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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(16 May 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 33, 16 May 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Hard Times at the Library

A headline in today’s paper reads: “LACK OF FUNDS COMPELS LIBRARY TO CURTAIL USE OF READING ROOMS.” Free libraries and free schools have long been among the proudest boasts of bourgeois democracy. These concessions were won by the masses in the heyday of capitalism, when the ruling class could afford them. But the shadows are closing in on this kind of “democracy.” In the last few months the processes of free education have broken down in an alarming way here and there throughout the country – a highly significant trend of which I shall have something to say in another place. And now comes the announcement that the special reference rooms of the New York Public Library – American history, art, music, science, periodicals, newspapers, etc. – will close at six every night (instead of ten) and will not be open at all on Sundays (instead of being open from one to ten p.m.). An average of 1,500 persons use these rooms on week, nights, and from 3,000 to 4,000 on Sundays. Most of these are probably workers, who can come in only in their off hours. For them, the “public” library has become inaccessible.

This is, of course, by no means the first such retrenchment. Year after year, as the depression has worn on, the library has been buying fewer books, cutting down on salaries, curtailing its services to the reading public. And more economies will have to be practiced before long, according to the president of the board of trustees, Frank L. Polk, of the great corporation law firm: Davis, Polk, Wardwell, Gardner and Reed. The difficulty, according, to Mr. Polk, is that the library’s budget is unbalanced. And how much is needed to restore the balance – and also the essential services just cut out? Some huge sum, doubtless, or our enlightened and progressive city administration would never have allowed the library, to be thus crippled! Well, believe it or not, the sum needed is exactly $190,000. I daresay Mr. Polk makes at least that much all by himself in one year’s practice of corporation law.

Herr Professor LaGuardia

In the column right next to the announcement of the public library’s difficulties, there is a long story headed: “MAYOR AND AIDES TO TEACH AT NEW YORK UNIVERSITY.” The title of the course which the Mayor and his aides are to give is Government and Administration of New York City. I suggest that in the first lecture, the leaders of the LaGuardia administration – which is probably as “advanced” and “liberal” a big city government as you will find in this country at the moment – explain why it seems to them wiser to spend $40,000,000 on a new bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn than $190,000 to keep the city’s chief library open at night; why it is more important to spend tens of millions on an East Side Express Highway, to allow people in pleasure cars to get downtown ten minutes quicker, than to spend $190,000 to allow workers to use the library after the day’s work is over; why Mr. Moses gets his tens of millions for fancy luxury projects like Jones Beach and Mr. Whalen gets his subsidy for the high-priced and useless World of Tomorrow, while $190,000 is considered too much to pay to maintain vital services at the city’s main public library.

Our Four-Billion-Dollar Baby

I must confess I had some sneaking doubts about this American democracy we are all to die for in the next war when I read two recent news items. Almost on the same day, the Social Security Board revealed that the average earnings in 1937 of the 30,166,000 wage earners on its rolls came to just $890; while the Ways & Means Committee of the House published the salaries of some 50,000 of these wage-earners who had received $15,000 or more each in 1937. It is a long step from $890 to the $1,296,000 which went to Mr. Mayer of the films, or the $500,000 which went to Mr. Hearst of the newspapers, or the $419,000 which went to President Watson of International Business Machines Corp., or the $381,000 which President Hill received from the American Tobacco Co.

But then I reflected on a third governmental report which has just appeared, and I realized that all of us, rich and poor alike, share the common ownership of a magnificent property worth currently about $4,000,000,000. This report is the Naval Expense Account for the fiscal year 1938, a matter of eighty-six pages of figures. The man-in-the-street, struggling to feed his family on $893 a year, often fails to realize he is co-owner of four billion dollars worth of guns and torpedoes and armor plate, including $420,000,000 worth of heavy and light cruisers, $275,000,000 worth of destroyers, $328,000 worth of “flags and bunting,” and $33 worth of livestock. It is a comforting thought. I figure that each and every one of the 120,000,000 inhabitants of this great democracy owns just $32.50 worth of the above-named commodities. If no one minds, I’ll take mine in cash, please.

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