We Were So Much Nicer Then…

Berkeley, Calif.

The story behind the iconic 1936 Dorothea Lange photograph Migrant Mother on your May 14 cover, announcing Sasha Abramsky’s excellent piece on the poor in America, speaks to the great problem that accompanies poverty—our blindness to what Michael Harrington called “the invisible land.” Lange’s work helped tremendously to make poverty visible, but what’s notable is Americans’ responsiveness to the problem. As Elizabeth Partridge tells the story in her biography of Lange, Restless Spirit, “With the photographs barely dry, [Lange] rushed to the city editor of the San Francisco News and told him rain had ruined the pea crop, stranding several thousand pea pickers. Tires, clothes, and even bedding had been sold just to buy a little food. The paper ran the story…using her photos.

“The article was picked up [by] newspapers across the country. The response…was instantaneous and powerful. Seeing the desperate, helpless mother unable to feed her children shocked Americans nationwide. They were appalled that the very people who provided food for American families were themselves starving. The federal government acted immediately, shipping twenty thousand pounds of food to the California fields.”

We were not so long ago a far more caring people than we are today.



Remembering Michael Harrington

Forestville, Md.

Re “What Would Michael Harrington Say?” [May 14]: Normally, I despise articles claiming to speak for the dead regarding current circumstances. But Maurice Isserman’s was a pleasant surprise. Not only did he take the precaution of admitting that Harrington could have had a later-life ideological reversal; he was circumspect enough to ask Harrington’s sons their perspective on their father’s legacy and possible opinion. The result reminded me why I esteem Harrington so highly and also proposed a realistic response to the title question. I hope Isserman’s article, like Tom Hayden’s “Participatory Democracy: From Port Huron to Occupy Wall Street” [April 16], will be read by a younger generation who may not be as familiar with the history of the American progressive movement as they should be.



Amherst, N.Y.

Maurice Isserman questions what the author of The Other America would make of our nation and world in the twenty-first century. Answering his own question after interviewing Harrington’s sons, Isserman posits that America’s paramount socialist of the conservative era would have retained his fundamental convictions and belief in “the left wing of the possible.”

I met the then ailing Michael Harrington in July 1988 at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. I recall that in his talk to a group of Jesse Jackson delegates, in which he surveyed the political scene with a sense of measured ire, Harrington seemed more discouraged than when I had heard him speak a few years earlier. Approaching him afterward, I told him of having read his book in high school and of how, at a reunion of my graduating class a month before, I had encountered a former classmate who had likewise found The Other America to be one of the sparks of his political awakening. Hearing the story, Harrington smiled. Then he inscribed my copy of his most famous book: “For Tom, With hope that our ideas will finally put an end to this outrage—Mike Hg-7/21/88.”




Maurice Isserman refers to “the Democratic Socialists of America, successor to the Socialist Party.” This implies that SPUSA is no longer. In fact, it is still going strong, with the still relevant call of “People over profits!”



Earth Days

San Francisco

Re Mark Hertsgaard’s “Save Earth Day” [May 7]: Earth Day 1970 was a signal event; Earth Day 1990 was much bigger, better organized, global in scope and returned environmental issues to the public radar screen. It was a well-organized grassroots movement and had tangible results: curbside recycling was enacted, low-energy light bulbs developed; there was greater interest in energy efficiency investments and a dramatically increased public awareness about climate change.

In 1970 media meant ABC, NBC and CBS. There were only a handful of registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill. The Vietnam War was tearing this country and that one apart. Earth Day 1970 introduced a new vocabulary and a new set of values. It knit thousands of narrow groups fighting freeways or DDT or pollution or whatever into a somewhat coherent movement.

Today Earth Day hosts diverse events in more than 170 nations. The most widely observed secular holiday in the world, it has become the annual coming together of the global green community. It introduces tens of millions of American kids to environmental values every year. This year, many US events focused on the continuing ecological havoc of the gulf oil spill, coal exports to China, nuclear power post-Fukushima and fracking. Gatherings celebrated local organic agriculture, solar energy, deep efficiency and diminished consumption. But the political impacts will tend to be on hundreds of mayors and thousands of county commissioners—not the president (if only…). And these decentralized consequences will tend to get covered in alternative weeklies and digital media, not the New York Times. Or even The Nation.

DENIS HAYES, honorary chair, Earth Day Network; national coordinator, Earth Day 1970

CHRIS DESSER, executive director,
Earth Day 1990


Hertsgaard Replies

San Francisco

I thank Denis Hayes and Chris Desser for their thoughtful comments and for all the work they’ve done over many years to promote environmental progress. To be clear, my article was not an attack on Earth Day. On the contrary, I argued that it has played a powerful role in the past and should do so again. But how to make it happen—that’s the question.

It’s heartening to be reminded that Earth Day 1990 was a large-scale, even global, event, but that was twenty-two long years ago. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I doubt Earth Day 2012 will have anything like that impact, and not simply because the main rally in Washington had the bad luck to encounter cold and driving rain. The larger challenge, to which Desser and Hayes allude, is that the political and media context in which environmentalists operate today is profoundly different from 1990, much less 1970. Activists need to change with the times. The goal should not be to retire Earth Day but to recast it for today’s conditions and the opportunities they present.



Torturing the Vulnerable

Portland, Ore.

As one who endured solitary confinement at the early age of 16, some fifty-five years ago, I thank you for Matt Stroud’s “Punishing Methods” [May 7], exposing the vast damage done by our prisons’ use of solitary confinement. This article awakened some dormant thoughts and emotions. I now wish to become active in ending this barbaric activity.



Ionia, Mich.

Thank you for putting a face on everyday events at prisons that use long-term segregation (solitary confinement). As states imprison, rather than treat, the mentally ill, the most vulnerable are subjected to the toxic effects of solitary confinement, although those effects have been documented for more than a century.