Welter staffer Kelly Flanagan meditates on the stories each generation tells themselves–right down to key word and by-line–the fact that “nothing has ever been that great,” and more.
Finding solace in the wisdom of history has proven quite comforting to me. An economics professor once asked my class, “Do you think we are better off now, or in the previous few centuries?” Many students were inclined to say things like, “It was much better then; things were simpler.”
After much deliberation, I answered that we are “better off” today. I made this decision because medical advances have significantly improved my life.
My professor agreed. He told us a story about his father who, day in and day out, had no choice (due to money and societal expectations) but to tend to the grueling farm work which he had inherited and which eventually ended his life. Since then, I balance today with “yesteryear” by digging into literature and news media from “the good old days.” I typically find out nothing has ever been that great.
I find that extremely comforting somehow.
In late October 2020, I was questing to normalize my COVID and election year stress. I dug through the New York Times archive in search of an article that matched the current day’s level of crazy. I needed to know this had all happened before and the world had kept turning. I wanted pandemic insanity and election absurdity at its maximum … back then!
I picked out an archived New York Times article from late summer in 1918 , when the H1N1 pandemic raged worldwide and the US was tense as WWI came to its close during the tenure of President Woodrow Wilson.
The 1918 article said nothing of the pandemic. Interesting.
In this opinion piece, I noticed much in the subtext. However, the most significant thing I noticed was more straightforward. I noticed the names.
There was nothing more notable than the complete exclusion of the author’s name. Presumably, the author was a staff journalist for the paper. The sarcastic, 500ish-word piece, entitled, “A HIGHLY INDEPENDENT CANDIDATE,” described an odd political situation in the 1918 Michigan Senate race.
The columnist referred to Senate candidate “Mr. Henry Ford” as one whom “even Envy cannot deny … is the most independent, free and easy, and if it may be said without disrespect, devil-may-care candidate now on exhibition.”
This was Henry Ford, the creator of Ford Motor Company, and a businessman who revolutionized industry.
Ford did not want to run for office at all. He was nominated as a Michigan Senate candidate by the Democratic Party, and was bound to run as such due to a 1917 Michigan statute that “forbids a candidate nominated for office by a political party” to withdraw.
Tense times, tense politics in 1918. Noted.
The second article , also written during a pandemic and leading up to an election, was from late summer 2020.
In the July 29, 2020 piece, I am very sure who authored the opinion column. The name is listed directly below the title. Next to the headshot, it states, “By Thomas B. Edsall,” and of course boasts a byline and company bio for reader consumption.
I delved deeper. The first article, either implicitly or directly, identified the values of 1918 America. These included wealth, a healthy economy, prosperity, foresight and forehandedness, a grasp of history, and perhaps a preference for politics colored by pageantry and entertainment.
Thomas B. Edsall had a lot to say about American values, as well. As the well-stated author of his column, he identifies a cultural and political environment valuing, above all else, status. Detail upon detail (and fantastically well-researched), he breaks this down in ~2,700 words referring to economic class, social status, income and job access, skills and competencies allowing individuals to “produce economic value,” and ultimately life satisfaction.
Per Edsall, status-seeking individuals make up 2020 America. Noted.
Presidential approval ratings and various other polls are cited throughout this latter opinion piece. The columnist’s argument is quickly evident. The typical American perceives their own (economic) value and status are the definitive issues driving personal decisions – including and perhaps especially in the political realm.
The archived column on Mr. Henry Ford, the reluctant 1918 Senate candidate, notes a few other realities that may give context to the birth of our current America.
Mr. Ford, according to the anonymous New York Times author, “faces his political honors or perils, jovially and bravely.” Thereafter, the author expands the sarcastic argument, writing Mr. Ford was “playing shrewd politics.”
And that word catches me: playing.
The “invisible hand” of economics seems always to be playing its game of wealth versus poverty. The political condition is an adversarial playground all around.
We, as its players, live in a country which grew through 1918 and toward distant 2020, holding values of wealth, prosperity, foresight (we hope), and at the end of the day, status.
I will close this piece with its very proof.
Written by Kelly Flanagan [insert impressive bio; Twitter handle; airbrushed photo].
 “A HIGHLY INDEPENDENT CANDIDATE.” New York Times, Sept 27, 1918, https://www.nytimes.com/1918/09/27/archives/topics-of-the-times.html?searchResultPosition=14.
 Edsall, Thomas B, “Trump Is Trying to Bend Reality to His Will.” New York Times, July 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/29/opinion/trump-2020-populism.html?searchResultPosition=49.