Recently, a friend posted one of those YouTube videos with a static photo over a recording of a speech. This one was a radio opinion piece by Paul Harvey done in the mid sixties. It seemed to be predicting a whole raft of possible social evils that, since, have come true, making it look like Mr. Harvey was some kind of prophetic genius. It was done in the guise of “If I were the devil, this is how I’d corrupt America.”
It was attractive because it seemed so prescient. What most who listened didn’t realize was that Mr. Harvey was talking, not about possible future ills, but ones he saw around him at that precise moment. And, in my mind, a lot of those “ills” were actually society coming to grips with how things don’t really work, and trying to find ways in which they could work, and work for a larger portion of the populace. In other words, they were good things, or at least potential good things.
It seemed classic Harvey. His whole shtick was that the old values were the best and change is bad. That there was a bedrock of decency that the common man clung to but that was being eroded at an increasingly rapid rate and we’d better watch out and get back to basics. He did it in a folksy way that communicated well with a population that was extremely afraid of change in a time when some major changes for the good were afoot. In my mind, he was patronizing and cynical.
Yes, everything he pointed to in the clip was true and prophetic. However, his solution was to return to the (very conservative and restrictive) church, and to not question it in any way. His audience was the white, working class male who, in the 60′s, was beginning to be afraid that their hegemony was starting to be threatened. And it was, of course.
A year or so back, Ford truck used another Paul Harvey bit on the greatness of the “salt-of-the-earth” farmer, the bedrock of human decency, morality and productivity. It was called, “God Made a Farmer.” Again, it was folksy and inspiring and the first time I heard it, it made my sphincter pucker. We love the romance of the hard-working, stalwart American farmer, and there are certainly many of those that fit that ideal and fit it well.
But the romance seems to fade a bit when you look at the way farming is done nowadays, with corporations forcing farmers to use questionable but momentarily profitable methods, when you see those methods polluting the ground, water and air (and, some would assert, the food supply), when you see the fights over land and water rights, and when you see that in farming communities in this country you find rampant racism, rampant sexism, spousal and child abuse, where the expression of faith is often in terms of what we need to fear and hate rather than what we need to love. Yes, those ills are in every community, not just the farming community, but it puts a bit of a damper on the whole, “the farmer is a special, noble breed” talk. Just like every group, some farmers are special and noble, some, not.
The whole speech seemed designed to placate his core audience, make them feel good about a life of hardship and strife because, well, God needed them to. It seemed to me cynical and doubly so for Ford to use it so many years later, when that kind of farmer mostly no longer exists, but the romance of it is still really alive and attractive.
The folksy “heartland” that Mr. Harvey evoked with such abandon, never really existed, and the “average American” he referenced was only average in a very small segment of the country.
You may have guessed that I find Paul Harvey kind of reprehensible. I find the new trotting out of his hypnotic voice a surreal nostalgia, a pining for something that never was because what’s there now is too difficult to understand. I absolutely don’t think our society is any more (or less) evil than it was in the 40s, 50s or 60s. We think of those as more innocent times, but that was merely because we didn’t have mass media to point a lens into every fetid corner, cave and basement and point a spotlight on to every misstep, mistake and misdeed, real or imagined, by every famous, notorious or regular person.
Quite the contrary, I think that, since we now see what has always been going on all around us, we have the ability to make the world a better place, and I truly believe that is happening. I see it daily. I see it locally, regionally, nationally and world-wide.
We are here in this life to learn, I think, and the best classroom is one that throws up obstacles. A lot of what’s going on now that seem off or more intense than anything we’ve been aware of in the perceived “Better Time” of the mythical past is kind of the final death throes of the old way of thinking, scrambling to regain a hand-hold. Looked at in that way (and from a higher perspective), it’s all to the good.
So if you want to bring out Mr. Harvey’s cynical, reductionist view to make it all seem better, who am I to say there’s anything wrong with that? His mythical view of middle America is both soothing and seductive. Be soothed. Be seduced. Then get back to the real world and try to step back far enough to see the patterns of good that are spreading.