The Nickel and Dime Decade: American Popular Culture During the 1930s, by Gary Best

This book is pretty awful.

So I was looking for social histories of the Depression for… no reason. Certainly not because I was researching the life and times of Steve Rogers, nope. >_> Although… hypothetically speaking… if anyone wanted to chat about this stuff, you might possibly find me a very enthusiastic willing ear.

And this book does indeed have a lot of relevant and interesting information, but it also has some of the most dishonest scholarship I’ve seen since I picked up an Ann Coulter book.


1) Lesser sins first: so he describes the 1930s as a period of “emotional binging” on the part of the American public, and is at pains to prove this. Which means he can’t talk about anything — be that radio, film, or home entertainment like board games — without trying to hammer it into evidence for his thesis, no matter how much of a stretch it is.

Part of it is in the emotive language he uses, for instance, describing trends and popular items as “frenzies,” “crazes,” and “manias,” when from what I can tell, they seem about on the level with the sudoku “craze.” Yeah it was popular for a while, and I’m sure you can dig up stories of people who took it to unreasonable extremes, but for most people it was a thing that they tried and was fun for a while.

sudoku

Anyone who blows that out of proportion to psychoanalyze the entire national consciousness should be laughed out of court. What, you say fantasy adventure stories were big? Stop the presses, man, ’cause that’s never been true before or since.

Now it may be true that the 30s did have a unique psychological profile that relied dispropotionately on distraction and escapism — without other sources to corroborate or contradict, I can’t really judge — but I can tell when someone’s trying very hard to make their facts fit their conclusion rather than the other way around.

(In retrospect, it should have been a red flag when he brought up Freudian theory in the introduction.)

2) He is very, very obviously an apologist for big business and fiscal conservatism — which, whatever, do as you please, but if I’d been looking for a book on whether or not Roosevelt’s economic policies were popular or effective (spoiler! he doesn’t think so) I would have googled “neocons explain why Roosevelt was a poopyhead” rather than “popular culture during the Depression.” I get that some author bias would likely bleed through anyway, but this guy has a major axe to grind. He’s the kind of guy you’d have this conversation with:

You: Nice weather we’re having.
Him: OBAMAAAA~~~!! >:((((

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He is really invested in proving that not everyone supported Roosevelt’s New Deal — which I agree, they probably didn’t, because when was the last time everyone agreed on anything? Nevertheless, the received wisdom is that it truly was a time of rare national unity, so he’s on the defensive and it shows.

I confess to being rather gleeful during the section about the newspapers’ political leanings, with several prominent progressive papers… and nothing on the flip side. Business-specific newspapers were conservative (that even he acknowledges nobody but industry insiders read) and he claims the Saturday Evening Post for his team, despite being mostly fiction and household tips, because it occasionally ran anti-New-Deal articles/letters to the editor. In trying to construct a narrative of dissent, the best he can do is a contemporary conservative writer lamenting how few people agree with him.

Poor fella’s trying so hard, and fetch just ain’t happening.

3) He’s also just kinda casually sexist? Like, the difference in tone when he’s talking about pop culture media aimed at men vs. women, the men’s magazines/radio shows/etc are described pretty factually, but then he gets to women’s and suddenly it’s full of that emotive language again and quotes from contemporaries/scholars disparaging it as stupid, melodramatic drivel that only oversexed harpies with no grasp of reality would like.

(Fox News likes to do this — not inserting their own opinions, oh no, just telling you what other people are saying and letting you ~draw your own conclusions.~ My favorite was an article I used to show my ESL students for an object lesson in spotting bias, that ended with “one commenter on the LA Times website wrote that ‘this is treason and Obama should be impeached for it.'” My students were like, ::blink blink:: “Did they seriously just say ‘some guy on the internet said ___’? That isn’t reporting the news!” Yep. Yep, they did, and no it isn’t.)

Dude is also judgy as fuck about how ~crass and violent~ the literature favored by the lower classes was, and then — hilariously — quotes a contemporary “liberal” (irony quotes his) being a snob about it, because snooty liberals, amirite?

Man, I had a cubiclemate once who was like this guy. So it came out pretty quickly that we voted along different party lines, and we discussed our respective political stances — at the time I was more fiscally conservative, but I cared far more about social issues, so Democrats it was. (These days I’m a borderline socialist, but whatever.) My cubemate wasn’t anti-gay, but he wasn’t going to bat for gay rights either, and fiscal conservativism was near and dear to his heart.

Hokay, I said. So we mostly agree, we just weigh the issues differently. Back to work.

No, that wasn’t the end of it. Because politics wasn’t about the issues for him, it was about picking teams and suddenly he’s poking me with “liberals, hah!” jabs whenever it’s remotely relevant to the topic at hand, and often when it’s not. Tired stereotypes of “Liberals believe this, haha!” as if he hasn’t actually met me and already knows what I think. I come in to work and he’s waiting to ambush me with a gaffe by some Democratic politician I’ve never heard of, looking at me smug and expectant, like he’s waiting for me to be embarrassed by it or try to justify it. What? Dude said a stupid thing, but it’s no skin off my nose. There is no cause so righteous that you won’t find some embarrassing dumbasses joining your team, even if you’d rather they didn’t.

Moreover: why are you doing this? One, we mostly agree, and two, I don’t sit at home and think up pointless ways to tweak your nose. I don’t care about you that much. This author’s doing the same damn thing, retroactively applying a lot of “hur hur stupid liberals” jabs to a time period in which that particular strain of conservative/liberal baiting is anachronistic and irrelevant.

Some people, man.

(He also frequently makes some sweeping statement… then mentions the exceptions that are too prominent for him to get away with not acknowledging… then dismisses them as outliers that can be discounted. Fun fact! You can prove anything this way. ^_^)

4) Dishonest use of numbers — and this is his worst offense. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn’t lie outright or fabricate any of his facts, but he pulls a lot of really shady statistical sleight of hand. His favorite ploy is citing numbers without the context that would tell you what they actually mean. Example:

> As late as 1937, 1.7 million young men and women in their 20s continued to live with their parents because they couldn’t afford to get married and start their own households.

What you’re supposed to think: WOW! THAT IS MANY! (Guess that New Deal wasn’t working after all, huh?)

What I thought: Great. So what is that, percentage-wise, against the total number of 20-somethings? And how does that compare to the number of unmarried adults living with their parents in the 1920s?

He does this a lot. X million jigsaw puzzles sold, because people be cray-cray. (Across how many consumers/households? What kind of market penetration does that actually translate to? How does that compare to sales for other leisure products? Etc.) But this one was my favorite:

> Two-thirds of college students reported that they knew or had heard of girls at their high school who had undergone an abortion.

This is fucking worthless. For this statement to be true (which I assume it must be — if he were going to make something up, I would expect better), all you need is for two-thirds of high schools to have one infamous girl who is rumored to have had an abortion. That’s like the Fox News trick of reporting shit like “Sixty percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein is connected with Al Qaida” as if it were news, and neglecting to mention that he ain’t.

**

I’m not angry, really. I’m amused, with a side of contemptuous, and — perversely — reinforced in my previous beliefs, because if reality were on his side, he wouldn’t have to misrepresent it. These sort of cheap tricks make me angrier when they’re coming from someone who shares my ideology, because I’m like, KNOCK IT OFF — the opposition isn’t stupid, they’re going to tear your lying argument to shreds and you will have damaged our credibility for good, thanks a lot, assholes.

So yeah. Go ahead dude, keep fighting the good fight.

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