Published on
the Toronto Star

2013 Resembles 1927, A Terrifying Year

2013 is looking a lot like 1927, a scary year in American history.

I don’t know why you all seem to think it’s 2013. Clearly it is 1927. I just read Bill Bryson’s book on the American summer of that year — the glorious writer has an astonishing knack for narrative even on sedative subjects like baseball — and it fell from my nerveless fingers when I realized what he was trying to convey.

The world is holding 1927 all over again.

This is soul-chilling. I have had this Twilight Zone sensation before and I always restrain myself from asking total strangers if they notice anything funny about people’s hair and the background music. In London it is always next year. In Zara with its nylon dresses and boxy purses, it is still 1965, but in Topshop it’s 1975, just as it is in downtown Edmonton. In Harry Rosen it is the mid-’90s, the last time men were forced to wear suits, and at work, it is always Grade 7 all over again. Retro is in. I go into people’s homes now and wonder why they are trying to recreate my parents’ rec room.

Here’s the list the normally cheerful Bryson offers in One Summer, America 1927: The U.S. Federal Reserve made the fatal error that led to the 1929 stock market crash. The Mississippi flooded catastrophically. Young “flappers” were dressed like sluts and dancing shamelessly. A Michigan man blew up a school to protest taxation, killing 44 people in the worst mass child slaughter in U.S. history. Anti-Semitism rolled and crackled. Radio became huge, a free medium that killed many newspapers and left journalists wondering what to do. The U.S. was run by two presidents, Coolidge and Hoover, each awful in their own way. Terrorist bombs went off across the U.S. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. Prohibition made people drink illegally. Charles Lindbergh made international flight look easy.

I could just leave you like the idiotic Todds reviewing the book on the moronic American website — “what a fun book this book is!” — but no, I will point out the eerie parallels, the sinister meaning Bryson is clearly intending.

Little has changed. The international risk-taking of financiers that caused the 2008 crash has not stopped. There is major flooding across the continents. Young women are nearly nude and dancing shamelessly. Newtown, Conn., happened. Anti-Muslim hate rolls and crackles. The free Internet is killing newspapers and leaving journalists wondering how to survive. Canada is being run by a suspicious autocratic rube, the U.S. by a timid drone-dispatching do-nothing. Terrorist bombs continue worldwide. Guantanamo remains open, and prisons expand in Canada and the U.S., with solitary confinement replacing electrocution. The war on drugs continues and people keep taking drugs. The world (not Canada) runs on bullet trains, the transport of the future.

So no difference then.


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To be honest, I’m most exercised about the danger of a repeated financial collapse, probably caused by a housing bubble and criminal behaviour, than I am about floods. (I live on a hill.)

But the problem is not danger. The problem is that our era is just as primitive as the late 1920s and that creeps me out more than I can say. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia not only believes in the devil, but is so remote from normal humans that he was actually offended when a reporter appeared shocked by his admission that Satan lives among us.

That is primitive stuff. It’s on the same level as the 8-1 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1927 that a young woman named Carrie Buck be sterilized for being not bright and having an illegitimate child. For it was the era of eugenics.

Now hardline conservatives don’t sterilize poor women, they force them to have unwanted children. This is not progress, it is tyranny.

This is what happens when people don’t study history, a subject much sneered at now for its artful pointlessness. Americans today regard terrorist bombings as a novelty rather than the tradition it is. Could an American journalist not point this out?

Bryson’s book is very fine but Americans will read it for giggles and miss its point. We have learned nothing. We are gormless, we are running on the spot.

Heather Mallick

Heather Mallick

Heather Mallick is a Canadian columnist, author and lecturer. She writes a twice weekly column for the Toronto Star, an occasional column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website, and a monthly column for The Guardian's website.

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