Reader’s Digest Time Machine
Dedicated to Melvin and Joelle
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Like many people, I grew up reading Reader’s Digest. It was a fixture in my childhood home. It was inexpensive, readily available, and often featured heavily edited excerpts and simplified versions of articles which appeared in other periodicals of the time. At that, it was a perfect reading companion for a young and curious child eager to soak up knowledge about the world.
Many shared my early experience. The Reader’s Digest could certainly be counted upon to offer family-safe fare well within the bounds of good taste. Its editorial position was certainly on the conservative side of middle-of-the-road. Not for nothing was it published in Pleasantville, New York.
The magazine was started by DeWitt Wallace, while recovering from shrapnel wounds received in World War I. Wallace had the idea to gather a sampling of favorite articles on many subjects from various monthly magazines, sometimes condensing and rewriting them, and to combine them into one magazine. Since its inception, Reader’s Digest has maintained a predictably conservative and anti-communist perspective on political and social issues.
According to Wikipedia, For many years, Reader’s Digest has been the best-selling consumer magazine in the United States, losing the distinction in 2009 to Better Homes and Gardens.
Reader’s Digest has a global circulation of 10.5 million, making it the largest paid circulation magazine in the world. The magazine is compact, with its pages roughly half the size of most American magazines.
For all that this circulation, it had been years since I had actually held a copy of the Digest in my hand. So it was with great delight that my friend Melvin, another committed and hard-working Occupier, brought over a copy of the Reader’s Digest from 1983. Melvin was working on one of his continuous home renovation projects, building bookshelves to accommodate many of the boxes of books he has stored. Among this to treasure trove was a large number of Reader’s Digests from days long gone, which provide insight into what we read, what we thought, how we bought, and what was top of mind.
In July of 1983, we were fully two years into the Reagan era, and had yet to begin the orgy of privatization and demonization of government that has become the norm 30 years hence.
One of the articles featured a look at what really happened at the EPA. It recounts how fully 2 years into the Reagan Administration, the foxes were hired to guard the chicken coop. A supporter of the so-called ”Sagebrush Rebellion,” in which ranchers were pitted against the federal Bureau of Land Management, who wished to restrict or limit their God-given right to use public lands to graze their cattle. Reagan would place industry types in charge of the agencies charged with regulating the environment.
Vile names from the past pop up as villains in the set piece: Joseph Coors, a rabid anti-environmentalist, supported the goals of the Sagebrush rebellion and brought many of his followers and acolytes along for the ride. James Watt was named interior secretary. Robert Burford, a leader of the Sagebrush rebellion, was appointed director of the Bureau of land management, the agency that the rebellion was engaged with in many pitched battles. The notorious Anne Gorsuch, whose legacy of abuse was such that she became the first agency head to be cited for contempt of Congress, was made head of EPA. These Reaganauts eviscerated the regulatory oversight that their respective agencies were to have provided, with predictable results. As we look back over the span of 30 years, and wonder how did we become so cynical, if it is easy to trace how the popular vision of government as a champion for the aims and desires of ordinary people was transformed into that of an oppressor of those aims, and a waste of money besides.
What is remarkable about this article is, from a remove of 30 years, how naïve it seems. The author traces how budgets were cut, how regulations were upended, and the very mission of regulatory agencies themselves tainted. In Reagan’s wanton destruction, we see the beginnings of the “oppressive government regulations” meme so prevalent today.
Speaking of naïveté, there’s a wonderful article in this edition called “Why PACs Spell Trouble”. This article traces the remarkable growth of the new method of funding political campaigns called political action committees. At this time PACs were described as having being sponsored by trade associations, labor unions, corporations, and various other groups. This article traces many of the potential problems at PACs present, how they would undermine electoral reform, subvert the public funding mechanism for elections, and otherwise sow pernicious mischief. For all that, it is worth noting that placed directly in the middle of the article is a sidebar box making the case for PACs, and arguing that they do more good than harm. Not surprising for a center-right publication to suborn its own article with the sidebar arguing against the premise of the article it commissioned.
As we are now in the middle of a fevered electoral campaign, with money sloshing in the battleground states like Virginia at a record pace, the sluice gates having opened as a result of the Citizens United ruling, the cautionary tone of this innocent Reader’s Digest article from 1983 seems poignant indeed. Karl Rove must be laughing in his crypt. Not for nothing have groups like American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity become household names.
This from the local newspaper’s online site:
Jaw-dropping sums of money are being spent to sway Virginia voters this campaign season, and not just by the candidates.
In many cases, there’s no way to know the actual source of the cash. Spending on TV ads by outside political groups – negligible in past presidential campaigns – has exploded this year, and Virginia is one of their prime targets.
Two months before the Nov. 6 election, they’ve bought $37 million worth of airtime in the state’s four major TV markets. Half of that money has been spent by groups that keep their donors a secret.
Republican-leaning groups are outspending Democrat-leaning groups by a 3-1 ratio.
Half of all the money spent in Virginia so far by outside groups, $18.7 million, is from American Crossroads, the group founded by longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove, and its spinoff, Crossroads GPS.
The numbers were compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracker of money in politics, from public files kept by TV stations.
1983 was clearly far more innocent time. Rove’s group, Crossroads GPS, has already spent 12.6 million in Virginia alone.
When even the ads and the graphics use speak to a different people, living in a different time, with less media-honed expectations. Ads for painkillers, Libby’s corn, for Kool-Aid, for insurance. The ads even featured actual copy; even a double truck from KitchenAid would feature a full page of copy, as if, imagine this, people had the patience to read. Astonishing.
The old familiars are in there to: Points to Ponder, Picturesque Speech, Laughter, the Best Medicine, Life in these United States, and my youthful favorite, Word power.
It is remarkable to pick up a document like this after a mere 30 years has elapsed. It is also remarkable to realize how far in the wrong direction we as a people have allowed ourselves to go. Our children will not believe the stories of the country that we grew up in, so far to the righthave we raced in 30 years. At least my daughter will, in the fullness of time, be able to go to Melvin’s house, and asked Melvin to unshelve some of those Reader’s Digest from the Pleistocene so that she may hold them in her hands, read for herself, and understand more fully what has been lost.