Who Will Pay?

If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu…


Another gem from Filmbilder: “Three experts give us their insights on a high explosive subject. If expert number four will be invited back shall be doubted.”

Which Side Are You On?

a review by Bob Roman

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages, $27.99

This memoir is about coming of age in the Appalachian parts Ohio and Kentucky. The book has been out for a while now, and there have been a considerable number of reviews: Understandably, as J. D. Vance self-identifies as a conservative and this book promises a reasonable insight into the cultural revolt that delivered some crucial working class votes to Donald Trump. Most of the reviews, rightwing and leftwing, were written with an ideological and political argument in mind and most of them present something of a caricature of what you will actually find in the book. It’s mostly been “Hooray for our side!”, “Boo for their side!”, “Who appointed Vance spokesman for the hillbillies?” In my humble opinion, the best of the reviews, but still not great, is Joshua Rothman’s The Lives of Poor White People in The New Yorker.

Vance actually gives the reader two things with his book. One is a personal story of resilience, growth and discovery that is well-written and engaging. It very much reminds me of Nathan McCall’s rather more violent 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, but it could easily be any number of other escape from poverty biographies.

The other thing is a discussion of poverty as a social and political issue. Vance steps into the middle of a very old conversation, best represented by an exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As I recall the conversation, F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, “The rich are very different than you or me.” To which Ernest Hemingway replied, “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

It is here that Vance and most of his reviewers lose their way. Vance’s journey is more than just an escape from penury. He grew up in unstable, traumatic, violent, self-destructive circumstances that, despite the best efforts of his grandparents and Middletown, Ohio, schools, left him unprepared to navigate the adult world. This was not only the lack of knowledge and confidence to negotiate bureaucracies or to accumulate and use “social capital” — in other words all the expected aspects of what some call the “culture of poverty.” It was also how to negotiate emotional and social intimacy. A happy family was a stunning discovery. It’s understandable that Vance would stand before this broad new vista and consider: “The rich are very different than you or me.”

Or are they? As I said, it’s an old conversation, and I remember earlier an iteration of the debate where, in reply, an author stripped a family biography of all class and ethnic identifiers. On the face of it, the stripped biography could have fit quite nicely among the worst of Vance’s home town of Middletown. The family? An American political dynasty: the Kennedys. If that’s not enough, just consider how dysfunctional celebrity gossip is sold to us as entertainment. Or consider Donald Trump. “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

So J. D. Vance has picked a side, and given his experience, his choice is entirely understandable. I think this is the point most reviewers miss. What Vance misses is the degree to which the dysfunction of hillbilly culture is really a reasonable attempt by individuals to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. As individuals, the odds are stacked highly against them. As Trump might put it, the game is fixed. As individuals, they are essentially powerless and of no consequence and they live lives of no consequence — no consequence for themselves and maybe not even for their children as why should anyone expect circumstances to improve? Under these circumstances, being lazy is not unreasonable, though being poor comes with more of an overhead of work than the better off might imagine.

Capitalism may have failed them, but so has everything else, including the left. You can find exceptions like occasional desert oases. Families, extended or otherwise, sometimes provide the needed support; Vance may be an example of this. Church communities can also serve, not just as a source of values and norms but as a venue for mutual aid. But when industry died, unions went away as well. There’s no political organization that has a presence outside the middle and ruling classes. I suspect a survey of Middletown would find a disorganized community: few clubs and civic organizations, few businesses, churches with mediocre market penetration among the faithful, and on…. Not much different than many urban poor neighborhoods.

Vance portrays this as a crisis. It is a crisis but it’s not exactly a new crisis. Poverty in Appalachia gets discovered periodically every few decades then forgotten except for when it is convenient for discrediting whatever had been previously proposed as a solution. Vance seems to imply this is a new crisis: a half truth. Just as Blacks had the Great Migration, hillbillies had their own exodus north (Readin’ Rightin’ Route 23)for some of the same reasons. (Arguably Black migrants were as much political refugees as economic migrants, hillbillies not so much.) What is new for southeast Ohio is that the jobs, the greener fields that the hillbillies fled to, left the country or were automated, leaving these economic migrants stranded.

Vance is not really very helpful with explaining the Trump phenomenon, partly because the book was published prior to the election. His account does kinda help make sense of it to me at least. The best way of thinking about Trump with respect to working class voters is as a wooden shoe: as an act of sabotage, in other words. For many voters, Trump was not elected in support of any particular agenda (promises! promises! politicians promise then go away) so much as an intent to disrupt things as they are. Loki, Coyote, Disrupter-in-Chief: Trump need not do anything more than make the world scream to be a success. Whether they’ll put up with success for four years is another matter.

So read this book. It’s not likely to change your mind in any major way. But Vance’s experience is worth sharing even if his diagnosis is inadequate. He’s also far closer to what might pass as the political center than any of the reviewers would let on. But I don’t think Vance is any longer a hillbilly. These days he’s one of them.

Brett Kavanaugh

by Bob Roman

Brett Kavanaugh has absolutely no business being a justice of the Supreme Court.

It’s not that he’s a political hack with an ideological agenda. Quite frankly, despite all the smiley faced homages to impartiality and The Constitution, most of the justices who have inhabited the Supreme Court bench have had agendas and biases. Sometimes the biases and agendas of a justice change over their career, sometimes for the better. And while Kavanaugh is a hack with an agenda that I oppose, that by itself is not an absolute disqualifier. Elections have consequences, after all. Nor is the Republican caucus’ rush to approve him a disqualifier. It’s odious, but much in politics (and life in general) stinks. These are grounds for opposing Kavanaugh’s appointment and for remembering, for vengeance, those who enabled it but, in my humble opinion, they are not grounds for saying Kavanaugh has absolutely no business being on the Supreme Court.

Kavanaugh is a liar, to us and to himself: that is what disqualifies him.

You do not have to assume Kavanaugh is lying when he denies Christine Blasey Ford’s story to see his habitual untruthfulness. There is ample evidence that Kavanaugh has lied to Congress while under oath about numerous matters. This is not a crime, apparently. At Vox, long before Blasey Ford surfaced, Dylan Matthews outlined several instances of untruthfulness then asked a handful of law professors if these would constitute perjury. Errrr… not exactly… no… were most of the responses. But Ciara Torres-Spelliscy from Stetson University was perhaps the most forthright:

If federal prosecutors are really going after lying to Congress, that could open up an entirely new front of liability for lots of less than truthful witnesses. I doubt anyone at DOJ would have the moxie to go after Judge Kavanaugh for these statements. Whether as a circuit judge or if he gets elevated to the Supreme Court, the remedy to remove him is through the impeachment process, and I don’t see Congress having the stomach for that either.

Kavanaugh is not unique in this level of sleaze with regard to the Supreme Court. William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas come to mind as comparable examples. No, what slams the scale firmly and absolutely to the NO side is Kavanaugh’s inability to be honest about himself. He did not even have the courage to listen to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before presenting his statement in reply. It’s clear that revisiting his high school years and confronting Christine Blasey Ford do more than threaten the prospect of an appointment to the Supreme Court. They threaten Kavanaugh’s own story about himself to himself and to his family. They threaten who he thinks he is. This is perfectly human, but it means Brett Kavanaugh will never be more than a toady to the Establishment: deadwood nailed to dogma and narrow class interests with little capacity for empathy, insight or enlightened compromise.

Others may argue that it is Kavanaugh’s loathsome behavior as a high school student that should not be in any way rewarded by an appointment to the Supreme Court, even decades later, especially when it comes to sexual assault — attempted rape, to be blunt. After all, this is the impulse behind the move to extend or repeal statute of limitation dates for such offenses. I won’t disagree, even though experience has shown and continues to show that lust makes people, men and women, stupid. Add youth and testosterone and alcohol and class privilege for an ever more toxic mix. That is not an excuse, but it does raise the question: What would restorative justice look like in this instance?

You tell me for I don’t know.

The Spider’s Web

It’s a really dark web…

This is a full length documentary but worth your attention. It mostly focuses on Britain and its tax havens, but the United States is revealed as a player as well.

If you watch this critically, you’ll note that not all the dots are well connected. For me, at least, it inspires a desire for further investigation. It’s also worth contemplating the connection between economics and politics.

Wrapped in Steel

This is a portrait of a Chicago community in transition circa 1982-1983 while it was still somewhat in denial about what was in store:

Produced and directed by James R. Martin, written by James R. Martin and Dominic Pacyga, with some original music by William Russo (!). The more you know about Chicago history during the last third of the 20th Century, the more you’ll take away from this documentary.

The movie cries out for a retrospective essay… or even a retrospective documentary. It isn’t something I’m prepared to do, so I’ll be limited to making a few observations.

The then-Alderman of the 10th Ward, “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak makes an early appearance. It’s worth mentioning as Vrdolyak was the Darth Vader of the Chicago City Council wars that raged after the election of Harold Washington as Mayor of Chicago. Some time later in the documentary, United Steelworkers leader the late Ed Sadlowski, Sr. (a DSA member) makes a number of appearances. The current 10th Ward Alderwoman is Susan Sadlowski Garza, Ed Sadlowski’s daughter. She was one of the early candidates to be endorsed by Bernie Sanders as his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination got going.

As an aside, the 10th Ward was the place where I first did canvassing for a candidate. I was volunteering for Saul Mendelson, who was running in the primary election for the Illinois State Senate and for Leon Chestang, who was running in the primary election for the Illinois House of Representatives. Chestang was Black. Mendelson was a Southshore Jewish socialist. I don’t recall the reaction of the voters we canvassed though I doubt we recorded many “pluses”. The reactions were probably better than if we had been canvassing for Republican or third party candidates. We ran into workers from Vrdolyak’s office canvassing for their slate. They were cordial but that was mostly because they did not feel at all insecure with their prospects for victory.

This is a compelling documentary, not for any sentimental nostalgia (though if you grew up in Hegewisch around that period, you may end up a puddle) but because in this portrait of southeast Chicago, you will see the early 21st Century in birth.

Two Reviews

by Bob Roman

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. New York, Metropolitan Books: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. 221 pp Hardcover $23.00

One big problem with political books is that they are not often read by people who do not already pretty much agree with the author. Books on a special interest draw a readership concerned with the special interest. Books with an ideological subtext draw their own readership. Barbara Ehrenreich has succeeded in writing a special interest book (the working poor) with an ideological (left) subtext that can easily be read people who very much disagree with her perspective or are not overly concerned with her topic. You could, for example, give this book as a present to you reactionary Uncle Ernie and it’s likely he would read it, enjoy it, and possibly even learn from it.

This is not an easy thing to do.

The basic premise of Nickel and Dimed draws upon a grand old tradition of journalism, that of assuming an identity to do a story. Specifically, “how does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market going to make it on $6 to $7 an hour?”

In this case, Barbara Ehrenreich did not so much assume a false identity as a misleading biography: an older woman forced by circumstance to return to the job market after a long absence with little savings, no special skills, a car, and few or no friends in a new town. Ehrenreich drew up a fairly strict set of ground rules for herself to follow in each of the three cities where she attempted to live. These rules were a reasonable simulation of her assumed biography, and she applied them in Key West, Florida, in Portland, Maine, and in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She chose these venues partly for whimsical reasons but partly, also, to control for race and for local politics (Minnesota having a liberal tradition).

Her experiences were depressingly uniform. Poverty is poverty and it imposes its own priorities. A lack of resources restricts choices, leaving one more vulnerable to exploitative situations. This applies to both economic and personal situations. Ehrenreich found that despite tight labor markets, large corporations such as Wal-Mart, often manipulated job applicants into being supplicants, denying any possibility of even individual bargaining over the conditions of employment. Likewise, for people working at near the minimum wage, an informal support network of friends and family is often crucial to staying off the streets, but too often the price for this support is high.

A lack of resources also means that, of necessity, one’s time horizon for planning ahead (listen up, Banfield!) is very near, forcing such people into making decisions that are considerably more expensive in the long run. Housing is an excellent example of this. Many of the people Ehrenreich worked with and indeed Ehrenreich herself lived in motels where the monthly expense is considerably more than even a modest apartment. But the motel does not get paid monthly but daily or weekly, so each payment is less than an apartment’s monthly rent and, more to the point, the motel does not demand a month (or more) rent in security deposit. While Ehrenreich did not mention it, this does raise the issue of access for the poor to reasonably priced credit.

Housing ends up being the immediate deal killer in all three metropolitan areas. Affordable housing, meaning housing that costs no more than 30 percent of one’s income, is simply not available to people working near the minimum wage. Barbara Ehrenreich makes no systematic attempt to diagnose the reason for this beyond some observations about what might be called wealth inflation. But finding reasons isn’t the purpose of her book. Rather, she lets her experience, and the experience of her fellow workers, illustrate the problem. She does point out (as have others) that our “official” definition of poverty is based on a “market basket” that assumes food takes a fixed percentage of the family income when in fact other necessities have inflated faster.

All these things will be enlightening to our hypothetical Uncle Ernie, but don’t expect a conversion experience for Ehrenreich’s experience can be interpreted in a number of ways. Most particularly, conservatives are likely to observe that her experiment was designed with a short life span, with no more than a month spent in each metropolitan area. Sure, the circumstances are tough but that’s life and ultimately, it’s for the best.

Our Uncle Ernie would point to one of the many interesting characters Ehrenreich met in her adventure, “Caroline” in Minnesota. She is the aunt of a New York friend; Caroline did in real life what Ehrenreich is doing as an exercise in journalism and then some. She took her children, left her husband, and ended up starting over in an unknown city.

It would be untrue to characterize Caroline’s life story as one disaster and hardship after another though she clearly has had more than her share. But it is clear that she is a survivor. Her advice for starting out in a new town: “Always find a church.” At this point, Uncle Ernie would be starting to plug Bush’s “Faith Based Initiative”, but regardless of that proposal’s merits or demerits, it’s beside the point. What Caroline is telling us, really, is that if you live so close to the edge of disaster, the safer place to be, the place that might make the difference between survival and not, is a place of human solidarity. Regardless of the merits of faith, this is exactly what a church community can provide, ready made. Solidarity is something survivors understand; when Ehrenreich concludes her interview, Caroline spontaneously donates “a family-sized container of her homemade chicken stew”. Don’t expect Uncle Ernie to grasp this without help.

There’s a lot that Uncle Ernie won’t understand. When we meet Caroline, she’s living with her husband in a rented three bedroom house. It’s expensive. It’s shabby. It’s in a chancy neighborhood. But with two incomes, they’re earning $40,000 and have a life that works, albeit precariously. It was a tough struggle; it damaged her health. You might get Uncle Ernie to concede the need for some specific assistance, but I imagine him holding Caroline up as if she were a trophy, proclaiming it can be done!

For socialists, this is beside the point. It doesn’t matter that given hard, smart and lucky effort some measure of security might be gained. The outrage is a society, our society, that in order to function demands that there be losers and in doing so creates them just as it does yuppies, super stars, businessmen, etc. Ehrenreich’s book merely documents the ugly process of making sausage. As Upton Sinclair’s Jungle did, one hopes it may move some of the privileged to take action or, more to the point, be ready to lend a hand when the poor themselves take action. As Barbara Ehrenreich says at the end of her book:

“Someday, of course and I will make no predictions as to exactly when they [the working poor] are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.”

Civil Rights Since 1787: A Reader on the Black Struggle Edited by Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor. New York, New York University Press, 2000, 936 pp Softcover $29.95

I should confess to a certain conflict of interest in writing this review. Jonathan Birnbaum is a Chicago DSA member. I first met him some years ago at the now defunct Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference. Over the years, I’ve come to know him as one of the more amusing, interesting and informed conversationalists in an organization replete with such skills. He has saved me from death by boredom at any number of conference literature tables.

Yet when Jonathan Birnbaum tossed a review copy of this book in my lap last Fall, it wasn’t the combined mass of 900 pages that made me sit up and shout; it was the title of its introduction: “It Didn’t Start in 1954”. I was hooked.

The book consists of 182 articles, essays, original documents. It is divided into 6 parts: “Slavery: America’s First Compromise”, “Reconstruction”, “Segregation”, “The Second Reconstruction”, “Backlash Redux”, “Toward a Third Reconstruction”. Civil Rights Since 1787 bills itself as “A Reader on the Black Struggle”; however, its main emphasis is actually on what is called the Second Reconstruction, the U.S. civil rights struggle of the second half of the Twentieth Century. But for that struggle to make sense, it needs to be in context. The prior record of the struggle needs to be presented.

Even so, context will be a problem for some readers, particularly for those documents from the Nineteenth Century. Birnbaum and Taylor do provide an introduction to each selection and a longer introductory essay for each section, but even so: not only is the language somewhat different, but the documents are redolent in implications no longer obvious. This seems less true of the more contemporary material (or perhaps I’m getting old). It is clear, though, that the first audience for this book is the college (and perhaps high school) classroom where instructors and supplementary material can provide that context, or where the book itself is the supplementary material for a more specific syllabus. With this in mind, it almost seems that the book might have been better published as a CD, with annotations, links and a supporting web site.

The part devoted to the Second Reconstruction includes about a third of the material in the book. The essays, articles and documents from this time are subdivided into “The Legal Strategy” (which is mostly material about Brown v. Board of Education, including the actual Supreme Court order), “Labor Days”, “The Churches’ Hour” (extensive!), “Economic Justice”, “Black Power”, “Electoral and Street Politics”, “Discrimination: Ongoing Examples”, “Affirmative Action”.

My two favorite essays in this book are from this part: Stokley Carmichael’s essay on Black Power: “What We Want”, and Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics”. Both were enormously controversial when they were fresh, and they both defined what seemed to be very different perspectives on the struggle. Yet from a distance of thirty years, they somehow seem not so different, almost complimentary. Considering the subsequent political careers of the respective authors, there’s an essay in there somewhere. With 182 selections, folks will find their own favorites.

Likewise, with so much material, you’ll find selections that might have been better left out. My own particular disappointment was “The Abolitionist Movement” by Herbert Aptheker. Now, it would have been odd to not have included something by Aptheker in this volume (on the other hand, there’s nothing by Robert Fogel), but this particular selection was simply Aptheker’s attempt to turn the Abolitionist movement into a leninist fairy tale. It doesn’t give either the subject or Aptheker much credit, and it comes at a place where the historical coverage is less dense thus the failure is more noticeable.

But look, folks, there’s a lot of material in this volume, and it’s impressively indexed. If you’re at all interested in U.S. history, particularly African American history, it belongs on your shelf. And at $30, let no one say you never get more than what you pay for; this book is truly a labor of love.

Originally published in New Ground 77, July — August, 2001.