Studs Terkel, the preeminent interviewer who sat down with thousands of guests over 45 years, talked with Milton Mayer, a journalist and educator, on December 27, 1974.
Longtime colleagues and friends, this conversation was recorded four months after Richard Nixon resigned as president of the United States, and four months before the end of U.S. fighting in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon. It was a time of turmoil, a time that feels relevant these 45 years later. Even eerily so.
Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was an oral historian, radio host, activist and author of many books, including P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening. It was published the year Terkel died at 96 years old. He conducted 9,000 hours’ worth of interviews during his years of prolific work.
Terkel’s old radio station in Chicago, WFMT, has said of Terkel and his work, “Most of his books were written radio. Studs asked questions and then listened. He drew out of people things they didn’t know they had in them.”
The medium, television, does not reflect man’s deep feelings. I feel it has been perverted in this kind of society. You and I both agree that man is both saint and devil. ~ Studs Terkel
Milton Mayer (1908-1986) was a journalist and educator. Mayer was born of a Jewish family and would become a Quaker. He would take significant interest in how we, humans, talk with our so-called enemies.
Mayer also was an author, and published his well-known They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945 with the University of Chicago Press. Incidentally, it’s the university he attended but did not graduate from. As he told the Saturday Evening Post in 1942, he was “placed on permanent probation in 1928 for throwing beer bottles out a dormitory window.”
Studs Terkel and Milton Mayer, 1974
The 1974 radio conversation between Terkel and Mayer shows their conversational dexterity and intellect. It highlights their eloquence and candor, world-weary skepticism and faith as they navigate a culturally and historically rugged time in American history.
As the two men settle into their conversation, Terkel refers to so much that has been happening in the world since they last saw each other. Mayer responds, “You’ve still got some faith in talk. I’m beginning to lose mine. My splinters are being shivered by the cacophony of the world. It’s incessant. It’s ubiquitous.
“Communication is everywhere and nobody seems to understand anything or to be listening. It sinks me into a deep despond, and you go on, not so much talking but listening.”
What follows is an excerpt of a 55-minute conversation between two of the great interviewers and conversationalists of the 20th century.
Terkel: Wright Morris used the phrase concerning media, that overused word — technology, radio, television and film. He said, “There is communications but little communication, and the communications considering television, perhaps the most important of all, the means of reaching people.
It is a sales medium primarily. Yet it could be one of fantastic enlightenment, but it isn’t. It’s concerned with selling. And the communications concern lies primarily, the TV commercial, the great horrendous metaphor of our day.
It is pervasive, it is with us, and yet we know, basically, it is untruthful. And people have this continuously. And so it’s the number one obstacle. …
I think it has been perverted. The medium, television, does not reflect man’s deep feelings. I feel it has been perverted in this kind of society. You and I both agree that man is both saint and devil.
Mayer: Television is, I would say, the most pernicious representation of commercialism, the most influential. It’s plunged us into illiteracy. … But does this one form of commercialism really represent a misrepresentation of us, or is this what we’ve built on?
Terkel: I don’t think television is innately the means of debilitating American language or debasing it. TV, after all, could be like Gutenberg’s press, too. It is, it’s a very exciting means of reaching–
One case in point: I remember these people I met in the matter of talk, and the kinds of people I hope I’m reaching, or trying to find out about.
This couple hated black people all their lives, and their kids did. And one day during the Selma and Montgomery matters, they saw something and it horrified them. They saw the police of Jim Clark, the sheriff, pushing back the people, women and kids, and they were just horrified. It hadn’t occurred to them.
And that particular moment, that was sort of a revelatory moment for them, and they’ve altered considerably. So that’s a case of TV being used toward enlightenment, you see. So it has that means. The medium is not, per se, bad.
Mayer: What you’re saying is that even a bad technique can’t help but be used for good purposes once in a while. But the purposes don’t lie in the technique. Television, like radio, like the press, is nothing but an instrument. It’s nothing but a tool.
And my suspicion is, my growing suspicion, my darkening suspicion is that it’s doing a pretty fair job of representing the lowest common denominator, which of course is its object all sublime, since the maximization of its audience is the basis for the ratings, which is the basis for the advertising.
The issue would appear to be between commercial, or what we call private control, and call state control, and it’s a doggone rough issue. I’ve seen the state control. It’s worse than the commercial control. And the commercial control appears to be about as bad as it can be. Now give me an answer to that one.
Terkel: It’s a tough one, of course. I agree with you, state control of TV as practiced in the world is pretty awful, but there can be improvements.
The TV commercial does four things at the same time, several things that destroy us: It demeans us as we watch it. We see the woman or the man become childish. Not childlike, but childish.
We see good talent among actors, writers, photographers, musicians lending themselves to something cheap and shoddy, and basically a lie. They are demeaned, we are demeaned.
This is what this institution has tried to teach me to do, to go to the man or woman who would be the enemy, or who feels that he or she is the enemy, and to say ‘friend.’ ~ Milton Mayer
But it has another effect. On the occasional program in which something good happens, the TV commercial comes on, let’s say a news event, life and death, the mother’s carrying her child, the child is dead, she’s grief stricken. The B-52 has done it, or a fire in the ghetto. We watch that as we’re eating our supper.
And then the commercial comes on, “Did you try this detergent, this deodorant?” Therefore the life becomes as insignificant as– no more so, the detergent is better produced. So that has an effect on us to create schizophrenia.
Mayer: Studs, you’re saying the television corrupts. Of course it corrupts, but doesn’t he corruptibility have to be there? Isn’t it responding to and betting on the corruptibility?
You say you’re not getting what you want, and I’m not getting what I want, but when we talk about “we,” are we not getting what we want?
“We” want all kinds of things. But the maximization of the audience turns on reaching an ever-lower denominator.
Terkel: Now we’ve come to something. It would seem, I mean, outwardly this guy works very hard. He’s tired. He’s worked in the steel plant. He’s very tired. Or the man who’s a white-collar guy, and he’s watching something and it’s pretty awful. That’s what he’s been getting through the years, but his imagination has not yet been tapped.
Back to talk. Not too much of my stuff has been with the celebrity, you know, the starlet or the star. It’s with someone who has never been asked about his life before. As a result, it is as though it’s a new land.
It’s as though it’s a new untapped domain. And when you reach that new domain, asking a person about what is his day like, he’s never been asked this before. He/she, I should say. All of a sudden a phrase comes out that’s quite poetic.
And this man, this person, this woman in her hair curlers or this guy who’s just come from a beer at the tavern, he may say that he likes this program because it’s all he’s been taught. But there’s more to him than that, not yet tapped.
So if I’m looking for one thing, I suppose it’s the possibility, what can be.
Mayer: Studs, do you realize that you are speaking to me at the end of the 20th century at what, you should forgive the expression, is the Christian era, and you’re saying, “It’s not yet been tapped”?
I agree with you. Something in us wants something better. Something in us longs for and dreams for something better. But something in us moves us more readily to accept the junk and the rot that’s breaking the whole thing down.
Terkel: I’m going to turn tables. Now you, Milton Mayer, you have traveled through the country. You have been in places where Nazism was.
But you have come across individuals that, perhaps they are remarkable and unusual, but didn’t these men and women whom you met, quite remarkable under the most trying circumstances, dreadfully so, didn’t they indicate some to you the possibilities in all of us?
In my decades of peripheral association with the American Friends Service Committee, this is what this institution has tried to teach me to do, to go to the man or woman who would be the enemy, or who feels that he or she is the enemy, and to say “friend.”
This, I think, is more than effective. Let me tell you a story, Studs. This goes back 20 to 30 years. I was living in Germany after the Second World War. I was supposed to be doing a book, and did a book, on the Nazification of the Little Man, as the Germans call themselves.
I was finding it a hard nut to crack. Here I was not only an American that was a conqueror, but I also was a professor, and in Germany the professor and the Little Man never meet. I finally found some of my, quote, Little Man who had been Nazis, and then the job started. How could I get them to open up and talk to me freely?
And it took some doing, friend, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. One day, one of my ex-Nazi friends with this group that I was working with asked me to come out to his village for the 1200th anniversary of its founding. I said I’d be glad to.
He said, “Maybe you’d come out, Professor, and go to church.” I said, well, “I go to a church here, usually, where I’m living.”
He said, “It’d be the same church, the Lutheran church in our town.” I said, “Well, I go to a different church.”
He said, “What church do you go to?” I said, “I go to a church of a small group called the Quakers.” He was silent for a long time.
He said, “Professor, what does Quaker mean?” I told him as best I could. He said let me tell you about the year the First World War ended.
He said, “I was a child but old enough to remember on the farm. In our village we had no seed for the winter of 1919, and this meant starvation. One day a truck arrived with some bags of seed, and we all made a crop that year.
“It saved everybody in our village. Nobody knew where this seed came from, but people said it was Quaker seed. Nobody knew what that meant.”
I said, “It was sent by the Quakers in America.”
It was during the Second World War. And this long, lanky, gaunt drink of water stood up. In the midst of this silence he said, ‘If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love at all.’ ~ Mayer
He didn’t say anything and we separated. The next time we met, he said, “Professor, I want to show you something.” He rolled up his shirt sleeve and showed me on his shoulder the tattoo mark of the SS, the Schutzstaffel, the Black Guard of the Nazi Party.
The tattoo hadn’t taken very well. His American captors after the war had missed the tattoo mark. To have been an SS man would have been, per se, to have been guilty of a crime. He would have been imprisoned.
He wanted me to know that he’d been an SS man. He opened up. He told me the whole story of his life, everything that he had done and everything that he hadn’t done. Here was I, capitalizing on what the Quakers had done 30 years before by sending Quaker seed to a village of enemies.
I don’t say I changed that man’s life. I did nothing. It was the Quakers before who had done something and that enabled me to crack that man’s heart open.
(Another story) I was at a meeting. People were sitting quietly. It was during the Second World War. And this long, lanky, gaunt drink of water stood up.
It turned out it was A.J. Muste (the clergyman and political activist) in the midst of this silence and he said, “If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love at all.”
The silence continued.
People got up, finally, left at the end of the silence, and looked thoughtful and, I suspect, felt thoughtful. I know I did. “If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love at all.”
Well, it threw us right back to the Sermon on the Mount, “If ye love them which love you, where is your reward?”
It’s to love your enemy. That’s the job. To love your enemy, that’s the hardest job of at all, I suppose. To love these harmless people in Bangladesh or India, or the whole of South Asia, that’s not too hard. They’re not really your enemies. To love them isn’t so hard, but look at loving one’s enemy– man, look what this means.
Studs, you’ve identified me as a Quaker, and I’m a member of a confounded society. But like a lot of other members, I’m a member by convincement. I wasn’t born a Quaker.
To be a birthright Quaker, you’ve got to be somebody like Richard Nixon. You have to be born a Quaker. So I’m just as glad that I wasn’t born one. I’m a Jew by birth. And a Jew, a Jewish Quaker by profession.
Alright, so here we are 1974, the end of the year. If I can’t love the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, I can’t love at all. That’s what A.J. Muste is saying to me now. How do you like that for hard lines, friend?
Look, I would rather be ruined sitting there with a can of bad beer in my hand and looking at those incredibly crummy television commercials, and the incredibly crummy television programs, than have anybody say to me, “Mayer, if you can’t love the PLO, you can’t love at all.”
You’re talking about the possibility of appealing to something better in me, and appealing to something better that’s in all of us. We know that Christ was right in the Sermon on the Mount, but the price of it, psychologically, that’s a high price to pay.
We’d rather sit back and be ruined.
Listen to the full conversation between Studs Terkel and Milton Mayer through the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. Many of Terkel’s interviews are archived online by WFMT Radio Network in Chicago.
Related reading from Studs Terkel: Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, American Dreams: Lost and Found, and Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times.
Title: Deniz Göçmen
Portrait of Milton Mayer (1955): They Thought They Were Free: Germans, 1933-1945