Radio Snapshot: Dec. 3, 1941

An opinion piece by Leane Roffey Line, c. 2008

Sometimes a radio programming guide is an absolute archeological find. For those of us whose parents remember times when radio was king, and who themselves remember growing up prior to TV and the morning or evening edition of the paper, these were welcome and familiar guides to knowing what went on in the world. Nothing beat the radio snapshot.

Here was a view of a world where your only source of information came across airwaves, not in your car, but from a smallish unit in your home, filled with arcane looking tubes that threatened pain of instantaneous electrocution if they malfunctioned (I don’t know if that ever happened, but it was an effective deterrent in our house prior to the advent of the TV set at my grandmothers, which presented it’s own technical challenges).

Radio today does not boast the echos of such as James Bryant Conant as delivered by Walter D. Fuller, I wish it did …”What are We Arming to Defend” packs a hell of a lot more weight even now in my book than some of the “Age 65 to Dead shock jock commentary” I currently hear spouted by people who should know better.

Read through the program and see for yourself what people listened to. Certainly we are on the same planet (or so I believe) but it was/is a different world, and the disconnect for older Americans must be extreme, even among the “I grew up sitting next to the TV while my parents were working” crowd.

I love analyzing old speeches, watching old movies, film noir, Art Deco and peering into the world’s past. It is a past of such absolutes, in comparison to today. A past in which one could create a world in one’s mind through reading Treasure Island, never shared, never articulated. Only huge events brought people out of their isolationism, and connected them, mostly through the medium of radio. It is a medium that is still deserving of the greatest respect, and of not being used as the trash dump it has become.

Conant’s speech, for example, was given initially on October 21, 1940 before the Southern College Conference in Memphis, TN, and resurrected just prior to Pearl Harbor. It was almost as if Fuller anticipated the event in the minds of many who listened, my father and uncle among them. They were boys then, but determined to serve as soon as they were old enough to enlist if America called. The American ideal they were fighting for allowed them, as sons of Sicily, and new sons of America to, (as Conant put it), “…seek their own level, obtain their economic rewards, engage in any occupation irrespective of what their parents might have done.” Conant spoke to them then, through Fuller, saying “such is the American ideal, but I gravely fear that social and economic changes…have whittled away much of the reality on which the ideal is founded.” That paragraph concluded with “We must endeavor in every way possible to reestablish the validity of our ideal.” This is what my father and uncle heard, in days when Sicilians were considered lowly immigrants.

The same pattern of hazing, until you could claim “three generations shirt sleeve to shirt sleeve” on American soil, has not changed. In fact, things are worse now, and if we do not move to restore fundamental democratic values we will have our own great wall between Mexico and the US, as other population groups outstrip the white American mainstream and struggle for the same freedoms here that my immediate ancestors did. They face scorn and ridicule, and yet are called upon to do the jobs here no one else wants…then put in the double-bind of being accused of taking jobs from Americans. In my own lifetime I witnessed this in my own family, and until the passage of equal opportunity employment, I was subjected to it myself as I endeavored to make something of my hard won college degree. Some right of passage that was!

So, today, I must ask the same question as did Conant: What are we arming to defend? Have we not established for ourselves what Conant feared worst of all, as he cites president Garfield, who stated his distaste at beliefs like “mankind are born into permanent classes, and that in the main they must live, work and die in the fixed class or condition into which they are born”?

Is it not the case that from our Anglo roots, we have inherited on many levels the meme that in order to have national stability there must be a permanent class who “shall hold in their own hands so much of the wealth, the privilege, and the political power…that they can compel the admiration and obedience of all other classes”? And have we not granted them that power as a voting public to the point now where we cannot gracefully back away from our own hubris?

Conant analyzed Garfield’s remarks in that speech, synthesizing them to one central theme as he stated “To my mind, the inevitable conflict of which he speaks, a conflict which is sure to come when permanent classes and universal suffrage exist in one nation” would be avoided only if “in our political society there run NO fixed horizontal strata above which none can pass. Our society resembles rather the waves of the ocean, whose every drop may move freely among its fellows, and may rise toward the light until it flashes on the crest of the highest wave.” These words to Conant represented the unique ideal of American life. These words are what was heard through the medium of radio in my father’s time. I am not hearing these words now, save for the voices of the few who believe as Conant did. Instead, I am hearing remarks that belittle and break down our citizenry, remarks that have moved the USA below last year’s standing even in areas such as gender equality.

In my own words, I can echo Conant (whom I much admire), by saying only the following:

“The lives and deaths of most pass by, mourned by a few, remembered by even less. Some receive, at the expense of family or friends, an obituary in a newspaper, or perhaps a memorial from a pulpit somewhere in the Heartland. The one, or two, lives who leave lasting and permanent impressions on the great masses of the swarm, add but a small droplet to the ocean that is mankind…dwarfed on the geologic scale by the vast oceans of time past since they lived. Those whose words, like Conant’s, leave the imprint of truth behind earn history’s approbation, and possible use as referents, markers to guide the generations who come. Those who leave words of falsehood and stupidity merit nothing but the scorn and ridicule of their readers and listeners. To them I say, I hope you get exactly what you deserve.”

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