Thursday, March 09, 2006

My Nomination for April's Meeting

From Altercation's Book Suggestion of the Week:

Eyal Press, Absolute Convictions: My Father, A City and the Conflict That Divided America, (Holt). Here, Press describes the factory closings during the '70s that devastated Buffalo's economy just as he and his family were settling there.

Like that of many newcomers to the city, my father's experience of the hard times that befell Buffalo in the 1970s was mostly secondhand. He didn't know many people who worked in the steel mills and the auto plants. The professional association he eventually joined was the American Medical Association, not the AFL-CIO. Although he crossed paths with plenty of poor people in the city's hospitals, and although we ourselves were hardly living lavish existence at the time, the fear and insecurity that hovered over many families in the city did not lurk over us.

Even so, it was impossible to be in Buffalo at the time and not feel that something was profoundly awry, that something in the American Dream, which was supposed to guarantee opportunity to anybody who worked hard and strived to get ahead, had soured. As it turns out, the factory workers in Buffalo who started to view this dream as a mirage were not alone. The year my parents and I arrived in America, 1973, marked the beginning of what the economists Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone later termed the Great U-Turn. In the decades to come, several million manufacturing jobs disappeared from the United States, wages fell, the middle class shrank, and the U.S. economy more and more closely resembled an hourglass, with inequality rising and more and more people concentrated at either the bottom or the top. The jobs vanishing from Buffalo would eventually return but, as throughout the country, many of the new jobs would be part-time and lower paid. A new category, the working poor, would arise, and the era when a family supported by one breadwinner was a realistic vision for most Americans drew to a close. These were national as well as local trends. With or without feminism, they would help to render the traditional nuclear family (Mom tidying up the house, Dad at work, the kids in school) obsolete.

It was the perfect recipe, in theory, for a resurgence of the sort of class politics that had crystallized during earlier periods of economic duress. The Great Depression had prepared the way for the rise of organized labor and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Forty years earlier, during the 1890s, the plight of small farmers and mounting anger at big business had sparked the rise of the populist movement. "We have millionaires by the thousands and mendicants by the millions," Eugene Debs declared on a visit to Buffalo in 1896, just as the movement was gathering force. "A land where wealth accumulates and men decay." A quarter century later, in the 1920 presidential election, one in ten Buffalonians cast their ballot for Debs, the jailed socialist candidate.

There would be a resurgence of populism at the end of the twentieth century as well, only this time it would take radically different form. As the chasm between rich and poor widened, conservative activists would hone a language that linked the insecurity many Americans felt to the depredations of an immoral elite: not the economic elite nineteenth-century populists had inveighed against but a cultural elite. Not to financiers and robber barons but liberals, homosexuals, and feminists. Not the people who had moved Buffalo's factories to the Sun Belt and decimated its unions, but the ones who supported abortion rights and could be blamed for the nation's moral and spiritual decline."

Here he describes a video of a rescue that has just taken place at his father's office and explains how, in a blue-collar city where social activism once meant participation in the labor movement, the focus of rage among working-class people had shifted by the late 1980s to social issues like abortion (thanks in no small part to the conservative strategists who began courting this constituency a decade earlier).

"At first glance, the class identity of these people might have seemed murky: were they down-on-their-luck factory workers or pampered suburbanites? Viewed through the prism of the nation's culture wars, however, their status is clear. 'The clinics are run for profit - we're a nickel-and-dime organization,' a spokeswoman for the protesters had told The Buffalo News in 1985. This was the new language of populism in America, pitting ordinary, churchgoing Americans against a corrupt secular elite. By the time the video at my father's office was shot, class in America no longer existed in popular consciousness as a signifier of how much money people made. Instead, it had been redefined as a function of education and cultural background. If you believed that the Bible was the word of God and that traditional values were under assault, you belonged among the subjugated masses. If you believed in evolution and read The New York Times, you were privileged. If you attended church on Sunday and were convinced that the people running Hollywood, the courts, and the media were bringing America to ruin, you were marginalized. If you thought there were bigger problems out there than homosexuality and abortion, you were a snooty elite. In blue-collar Buffalo, a place where factory workers once attended night classes on the class struggle - but where, as elsewhere, churches increasingly played the role unions once had - this was how the social pyramid was increasingly imagined and seen."
For more, go here.


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