. Nowadays all it takes is an anonymous post on social media. We need to make it easier to sue for slander—in the US, this is very difficult, especially if you are a public figure.

  6. From the article:

    There are those who may argue that people like Dempsey and Arbuckle are acceptable collateral damage in the fight over values.

    Like Brett Kavanaugh today.

    That horrible woman, Kamala Harris, has renewed her shrieking demand to impeach him, despite the lack of any credible evidence of wrongdoing.

  7. My more honest leftist friends openly said that it didn’t matter if Kavanagh was guilty, it was worth pretending he was to stop Trump. I cut a lot of people out of my life and closed one of my Facebook accounts because the heightened emotional mood revealed many people’s true colours.

    Cancel culture is a means to an end: leftist supremacy. It has nothing to do with enforcing values, or else the contemporaneously-documented sexual harasser and serial blackface-wearer Justin Trudeau would have gotten much more than a giant shrug from his progressive supporters.

  8. I always figure a friend who would say that to me would actually do the same thing to me if he had something to gain by it.

  9. Precisely. At the same time, I was getting cancelled for saying it was inappropriate to threaten violence against people who engage in “cultural appropriation.” Hilariously, by a Native stripper who didn’t grasp the irony in complaining about cultural appropriation while calling herself “Artemis,” Greek goddess of chasity. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

  10. Prior to WWI the idea of conscientious objector had yet to be accepted by the public and the law. Those who refused to fight were given the option to work in war industries or be ambulance drivers, transporting the wounded and dead from the trenches to field hospitals nearby and better equipped ones in the rear. As young men were being drafted and summoned to appear at boot camp, one group en masse refused to be inducted: the Amish. That they were resolute pacifists would be accommodated by their joining the ambulance corps the authorities argued. The Amish refused. War exerts control and authority by force, an act the Amish deplore. Both the nature of the act and its consequences, such as buying war bonds and serving in the ambulance corps, then are anathema to their beliefs. They wanted nothing to do with war and couldn’t be swayed to compromise.

    The Amish fundamentally abhor war as the murder of another. One of their quintessential stories of martyrdom, well-known among many Anabaptist groups (Amish, Hutterite, Mennonite, and Dunkard) is that of Dirk Willems of the Netherlands. Held prisoner in a castle for the act of adult baptism, he escaped and was crossing a frozen river, pursued by a guard. The heavier guard fell through the ice and was in danger of drowning. Willems turned and rescued his pursuer, only to be recaptured and burned at the stake as a heretic on the 16th of May 1659.

    This enraged their neighbours and the wider public. Furthermore, because the Amish were German in ethnic origin, still spoke German, and self-segregated away from wider society they were accused by many of holding pro-German sympathies and being disloyal, seditious even.

    Amish were physically attacked. Their nonresistance beliefs refused them the right to self defence, so they were easy picking. Their craft goods and farm products were boycotted. Locals vandalised Amish schools and homes by painting them yellow, the colour of cowardice. The Amish refused to paint over the smear. Authorities decided to lean on them hard to break their obstinance. They were arrested, tried, and sent to prison. Amish belief of nonresistance had them abstain from litigation, so they declined to defend themselves in court. Once imprisoned, men refused to comply with orders , even as basic as shaving their beards, which often enraged their guards. They refused to wear prison uniforms. These had buttons, which were deemed worldly and modern - Amish clothes used hooks. They sat naked in their cells, and at the time prisons were often poorly heated and even unheated. Many died due to exposure and disease.

    Plaque at National WWI Memorial and Museum in Kansas City.

    Some, like the Hofer brothers, were sent to bootcamp despite their protests. They were two of the 20,000 men granted conscientious objector status by their local induction boards yet still sent to army bases for basic training. After their beards and hair were shaved in violation of their religious beliefs, the men refused to fill out their enlistment cards, and they were immediately charged with disobeying orders, courtmartialed, and found guilty. Next, they were sent to Alcatraz, a notorious prison for the worst of the worst.

    The Hofers soon found themselves in solitary confinement in the “hole” where they received only a half glass of water each day and no food. Living day and night in darkness, they were chained to the bars in their respective doors, one hand crossed over the other. The chains were drawn up so only their toes touched the floor, a technique long familiar in the history of torture known as “high cuffing.” A guard would come by periodically to beat them on their arms and back, causing heavy swelling.

    Later transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kanas, the brothers died from health conditions arising from their mistreatment. To add insult to injury, when Joseph’s wife, Maria, was taken to see her husband’s body, he had been dressed in a military uniform.

    Conscientious objectors camps were established with the stated objective of givibg men work in peaceful agriculture and forestry. Often though, the officials and guards pursued another objective of trying to prove the conscientious objectors were lying to shirk their patriotic duty and therefore eligible for military conscription and service. They were issued military uniforms and told to drill. Those who refused were beaten and tortured, an act used in part to goad prisoners into violent retaliation or renouncing their conscientious objector beliefs.

    Humiliation, violence, and simply being worn down into submission resulted in 16,000 certified conscientious objectors renouncing their combat exemptions and taking up arms.

  11. It’s interesting that you cite FDR, because although opinion may be divided on his legacy, the economists are not- his economic policies were almost universally a bad idea, that prevented America from coming out of recession sooner. A perhaps more nuanced view would be to say that he was essentially necessary to restore confidence in the American economy, but that once his administration began to centralise power to run the economy, he had gone down completely the wrong path. Interestingly, Democrats like to cite that under him, wealthier individuals paid their fair share, when in actuality the length of the tax code, with it’s many exclusions, favoured the rich- as the middle-class bore the brunt of taxes, and many on the higher rates of 90% actually paid less than they did after the much simplified Reagan reforms.

    Of course, in the modern context the American tax code could best be described as bizarre, because it offers much wealthier Americans both a moderately lower tax rate and the types of exclusions built up in the era of FDR and his successors. But the biggest impact of the top-down New Deal approach to Government was the effect it had on American cities. The post-war planners inheriting FDR’s approach made no secret of the fact that they wanted to bring the car into American cities, in many instances ripping up perfectly serviceable tram-lines to accomplish their goals. Only in New York, where Jane Jacobs took a principled standard to preserve the essential character and feel of neighbourhoods, garnering massive support from the public to accomplish her goals, was this process halted.

    A friend of mine, recently visited the States, and was amazed to find that unlike in Britain, where people park in Town and City Centres and visit all their shops in one go, on foot, Americans park, shop and drive; park, shop and drive, etc. He thought it was insane. Having lived in America as a dual-national, I was well aware of the tendency. So, the multi-lane grid structure of American cities in gridlock, the air pollution caused by cars resulting in death for those with respiratory complaints and the regulatory insistence of excessive parking that stifles small-scale commerce- all of these are legacies of the top-down planning of the Administrative State. Simply put, too much power in the hands of autocrats is always a danger, and always expensive, the human costs often dearer than the economic ones.

    But I think that there is a far keener observation to be made from America’s hearkening back to an economic age that never happened. Far from being more prosperous, the fifties had eight recessions, with many amongst the working-class bearing the economic brunt. But what this era did possess was job security and a job for life, for those that wanted them. My old painter/decorator often claimed that when he was younger he had four jobs in one week- because in those days you could pick and choose who you worked for, given the shortages of labour.

    This wasn’t reflected in peoples material living standards. The Keynesian approach sacrifices economic prosperity on the altar of societal stability. But it did help people feel more secure, and probably accomplished a good deal in terms of promoting trust in both the traditions and the institutions of Western societies. Of course, the sixties changed all that, accomplishing a great deal of positive social progress in the process, but one can’t help wonder whether in doing so, they also threw the baby out with the bathwater.

  12. I think the decline in reading stems directly from the education system. There are many factors in play here. The choice of reading materials for children. The lack of memorisation as a skill to be promoted. The emphasis on trying to teach creativity, when creativity can only be taught by the discipline of acquiring a craft, or the acquisition a broad range of knowledge in depth, which can then be used to spark unique insights through one knowledge schema reacting with another. Of course, it doesn’t help that teachers have to compete with media designed to grab children attention in flashy and colourful ways.

    I was recently watching a talk in which Claire Fox detailed discussions at universities about limiting didactic lecture sections to 10 minutes, because the younger generation simply hasn’t built up the mental stamina to sit and listen to someone else inform them, for any length of time. Is it any wonder that they are overwhelmingly climate catastrophists, when most of them are incapable of tracking a climate headline back to it’s source and reading the underlying science, before it’s been tampered with by politicians, intent on making headlines and underlining the importance of their own jobs.

  13. Peter makes an excellent point about radio and television. Particularly about commercial radio, and particularly in the US. I think it would be almost impossible to overstate the immensity of its cultural impact.

    Prior to its development, the reading of paper media was the only way that people could get any news on political events and the popular arts.

    Before the 1920s, when a man stopped work for the day, he went home to an apartment or house in which there were no electronic devices. If he wanted news or entertainment, he either had to read a newspaper or a book, play a wind-up gramophone or a musical instrument, play cards or talk to his wife.

    With the development of commercial radio, it was possible to simply listen to news and to music, for hours until it was time to go to bed. He could then go to work the next day and socialize intelligently with his co-workers about the events of the previous day without having read a single word of print. Unless he wanted to. Many didn’t.

    With the later development of commercial television, it became even easier to avoid reading newspapers and glossy magazines. With the internet, easier still to avoid all paper media.

    But radio, in my opinion, was ground zero in the decline of desire for reading skills and comprehension amongst the common people. The decline of necessity for access to the greater world.

    Today’s schools are accommodating that lack of public desire, but they are not, I believe, the direct cause of it.

  14. Actually, the quote is from a book by Ben Proctor. In my earlier comment, I should have made that clear and also that the two blocks of text were taken verbatim from Wikipedia. Fixed it.

    This situation is the result of bad zoning and planning decisions by local governments, who are vulnerable to capture by real estate development interests and car/truck interests. It is not the result of any top-down planning and certainly not based on any principles of smart street design.

    As towns grow into cities, roads that were intended for inter-town travel at high speeds become haphazardly turned into 'stroads’:

    Stroad is a word we coined in 2013 to explain those dangerous, multi-laned thoroughfares you encounter in nearly every city, town and suburb in America. They’re what happens when a street — a place where people interact with businesses and residences and wealth is produced — gets combined with a road — a high-speed route between productive places.

    They are enormously expensive to build and, ultimately, financially unproductive. They’re also very dangerous.

    You’ll have to supply some links or sources on FDR’s tax policies. Wartime taxes pretty much hit everybody.

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