Sunday, April 28, 2013

Looking for movements in all the wrong places

I hesitate to comment on this "Critic at Large" column from the New Yorker magazine because it is behind the subscriber pay wall. I read it on paper; the New Yorker is the only magazine I still sporadically look at in hard copy.

But that sometimes excellent journalist George Packer has written something so off base that I can't help myself. In "Don't Look Down," he discusses what he calls "the new Depression journalism," chronicles of today's poor and suffering written by Barbara Garson (Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession), DW Gibson (Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today's Changing Economy), Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson (Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression), Charlie LeDuff (Detroit: An American Autopsy) and Chris Hedges with Joe Sacco (Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.)

I haven't read any of these -- though I've seen articles and excerpts from several. They all sound like worthy efforts to ensure that the human cost of our greed and austerity regime is not completely swept under the metaphorical rug. I'm glad they got coverage in the New Yorker.

But what humiliation Packer puts these writers through for their grudging mentions! These writers just don't stand up to comparison to their historical forefathers in Packer's opinion. Before he gets to describing any of them, he waxes lyrical for a full page on the 1930s Depression-era literary lions who visited the victims of that crisis of capitalism. Here's a sample:
In early 1931, Edmund Wilson left his desk job as the literary editor of The New Republic to travel around the stricken country and write a series of articles on the effects of the Depression, then in its second year. … There was nothing unusual in those owl-eyed literary man from the landed gentry, Princeton '16, showing up in Virginia coal country. Sherwood Anderson was there, too -- "all full of Communism," Wilson reported to his friend John Dos Passos. … After Dos Passos finished the second novel of his "U .S.A." trilogy, he joined a group of writers led by Theodore Dreiser on a trip to Harlan County, Kentucky, where they held hearings on the miners' living conditions, and were charged by local authorities with "criminal syndicalism." …
Packer apparently wants a jolt of insurrectionary romance from writers on poverty and he's not getting his fix. He complains that none of the contemporary chroniclers he reviews somehow deserve the pedestal on which he places the men who reported on the Great Depression -- not apparently taking into account that these gents' celebrity was not rooted in their foray among the poverty stricken.

Moreover, there's something oddly anachronistic in searching among the literary chroniclers of the current Great Recession for inspiration. Might not the liberal intellectuals who could fill such a role be located somewhere very different in our current media environment? Perhaps to comprehend our current morass we should be looking at bloggers, say Digby or Ta Nehisi Coates. Or perhaps our best creative commentators on social suffering are no longer primarily writers at all -- they've gone off to do TV -- think old timer Bill Moyers, or Chris Hayes, or Melissa Harris-Parry. This is a different creative environment -- the enthusiastic energy to make a better world that Packer admires in '30s literati almost certainly has different outlets (and very different faces) today.

Moreover Packer goes all nostalgic -- the 1930s gave birth to a heroic labor movement; why aren't there heroes struggling for economic and civic equality today?
Why haven't victims of the new depression come together in a mass movement? Where are the Bonus Marchers, he Townsend Clubs? … Occupy turned out to be a moment of its time -- a cri de coeur, stylish, media-distracted, …
And thus basically a bust. Well maybe. But as with Packer's apparent lack of connection to contemporary intellectual social currents, he's also just showing how out of touch he is contemporary struggles for justice. Some of his '30s icons made heroes of the poor of that day -- but only when they weren't very close. James Agee's portraits of sharecroppers look no more populated by people likely to rise up in anger than LeDuff's characters in Detroit.

There are potent social movements in our time -- it is just that we the comfortable (and Packer) don't easily see them because they haven't broken through yet and we don't have to look. As is usual in the history of eruptions for justice, these are arising among people who have almost nothing to lose and radiate out from that core. In our day, excluded workers -- taxi drivers, day laborers, housekeepers and nannies, fast food employees -- are searching for new forms of self-assertion. The National Domestic Workers Alliance is one potent new organizational formation. All these efforts are tightly tied in to agitation for immigration reform -- and improbably our dysfunctional politicians of both parties have been forced to at least pretend reform is on the agenda. There are no guarantees -- but George Packer would be more credible if he were looking where the action is.

1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

George Packer has been annoying and wrongheaded in his essays for years. The only one worse at that magazine is Nicholas Lemann, almost the definition of a "neoliberal." I can hardly read either one of them.

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