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From the Zephyr Archives: December 2004

Driven inside by a cold winter storm, I picked up a magazine last week and began to thumb idly through it. The stories seemed so familiar; the lead editorial tackled “The Palestine Problem” and began with this sentiment: “During last Thanksgiving week Americans felt they had something to be thankful for which now turns out to be illusory. It was the news that the U.N. had ‘solved’ the Palestinian problem.” But the editorialist warned that the solution could be costly. “Responsible enforcement takes force, and so does responsible revision. Either entails bloodshed….We have exhausted the possibilities of a policy which wills an end but not a means.”

In the letters section, a reader complained about a recent swimsuit pictorial that showed more breast than he was willing to tolerate. “It will be snow in Hades,” Eric Simpson wrote from Blacksburg, Virginia, “before any date of mine wears one of those bare-breasted affairs.”

Ah yes, those “moral issues.”

And there was more. Another story complained about the excess of explicit violence being portrayed in prime time dramas. One program, “growls with menace,” the critic explained, “as a mad doctor kills a woman, hides her corpse in a closet and then prepares to operate on a girl, just for the fun of it. He runs upstairs, tosses a man out the window, then later decides to jump himself.” The total number of dead for the evening’s programming? “At least a dozen violent deaths with the victims being stabbed, poisoned, shot, blown up and thrown out windows, plus one exceptionally messy suicide.”

Another photo spread highlighted the latest “movie lingerie,” a five page feature that more than satisfied my need to gawk at long leggy super-models with lots of cleavage.

And of course, the magazine was brimming and overflowing with advertisements for everything from the “form-fit Life Bra” to cigarettes, “good to taste, good to smoke.” To Ritz crackers, “nothing tastes like a Ritz.”

Yes, the same old news and gossip and titillating sex and violence—how we long for the ‘good old days’ when we could get away from all that bad news and shameful behavior.


Except…what I just described were the ‘Good ol’ Days.’ I had been reading from an issue of LIFE magazine….the February 16, 1948 issue.

Since that edition of LIFE went to press, more than 55 years ago, the world has changed dramatically and hasn’t moved an inch. All the themes for hate and violence and intolerance and banality were there in 1948—we’ve simply ratcheted up the level of intensity a few notches. The media “violence” was coming from radio, of course. Television was only being seen in a few hundred thousand homes on the U.S. east coast by early 1948. So the graphic violence was relayed via the images the sounds of radio could conjure in the listener’s mind. And of course, the mind is a frightening place to be at times, so who can say if today’s graphic “CSI” and “Law & Order” visual images are any worse than what one might have imagined in 1948? (Although I doubt if in ‘48, anyone could create such gruesome detail as today’s crime dramas bombard us with.)

The bare-breast complaint, in light of last year’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” and all the fury that followed was particularly “revealing.” How can a woman’s breast be such an enduring point of contention in American Culture? Here is, under the right conditions, one of the loveliest forms ever to grace the planet. Artists since the beginning of Time have paid tribute to the breast. Nothing can distract most men and some women like the female breast. A woman’s breasts make us happy. For all of us, it was the first thing in the World that we saw close up. We clung to it for months before we were torn away from it and somebody stuck a rubber nipple in our mouths. Breasts are a good thing. And yet there are always people out there trying to take all the fun out of Life. May women always be proud of their breasts and may we always be allowed to appreciate and admire and adore them.

As for the ads, nothing much has changed there. You might think 21st Century marketing techniques have improved–become more sophisticated and clever–but they haven’t. Not really. They’re still mostly dull-witted and transparently solicitous, still trying to appeal to our vanity and egos. And they continue to succeed as our credit card society continues to spend money it doesn’t have on practically anything and everything it wants, whether or not it has a penny to pay for it.

And that might mark a significant change since 1948. Fifty six years ago, American Society was still trying to live within its means.

Perhaps most heartbreaking to read is the Palestinian editorial and the realization that virtually nothing has improved in the Middle East in more than half a century. The LIFE essay from February 1948 specifically outlined the merits and shortcomings of a United Nations proposal to end the violence between Israel and the Arabs. “The UN had decided,” reported LIFE, “that all Palestine should be divided into three equal parts—a Jewish state, an Arab state and an internationalized Jerusalem.”

It was called “Partition,” it was rejected by the Arab world, war ensued and the two sides have been fighting almost continuously ever since. Millions of Arabs and Jews have perished in one bloody encounter after another. The violence is so consistent that the story of another suicide car bomb or an Israeli missile strike that kills civilians rarely raises an iota of indignation among any of us. It’s just a part of the daily news now— except for the most recent victims.

I don’t know if there is any lesson in all this. At John Kennedy’s funeral, Chief Justice Earl Warren lamented, “The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn.” And his warning continues to be borne out by the facts of each day’s events. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much hope for this wretched species of ours, but to give up Hope altogether is perhaps the most inhuman gesture of all.


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