Same as It Ever Was-Editorial Writers Grapple with Same Politics as 100 Years Ago

By Hallock, Steve | St. Louis Journalism Review, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Same as It Ever Was-Editorial Writers Grapple with Same Politics as 100 Years Ago


Hallock, Steve, St. Louis Journalism Review


The message from a year's worth f editorials on the immigration reform debate in Congress is one that goes beyond current politics. Anti-immigrant attitudes and those of Americans welcoming the influx of new cultural blood comprise a long running American conversation.

Similarly, other themes of recent election campaigns are timeless. The sentiment upon reading commentary and listening to shouted cable TV opinions on various current hot issues is one of deja vu.

Immigration

"The proper goal of immigration reform is to be humane and practical without insulting people's innate sense of fairness," opined a New York Times editorial on proposals to either seal off the U.S.-Mexican border with a big fence or to encourage Mexicans to work in the United States and become part of its cultural stew. "And if such reform removes the perverse incentives that make it more rational to enter the United States through the Sonoran Desert than through a line at a consular office, so much the better."

With minor changes in the cast of characters, the immigration controversy today centers primarily on Latinos, while in the 1800s the immigrants were European. Consider this, courtesy of Allan Nevins' 1928 collection of newspaper editorials, "American Press Opinion, An Anthology of Editorial Writing from Washington to Coolidge," on immigration:

"Not to arrest immigration by absolute prohibition," suggested the Richmond (Va.) Enquirer in 1855, "but to suffer foreigners to come hither and then to deny them the privileges of citizenship, is so foolish and fatal a policy that it is difficult to understand how any man of ordinary intelligence can assent to it."

As the Times and other newspapers of the 21st century appeal to humanity and practicality, the Richmond writer in the mid-19th century argued against a "harsh and illiberal" policy that would "repel some of the prouder, brighter, and more aspiring spirits, who might seek freedom and distinction in this country."

Campaign money

As for ethics of elected officials and campaigners, here's what the Springfield Republican had to say in 1904--more than 100 years ago:

"Whichever way our sympathies may incline as between parties and candidates, let us not forget that the secret collections and secret use of enormous campaign funds, for whose control no one is responsible under the law, and about which, when once scattered, no one pretends to have the slightest knowledge--let us not forget that all this has become a national scandal, and confronts you and all of us as a deadly peril to the form of government and the institutions which we hold dear."

It is a national scandal still, and a bipartisan one at that. We know the history, but we keep repeating it nonetheless--in our politics and in our newspapers' scolding and agenda--setting.

Wrong wars

The war in Iraq has drawn considerable, albeit well-placed, criticism. But anti-war protestors of the 1960s-1970s remember the governmental deception behind the Vietnam War. As with the war today, editorial writers then mourned the needless and senseless slaughter of American GIs, along with the deaths of innocent Vietnamese. This sort of anti-war sentiment had roots in the 19th century, before the more acceptable World War I and World War II, as seen in the New Orleans Times-Democrat's 1898 argument against the looming Spanish-American War.

"Few who consider the matter seriously will justify such a war," argued the newspaper. "Men who would not hesitate a moment, if their country was invaded or its honor and good name were at stake, to offer their lives to save it, have not been able to see any justification for this war of sympathy with Cuba. …

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