Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#34, April 28, 1999


by Marylaine Block

It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
And I feel fine
As the 20th century edges toward its ending, and a new millennium approaches, the cults are heading for Jerusalem or for the spaceships, and computer programmers are scrambling to fix the Y2K bug. We may be in for some rough times, because the millennium is coming and there are no guidelines, right? After all, nothing like this has ever happened before.

Except maybe in 1899, or 1799 or 1699. Quite possibly in 999 too, though it's hard to know since the written record wasn't very extensive then. In the last decade of the 19th century, though, there were lots of magazines and newspapers. If we look at them we can see what worried them as their century approached its end.

Our moral fiber, for one thing. Anthony Comstock, the Bill Bennett of his day, was rewriting Shakespeare's plays so they could not bring a blush to a maiden cheek. "The present fatal facility of divorce" was menacing the sanctity of home and family. Abroad, Oscar Wilde was being tried and imprisoned for the "love that dare not speak its name." Some disquiet was expressed about the corrupting influence of legal gambling on board ships.

Americans fretted about God. Millennial cults prepared for the second coming, and in 1891, In His Steps was published, a book in which a minister challenged his parishioners to make no decision without first asking "What would Jesus do?"

As we fought a war in Cuba and the Philippines, Americans were asking under what circumstances the United States should use its military power.

There was some anxiety about the power of the press -- William Randolph Hearst, after all, had told his illustrator, "You supply the drawings; we'll supply the war." Sure enough, his bold headlines about the sinking of the Maine helped push us into that war.

Newspapers' taste for scandal was also bothersome: "The line has to be drawn somewhere…[against] news which would either do [us] no good, or to which [we have] no fair claim."

Americans were alarmed about increasingly powerful governments intruding upon their rights. Some feared that an alliance of government and bankers ("malefactors of great wealth") would drive farmers and ranchers out of business with their insistence on the gold standard (it's been argued that The Wizard of Oz, written in 1899, was a parable about free silver).

Some Americans worried about police excesses: "The police, however, think that if a man is drunk or talks loudly or sings or presumes to answer the insults addressed to him by them, he must at once be dragged to prison, and, upon the slightest resistance, be beaten with clubs or blackjacks."

Many worried about what unrestrained free trade would do to American industries and workers. They worried about immigrant hordes descending on our shores, creating slums and crime, competing with us for jobs, and forcing our wages down and our taxes up.

They believed in, and celebrated, progress and technology -- Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward postulated a bright future in which people would punch buttons on machines in their home, and the things they needed would be immediately delivered to them. (Could he have been granted a vision of amazon.com?)

But technology also made them nervous. Edison's bright vision of an electric future was somewhat offset by grisly public demonstrations of the dangers of electrocution. Muckraking journalists told us about children stunted by tending machines 14 hours a day.

So you see, Spinal Tap was absolutely right: "The more it stays the same the less it changes."

We haven't solved all those problems we were worried about in 1899. But we did then what we always do with our problems: we tinkered around the edges. We're not so good at planning ahead, but give us a crisis and we will come up with a quick patch job -- the 40 hour week and child labor laws, for instance. When the next crisis comes along, we'll have another quick fix for it, too, because muddling through is what we do.

In spite of everything, I think we'll muddle through the end of this century too. And probably pass some of these same problems on to our descendants in 2099.

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