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American labor still pays lip service to the idea that it seeks "bread
and roses too"--a higher standard of living, plus the chance for workers
to enjoy some of the finer things in life. In reality, the famous
rallying cry of the 1912 textile workers' strike in Lawrence,
Massachusetts, is no more than a faint echo in today's unions. Few offer
what anyone would call a rich cultural experience for their members.
Most of the labor movement is no longer rooted in immigrant communities
or working-class fraternal associations of the sort that once supported
folk music, dance, theater and even literature in foreign-language
newspapers like the Forward, the Yiddish daily. Postwar
assimilation and suburbanization, the decline of indigenous
working-class radicalism and the rise of "mass culture" and
entertainment have left American workers with little claim to a culture
of their own. Beset with many current problems (including threats to
their very survival), unions are not inclined to embrace the additional
challenge of making drama, poetry or music--in new or old forms--part of
their internal life again.
The one AFL-CIO affiliate that has attempted this, on a large scale, is
the union of New York City hospital and healthcare workers, best known
by its number--1199. Now part of the Service Employees International
Union, Local 1199 launched a cultural program called Bread and Roses in
1979, with labor and foundation funding. Since then, B&R has
sponsored an impressive stream of union musicals and documentary films;
exhibits of paintings, poster art, murals and photography dealing with
workplace themes; poetry and writing classes for workers, oral histories
of their struggles--all of which help foster membership solidarity and
connection to the union.
Not for Bread Alone is the story of that effort and a brief
history of the union behind it, as told by 1199's longtime publicist,
campaign strategist and cultural impresario, Moe Foner. The book also
traces Foner's own career as a labor PR man par excellence and contains
much useful advice for today's "union communicators." The author was a
scrappy, streetwise hustler of the press who couldn't type but had on
his desk one of the most formidable Rolodexes in the labor movement. A
product of left-wing politics and CIO unionism in its Big Apple heyday,
Foner was far more effective than the AFL-CIO's current crop of
blow-dried, inside-the-Beltway "media consultants" (whose idea of"party
work" is introducing labor clients to the Democratic candidates served by
their firms, so that union treasuries and political action funds can be
milked simultaneously). Foner displayed a different kind of political
savvy, in countless picket-line battles and major lobbying efforts. As
journalist Jack Newfield says, he "could publicize like P.T. Barnum,
organize like Joe Hill and network like Bill Clinton."
For example, Foner's pioneering work on 1199 campaigns among private,
non-profit hospital workers--who didn't have the right to bargain with
management forty years ago--provides a good model for any union trying
to make organizing rights a higher-profile issue today. Not for Bread
Alone also reminds us about the important role played by the Labor
Leadership Assembly for Peace--the anti-Vietnam War coalition launched
by Foner, 1199 and their union allies in the late 1960s.
The author completed this memoir, with the assistance of former 1199
news editor Dan North, shortly before his death in January at age 86. As
the book recounts, Foner was born into a Jewish working-class family in
Brooklyn that produced not one, but four radical activists. A member of
the Communist Party from the mid-1930s "until the Khrushchev revelations
in 1956 about what went on under Stalin," Moe--along with his twin
brothers, Jack and Phil--was victimized by an early purge of leftists
from higher education. All three were forced out ofteaching or
administrative jobs at City College of New York (CCNY) in 1941. (The
resulting controversy led the highly musical Foners to change the name
of their dance band--already popular on the Catskills small-hotel
circuit--to "Suspended Swing.")
Despite their dismissal, Phil and Jack went on to have distinguished
careers as academic historians. Henry Foner--youngest of the four and
then a student at CCNY--joined the Furriers Union and later became its
president. And the author, for much of his forty-year union career,
became the living embodiment of the cultural politics that developed
during the period of the Popular Front, when American liberals and
radicals united to oppose fascism abroad and support Roosevelt's New
Deal at home. Some of the best material in Foner's book is, thus, like a
collection of old photos in a family album, faded but fascinating
because of what it reveals about the social and political milieu of a
now largely deceased generation of labor activists who managed to
survive both McCarthyism and the self-inflicted wounds of the Communist
In the 1930s and '40s, Foner observes, the left created "a vigorous
cultural life that became part of its mass appeal."
The most famous writers...appeared in the New Masses magazine,
which was close to the Communist Party. The Daily Worker had
great cartoons by people like Robert Minor, William Gropper, and Art
Young, but artists from the New Yorker also appeared there.
This was the era of the experimental Group Theater and...Waiting for
Lefty, the Clifford Odets play about striking taxi drivers.... The
International Ladies Garment Workers Union had already put on its
immensely successful musical revue, Pins and Needles, and on a
smaller scale, the American Student Union put on a musical every year.
One of them, called Pens and Pencils, was a takeoff on the Marx
Brothers.... There was a Theater Arts Committee that had a cabaret to
support the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. And the YCL [Young
Communist League] was always putting on skits and shows.
Foner was hired in 1947 as education director for a department store
union. Many Manhattan store clerks of that era--like waiters and
waitresses today--were aspiring actors. So when Foner put out a call for
auditions for the union's first theatrical venture--a seventeen-song
musical review called Thursdays 'Til Nine--400 members showed up.
Through his dance band and party connections, Foner also "had access to
an unusually large number of creative people who were, because of their
political beliefs, more than happy to participate for little or no money
in union cultural events." For music, lyrics or other help, he tapped
show-business talents like Millard Lampell, later a successful Hollywood
screenwriter; playwrights Arthur Miller and Norman Rosten; film
producer/director Martin Ritt (who went on to win an Oscar for Norma Rae); comedians Sam Levinson and Irwin Corey; actors Jack Gilford and Zero
Mostel; and future TV writer Mel Tolkin.
Although professionally written and produced, Thursdays 'Til Nine
drew on the job experiences of store workers themselves and provided
humorous commentary on contemporary labor issues (in numbers like "The
Taft-Hartley Rumba"). Thousands of members applauded its performances,
and Foner's singular career was launched. The show cost only a few
thousand dollars, but in return it "reaped immense rewards in good
publicity, education on labor issues, and membership pride in their
These positive results became a hallmark of Foner productions for his
later union employers as well. The store workers soon merged with
District 65, another "center of left unionism in New York," whose
stewards were deployed in Peekskill in 1949 to protect Paul Robeson when
a right-wing mob attacked one of his concerts. At District 65, Foner ran
educational, social and cultural programs for 20,000 workers in retail,
wholesale and warehouse jobs. One of the first things he did was start a
nightclub on the top floor of the union's lower Manhattan office
Each week, a different group of members would be in charge of selling
400 tickets at fifty cents each. Rank-and-file committees would set up,
check coats, wait on tables, serve drinks, etc.... I'd line up a band.
And every Saturday night, I'd get a guest star to perform for free....
Harry Belafonte was just breaking in then, and he'd come down and sing
in his dark glasses. We were packing them in, the place was always full.
On Saturday mornings, District 65 also had a "kiddy program," which
featured sing-alongs with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, dance programs
conducted by Guthrie's wife, Margie, and magic shows by Doc Horowitz,
who brought along his daughter, a "terrific ventriloquist and puppeteer"
who acted as emcee. Her name? Shari Lewis, later the star of one of the
1950s' most popular children's TV shows.
In 1952 Foner moved to 1199, where he spent three decades--editing the
union newspaper, aiding strikes and organizing campaigns, advising union
founder Leon Davis and eventually creating Bread and Roses. At
midcentury, the union was quite different from what it is today; now it
has more than 200,000 members, most of whom are black, Hispanic and/or
female. When Foner was hired by Davis, a radical immigrant from Russia,
1199 had only 5,000 members and was overwhelmingly composed of Jewish
men working as pharmacists or clerks in New York City drugstores. But,
as Foner notes, 1199 had campaigned since the late 1930s for the hiring
of black pharmacists and was one of the first unions anywhere to
celebrate Negro History Week. When 1199 began organizing primarily
nonwhite hospital workers in the late 1950s--which led to its explosive
growth over the next twenty years--the union already had a strong record
of support for civil rights.
Commitment to that cause was symbolized by 1199's close relationships
with leading black artists and entertainers. Then relatively unknown as
actors, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (who contributed a loving foreword to
this book) became lifelong friends and collaborators with the author.
The couple directed or performed in a series of productions at 1199's
annual "Salute to Freedom." Much later they helped Foner create Bread
and Roses' best-known musical review, Take Care, which used
humorous songs and sketches to tell the story of hospital workers' daily
lives, their frustrations on the job and hopes for the future.
In 1199's initial hospital organizing and strikes, the union tried to
fuse civil rights and working-class consciousness. Several vivid
chapters in Not for Bread Alone describe how its "Union Power,
Soul Power" campaigns were built--first in New York, then in Baltimore,
Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina, site of an epic 113-day
walkout aided by Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and
other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The
photographs accompanying Foner's memoir confirm the breadth of the
union's political alliances--with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr.,
Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Adam Clayton Powell.
If the 1960s and early '70s were years of triumph for 1199, they
culminated in a decade of byzantine internal feuding. Leon Davis
suffered a stroke in 1979 and decided, after nearly five decades as
president, to turn over the reins to Doris Turner, an African-American
and former dietary clerk who headed 1199's hospital division. At the
same time, the union's founder tried to realize his longtime dream of
creating "one big union for all healthcare workers" by merging 1199 with
SEIU. Neither the merger nor the internal transfer of power proceeded as
planned. Instead, the union was plunged into a terrible "civil war,"
replete with "bitter elements of racism, sexism, red-baiting, violence,
For a majority of 1199 members, two things eventually became clear:
Turner was an incompetent autocrat and their union had become a "busted
Stradivarius." Turner purged all staff critics, surrounded herself with
goons, moved the union to the right politically, engaged in vote fraud
to win re-election and then, in 1984, led "one of the most inept,
unplanned, and disastrous strikes in New York history." To get the union
back on track, Foner and other 1199 veterans joined forces with Dennis
Rivera, a staff organizer from Puerto Rico recently fired by Turner.
They created a dissident group called "Save Our Union," which ran a
slate headed by Georgianna Johnson in a federally supervised rerun
election for 1199 officers. Johnson narrowly defeated Turner, but her
presidency was only slightly less troubled. She was soon ousted by her
former backer, Rivera, who has led 1199 in New York since 1989 (and
engineered its long-delayed affiliation with SEIU three years ago).
On the subject of 1199's "self-destruction"--what Foner calls "the most
heart-breaking experience" of his life--Not for Bread Alone is
both unreflective and unrevealing. "To some extent, we all played out
events based on our backgrounds, and mistakes were made. But the union
survived," the author writes. Elsewhere, Foner admits that "the whole
affair had disturbing overtones" but claims, unconvincingly, that during
the union's 1989 leadership race he "was removed from the day-to-day
running of 1199, and [has] only a hazy idea of the details."
As a history of 1199, then, Not for Bread Alone is best read
along with Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg's Upheaval in the Quiet
Zone (which Foner, to his credit, helped the authors research,
despite its dissection of various 1199 flaws). Upheaval appeared
thirteen years ago, when the union's bloody and embarrassing leadership
succession fight was still unresolved. Yet it remains the definitive
study of what went wrong then--and its analysis is just as relevant
today, in light of 1199's recent right turn, under Rivera, into the camp
of Republican Governor George Pataki, a questionable ally for any
"progressive" trade union.
Fink and Greenberg criticize Davis not only for his disastrous choice of
Turner as heir apparent but also for functioning as a "charismatic
patriarch" whose "unquestioned authority verged on benevolent
despotism." According to them, even the 1199 bylaw reforms championed by
Save Our Union failed to address the problem of overly centralized
decision-making in a "local" union far larger than most national ones.
"Without provisions for an elected 'chief delegate' at each hospital or
elected area directors, there is still no structural accommodation to
pluralistic power centers within the union and little place for leaders
of the future to spread their wings," they contended. "Communication as
well as decision-making will still be formulated in a room at the top."
The local's history and internal politics aside, the main question
raised by Foner's memoir is whether Bread and Roses offers a viable
model for cultural programming elsewhere in labor. Or is it too much a
product of New York City exceptionalism--a unique expression of 1199's
interracialism and now-fading political traditions, including its
Popular Front alliance with artists and entertainers long in the orbit
of the Old Left?
B&R has, from the beginning, inspired other labor arts initiatives.
Just as 1199 once tried to spread its unique brand of hospital unionism
elsewhere in the country (with varying degrees of success), Foner helped
organize, in 1980, the first in a series of Bread and Roses cultural
festivals in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which have been held there on
Labor Day weekend ever since. For almost as long, the Labor Heritage
Foundation in Washington has hosted an annual Arts Exchange and
Conference on Creative Organizing, which brings together union activists
and entertainers. LHF also sells poster art, videos and CDs of union
music to help publicize the work of labor choruses and individual
singer-songwriters. At the local level, however, few unions have the
kind of membership base and staff support--or access to foundation
funding--that has kept B&R afloat for nearly twenty-five years.
(During his period of forced exile from 1199 during the mid-1980s, even
Foner found it hard to reproduce his past successes while working
part-time for a small Meat Cutters local in Queens.)
According to Esther Cohen, Bread and Roses' current director, the
project continues to achieve its founder's goal of providing
professional-quality programming and opportunities for creative
expression by 1199 members themselves. B&R's permanent art gallery
at union headquarters currently hosts eight exhibits a year, on topics
ranging from Haitian culture and Dominican religion to the lives of
Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Pennsylvania coal miners, and the
death-row experiences of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Once a month, Cohen reports,
the gallery becomes "a cozy nightclub" and cafe, with entertainment
provided by 1199 rank-and-filers. More than 150 members recently signed
up for a creative-writing workshop as well; and as part of an amateur
photography program called "Unseen America," Bread and Roses is helping
scores of its members--and other immigrant workers--record and display
scenes of workplace and community life rarely shown in the mass media.
However, in the issue of New Labor Forum that recently published
Cohen's account of B&R activity, the Queens College magazine also
bemoaned the fact that most professionals in the arts are no longer
stirred by "the plight of working people and the intoxicating promise of
their liberation." According to NLF's editors:
For two centuries, until now that is, there was always a cultural
alternative, a point of opposition that said no to the callous
calculations of the marketplace.... While many kinds of people and
institutions have, at one time or another, joined the opposition, the
labor movement was always part of the picture, sometimes at the center
of the canvas. No more.... The labor movement is at a cultural dead end.
It has been defeated in the struggle for the hearts and minds of our
Such funereal observations were not part of Moe Foner's game. He was
ever the optimist, the union survivor and upbeat promoter of new ideas
and causes. If still on the job at B&R, he'd be on the phone right
now buttonholing talent for its next production, badgering reporters to
cover it and rallying members to fill every seat in the house--while
organizing labor opposition to US intervention in Iraq on the side! He'd
also be applauding the role played by hip-hop stars in the mass rally of
New York City teachers (and thousands of their music-loving students)
held in late May during contract talks between Mayor Bloomberg and the
United Federation of Teachers. Better than some activists in his field,
the author knew that if "labor culture" is going to be sustained, it
must be periodically renewed--that Ossie and Ruby must finally give way
to the likes of Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, and Erykah
Badu, all of whom graced the platform of the UFT.
As New York City union historian Joshua Freeman observed, in another
recent exchange about the future of labor-oriented art and
entertainment: "There is no going back in time, and no reason to do so.
The strength of mid-century New York left culture lay in its organic
relationship to the needs and tastes of the city's working class. It
remains for another generation, in its own way, to build a new culture
of labor and the left."
Soon after the surrender of Nazi Germany, the reporter Martha Gellhorn
made her way to Dachau. There she interviewed a recently liberated
doctor who told her how the Germans immersed inmates in icy water for
hours at a time to determine the human body's ability to withstand
"Didn't they scream or cry out?" asked Gellhorn. The doctor smiled.
"There was no use in this place for a man to scream or cry out. It was
no use for any man ever."
For Fred Inglis, professor of cultural studies and author of People's
Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics, the exchange and the
article that surrounds it are great examples of what journalism should
be. It bears witness, it is "truthful" and "faithful to the facts," and
it matches a story with "adequate feelings and moral judgment." Gellhorn
is the first of a long procession of journalists who march through this
book over the course of the twentieth century. The best of them, in
Inglis's view, fight the good fight for democracy, decency and
international solidarity. The worst bow to the pressures of the market
or fawn before the powerful. Together, their lives teach lessons about
the purposes of journalism and its place in the history of what the
historian Eric Hobsbawm has popularized as the short twentieth century,
the period stretching from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the
fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Inglis insists that the purpose of journalism is about more than
providing objective information. He conducts a respectful but pointed
debate with Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: From the
Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth
Maker. Where Knightley criticizes generations of war correspondents
for partiality, errors and becoming little more than government
propagandists, Inglis treats objectivity as an impossibility. Truthful
reporting is possible, Inglis argues, but the search for the facts and
their presentation can't be separated from values and beliefs. "The
moral view is always somebody's, located somewhere," Inglis writes,
adding later that "the best journalists square their human allegiance
with their feeling for truth."
In showing how journalists responded to war, revolution, the Depression
and the cold war, Inglis charts a ragged story that identifies the
reciprocal relationship between journalists and their time. Themes that
structure other histories of journalism--the quickening speed of
communications, the growth of freedom of expression, professionalization
of the press--receive less attention. More important for Inglis is how a
journalist in a particular time and place balanced ideals and
expedience, and helped to move the world toward more cruelty or less.
His method is to present a series of biographies, grouped according to
events or themes. With a few exceptions (such as the Italian journalist
and political theorist Antonio Gramsci) those chronicled here are
British or American. Gellhorn's story illuminates the moral lessons of
covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Walter Lippmann's life
suggests the challenges of retaining intellectual integrity amid the
American rise to globalism and Lippmann's own proximity to the heights
of power. Harry Evans's career at the Times of London shows what
happens when an intelligent and crusading editor meets with the purse
and politics of a Rupert Murdoch.
The length of the biographies varies, from more than two dozen pages for
the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to a few sentences for the murdered
Irish reporter Veronica Guerin. The longer biographies in People's
Witness provide rewarding lessons, but the short ones can be too
brief to be satisfying.
The sources for People's Witness are generally published
biographies, memoirs and collected articles. (The book contains some
unfortunate errors. James "Scotty" Reston is rendered as "Sonny." Arthur
O. Sulzberger of the New York Times is presented as "Sulzbeyer."
And Ben Bagdikian is identified as Ben "Bagdikim.") Fresh material for
the volume comes from the author's interviews and own analytical
insight. Some of the book's most memorable lines are in its summary
passages, as when Inglis describes Alistair Cooke as "tranquilly
reactionary," and Norman Mailer, on the eve of writing The Armies of
the Night, as one who "had done everything a dustjacket could
Yet People's Witness is more than a collective biography that
extols engaged journalism and criticizes conventional ideas about
objectivity. What makes this book valuable is not one life story or
another but its historical perspective--the place of journalism from
World War I to 1989.
Inglis's story is largely an international narrative, framed mostly by
British and American experiences during World War II and the cold war.
The book's chapter on World War II, revealingly titled "The Blessed
Simplicity of Action," argues that for many journalists the war provided
a way of reconciling reporting and antifascism. In the story of Edward
R. Murrow, Inglis finds broadcasting that closed the distance between
Britain and America with vivid details and high ideals. During the
bombing of London, Murrow told listeners how "shrapnel clicked as it hit
the concrete road nearby." Covering the Normandy invasion, he said it
was possible to imagine hearing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" above
the roaring motors of Allied bombers.
Things get messier during the cold war. Some American reporters, such as
I.F. Stone, maintained their independence. Others uncritically accepted
government lines. In discussions of coverage of the Korean War, Vietnam
and more, Inglis's dual perspective--British and American--provides a
second line of sight on America's global struggle with Communism. For
many American readers, the book is likely be an introduction to
Commonwealth journalists--John Pilger and James Cameron, for
example--whose perspectives have departed from the standard frames found
in the US media.
For all its cruelty and bloodshed, and for all the confusion that has
appeared since its end (especially since September 11, 2001), the short
twentieth century was a remarkably good period for journalism. The years
from the end of World War II to the end of the cold war, in particular,
saw a flowering of public service broadcasting, muckraking, dissenting
critics, samizdat publishers, adventurers reporting from
hellholes and reporters' efforts to hold democratic countries to their
best values. Why?
Part of the explanation has to do with historical circumstances. As
People's Witness suggests, memorable journalism opposes something
in the name of something better. (American journalists today may
subscribe to a belief in "objectivity," but some of their most revered
forebears--Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Jessica Mitford--have been
muckrakers with a pronounced political purpose in their work.) During
World War II and the cold war, journalists in Britain and America had a
great choice of adversaries--from fascists to Stalinists to citizens of
democratic countries who trampled their country's best values in the
name of fighting Communism. Even if the early years of the cold war were
marked by an excessive faith in government sources among American
journalists, once conflict broke out within government over the Vietnam
War, journalists began to expand and enrich public debate.
As communications professor Michael Schudson has observed, news gains
power in societies when people believe that if they are armed with
knowledge, they can influence the course of events. America in the era
of the civil rights movement was such a place, and it produced great
journalism that connected the demands of the oppressed with the
consciences of the many.
In the same period, the successes of social democracy--or at least the
mixed economy--gave journalists breathing room from the kind of economic
pressures that afflict them today. In the extraordinary thirty years
after World War II, in Western Europe and North America, nations
concluded that the market was not to be the measure of all things.
Activist governments were willing to provide everything from national
health insurance to grants for artists. In journalism this meant
financial support for public broadcasters who were, at least in theory,
independent of both the political pressures of the state and commercial
pressures of advertisers. The best work of the British Broadcasting
Corporation and the Public Broadcasting Service testifies to the
enduring validity of this idea. Among private broadcasters, specifically
in American television, federal regulations required fairness and public
service in broadcasting--a requirement that fostered, in thoroughly
commercial networks, the creation of substantial news and documentary
units. The death of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 led to the decline of
public service broadcasting. People's Witness offers yet more
proof that journalists, whatever their party affiliation, have a strong
interest in the maintenance of societies where the profit motive does
not always rule.
In America, the journalists of 1945 to 1989 also enjoyed the benefit of
reporting for a society characterized by mass media and mass politics.
Particularly in television, journalists could act with the confidence
that they were reaching large segments of their fellow citizens. Today,
in the age of 24/7 cable television, when the public is subdivided into
niche markets, much news and journalism can seem to be both ubiquitous
and insubstantial. Then came September 11.
From journalists, in Inglis's view, the good journalistic responses to
9/11 combined individual survivors' stories and "what they could count
on as the trustiest of their national values," finding its heroes in
self-sacrificing firefighters. Some of the worst reactions, he argues,
came from elements of the left--which he would normally support--that
failed to recognize the flaws in radical Islamism and the virtues of
Western democracy. He identifies three journalists whose work can help
bring us into an uncertain future: Seymour Hersh, who "discovers what we
could not possibly discover for ourselves, and tells us what it is";
Tim Judah, whose reporting from the Balkans and then Afghanistan "moved
easily between the obligatory self-deprecation of being there and
the sure deployment of big strategic tropes"; and Michael Ignatieff, who
calls for an internationalism with a strong sense of both ideals and
Is this enough? As People's Witness suggests, journalism as an
institution rises and falls with the currents of its time. Journalists
as individuals sometimes do better. Since economics triumphed over
politics, it is harder to envision a solution to the market pressures
that deform public and private broadcasters. This book, for all its
virtues, has no obvious solution to that problem.
But in the lives of journalists, and in Inglis's ruminations on the
meaning of journalism, possibilities emerge. In the face of Pentagon
media managers who would censor war news in the name of keeping up
morale on the home front, journalists will need Knightley's dogged
insistence on independence and truth. In the face of the kind of men who
murdered Daniel Pearl, journalists will need Inglis's stouthearted
vision of reporting that stands for democracy and decency, and against
cruelty and sectarianism. But without a new version of the ideals and
structures that serve to protect public service journalism, will this be
William Eastlake once gave William Kittredge a piece of advice about
writing as a Westerner. Never allow a publisher to put a picture of a
horse on the cover of your novel: "The people who buy it will think it's
some goddamned shoot-up. And they'll hate it when it isn't."
For more than a century, picking up a "western" meant caressing a myth.
The plot rarely varied. Decent folk who'd left behind the corrupt
world--always somewhere to the east--came to a land of primeval beauty
and promise and set about turning a little chunk of it into a nice,
prosperous garden. But there were a few corrupt souls lurking in the
vicinity, and before long they showed themselves: heedless savages,
horse thieves, men with pistols on their hips. The good folks had no
choice but to confront the bad guys on their terms--often with the aid
of a mysterious and taciturn stranger on horseback. Violence,
regrettable but necessary, ensued. The good guys were wounded. The bad
guys were killed. Our happy homesteaders returned to taming the
wilderness, cultivating their corner of paradise, a little less innocent
but having earned in blood their claim to the land. The taciturn
stranger was saddled and gone by morning, having left neither a card nor
a silver bullet.
Louis L'Amour wrote more than a hundred works of fiction along those
lines, 260 million copies of which are moldering on cheap pulp paper all
over the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century alone,
1,700 novels about Buffalo Bill were published. Our appetite for the
myths of law-bringing and wilderness-taming is as old as America itself.
The pulp western simply spruced it up with big hats, six-guns and blue
roan appaloosas. Hollywood seized on the concept and tinkered with its
variations for more than thirty years; John Wayne had one of the longest
runs of any male movie icon of the past century.
This is the seductive mythology serious writers in the West have to
grapple with as they set out to write the much messier, much less
uplifting story of the true Western experience. They also face an
Eastern literary establishment that is often indifferent or
unsympathetic to their aims. Norman Maclean couldn't find a major
publisher to bite on his masterpiece, A River Runs Through It.
"These stories have trees in them," he was told. And in a snotty review
in these very pages, Edward Abbey was called "puerile" and "dopey" and
was accused of arrogance and xenophobia.
Not that every literary effort to come out of the West deserved
canonization. Kittredge published a collection of stories, We Are Not
in This Together, that borrowed much from the old myth--except the
happy ending, which leaves a rather curdled vision. Despite a laudatory
foreword from Kittredge's friend Raymond Carver, the stories contain a
predictable mix of unfaithful women, barroom hijinks, cold-blooded
killings, guns and knives and whisky and tight-lipped men who, when they
deign to speak, do so not with or even at but past one another.
"My stories were mostly imitations about old men and wounded boys,
reeking of sorrow and sad romance about the ways love is bound to fail,
and could never have been enough anyway," Kittredge eventually admitted.
Thankfully, in 1978, Terry McDonell of Rocky Mountain Magazine
asked Kittredge to write an essay on the theme of "redneck secrets."
Kittredge said he had no idea how to write an essay. A friend who sat in
one of Kittredge's writing workshops at the University of Montana told
me that Kittredge recounted McDonell's advice this way: Give me five
scenes or anecdotes strung together with your own bullshit philosophy.
Five hundred words of anecdote, 200 of your own bullshit, scene,
bullshit, leading to a summation or revelation. It's that easy.
And for Kittredge, it was; turned out he could bullshit better than
most, and in a rugged, poetic and wholly Western prose style. He's since
written mostly nonfiction, looking at the West as a set of true stories
that deserve telling in all their complexity. Like this, from his very
first essay: "A Redneck pounding a hippie in a dark barroom is
embarrassing because we see the cowardice. What he wants to hit is a
banker in broad daylight."
Yee-haw! Now we're getting someplace.
Kittredge's first essay collection, Owning It All, published in
1987 and just reissued by Graywolf, is one of the quintessential books
to read if you want to understand the ferment of the modern West. He
followed that with Hole in the Sky, a memoir that recounted his
youth and early manhood on his grandfather's ranch in southeastern
Oregon, a backlands enclave in a "huge drift of country...pretty much
nonexistent in the American imagination," where "we knew a history
filled with omissions, which can be thought of as lies." Kittredge took
it as his duty to fill in the omissions, most involving violence done to
Native Americans, and he told his own story with astonishing candor: boy
buckaroo, teenage dandy, self-pitying young man, a ranch kid in a
swampland version of Eden that he and his family ultimately ruined
through a combination of greed, pesticides, overly ambitious irrigation
schemes and an overweening lust for property.
Over something like three decades my family played out the entire
melodrama of the nineteenth-century European novel. It was another
real-life run of that masterplot which drives so many histories,
domination of loved ones through a mix of power and affection; it is the
story of ruling-class decadence that we fondle and love, that we reenact
over and over, our worst bad habit and the prime source of our sadness
about our society. We want to own everything, and we demand love. We are
like children; we are spoiled and throw tantrums. Our wreckage is
All of this from a book with a horse on its cover.
Hole in the Sky placed Kittredge in a blossoming tradition of
Western writers who can be thought of as anti-mythological. They begin,
not surprisingly, with women--Willa Cather (read Death Comes for the
Archbishop) and Mari Sandoz (Old Jules)--and continue with
writers such as A.B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Marilynne
Robinson and Denis Johnson, whose novel Angels is among the
bleakest visions of the urban West ever committed to paper. And that's
merely a few of the white folk from the mountains and plains, a list
that leaves off the interlopers, Texans, Californians, poets, Hispanics
(Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca) and Native Americans (N. Scott
Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich) who have
enriched the region's literature.
Stegner dreamt of a West that had "a civilization to match its scenery,"
and no other writer did more to bring that transformation about. His
influence can be felt all over a fine anthology edited by Kittredge,
The Portable Western Reader, which Stegner didn't live to see but
would have appreciated as a marker of how far the storytelling culture
of the region had come. "The Westerner is less a person than a
continuing adaptation," he wrote. "The West is less a place than a
process." On the evidence of his new book, Kittredge is in total
In Southwestern Homelands, he tells stories from thirty years of
tooling the freeways and back roads of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New
Mexico, mostly with his longtime love Annick Smith (another fine writer)
and often with a set of golf clubs in the trunk. He goes in search of
history and the earthy flux of the present, and he's as fine a travel
companion as a reader could hope for. I'm with him for all but the golf.
It helps to have friends to show you around an unfamiliar land, and
Kittredge had some good ones, including Eastlake, Abbey and Doug
Peacock, the renowned grizzly-bear expert and model for George Hayduke
in Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. Eastlake once told Kittredge a
perhaps apocryphal tale in which he and Abbey drove the Southwest's
Interstate highways, felling billboards with a chainsaw. Whether or not
the tale is true--don't you like to think so?--it symbolizes the tension
at the heart of the region's history. What is progress? What are its
costs? And, to paraphrase Charles Bowden, can we not imagine a future in
which we have less but are more?
Everywhere Kittredge goes, these questions haunt the air. At Chaco
Canyon the Anasazi built immaculate pueblos across four square miles
between 1025 and 1100 AD. "The houses were fitted together from tons of
red stone cut in quarries and mortared into tapered load-bearing walls,
five stories high on the curving back side of Pueblo Bonito. Tens of
thousands of pine timbers were cut and trimmed with stone axes in
mountains sixty miles away and brought to Chaco by people without horses
or wheels." They built irrigation systems to channel rainwater toward
domesticated crops. Abruptly, around 1150, they abandoned all of it. To
this day, no one knows for certain why. Drought? Enemy siege? Whatever
the cause, their attempt at constructing a secure homeland failed. The
Anasazi drifted to the north and west. In Canyon de Chelly, they built
cliff houses accessible only by ladders, which they pulled up when they
One millennium later, dreams of an impenetrable fortress persist.
Phoenix, another human settlement fed by diverted water, spreads on the
landscape like a malignant tumor; its gated communities might be
compared to ancient fortified pueblos. One severe or prolonged drought
would also send that city's inhabitants scurrying to more hospitable
climes to the north and west. Aridity, as Stegner incessantly pointed
out, is the defining characteristic of the West. In some distant future,
tourists may gawk at the splendid, dune-covered ruins of Phoenix or
Albuquerque the way we seek out the spooky grandeur of abandoned cliff
The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River, is among man's most
ambitious efforts to compensate for a lack of rainfall. It flooded what
Kittredge calls "one of the most exquisite runs of landform on earth," a
labyrinth of canyons formed by 10-million-year-old sand dunes compacted
by wind and carved by running water. Abbey once wrote, "To grasp the
nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres
Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible." Kittredge
consoles himself with the thought that canyons and species don't last
forever. I'm surprised it doesn't make him happier to think that dams
are even more ephemeral.
Gated communities, seething barrios, cross-border maquiladoras, crimes
against humans and nature--that's one side of the coin. On the other:
spicy food, entrancing native ceremonies, breathtaking landscapes,
hummingbirds flitting among the saguaro and art that soars into
timelessness, from the overcommodified Georgia O'Keeffe to Mogollon
Mimbres pottery. The exquisite care taken in crafting the Mimbres bowls,
decorated with imagery that made use of communal symbols and stories,
might even be a valuable example for careless book editors. In the
middle of a very moving passage, we find Kittredge viewing "my mother's
powered face that last time before she was interned." You might be
forgiven for momentarily thinking she was a robot on her way to prison
But if you hang with him, you discover him working through one of the
keystone moments of the book. "On Second Mesa, in the village of Walpi,
a man came up while I was walking the balustrade around the edge of the
mesa, and offered to explain the Hopi beliefs. I imagined he was hitting
on me, running some scam, and I turned away." His failure to connect
gnaws at him; he keeps brooding over Walpi until he settles on a
"message" from the ancients: "Be communal, join up, share your goods,
and once in a while give your sweet time away, no charge, pro bono, and
you'll be as close to home as you're likely to be." He could have merely
bought a trinket or a piece of Native art and moved on. Instead, and
despite his failure to connect at first, he was driven to seek some
cross-cultural pollination to take with him as he returns to his own
homeland in Montana. Which ought to be one of the points of travel for
anyone who does it seriously. "Intimacy with otherness is close to
impossible without taking some time to stop playing the game of
anthropologist," he writes. In other words, open up, drop your guard,
talk to strangers. The world awaits: desert and mountain, laughter and
tears, bedrock and paradox.
From the chair where I write this, in a fire lookout tower in the Gila
National Forest of southwestern New Mexico, I can see nearly 100 miles
in all directions. The landscape is multifarious: austere desert to the
east, rising into pinyon and juniper on the foothills and up to peaks
covered in aspen and ponderosa pine, before falling away to mesas and
grassland river valleys to the west. Hard to recall that just a month
ago I was a cog in the corporate journalism machine, a rearranger of
commas, scourge of the split infinitive. "Flight involves a spot of
reinventing the sweet old psychic self," Kittredge writes. Amen.
Everything out my window sings to my soul the way Beethoven's
Archduke Trio speaks to Kittredge's when he's on the road. Yet
the feature I find most intriguing from my perch is a man-made one on
the edge of Silver City: a giant open-pit copper mine that looks like a
gaping wound in the earth. Just above it, at the end of a shelf of
exposed rock, a solitary spire looms. The locals called it the Kneeling
Nun, and through my binoculars I can see why: It resembles the shape of
a woman wearing a habit, bowed in supplication to an ancient altar of
I like to think whoever named it also saw our need for forgiveness. All
across the West, man-made monstrosities punctuate the landscape--dams,
clearcuts, open-pit mines, oil refineries. Some of us silently seethe,
some of us protest, others work quietly toward a new definition of
progress. As we dream and argue our way toward the homeland of the
future, we could do worse than to take our cues from an old boy from a
ranch in the backlands of Oregon, a man who himself learned to take a
few cues from the ancients: "Everything evolves. Nothing lasts. Don't
destroy that which your people depend on. Take care, and plan for the
seventh generation, the long future."
For the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center
Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
Martín Espada's poem will appear in the Spring issue (#82) of
Hanging Loose magazine and in Alabanza: New and Selected
Poems 1982-2002 (Norton), forthcoming in April.
Editor's Note: One year after the attacks, Eric Foner assessed the impact of 9/11 on the way America tells the story of itself and readjusts its relationship with the world.
All history, the saying goes, is contemporary history. People
instinctively turn to the past to help understand the present. Events
draw our attention to previously neglected historical subjects. The
second wave of feminism gave birth to a flourishing subfield of women's
history. The Reagan Revolution spawned a cottage industry in the history
of US conservatism.
Many years will pass before we can fully assess how our thinking about
history has changed as a result of September 11. While historians ponder
this question, conservative ideologues have produced a spate of
polemical statements on how we should teach American history in light of
recent events. In a speech less than a month after the tragedy, Lynne
Cheney insisted that calls for more intensive study of the rest of the
world amounted to blaming America's "failure to understand Islam" for
the attack. A letter distributed by the American Council of Trustees and
Alumni, which she once chaired, chastised professors who fail to teach
the "truth" that civilization itself "is best exemplified in the West
and indeed in America."
In What's So Great About America, Dinesh D'Souza contends that
freedom and religious toleration are uniquely "Western" beliefs. The
publisher's ad for the book identifies those who hold alternative views
as "people who provide a rationale for terrorism." With funding from
conservative foundations and powerful political connections, such
commentators hope to reshape the teaching of American history.
Historians cannot predict the future, but the past they portray must be
one out of which the present can plausibly have grown. The
self-absorbed, super-celebratory history now being promoted will not
enable students to make sense of either their own society or our
increasingly interconnected world.
Historians cannot choose the ways history becomes part of our own
experience. September 11 has rudely placed certain issues at the
forefront of our consciousness. Let me mention three and their
implications for how we think about the American past: the upsurge of
patriotism, significant infringements on civil liberties and a sudden
awareness of considerable distrust abroad of American actions and
The generation of historians that came of age during the Vietnam War
witnessed firsthand how patriotic language and symbols, especially the
American flag, can be invoked in the service of manifestly unjust
causes. Partly as a result, they have tended to neglect the power of
these symbols as genuine expressions of a sense of common national
community. Patriotism, if studied at all, has been understood as an
"invention," rather than a habit of the heart.
Historians have had greater success lately at dividing up the American
past into discrete experiences delineated along lines of race,
ethnicity, gender and class than at exploring the common threads of
American nationality. But the immediate response to September 11 cut
across these boundaries. No one knows if the renewed sense of common
purpose and shared national identity that surfaced so vividly after
September 11 will prove temporary. But they require historians to devote
new attention to the roots of the symbols, values and experiences
Americans share as well as those that divide them.
All patriotic upsurges run the risk of degenerating into a coercive
drawing of boundaries between "loyal" Americans and those stigmatized as
aliens and traitors. This magazine has chronicled the numerous and
disturbing infringements on civil liberties that have followed September
11. Such legal protections as habeas corpus, trial by impartial jury,
the right to legal representation and equality before the law regardless
of race or national origin have been seriously curtailed.
Civil liberties have been severely abridged during previous moments of
crisis, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to Japanese-American
internment in World War II. Historians generally view these past
episodes as shameful anomalies. But we are now living through another
such episode, and there is a remarkable absence of public outcry.
We need an American history that sees protections for civil liberties
not as a timeless feature of our "civilization" but as a recent and
fragile achievement resulting from many decades of historical struggle.
We should take a new look at obscure Supreme Court cases--Fong Yue
Ting (1893), the Insular Cases of the early twentieth century,
Korematsu during World War II--in which the Justices allowed the
government virtual carte blanche in dealing with aliens and in
suspending the rights of specific groups of citizens on grounds of
military necessity. Dissenting in Fong Yue Ting, which authorized
the deportation of Chinese immigrants without due process, Justice David
Brewer observed that, like today, the power was directed against a
people many Americans found "obnoxious." But, he warned, "who shall say
it will not be exercised tomorrow against other classes and other
September 11 will also undoubtedly lead historians to examine more
closely the history of the country's relationship with the larger world.
Public opinion polls revealed that few Americans have any knowledge of
other peoples' grievances against the United States. A study of our
history in its international context might help to explain why there is
widespread fear outside our borders that the war on terrorism is
motivated in part by the desire to impose a Pax Americana in a grossly
Back in the 1930s, historian Herbert Bolton warned that by treating the
American past in isolation, historians were helping to raise up a
"nation of chauvinists"--a danger worth remembering when considering the
drumbeat of calls for a celebratory and insular history divorced from
its global context. Of course, international paradigms can be every bit
as obfuscating as histories that are purely national. We must be careful
not to reproduce traditional American exceptionalism on a global scale.
September 11, for example, has inspired a spate of commentary influenced
by Samuel Huntington's mid-1990s book The Clash of Civilizations.
Huntington's paradigm reduces politics and culture to a single
characteristic--race, religion or geography--that remains forever
static, divorced from historical development or change through
interaction with other societies. It makes it impossible to discuss
divisions within these purported civilizations. The idea that the West
is the sole home of reason, liberty and tolerance ignores how recently
such values triumphed in the United States and also ignores the debates
over creationism, abortion rights and other issues that suggest that
commitment to them is hardly unanimous. The definition of "Western
civilization" is highly selective--it includes the Enlightenment but not
the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but
not the Salem witch trials.
Nor can September 11 be explained by reference to timeless
characteristics or innate pathologies of "Islamic civilization." From
the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction to Oklahoma City in our own time,
our society has produced its own home-grown terrorists. Terrorism
springs from specific historical causes, not the innate qualities of one
or another civilization.
The study of history should transcend boundaries rather than reinforce
or reproduce them. In the wake of September 11, it is all the more
imperative that the history we teach be a candid appraisal of our own
society's strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in
self-celebration--a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent
dialogue with ourselves.
How did it all start? What triggered the 1990s political corruption, its
inequality in wealth and its stock market bubble? This is the decade
that Kevin Phillips rails against in his historical epic of how the rich
get richer and the poor get further in debt.
Arguably it all started in Silicon Valley, with a little help from the
Department of Defense (which pioneered the epochal
breakthroughs--transistor and Internet--that sparked the electronics
revolution). Given the government's basic research, such private
companies as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Apple, Intel and Cisco
generated creative, profitable products using new technologies. As the
intellectual property of these well-managed companies began to rise,
their stock prices began to rise, as did those of their suppliers,
buyers, competitors, financial consultants, management analysts, lawyers
and accountants. Even the stock prices of companies unrelated to high
tech began to soar.
The frenzy struck executive salaries. Top-notch high-tech managers made
a lot of money because their pay was tied to stock options. As their
company's stock price skyrocketed, so did their salaries. Soon other
corporate leaders--good, bad and indifferent--tied their own salaries to
the price of their company's stock. The financial markets regarded stock
options as a way to make managers more "efficient" using the litmus test
of stock-price performance. In practice, some managers cooked the books
and inflated stock prices by making risky short-term investments and
acquisitions. Long-term investments in new plant, equipment, research
and intellectual property, necessary for permanent jobs, became an
As Phillips shows, the greed of corporate America was such that in the
1960s, the pay of corporate CEOs was "only" about twenty-five times that
of hourly production workers. In the 1970s, the ratio was around thirty
to one. It rose from ninety-three times in 1988 to 419 times in 1999.
Between 1990 and 1998, the wages of ordinary workers barely kept pace
with inflation or grew at single-digit rates. Meanwhile, top executives
of America's biggest corporations enjoyed compensation increases of 481
percent! (Appalled by the eye-popping numbers on executive pay, Paul
Krugman referred to Wealth and Democracy in one of his columns in
the New York Times.)
With so much money sloshing around, contributions by business to
politicians increased. With more campaign funding, deregulation resumed
where Reagan left off, and upper-bracket tax rates mellowed. Phillips
shows that the effective federal tax rate (income and FICA, or Social
Security and Medicare) for the top 1 percent of families fell from 69
percent in 1970 to about 40 percent in 1993, with plenty of loopholes
remaining. Over the same period, the tax rate for the median family
increased from 16 percent to 25 percent. Between 1950 and 2000,
corporate taxes as a percentage of total tax receipts fell from 27
percent to 10 percent while FICA (mostly paid by the middle class)
jumped from 7 percent to 31 percent.
Regulation was critically lax in the accounting industry's scandals, as
we now know. Phillips's book predates news of this disgrace, but he
anticipates most of what happened. Deal by deal, the Big Five all began
to relax established auditing norms; otherwise they would have lost big
customers to one another. When chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. of the
Securities and Exchange Commission proposed to investigate, the Big Five
went to Washington. The SEC was called off the job; the Clinton
Administration caved in. As for the telecommunications sector, now
bleeding billions from overcapacity, its relations with the government
were similar to those of the railroads in the robber-baron age. In the
late nineteenth century, railroad tycoons were given free access to land
worth millions of dollars; in the 1990s, the telecommunications industry
was given publicly owned electromagnetic spectrum worth billions of
dollars. Phillips shows that, among the top thirty billionaires reported
by Forbes for 2001, eight were in high-tech electronics,
including software, and eight were in media.
So, starting with Silicon Valley, one can tell a story about the 1990s
that may be flat-footed but that at least moves from cause to effect in
a linear fashion. This, however, is not the story that Kevin Phillips
chooses to tell. Or maybe it is, but his writing style is so roving,
rambling and roundabout that it is difficult to find a coherent story
anywhere, although the parts are sure to be found somewhere, and are
often juicy. He aims a shotgun rather than a rifle at the fin de
siècle's cast of cruddy characters.
Phillips doesn't start in Silicon Valley because, at heart, he is an
antitechnologist. For Phillips, technology merely makes mischief. "From
early textile machinery to the Internet," he writes, the early stages of
major innovations have generated rising social and economic inequality
almost as a matter of course." (But how about the millions of jobs
created in textiles and the Internet at a slightly later stage?)
Elsewhere he states: "We can likewise doubt that technology has
outweighed representative government, effective markets, and
English-speaking freedoms in achieving the economic leadership of
Britain and then the United States." Really? Phillips's dismissal of
technology as a major factor in the economic hegemony of first England
and then the United States is strange because he shows contempt for the
alternative explanation--an obsessive love of market forces and
laissez-faire. Technology is bad in Phillips's view simply because it
breeds speculation. There are no heroes.
Notwithstanding Phillips's chaotic style and his neglect of the real
economic forces that govern wealth accumulation and distribution (such
as technology), he does a big service for his readers by providing them
with bytes of information on wealth inequality and democracy's warts.
Phillips, historically a card-carrying Republican, regards his
reformist, liberal politics as nothing strange. It follows in the
footsteps of great past Republican reformers like Lincoln and Theodore
Roosevelt. Phillips considers Franklin D. Roosevelt one of the team
because--his affiliation to the Democratic Party notwithstanding--he was
rich but a reformer of radical scope (responding, one might add, not
necessarily to his conscience but to social unrest). For most
Republicans, Phillips has nothing kind to say. "The Democrats," he
writes, "were the more important incubators of the Internet mania, but
the underpinning economic spirit was the market-deifying,
tax-cutting, and assets-aggrandizing conservatism given its head in the
eighties. This part of the framework was more Republican."
The Republican pedigree lets Phillips get away with murder. He rants and
raves in a way that someone on the left would be skewered for. The
result, however, is welcome. It is satisfying to read an analysis of the
US economy from the standpoint of greed and conservative morality.
The history lessons Phillips administers range from Aristotle to the
Gilded Age of the 1920s, which he contrasts with Gilded Age II of the
1990s. He examines Holland's tulip mania and its economic decline as a
world power, comparing its fall with that of Britain and possibly the
United States. In one table, culled from the Wall Street Journal,
he lists the wealthiest people of the past 1,000 years, starting with
Al-Mansur (938-1002), the Moorish regent of Cordoba, who got rich through plunder,
moving to Kublai Khan, ruler of China (1215-94), who got rich from
inheritance and confiscation, and ending with Bill Gates (1955-), the US
software executive, who got rich on stock ownership in Microsoft.
Other facts and figures are no less interesting, and some of Phillips's
charts are ingenious. To show the "giantizing" of wealth enjoyed by the
richest person in the realm, Phillips compares the largest fortune at
the time to that of the median family or household. In 1790, the ratio
of the richest man's wealth, Elias Derby, to the median was 4,000 to 1.
By 1868, the ratio of Cornelius Vanderbilt's wealth (in railroads) to
the median was 80,000 to 1. For John D. Rockefeller in 1912, the ratio
was 1,250,000 to 1 (in 1940, it fell to 850,000 to 1). In 1962, the
ratio for Jean Paul Getty was 138,000 to 1. For Sam Walton in 1992, it
was 185,000 to 1. For Bill Gates in 1999, it was the blockbuster,
1,416,000 to 1! Presumably, the ratio increased over time as the United
States moved from an agrarian economy to one based on modern
transportation (railroads), natural resource exploitation (copper, oil)
and then manufacturing, where new product innovations could flourish.
Compared with other wealthy countries, inequality in the United States
is extreme. In the 1990s, the income ratio in Japan of the top fifth of
households to the bottom fifth was only 4.3 to 1. (A similar ratio
exists in Korea and Taiwan, which, like Japan, had a land reform after
World War II.) European social democracies tended to have ratios of 6 or
7 to 1 (5.8 in Germany). The US ratio was 11 to 1 or higher, depending
on the source. Presumably this reflected the United States' cowboy
capitalism, its rich raw materials, its pioneering technologies and its
corporations' ability to mass-produce for a vast domestic market.
Wealth (which Phillips never defines) is essentially the difference
between inflows and outflows of income, which is savings in the case of
households and profits in the case of firms. Once wealth is attained,
its holder has to figure out what to do with it. Thus, the financial
services industry usually expands as wealth expands. In the 1990s the
finance, insurance and real estate sector (FIRE) overtook manufacturing
in US national income, "enabled by a dozen federal rescues and
preferences, begun in the eighties and consummated in the nineties." The
thirty richest individuals in 2001 also included eight in finance,
investments and real estate--including Warren Buffett, George Soros and
Ross Perot. As finance grows, Phillips argues, the likelihood of a
technobubble grows exponentially.
What does it all mean, the rising inequality and "financialization" of
Business as usual, insofar as Gilded Age II is merely a catch-up with
Gilded Age I. Between 1922 and 1997, the share of total wealth of the
top 1 percent of households spiked in 1929 at 44.2 percent, tumbled to
33.3 percent in 1933, reached a nadir of 19.9 percent in 1976 (as
profits plunged with the energy crisis) and hit 40.1 percent in 1997
(the estimates are from Edward Wolff). As the stock market boomed in
1997-2000, the wealth of the richest rose further, but atomized with the
crash of 2000, into the present. Wealth inequality appears to be wired
into the American system.
Relative increases in the wealth of the rich, moreover, are often
compatible with increases in real wages and productivity. The average
family's real income increased 30 percent between 1960 and 1968 as the
ranks of millionaires swelled. Then came the era of stagflation.
According to the Council of Economic Advisers, average hourly earnings,
adjusted for consumer prices, fell by 0.5 percent a year from 1978 to
1995. They then rose at a piddling 2 percent a year from 1995 to 2000,
in tandem with rising productivity and the "irrational exuberance" of
the stock market. Thus, wealth inequality does not preclude modest
increases in income for other social classes.
Yet, inequality matters, depending on the use to which wealth is put.
And that in turn depends on the economic and social profile of the
accumulating classes. Kevin Phillips, however, is not keen on "class
analysis." "'Class warfare'...is a false description," he writes, "a
perverse conservative borrowing from Karl Marx," because the United
States has had rich reformers and poor Republicans.
Still, one doesn't have to emulate Karl Marx in the Grundrisse to
emphasize that the new American class of rich is different from the
railroad barons or the oil money of old. For one, it is extremely well
educated. Between 1975 and 1998, the mean annual earnings of US workers
with less than four years of high school fell steadily. Those of high
school graduates stagnated. Those of college graduates rose slightly.
Those of people with advanced degrees soared, particularly after 1990,
when the demand for economists, lawyers, accountants and MBAs heated up
(as noted by Edward Wolff).
Investments of the new superrich, therefore, are likely to gravitate
toward new technologies in manufacturing and services, and fancy
finance. With high educational attainments, the new elite may be
expected to command a lot of money and social legitimacy, which the old
tycoons never quite managed. A mere college education is no longer a
guarantee of upward mobility, as Washington policy-makers still believe.
For most ordinary people without a college degree or fancy MBA, the new
rich have created a tougher world. Horatio Alger now goes to graduate
The second defining characteristic of the new rich is their
internationalism. They hire, produce and market globally, and have
mobilized bipartisan political support for operating overseas.
That all started with strong competition from Japan in the 1980s.
Technologically behind the United States, Japan had more government
interventions to help business grow (as did Korea, Taiwan, China, India,
etc.). The United States regarded this as unfair, and shoved a "level
playing field" down everyone's throat--backward and advanced countries
have to be equal with open markets, free of government's foul play.
The financial services sector, with large-scale economies, benefited
enormously from Washington's dismantling of developing countries'
barriers to foreign banking and regulations of inflows and outflows of
"hot," destabilizing money. Deregulation was soon followed by the Asian
financial crisis of 1997. The Treasury still publishes a book each year
documenting on a country-by-country basis the remaining obstacles abroad
to American financial institutions. The pharmaceuticals industry
benefited from the extension of patent enforcement to developing
countries notwithstanding their need for cheap medicines. The software
industry pressed for protection of intellectual property.
Strangely, Phillips hardly talks about globalization at all. But from
stray sentences we can assume he doesn't like it, especially its effect
on domestic jobs. Yet lobbying in Washington for protection of jobs that
can be provided more efficiently in lower-wage countries is little
different in principle from lobbying for tax breaks and deregulation for
the rich. They are both a form of political corruption.
Phillips ends his 470-page book with a tepid recommendation, given the
preceding fire and brimstone. It is to end the "democratic deficit,"
which puts power in the hands of unelected organizations--the judiciary,
the Federal Reserve and the WTO. But Washington has a large say in the
WTO, controls the World Bank and has a loud voice in the International
Monetary Fund. For American business, that deficit is small.
Is, therefore, American foreign economic policy likely to give the new
class of rich the global stability it desperately requires? No, if Kevin
Phillips is right and inequality does matter. Internationally, economic
inequality among countries has grown like Topsy. As industrialization
spread unevenly, the ratio in per capita income of the richest to the
poorest regions of the world rose from about 3 to 1 in 1820, to 5 to 1
in 1870, to 9 to 1 in 1913, to 15 to 1 in 1950. Then, as East Asia grew,
the ratio fell in 1972 to 13 to 1, but rose steeply to 19 to 1 in 1998,
the age of hardball globalism (data are from Angus Maddison, The
World Economy). Global distribution of income and wealth is becoming
as important to the American rich as domestic distribution, and both are
Phillips doesn't consider any of this, but that's fine. He makes a real
contribution by showing how American politics works, what really goes on
behind the fortunes.
Yech! What a scene!
Mary McCarthy would have turned 90 on June 21, a fact that is itself astonishing to those who remember her flagrant youth, when her sharp style made her the most feared and forthright writer in New York.
I am writing this review in the midst of a Chicago heat wave, almost
exactly seven years after the heat disaster that killed nearly 800
people in the city. The Chicago Tribune's multicolored weather
page adorns the forecast with a special "excessive heat watch"
symbol--an exclamation point lodged in a red circle--newscasters
earnestly tell us to stay inside and take it easy, and veteran black
radio deejay Herb Kent, the Kool Gent, chats on-air about liquor and
caffeinated drinks being dehydrating and the need to drink lots of "good
I remember the 1995 disaster well, but for me personally it was a period
of intensive work on my last book, cooped up indoors 24/7, with roaring
air-conditioning, punctuated by horrified reading of the
Tribune's coverage of rolling city power outages and the growing
spectacle of hundreds of heat-related deaths, with the bodies piling up
and overwhelming the city morgue's capacity. Suspicious of the
Tribune because of its long history of rightist and racist
slants, I scrutinized the stories to see if the city was, as usual,
shortchanging its black South and West sides on services, but couldn't
figure anything out. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, a young Chicago
native, was out of the country during the disaster, but has since then
more than made up for lost time. His Heat Wave is a trenchant,
multilayered and well-written social autopsy of the disaster.
Since finishing Heat Wave, I've been obsessively asking friends,
neighbors, students and colleagues if they were in town in July 1995,
and if so, what they remember. Most of my middle-class interlocutors
were as insulated as I was, in cooled rooms, and only vaguely remember
the period because of media coverage. But many younger people, who were
then living on student or first-job budgets, told tales of extreme
misery and multiple palliative strategies--double bills at
air-conditioned theaters, plunging into Lake Michigan every possible
nonworking hour, bunking with better-off friends and relatives, long
drives in cars with AC and, of course, all the old tricks with cold
water, towels and fans. One conservative young woman described her
sudden comprehension, lying sweaty and wretched in her sweltering apartment, listening to neighbors' AC compressors turning on, of the ressentiment and violence of some inner-city dwellers.
In fact, Klinenberg explains, aside from some vigilante actions against
city workers sent to reseal the 3,000 open fire hydrants liberated by
kids, poor Chicagoans were far too enervated by the hot, wet blanket
enveloping the city to commit mayhem. The real criminals of the heat
crisis, Klinenberg makes clear, were the federal, state and local
officials who, in the words of Robert Scates, the bitter black
thirty-year veteran emergency medical services director, committed
"murder by public policy."
But first we need to come to terms with the epidemiological realities of
heat crises. Extreme heat, Klinenberg explains, tends not to be taken as
seriously as other weather and human disasters--hurricanes, floods,
earthquakes, blizzards, plane crashes. But "more people die in heat
waves than in all other extreme events combined," and the '95
crisis has "no equal in the record of US heat disasters." Because the
body's defenses "can take only about forty-eight hours of uninterrupted
exposure to such heat before they break down," Klinenberg observes, area
ambulance services and emergency rooms were soon overwhelmed, and at the
height of the catastrophe, half of Chicago's hospitals went on bypass
status--turned all new patients away. Most Chicagoans saw the grisly
televised scenes of emergency workers falling prostrate with heatstroke,
of police cars backed up clear around the block, waiting to deliver
cadavers to nine forty-eight-foot refrigerated trucks donated by a local
meatpacking firm when the morgue ran entirely out of body-storage space,
and heard and read about the record-breaking murderousness of the
disaster. But Klinenberg notes that only months after the catastrophe,
Chicagoans reacted to his queries with "detachment and disavowal." Not
only did they, and the press whose interpretations they were reflecting,
wish to relegate the disaster to a nonhappening but many, following
Mayor Richard Daley's lead, asserted that the death figures weren't
"really real," that "the massive mortality figures...had somehow been
fabricated, or that the deaths were simply not related to the heat."
Klinenberg took on the task of explicating what's "really real" with
extraordinary energy. He burrowed into public health and press
documents, did street-level fieldwork and police ride-alongs in poor
neighborhoods, interviewed every possible city, state and private agency
official, and many low-level service workers, and thoroughly engaged
local journalists on their hour-by-hour decision-making on the framing
and coverage of the breaking story. In domain after domain, across
institutions, he smashes home his key finding: "The geography of
vulnerability during the heat wave was hauntingly similar to the
everyday ecology of inequality." Heat disasters in general resonate less
with the general public because, unlike other sorts of disasters, they
leave property untouched and mostly affect the poor, the frail, the
nonwhite--whoever can't afford air-conditioning! The Chicago dead were
indeed largely the isolated, elderly and disproportionately black poor,
and the city rapidly turned its back on them.
But the everyday ecology of inequality is not a timeless phenomenon, and
Chicago is not Everycity. By the mid-1990s, the US economy had recovered
from the Reagan-Bush recession, the market was booming, urban street
crime was dropping and American media were hyping an urban renaissance.
Mayor Daley capitalized on these national trends with an ambitious
program of urban beautification and a massive public relations campaign,
suburbanites moved back downtown and tourism revived dramatically.
(Klinenberg doesn't mention the role of the 1990s spike in international
migration to Chicago, which brought much-needed quality and variety to
local restaurant fare, added exotic cuteness to tourist attractions and
provided a vast underpaid labor force for booming restaurants, hotels
and offices.) During the heat wave, the Daley administration was
particularly engaged in "gloss[ing] its image in preparation for the
Democratic National Convention of 1996"--felt as a crucial task, given
the debacle of the 1968 DNC event, when Daley's father was mayor, with
its globally reproduced images of Chicago's finest beating the shit out
of middle-class white kids and not a few journalists and Democratic
politicians. So it comes as little surprise that Daley viewed the heat
wave deaths primarily as "a potential public relations disaster," and
Chicago-watchers will not be too surprised to read that the city
administration both actively hindered appropriate relief efforts and put
most of its energy into an attempt to "spin its way out of the crisis."
God is in the details, though, and Klinenberg painstakingly lays out for
us both the structural and more proximate policies that led to the
disastrous Chicago mortality figures of July 1995. Most crucial is the
rise of neoliberalism, which Klinenberg rather oddly denominates
"reinvented government" and "the entrepreneurial state," in a narrow
sociological tradition, rather than connecting to abundant available
radical analyses of the phenomenon worldwide. No matter, he names the
key shifts: the state's growing divestment of social service
responsibilities; the outsourcing and simultaneous downsizing of the
remaining functions; the overarching capitalist managerial model of
lean, mean efficiency; and the new model of citizens as "active
consumers" of public goods, and too damned bad if they lack the
knowledge, capacity or energy to do so.
In the case of the heat wave, the crucial noxious brew involved
neoliberal policies with regard to low-cost housing, consumer energy use
and social service personnel. Since Reagan, the federal government has
been cutting back support for low-cost housing, and the public housing
crisis in Chicago was so acute that local activists were unwilling to
draw attention to the many code violations in single room occupancy
(SRO) hotel units--more than 18,000 rooms had been lost already--for
fear that they would "only embolden the political officials and real
estate developers who would prefer to convert the units into market-rate
family housing." As a result, many frail elderly people literally cooked
to death in illegal multiply subdivided "cattle sheds for human beings."
As well, the traditional down-on-its-luck SRO population had been
swollen since the 1970s with the mentally ill dumped onto urban housing
markets with the closure of government-operated asylums. Fragile
community connections were severed as SRO residents, afraid of the
"crazy folk," retreated from common spaces into their tiny rooms, making
it ever more likely that those sinking with heatstroke would fail to be
discovered until it was too late. In public housing, the Chicago Housing
Authority provided no air-conditioning even in common rooms, and in a
perverse interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the CHA
dumped youthful drug addicts, without rehab services, into
well-established senior housing all over the city. Crime in the projects
predictably skyrocketed, the collective caretaking bonds the residents
had built atrophied as the elderly retreated in terror into their
individual units; many lives were lost as a result.
Air-conditioning may be part of the overarching environmental crisis,
but it is a godsend in extreme heat, and for better or worse,
working-class and better-off Americans have organized their lives around
it in all parts of the country affected by high summer temperatures.
Inability to afford winter heating, much less summer air-conditioning,
is part of what Klinenberg labels the "everyday energy crisis" of the
poor. A 50 percent cutback in the federal low-income energy-assistance
program, combined with soaring utility rates, pinched the city of
Chicago so badly that it still closes down aid each year at the
beginning of the cold season, and provides no AC subsidies at all. The
poor elderly with whom Klinenberg visited were so fearful of excessive
energy bills that they even avoided using electric lights during the
day. In an extraordinary illustration of neoliberal cruelty, as the heat
wave deaths were still being counted, the US Senate initiated a vote to
end the energy program but settled on skimming off a mere hundred
million dollars. In the same session, Congress vastly expanded federal
support to insurance companies and homeowners who suffer property damage
due to disasters. The final fillip is the new "market model" utility
policy that punishes delinquent customers, even the desperately ill, by
cutting off not only electricity but water. Klinenberg notes
sardonically that this policy is simply not parallel to the money-making
efficiency of the car boot: "Water, unlike a car, is a resource that
people need to survive."
Chicago's specific demographic and spatial history greatly magnified the
final domain--social services--of murder by public policy. Klinenberg
demonstrates that the city, much to my surprise, has significantly
higher percentages than the American average both of single residents in
general and of elderly living alone. Of course, as he notes, living
alone and being without resources are two distinct states. But Chicago
lost 1 million people between 1950 and 1990, and for the elderly poor,
"aging in place" in neighborhoods devastated first by capital and then
by massive population flight--and then colonized by kids working in the
only industry left, drugs--is a recipe for dangerous isolation. Add
state cutbacks and outsourcing, and you have private agencies on
insanely low budgets sending outrageously overworked service providers
out to elderly poor clients no more than once a year--and even then, in
fear of the druggies, confining their visits to the early mornings.
North Lawndale is one such "bombed out" neighborhood, and Klinenberg's
star turn is a rigorous ethnographic and historical comparison of that
Southwest Side area with the contiguous Little Village. Both
neighborhoods were founded by Southeastern European immigrants and then
tipped minority in the postwar years, and both have similar poverty
levels and percentages of poor elderly--but North Lawndale had ten times
more heat wave deaths, proportionately, than its southern neighbor.
Scholars, politicians, social service people and even residents
themselves offered up "racial" explanations, as North Lawndale is black
while Little Village is Mexican: Latinos are used to hot weather, they
have close intergenerational families, they form tight communities, etc.
Klinenberg demolishes all these folk theories with hard facts and
careful logic (and not a little sarcasm--black Chicagoans with roots in
the Delta don't have close families and aren't used to hot weather?) and
forces us to consider variations in urban spatial ecology and their
consequences for city-dwellers' daily lives. After all, three Chicago
neighborhoods with the lowest per capita heat-wave death rates were
majority-black--but not "bombed out."
The key difference is human density. Little Village is both an
entrepôt for the vast Latino migration to Chicago and a safe haven
for Latinos gentrified out of other neighborhoods. As one resident said
of the neighborhood, "there is no such thing as an empty lot." High
populations maintain abundant local business, which in turn guarantees
lively street life and thus a safe and interesting public environment in
which the elderly can shop, exercise--and cool down in air-conditioned
stores during a heat wave. Even the "aging in place" whites left over
from Little Village's earlier incarnation fared well in the crisis.
Certainly Little Villagers have strong community bonds, especially
through the Catholic Church, but North Lawndale residents are organized
to a fare-thee-well too. Their church groups and block clubs, though,
simply cannot make up for abandoned buildings, empty lots and few
Klinenberg deals diligently but less successfully with three other
domains key to his story. He nails the Daley administration's
culpability in an hour-by-hour account of the unfolding disaster and
discusses the highly publicized failed snow removal that doomed the
1970s Bilandic administration, but he neglects to mention
African-American Harold Washington's brief but significant interim
mayoralty of the 1980s. Washington, after all, gained both national fame
and notoriety for trying to equalize city resources across rich and poor
neighborhoods, and that profoundly race-inflected inequality is the
fulcrum of Heat Wave's criticism of current city government. Some
of Klinenberg's heroes of the crisis, public health activist Quentin
Young and Sid Bild of Metro Seniors in Action, are actually white
veterans of the old Washington coalition. And we never really hear about
the Daley/developer deals that have stripped the city of affordable
housing, which are well documented in radical scholarship and
journalism. Similarly, Klinenberg does wonders with the sordid story of
the firefighter/paramedic feud--one reason for the city's belated response to the crisis--but doesn't really clue us in that racism is at the root of that
one too. Finally, he gives us terrific reporter's-eye insight into the
bureaucratic realities that determined the false coverage of the
breaking crisis at the Chicago Tribune, but never informs us of
the Trib's history of rightist ownership, the structures above
the heads of the city editors.
Klinenberg documents the local media's chastened post-'95
hyperresponsibility to advise the public on individual tactics to
mitigate heat danger, and lists the specific ongoing political
structures that will inevitably lead to more murder by public policy.
But he never quite adds these elements up to their sum total--the heat
disaster as an altogether predictable product of neoliberal capitalist
shift. Heat Wave connects the dots to tell us an important new
muckraking story but doesn't fully recognize the radical urban and
national political economy narrative already on the page.
Like Pop-Up Video--one of the many things the movie-industry left
never anticipated--ancillary factoids keep imposing themselves on Paul
Buhle and Dave Wagner's Radical Hollywood:
1. When the oft-dubbed "revolutionary" Lew Wasserman (longtime MCA mogul) died this past June 3, obit writers made the old archcapitalist
sound like he'd been the happy end of a Bolshevik dream--the man who
finally took the power away from the studios and gave it to the people
(OK, very rich, well-placed people).
2. Wasn't it Ronald Reagan--"FBI collaborator," the man deemed "too
dumb" for membership in Hollywood's CP of the 1930s and the star of the
blacklisted screenwriter Val Burton's last movie (Bedtime for
Bonzo)--who helped decontrol the studios' ownership of movie
theaters, i.e., the means of distribution?
3. Showing that memory is fleeting even among the most
progressive-minded people, the Stockholm International Film Festival of
1997 jumped the gun on the Academy Awards and hosted a retrospective of
work by friendly witness Elia Kazan--its organizers claiming, quite
convincingly, that they were completely unaware of the then-raging (sort
of) Kazan Kontroversy.
4. Showing that memory is as tenacious as the ego it's attached to,
Hollywood Ten member Ring Lardner Jr., honoree of the
screenwriter-centric Nantucket Film Festival of 1998, still had the
energy to rail against the system--although the preponderance of his
outrage was not over his HUAC-imposed prison time but the liberties
Joseph Mankiewicz and Louis B. Mayer had taken fifty-odd years before
with his script for Woman of the Year.
If there are unwritten messages within Radical Hollywood, one
might be that artistic vanity and general cupidity are neither exclusive
nor native to a particular political persuasion, nor even the movie
industry itself. And that nothing ever changes. Current cinephiles fear
and loathe the fact that in today's movie business, "business" takes
precedence over "movies." But by 1933, after the bankruptcies of Fox,
Paramount and RKO, the money men had already taken over. (As the authors
write, "Bankers were good at firing studio workers...but were notably
untalented at making films." Make it "lawyers" and it might be 2002.)
Back in 1919, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary
Pickford organized the first independent-of-the-studios Hollywood movie
company, United Artists--the DreamWorks of its time. Last year's
threatened strike by the Writers Guild--which, together with the strike
threat by the Screen Actors Guild, is still affecting studio production
schedules--was largely about credits, because they translate into
salaries; in 1933, meeting secretly, Hollywood's leading screenwriters
(including such leftist lights as John Howard Lawson, John Bright,
Samuel Ornitz and Lester Cole) gathered to organize, largely over the
issue of credits, and for the same reason. Variety, Hollywood
"bible" and noted mangler of the English language, played the game with
the mobbed-up craft union IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical
Stage Employees) back in Depression-era Hollywood. It plays plenty of
And then (sigh) there's that oh-so-predictable outcry over pop cinema's
influence on/instigation of sociocriminal behavior--the knee-jerk
finger-pointing at Hollywood every time a Columbine happens (but never,
you may notice, a 9/11). This is hardly a newsflash either: The release
of such hard-nosed gangster thrillers as The Public Enemy,
Scarface and Little Caesar in the early 1930s helped lead
to the establishment of the Legion of Decency, the Production Code, the
Hays Office, the bluenosed rule of in-house censor Joseph Breen and
decades-long cultural prosperity for those who preferred their movie sex
infantilized and their view of America strained through fine mesh. How
the Christian right does long for those thrilling days of yesteryear.
The story of the left in Hollywood, in other words, is the story of
today in Hollywood; but if you're looking for correlations and parallels
you won't find many in Radical Hollywood. Not that parallels are
always what you need: As the blacklisted writer/director Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil, Body and Soul,
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) told interviewer David Walsh a few
months before his death in 1999, "In the old days, if something like
this [the Kazan Oscar] was going on, you'd make a few telephone calls,
you'd have a thousand people there. No more. Nobody believes in
anything, except in the finance capitalist." Did anyone in the whole of
Hollywood--or the entire United States Congress, for that matter--make a
peep of support for the recent and quite reasonable California appellate
court decision on the Pledge of Allegiance? If they did, it was drowned
out by the sound of scuttling feet, heading for the political lifeboats.
This last episode was certainly too late for inclusion or comment in
Radical Hollywood, but it points up both the stasis and mutation
in what we have to recognize, however reluctantly, as the cultural
capital of the country--and whose history is far more alive than this
book would imply. Encyclopedic in the most frightening sense, RH
is thorough and wide-ranging, and fairly exhaustive in ferreting out
every possible leftist association in any vaguely relevant movie
produced by Hollywood from the New Deal through the postwar Red Scare.
But the authors are also straitjacketed by their own theses: One, that
there was a leftist subtext imposed on many of the movies that
the right held in fear and contempt. (Who knew?) And two, that the
movies were simply superior during the more or less lefty days of
They may be right. "The content of films was better in 1943 than it is
in 1953," Hollywood Ten-ster Dalton Trumbo is quoted as saying, and the
authors contend that "any reasonable calculation" would confirm what
Trumbo says. But reasonable calculation has nothing to do with the very
subjective business of judging art. One might as well reduce the entire
argument to a single question: What do you prefer? Movies with the
left-leaning Humphrey Bogart? Or movies with Ronald Reagan? It may not
seem to be a contest. But it wouldn't be an example of the scientific
Despite their tabloidy subtitle--"the untold story behind America's
favorite movies"--Buhle and Wagner don't dabble much in the anecdote,
gossip or movie-set story that would have lubricated their prose or
perhaps even parted their sea of subordinate clauses. Still, famous
names abound. "As FBI reports suggested," Lucille Ball, Katharine
Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Danny
Kaye, Fredric March, Bette Davis, Lloyd Bridges, John Garfield, Anne
Revere, Larry Parks (The Jolson Story), the wives of March and
Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck's fiancée--to say nothing of the
scores of writers Buhle and Wagner profile and analyze, or their more
loosely affiliated or merely sympathetic directors and stars--were all
in or close to the Communist Party. Why? For one thing, the authors say,
because these were the people of 1930s and '40s Los Angeles who were
smarter, consequently more liberal, and enjoying a more egalitarian and
humanistic worldview than their constipatedly conservative counterparts.
But it was, they point out, also a result of Hollywood's (and America's)
bigotry and its effect on social life: The comically titled West Side
Writing and Asthma Club, an ostensibly nonpolitical alternative for Jews
barred from Los Angeles's beach clubs and marginalized in the better
restaurants, became a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment (which, of course,
made it politically suspect). Eventually, through the Asthma Club, even
one of the world's leading, albeit largely apolitical, Marxists
(Groucho) could channel donations to the Popular Front.
That the Communist Party in Hollywood was largely a "social agency," as
the authors call it, was what helped make the McCarthy-era hearings and
HUAC roundups so wide-ranging and terrifying, even if, after the
Hitler-Stalin Pact, the LA branch of the party "had died...but simply
not known it," as the exiled Carl Foreman (High Noon) put it. How
such screenwriters, who are Buhle and Wagner's principal subjects,
maintained their political principles while clawing their way up the
studio ladders is something left amorphous. Lardner, ever aware of the
contradictions in being a high-priced proletarian, said in his
autobiography I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (his famous response
to J. Parnell Thomas about why he wouldn't name names) that he picketed
Warner Bros. when Mussolini's son came calling, and told David O.
Selznick not to make Gone With the Wind because it was pro-Klan.
But he was an artist, too, a hungry one, and a man who knew the siren
song of fame and fortune never quite harmonized with "The
The authors exhibit a weakness for locating leftist content and
associations where they need to and and shoehorning certain movies into
their theses (their view of Universal's horror catalogue as anti-Wall
Street seems particularly windy). But by the time Radical
Hollywood gets to the era of film noir--which they call "arguably
the only fully realized American 'art film' genre"--it feels as if the
rest of the book has been prologue. Clearly, the authors know and love
the period and what it did to American cinema in the aftermath of World
War II--countering the forced fairy tale of Hollywood with a new, frank,
sexually liberated, sexually sophisticated, sexually metaphorical take
on the dark view of postwar, postnuclear existence (although, strangely,
Radical Hollywood never analyzes noir via the A-bomb, despite the
celebrated apocalyptic imagery of such genre classics as Robert
Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly). That noir also refashioned the
traditional portrayals of the sexes--at a time when, the authors point
out, the country's postwar recovery and strength were being
propagandized as dependent on the American male and his renewed sense of
self--made it one of the most important cultural developments of the
twentieth century, if not the nation's entire cultural history. No
wonder it fell victim to the strangling effects of creeping McCarthyism.
Radical Hollywood, whether or not it's "the untold story behind
America's favorite movies," certainly puts a new spin on those films,
especially for those already familiar with them--readers who,
unfortunately, will be those most distracted by the authors' rather
habitual way with the errant fact. Some are trivial: Edward G. Robinson
didn't say "Mother of God..." at the end of Little Caesar; he
said "Mother of Mercy," as any schoolchild knows (any schoolchild,
granted, with an unnatural obsession with movies). William Randolph
Hearst may have "attributed the 'subversive' label to anything that
smacked of egalitarian liberalism," but he didn't do it in the pages of
the Los Angeles Times, because he never owned the Los Angeles
Times. In assessing the populist perspective of Destry Rides
Again, Buhle and Wagner seem oblivious to the fact that James
Stewart's character is the son of the more famous Destry. The
famously Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (director of the
leftist-written Casablanca, among many others) is identified at
one point as a "German refugee." John Wayne's "first major screen role"
wasn't in 1938's Pals of the Saddle, but Raoul Walsh's 1930
The Big Trail. Warner Bros.' "self-serving prologue" at the
beginning of The Public Enemy may have been self-serving--it
mentions the social impact of the studio's own PE and Little
Caesar while omitting UA's Scarface--but it wasn't on the
original 1931 print; it was added for a re-release several years later.
Jean Renoir's The Southerner marked William Faulkner's "only
notable screenplay contribution"? How about The Big Sleep?
Mildred Pierce? And let's not forget To Have and Have Not,
in which he rewrote Hemingway, by all reports to their mutual delight.
And Katharine Hepburn didn't lose the "box-office poison" appellation
after Holiday but after The Philadelphia Story, whose film
rights she bought because she knew it would remake her career.
But let's imagine this litany of errors is itself a metaphor for the
intrinsic unreality of the left in Hollywood. It's a subject that Buhle
and Wagner have attacked with energy and all the right intentions; the
reader may wish that he or she were given a bit more reason to stick
with the book through its thicker moments, but there's no denying the
authors' enthusiasm, erudition and engaging way of summarizing plot
lines and associations. Still, it's a weird tale they're telling. As
they relate early on, Polonsky recounted in his later years that one of
the oft-discussed issues among the Hollywood left wing was what, in
fact, they were all doing there. Should they be in Hollywood, making pap
and trying to inject it with a social conscience? Or secede from the
union and create film art independently? As Polonsky put it, the answer
was simple: "Filmmaking in the major studios is the prime way that film
art exists." And so it was. And is. And unfortunately--thanks to an
American indie movement that has lost its lure for youth, a dissipated
market for the once-hip foreign film and a general tendency toward
divorce between American art and American politics--so it is likely to
I don't know if it's some childhood image left over from Victory at
Sea or from a book of pictures my uncle brought back from the
service, but when I think about the war in the Pacific, I see pink
cumulus clouds piled high, one upon another, on the decks of aircraft
carriers. It's not the iconic image of violent battle that usually represents the war, but my imagination seems to be
telling me that the iconic images aren't the whole story, that serenity
and beauty coexisted alongside the bloodshed and were a large part of
the day-to-day reality of the war.
It's for similar reasons that I think the nitty-gritty details of life
near Ground Zero as presented in one of the first theatrical responses
to 9/11, comic monologist Reno's Rebel Without a Pause, appeal to
me so. They provide relief from the media's iconic packaging, which has
been beamed at us ever since the attack on the Trade Towers and the
(rarely mentioned) Pentagon attack.
With a deluge of energy, Reno, who lived near the towers from 1981,
relates what it was like in lower Manhattan "that gorgeous day." She
recreates the clicking sound, like the noise an old machine gun would
make, that was the sound of the floors collapsing into one another. She
exhibits dismay at the total absence of Conelrad and the Emergency
Defense System. ("Maybe this wasn't enough of an emergency.") She
tells a story about finding her ATM emptied out at 9 am and the bank
refusing to open its doors so customers could get their money.
But mostly it's the human reactions to catastrophe that are so
wonderful, so wildly hilarious. The rumors that the terrorists are holed
up with machetes in a macrobiotic restaurant on Prince Street; people
rushing home to have their televisions validate what they'd just seen
with their own eyes; and what Reno calls the "hierarchical bragging
rights of pain and knowledge"--New Yorkers one-upping each other over
what they knew and what they'd suffered.
Reno's warnings about changes in constitutional protections make for a
very disturbing second half of her monologue, though she herself doesn't
seem to fear the new spy agency powers: She gives voice to her every
political thought, no matter how out there it is. She points out how
cheaply reporters have been won over by chummy Don Rumsfeld, and she
contemplates Henry Kissinger being arrested for war crimes. Reno even
suggests that Florida be allowed to float down to Uruguay, "where all
the other fascists are."
She also reveals some interesting facts, like ones you find in this
magazine but not in the major media. For instance, Hamid Karzai, the new
president of Afghanistan, used to work for Unocal. And this from Frank
Lindh, who saw the show the night before I did: FBI agents treated his
son kindly because even they knew "he was a hapless kid."
After a while, I began feeling the tingle of what I hope was just my own
paranoia (although as I learned the last time--when Watergate lanced the
Nixonian pustule--paranoia can be a very accurate predictor of reality).
Reno talks about what is being done to our civil liberties in the
context of Christian fundamentalist influence on this Administration. At
342 pages, the USA Patriot Act, she suggests, wasn't written in the days
after 9/11, and the Padilla case has clearly crossed the line of
innocent until proven guilty. She builds a picture of how really
extremist the Bush people are and how far to the right the President has
taken the country. So far, in fact, that Colin Powell is the "Communist
of this Administration."
Such points may be made with laughter, but Reno brings a fierceness to
her criticisms and an urgency to her concerns about the current
Administration that we are only beginning to see in the big world, and
then over financial wheeler-dealering and privilege, not civil liberties
and constitutional guarantees.
You will walk away from Reno with a clear sense that the changes aren't
minor, and they won't fall only on bad guys and enemies. It's a real
turning point: Democracy is up for grabs.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe's free summer show, Mr. Smith Goes to
Obscuristan, likewise treats the aftermath of 9/11. In it,
Condoleezza Rice (Velina Brown) and Dick Cheney (Cheney lookalike Ed
Holmes) seek to sell the Bush presidency as an Administration that cares
about democracy, not profits, and so devise a plan to send 9/11
firefighter Jeff Smith (the always wonderful Michael Gene Sullivan) to
oversee the first free election in the Central Asian, formerly Soviet,
republic of Obscuristan. The winner of this contest is certain to be
warlord and privatizer Automaht Regurgitov (Victor Toman), since he is
the only candidate. That is, until the oppositionist Ralif Nadir (Amos
Glick) throws his hat into the ring, arguing that "people should vote
their hearts, not their fears." (Of course, had one or two percent of
Florida's Nader voters forsworn that advice, the Mime Troupe wouldn't
have a Bush Administration to satirize.)
(Or would they?)
Smith, who has been kept ignorant by outfits like SNN, the Selective
News Network, believes America wants freedom for everyone. He is,
however, disillusioned when it becomes clear that there is oil in
Obscuristan and that the Administration's real interest is that
Regurgitov win, since he will insure the atmosphere necessary for US
investment. Smith then sets out to prove that the ordinary American
doesn't want to screw Obscuristan over, and by the end of the day
rescues Nadir, who was kidnapped and branded a terrorist. He also helps
bring an SNN reporter and the US ambassador over to the side of a fair
shake for Obscuristan.
The Mime Troupe hits many of the right points: that energy sources are a
major factor in our involvement in Central Asia, for instance, and that
much of the weaponry in the area was originally supplied by the CIA. And
they raise questions about just how free our own elections are. Given
that, I was left pondering why Mr. Smith seemed so tepid and not
particularly funny compared with Rebel Without a Pause. It's
doubly strange given that the Mime Troupe brought in the usually very
funny monologist, independent filmmaker and former Nation intern
Josh Kornbluth (Red Diaper Baby and Haiku Tunnel) to help
write the script.
The difference is, I think, that Reno articulates things you hadn't
thought about, or says things you may have thought a lot about, but in
ways that create the old shock of recognition. As when she says, "The
people of Missouri were so worried about Ashcroft making decisions, they
voted for the dead guy."
There are moments like that in Mr. Smith. Barbara Bush (Ed Holmes
again, this time in a gray wig and pearls) explains the rules of the oil
game to George W., and the whole facade of her Betty Crockerdom smacks
right up against her tough capitalist intelligence. This is a Barbara
Bush who says, "Never send a member of the working class to do an
aristocrat's job." But such moments are rare. For the most part, the
Mime Troupe's most incisive statements, such as "Only an American would
confuse a fixed election with a real one" or "Welcome to democratic
nations like Saudi Arabia who protect human rights," simply restate our
perceptions or are so bitterly ironic that a lot of the laughter I heard
Given that the source of the satire is Capra's populist classic, Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington, I think the Mime Troupe missed a real
opportunity to have us question ourselves by asking, Who is Mr. Smith
and what is he about? In the mythos of Mime Troupe plays, the ordinary
American is decent and fair, and in every respect there's a lot of
daylight between him and the ruling class, and therefore between us and
what our government does in our name. The Mime Troupe believes that like
Jeff Smith, the ordinary American has been kept in ignorance by the
media, and that if he only knew what was really going on, he would rise
up and change things.
That conveniently ignores the fact that ordinary Americans are of many
minds, and that many of us do understand that our comfort is based on
the deprivation (and worse) of people in other parts of the world. So
then, you have to ask whether we feel we can't do anything about it or
whether we don't want to. How much is the ordinary American willing to
give up to see people elsewhere get a larger slice of the pie?
And what is the usefulness of a mythos of unquestioned fairness and
decency, and in this play, as in other Mime Troupe efforts, of a sellout
who regains her soul and of a decisive victory over the people's
enemies? It's positive, but does it send us out of the park feeling
hopeful and intent on action? Or do we feel that a lot of what we
witnessed was too simple and fantastic?
The appeal in Mr. Smith is ultimately to idealism, to looking out
for the other guy and doing the right thing. Reno, on the other hand,
talks about self-interest: that we are losing our rights and that some
of us were slaughtered. "The [US] government," she says, "created the
mujahedeen that came to my town and killed us." That seems a much
stronger motive for action.
Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan will be performed through Labor Day
in various Northern California locales (415-285-1717 or www.sfmt.org).
Rebel Without a Pause played a week at the Brava Theater Center
in San Francisco in June and went on to an extended run at the Lion
Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.