Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. We just heard about a big cable news channel, actually, an entire news industry that seems to be trapped in the past, but the story of CNN is just one example of how our political culture is stuck on repeat. Last year, OTM correspondent, Micah Loewinger brought us this piece about how so many of today's media-fueled freakouts are really moral panics from yesteryear just coming around again.
Speaker 7: In July, Zeit Khan, a 24-year-old engineer from New York, posted a video about quiet quitting and it went viral. Since then, the trend has spread like wildfire.
Speaker 8: Working overtime? No thanks. Late-night emails? Ignore those. Pick up an extra project to get ahead. Hard pass.
Micah Loewinger: Remember the brouhaha over quiet quitting? On social media, it was a shorthand for striking a healthy work-life balance but on cable news, it was evidence of moral decay.
Speaker 9: The veteran economist says he believes that quiet quitting is one of the key reasons the US workers' productivity fell 4.1% in the second quarter.
Speaker 10: Quiet quitting is a really bad idea. If you're a quiet quitter, you are a loser.
Micah Loewinger: If you found yourself rolling your eyes during these news cycles, you weren't alone.
Paul Fairie: There was someone unironically complaining that nobody wants to work anymore and I was feeling a little bit annoyed and I thought, "Oh wait, I'm sure people have said this before."
Micah Loewinger: This is Paul Fairie . He works at the medical school at the University of Calgary but he's a political scientist by training and he also moonlights as a media critic known for his singular use of old newspapers.
Paul Fairie: It was partly probably a vaguely misspent youth fun activity that I would do when I was 15, would be look at old micro features of newspapers.
Micah Loewinger: As the teens do.
Paul Fairie: No. It is a very, very cool activity, I must say. It's just the idea that you can see what people were thinking about at the time.
Micah Loewinger: Last year when talking heads were saying, "Nobody wants to work anymore," he decided to see if this type of panic had cropped up in the past.
Paul Fairie: I just looked through some of the old newspaper archives, Basically, every US state has their own statewide archive. California has a particularly nice one.
Micah Loewinger: Here's some of what he found from the Germantown News in Tennessee in 2014.
Speaker 11: What happened to the work ethic in America? Nobody wants to work anymore. When I first started to work as a teenager, I saw people work hard.
Micah Loewinger: Another from the St. Petersburg's Times in Florida, 1999.
Speaker 12: "Nobody wants to work anymore," Cecil, a shoemaker said. "They all want to work in front of a computer and make lots of money."
Micah Loewinger: The News Journal in Ohio, 1979.
Speaker 13: "Nobody wants to work anymore," signed a disgusted businessman.
Micah Loewinger: I'm going to skip past a bunch of examples from the '60s, '50s, '40s, and '30s and go to 1922, the Mulberry News.
Speaker 12: What is the cause of unemployment and hard times? The manufacturer and businessmen say it's because nobody wants to work anymore unless they can be paid enough wages to work half of the time and loathe half of the time.
Micah Loewinger: All right. Let's do one more. 1894 Rooks County record.
Speaker 13: With all the minds of this country shut down by strikers, what will the poor editor do for coal next winter? It is becoming apparent that nobody wants to work these hard times.
Micah Loewinger: Fairie put all of these examples in a Twitter thread that went super viral over the summer, over 300,000 people liked his tweets. It really seemed to strike a nerve.
Paul Fairie: When you see people have complained about it every decade for 120 years, it's probably less to do with current context and more to do with bigger systems.
Micah Loewinger: I'm looking at the pattern of articles that you have selected, which is by no means a scientific study. What I do see is the media allowing the employer to set a narrative over and over and over.
Paul Fairie: There were fewer certainly examples of taking the perspective of the worker.
Micah Loewinger: Fairie was really surprised by the success of this first thread, so he set off on a mission to interrogate other popular narratives. 2022 was the year Tucker Carlson released his End of Men documentary, a film that claimed decreasing testosterone levels would bring collapse.
Tucker Carlson: Civilization is like a woman wooed. She's won by the love of the strong man and lost by the impotence of the weak one. The Greeks call this anti-psychosis, the life cycle of any society.
Micah Loewinger: The same fear that Missouri senator, Josh Hawley surely hoped to cash in on with his new book titled, Manhood, or what we've heard from the world's most popular podcaster, Joe Rogan.
Josh Hawley: At the end of all these civilizations with the Roman civilization, the Greek Empire, they all started falling into this thing where they wanted to redefine gender. They do, yes. To see it in like the statues and stuff.
Joe Rogan: Yes, it's really interesting.
Josh Hawley: They go from being like these super buff dudes and sexy babes and then all of a sudden they all look like an anime character or something. I don't know.
Micah Loewinger: The gender panic seeped into state houses and school board meetings. It's been an extreme political reaction for sure, but moral panic over gender norms is far from new. Paul Fairie dove back into the newspaper archives to create a Twitter thread he titled, A Brief History of Men Today Are Too Feminine And Women Too Masculine. Let's start with the Raleigh News and Observer, 1997.
Speaker 14: Southerners think that men are less manly and that women are less feminine than they used to be, and that both of those things are not good.
Micah Loewinger: This from the Arizona Daily Sun, 1984.
Speaker 15: I'm an older woman. I believe in equal rights and all that, but don't you think all this women's lib stuff has contributed to the wimping of American men? Am I just imagining it or is today's man less manly than those I grew up with? Signed a strong woman for a strong man.
Micah Loewinger: Here's a Reuters dispatch from New Zealand, published in 1977.
Speaker 16: Living in high-rise apartment buildings helps make men effeminate. A York University psychiatrist and professor of environmental studies said here yesterday, "A man with no garden to dig or the opportunity to carry out masculine activities becomes passive and effeminate helping his wife with her chores."
Paul Fairie: I like this one because it basically said, Men who don't garden are now feminine.
Micah Loewinger: Paul Fairie.
Paul Fairie: It's really very suggestive of the fact that these categories of masculine and feminine activities are essentially fictional and created.
Micah Loewinger: The Redwood City Tribune in California, 1950.
Speaker 17: We men are getting feminine. I can't entirely stomach the idea either, but it seems to be true. Some research guys looking into men's masculine-feminine ratios tell us we are losing our masculinity and gaining in femininity. What a discovery.
Micah Loewinger: 1940, The Daily News Leader, Virginia.
Speaker 18: At the meeting of the American Medical Association, a speaker maintained that the American people are getting less vigorous, the men more feminine, and the women more masculine because we don't eat raw meat.
Micah Loewinger: The Associated Press, 1925.
Speaker 19: Men Becoming effeminate, New York physicians says they are and sights lilac pajamas and embroidered bathrobes as proof.
Paul Fairie: What is going on with a lot of these clippings is people will take any activity that they notice and say, okay, well if I have this generalized panic about gender roles, I'm going to figure out a way to shoehorn in this example. A lot of these arguments start to feel almost like a songbook. They're singing this song again.
Girls were girls and boys were boys
When I was a tot.
Now we don't know who is who
Or even what's what
Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide,
Nobody knows who's walking inside.
Those masculine women and feminine Men
Micah Loewinger: Each article we just heard presented the fluidity of gender as a fresh force in our culture rather than a fixture of the human experience. That's how moral panics work. By definition, they're based on an overheated perception fueled by the media that certain behaviors or people are dangerously deviant and pose a threat to society. Much like how nowadays we hear that Americans have lost their sense of humor.
Speaker 20: Last night, a Minneapolis club called First Avenue canceled the show by Dave Chappelle citing public outcry, meaning they got a silly letter from some purple-haired gnome with a BMI of 158. [laughter] The club caved a change.org petition demanding not to platform transphob Dave Chappelle.
Speaker 21: Breaking news overnight. Comedian Dave Chappelle attacked on stage while performing at the Hollywood Bowl.
Speaker 20: The attack on Dave Chappelle is the beginning of the end of comedy. That's the message from Howie Mandel who says he's afraid to perform on stage.
Speaker 22: Kids used to go to college and lose their virginity. Now they go to lose their sense of humor. [laughter]
Paul Fairie: As long as I can remember, standup comedians have been saying people are too sensitive.
Micah Loewinger: Paul started combing newspaper archives and he found a familiar pattern as in 1995, The Fresno Bee.
Speaker 23: Nobody can take a joke anymore. Just ask poor old Trice Harvey. All the assemblymen from Bakersfield tried to do was a little standup and the next thing he knew he was up on sexual harassment charges.
Speaker 24: What did he do? What did he do?
Micah Loewinger: I'm looking this one up. In a secret settlement, the assembly paid $10,000 to a secretary who complained that over a two-year period, she was the target of vulgar sexual remarks made by her boss, veteran Assemblyman Trice Harvey, the author of this article just unquestionably takes his side. That's journalism for you. 1984, The Des Moines Register.
Speaker 19: I get depressed at the growing list of things Americans can't make jokes about anymore. At the ludicrously high damages awarded by your courts for trivial personal slights. At the clamor by moral majorities and liberal pressure groups to make everyone in the most diverse nation in the world has ever seen conform to some theoretically beneficial norm.
Micah Loewinger: The Orlando Sentinel in 1970.
Speaker 25: A nightclub operator has made the most significant forecast for the 1970s. Nobody laughs anymore. He said, seriously, humor is dead. In the '60s it was God is dead, in the 30s it was Vaudeville is dead. Between then and now, famous newspapers and magazines like The New York, Herald Tribune and The Saturday Evening Post have died. Our morals seem to have died. Our self-discipline seems to have died. For some, patriotism and the American dream seem to have died. Our self-confidence as a nation seems to have died.
Micah Loewinger: That is an over extrapolation, if I've ever read one [laughs].
Paul Fairie: Yes. Again, taps into that idea of there was this former time that was perfect in some way, and in this example it was everyone was apparently hilarious and everyone was always laughing at every joke and now you know that has somehow disappeared.
Micah Loewinger: What's interesting about that one too is that you have the receipts to prove that wasn't true. I mean, you could go back and see the same claim being used just eight years earlier.
Speaker 23: The men who draw the nation's comic strips complained Monday that people were losing their sense of humor.
Micah Loewinger: That's from 1962, The Arizona Daily Star. Here's another from the Stillwater News Press in Oklahoma in 1949.
Speaker 16: The man on the street is losing his sense of humor. An expert on laughs reported today.
Micah Loewinger: Here's a fascinating article from The South Bend Tribune in 1927, shortly before Vaudeville was thinned out by the Great Depression and the film industry. It's about a traveling troop that stopped staging an anti-Irish routine. Here's a quote from Eddie Hester, a retired member of the company.
Speaker 26: I'm sorry to see them scrap that old streetcar gag. That old whizz pulled me out of many a hole. All you had to do when you hit a new town was to find out about some particularly rotten streetcar line and then give him the works. He was always good for a laugh and I never heard of anybody squawking about it.
Micah Loewinger: Of course, people were squawking about it in his book, The Irish Way, author James R. Bennett documents a Manhattan protest in 1907. Remember, this was a period of intense anti-Irish discrimination. The protest was led by hundreds of Irish American men who were enraged by an offensive stage act. The irony here is that Irish Vaudeville actors routinely performed in blackface, stoking street fights with African Americans. Also, at that time, rabbis protested the stage Jew, a vaudeville staple promoting the very anti-Semitic tropes. We'd later see in Nazi propaganda.
Paul Fairie's research shows us that comedy has long thrived and evolved alongside a messy negotiation between entertainers and their audience. In other words, none of this is new.
Paul Fairie: Whether they're moral panics or concerns about work ethic, gender roles, they might seem very current and very of this specific era, but just like the fact that we keep going back to them suggests, I mean, perhaps a disappointing lack of creativity.
Micah Loewinger: In fact, the current trend of labeling things woke and cancel culture suggests that we've just left a golden error when bigoted jokes were never met with backlash. That's just not true. This is an old tug of war only now supercharged by social media and a new generation of reactionaries.