Saturday, July 1, 2017

White Trash

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg (Viking, 2016)

    There's a long-running class war among white people in this country, which the upper class is winning. Nancy Isenberg's White Trash explains why it could hardly be otherwise. Generation after generation, the class of people with property, education, and money ascribe undesirable traits to the class without, as though they somehow deserve to be dirty, uneducated, and landless. This war tends to be underground, or invisible; or perhaps it's hiding in plain sight.

    From the days of the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, America was seen as a place to send people England considered expendible. Paupers, orphans, and petty criminals were sent to these shores, usually in indentured servitude, so that a householder would be responsible for them. Indebtedness could become a legacy, and many such immigrants had no other. Especially in Virginia, a few wealthy men claimed all the good land, leaving swampland or the rocky hills for those who had no legal claim.

    This was still true after the colonies became the United States. "Both crackers and squatters–two terms that became shorthand for landless migrant–supposedly stayed just one step of the 'real' farmers, Jefferson's idealized, commercially oriented cultivators. They lived off the grid, rarely attended school or joined a church, and remained a potent symbol of poverty. To be lower class was to be one of the landless." These were the people who were so cut off from state governments that, when the southern states left the nation, they tried to leave the states - in the case of West Virginia, actually succeeding.

    After the Civil War, Freedman's Bureaus brought federal help to refugees both white and black, but "[I]n the race for self-reliance, poor whites seemed to many bureau agents never to have left the starting gate." The moneyed interests in the southern states had not seen fit to provide an education for their poor neighbors, preferring to keep them desperate and indentured as share-croppers, an attitude that has not entirely disappeared. The unstable equilibrium between pity and censure usually leaned toward the latter: there must be something wrong with people so backward. Was it genetic? In some places, the proposed solutions included sterilization of women at the behest of the state. 
    The Great Depression opened the way for a renewed Federal effort at helping the rural poor; electricity and sanitation were definite improvements, while some housing projects were public catastrophes. Photographers and sociologists roamed the South, gawking at the crackers and rednecks, who understandably bridled at the resulting portrayals.

    Isenberg covers the past fifty years by way of some of the cultural and political figures you may remember. We meet the Joads, the migratory clan from The Grapes of Wrath, and Robert E. Lee Ewell, the scrawny, brutish villain in To Kill A Mockingbird, who lives behind the town dump "in an old Negro cabin." There was a vogue in the 1960s for comedy about rural whites, exemplified by Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; later, The Dukes of Hazard glorified moonshining and the Confederate flag.

     Country singer Dolly Parton played the part of the redneck made good. "Her image, as Parton confessed in her autobiography, expressed the desire of poor white trash girls to see themselves as magazine models." Evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, though she came from Minnesota, captured the same hyper-feminine image in her Pentecostal television ministry, which she and her husband Jim produced in North Carolina. They enjoyed lavish wealth, while fund-raising almost continuously. "The people whom the Praise the Lord Ministry conned were mainly poor whites; the majority of the program's viewers were born-again, with less than a high school education, and were most pitifully, unemployed." 
    White Trash is a serious, comprehensive history, seemingly distilling a book into each paragraph. The primary conclusion seems to be that we always have the poor with us. It's essential to be aware of the history, though, because people don't deserve to be invisible. Knowing what has happened before lets us see how it's happening now, and how far we fall short of our democratic ideals. We may not be able to cure poverty, but there's no good reason to be blind to it.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Colony in a Nation

A Colony in a Nation
Chris Hayes (W.W. Norton, 2017)

      In August of 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His body lay on the street for four hours. The people of Ferguson were joined in the ensuing protest by people from other parts of the U.S., in one of the founding moments of the Black Lives Matter movement. Chris Hayes traveled there to cover the scene for MSNBC. A Colony in a Nation arises out of that experience, but it overflows that place and time in a fertile way.

      A subsequent Department of Justice report on policing in Ferguson portrayed a militarized police department, ready to bring a level of violence against the people that would be more appropriate to an actual war zone. The report also lays out a very disturbing pattern of capricious and petty policing, actually designed to bring revenue into the city coffers, as opposed to making the city safer. The fines for petty offenses are multiplied usuriously by missed court appearances, but there actually aren't enough hours in the court calendars to handle all the cases the police can generate. It's the urban version of an old-fashioned speed trap. 
       Hayes draws a striking comparison to the history of the American revolution. In the 1760s, pressed by the costs of the Seven Years War, the British government increased its demands for customs revenue in the colonies. They harassed smugglers (including John Hancock) and invaded private homes, to the humiliation and annoyance of the colonists. The use of police action, and eventually the British Navy itself, to enrich the government was one of the most significant grievances the revolutionary Americans charged against the British crown. 
       Of course, when the Americans won the right to set their own taxes and democratically decide on their own policing practices, they did not extend such full citizenship to everyone living here. The well-regulated militias of the Second Amendment were needed to defend the western borders against unfriendly tribes of native peoples, and to maintain order where slavery made white people a frightened minority. "American history is the story of white fear, of the constant violent impulses it produces and the management and ordering of those impulses. White fear keeps the citizens of the Nation wary of the Colony, and fuels their desire to keep it separate."

      It was actually Richard Nixon who said that black Americans didn't want to be "a colony in a nation.' Hayes says, "And yet he helped bring about that very thing. Over the half-century since he delivered those words, we have built a colony in a nation, not in the classic Marxist sense but in the deep sense we can appreciate as a former colony ourselves: A territory that isn't actually free."

     That's an idea with great explanatory force, whether you're looking at disparities in housing and education, or differences in rates of incarceration. If where you live and what you look like puts you at risk of being stopped and frisked on suspicion of nothing in particular, you're not free. You're a subject, not a citizen. "In ways large and small and constant, the Nation exhibits its contempt for the lives of its subjects in the Colony and indifference to their value. This is the central component of the white fear that sustains the Colony: the simple inability to recognize, deeply, fully totally, the humanity of those on the other side."

      Chris Hayes is an excellent writer. I haven't done justice to the completeness and cogency of his moral argument, but I think it holds up. "The Colony pays tribute to the Nation. The citizens enjoy tangible gains at the expense of the subjects, even though, or especially when, those gains aren't material. While in some cases quantifiable dollars move from one realm to the other, a certain psychological expropriation, a net transfer of well-being, is far more common and far more insidious." What security, and what rights, would we take away from our second-class citizens if it meant more comfort, and safer blindness, for ourselves?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Sarah Vowell (Riverhead, 2015)

     Sarah Vowell claims that she is not so much a historian as a 'historian-adjacent, nonfiction wise guy', and she's probably right; but perhaps her books are all the more deliciously readable for it, at least in this moment when her vernacular is fresh. She may also be overstating the case, because there's a real historical argument being made in this book, placing the American Revolution in the context of the long-running rivalry between Great Britain and France.

     What we know as the French and Indian War was the American chapter of the Seven Years War, which might have been termed the first World War, stretching as it did across parts of four continents. In the concluding peace treaty of 1763, the French were humiliated. "Thus the massive chunk of North America for more than two centuries–from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico–was downsized to scraps." Another, more personal consequence was that the future Marquis de Lafayette lost his father. "The death of his father at the hands of British forces merely provided the boy with a specific target at a young age. Soldiering in general was his destiny, just as it had been for his father before him..." 
     Vowell describes how Lafayette absconded to Philadelphia when he was only nineteen. Orphaned but wealthy, he left behind a wife who would shortly bear their first child; evidently he was more interested in finding a father than in being one, and he adopted George Washington to fill the role. It helped that he paid his own way to America, and offered to serve without pay. "On July 31 [1777] Congress commissioned him as a volunteer major general, which is to say, he was basically an unpaid intern wearing a general's sash."

     In his first action, at the battle of Brandywine, Lafayette sustained a musket-ball wound in his leg, which he bore with "pride and delight"–here, indeed, was a young man who "tended to confuse glory with love." In due course, Lafayette became of military use to Washington, heading up a division of Virginians; his unquenchable loyalty may have been even more welcome, as Washington was being second-guessed by the Continental Congress and members of his own staff. The heroic stature both men would later attain was no sure thing in the winter of 1777-1778.

     Vowell marches us about from Boston to the Carolinas, following the fortunes of the revolu-tionaries, and the diplomatic and naval goings-on that would ultimately decide their fate. Only in 1781, when at last they had the French navy coordinating to deny the British supplies and reinforcements, did the Americans gain the upper hand in their negotiations with the King.

    The book abounds with thought-provoking irony. If we had stayed in the British Empire, would slavery have ended sooner, as it did in the British West Indies in the 1830's? Americans went to war protesting taxes levied to pay for the last war; the French government later lost its head, at least partly over taxes it raised to fight in that cause. The shelves may not have needed another volume about the American Revolution, but now it has one more you can take to the beach, and you'll probably stay awake reading it.

May 2017, by email.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember

Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

   Christine Lee was an atypical stroke patient, back in the first week of 2007, mainly because she was only thirty-three years old. In fact, it took four days for the hospital to decide it was a stroke, and not some kind of inflammation or tumor. The stroke affected her left anterior thalamus, ruining her ability to hold events in memory, and to retrieve anything she consciously knew. Her memoir, eight years in the writing, describes how her memory, and her mind, and ultimately her life, were rebuilt from the ground up.

   The plasticity of Lee's brain, building new connections around the damaged area, was something of a surprise in its own right. She likens it to the improvised routes around the damaged parts of California interstate highways, when earthquakes or explosions have knocked out the main thoroughfare. Her youth was almost certainly an advantage in that respect; she was also extremely determined. As the U.S. born child of Korean immigrants, she was brought up to be tough, to work hard and bear pain without complaining.

   This was obviously all to the good in many areas of life. She did get good grades and a good education. But it has its heart-breaking aspects as well, as when family hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains meant pain and shortness of breath, to the point of nausea. Her parents were training their kids to survive the kind of hardships they had faced. They were doing the best they knew how, but Lee's difficulty had a physical cause that went undiagnosed and untreated: she had a hole in her heart, known as patent foramen ovale. Until six months after her stroke, when it was repaired, the PFO caused some of her blood to leave her heart without having visited her lungs to pick up oxygen.

   Lee's book has a quality of being unstuck in time, in a conscious reference to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, which she happened to have just started reading at the time of her stroke. It's an effective device, because it refers both to the wanderings of memory, and to the trauma that lies behind them. Vonnegut had to fictionalize his experience in the fire-bombing of Dresden to write about it; he could make Billy Pilgrim more innocent than he was when he was writing. Lee's character and narrator are both herself. She's reconstructing her damaged self from contemporary notebooks–she kept the procedural memory of how to write, even while her memory for events lasted less than ten minutes.

   It turns out that procedural memory will take you an awfully long way, if you're keeping quiet about your deficits, or have run out of people willing to hear about them. Lee could drive, but had to trust her navigation to intuition. She could carry on conversations, but her accustomed emotional control was shattered; she was shocked to find herself melting down at work. It took more than a year for her to be able to cook, or to order anything but a hamburger in a restaurant, because those things require at least a few minutes worth of memory.

   This book will interest the brain-science and stroke-affected communities, but I can't necessarily recommend it to all: it's just too sad. Lee skillfully tells us about all the layers of sadness, restlessness, depression, and rage she experienced, and I found it tough going. I wish her the best.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson (2003, Vintage)

     The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, otherwise known as the Chicago World's Fair, was an undertaking of colossal scale, covering a square mile of lakeside with all manner of exotic attractions and novelties, and beautiful white buildings that rose from the mud in just a couple of years. Erik Larson's history of its conception and construction pulls together all kinds of things we now take for granted, from skyscrapers to Shredded Wheat. Larson also weaves in a contemporary true-crime story about a man whose architectural ambitions are considerably less exalted.

     In 1890, Congress awarded Chicago the right to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's voyage, which left only three years for a tremendous feat of planning and building. Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham was an inspired choice to lead the effort. Not only was he a talented architect in his own right, he had the powers of leadership and persuasion he would need to pull together such other architectural lights as Charles McKim, Augustus St. Gaudens, and Frederick Law Olmstead.

     The fair's construction faced "a legion of obstacles, any one of which could have–should have–killed it long before Opening Day." Maddening delays in choosing a site wiped out most of the first year; a worldwide financial panic and unexpected weather exacerbated the ordinary difficulties that come with any project, let alone one that proposes to entertain 700,000 people in a single day, as the fair did at its peak. 'Entertain' might be too strong a word for the fair itself: Burnham intended to awe visitors with the beauty and grandeur of the buildings, which were all painted white. Entertainment, as such, was more likely to be found at neighboring sideshows, such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, the belly dancers in the Egyptian village, and the world's largest Ferris wheel, at 264 feet high. (That it was also the world's first Ferris wheel makes that figure even more impressive.)

     The 'Devil' in Larson's title was a con man turned murderer named H. H. Holmes, though he took other names any time it suited his purposes. A mile or so from the site of the fair, he built a large, dark building with offices and apartments over street-level storefronts. With its soundproof rooms and a coffin-shaped kiln, the setup was just right for making young women disappear, and disposing of their bodies. He did this sometimes for profit, selling the skeletons as medical specimens, and sometimes for convenience: he possessed a dangerous charisma that led him to make promises to the young women in his thrall. When he reached a stage where his victim started to expect him to follow through, off they went. Larson is scrupulous to give us only what is known to be fact, but some of the gaps tell their own story.

    The Columbian Exposition lasted only six months, through the summer of 1893. The labor boom that had built it gave way to unemployment and homelessness in the following year, and arson took down many of the most magnificent structures. Like a magic kingdom, the White City was gone almost as quickly as it had come. It sounds like a fairy tale, in a way, but I trust Larson: it's all true.

Any Good Books
March 2017