Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nostalgia and the Near Poor: Confronting the real issues that face us


A number of my recent posts could legitimately be characterized as “nostalgia”, that is, generally positive reflections on times or things gone by  (Brooklyn Nostalgia, Remembering Records, Steve Goodman). That’s OK, we all have our memories and some of them are good, and I get pleasure writing about them, and sometimes they evoke pleasant memories  in others who read them.

But this is not at all to say that all memories are good, or certainly that times past were better. I have had a harder time writing about the difficult and sad memories because – they are difficult and sad. Nostalgia tends to be selective. While it is good to remember things that were good, or interesting, and now gone or much decreased, or are no longer easily available to us because we have moved (“Nathan’s” hot dogs, French fries and clam strips!) , that doesn’t make it true that the past was all good. I have also written about this.

In a typically excellent piece in the New York Times, November 19, 2011, Charles Blow writes about the “Decline of American Exceptionalism”. He discusses a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, in which, for the first time, the percent of Americans  answering saying that they agreed with the statement “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others,” had dropped below 50% (to 49%,from a high of 60% when first asked in 2002). Even more striking, he notes, “…was that, among young people (those ages 18 to 29), the percentage of Americans who believed that their culture was superior was lower than young citizens of Germany, Spain and Britain.”  (Note that France, the other country for which data is provided is quite a bit lower than the US, despite the common portrayal of the French as “culture snobs”. Funny, that.)

Looking at it the other way, older people are more likely to believe this statement, whichever country they are from; the percents for the groups 18-29 and 50+ are, for the US 37/60, for Germany 45/51 (the smallest difference), for Spain 39/55, for Britain 38/38 (and, interesting, this is the only country where the middle group, 30-49, is way below either, at 20%), and for France 20/35. Perhaps this, in general, does indicate that older people remember the past as better, either because of “nostalgia” or because it actually was.

Providing some support for the latter idea is the increasing evidence that most of the increase in wealth over the last 30 years (certainly in the US) has gone to a small percent of those at the top. At the greatest extremes the top 1% have more wealth than the bottom 50%. The ratios of CEO earnings to those of the average worker have increased logarithmically, from the mid 2 digits (about 40) to over 300 times since the 1950s. Some support for this is also presented in another article from the same day’s Times: Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census, by Jason DeParle, Robert Gebeloff, and Sabrina Tavernise.  “They drive cars,” it starts, “but seldom new ones. They earn paychecks, but not big ones. Many own homes. Most pay taxes. Half are married, and nearly half live in the suburbs. None are poor, but many describe themselves as barely scraping by. “ We have focused on poverty in the elderly and in children and in the “core” poor, but this is a “new” group. Or newly-identified by the Census Bureau; most of us know people in this situation.

I am not; I am very fortunate to have gone to medical school and become a doctor, I know in part because it would provide financial security as well as the opportunity make some positive difference in the world. But I could have been in this group had I chosen a different profession. My parents worked hard, and wanted me to get a good education, but they certainly were not rich or able to provide for my future if I didn’t work.  I benefited from growing up in NYC when the public schools offered the opportunity to have an excellent education. This is “nostalgia”  but it is socioeconomic nostalgia for a time when the city of New York was populated mostly by workers, who had built institutions that in many ways mirrored European social democracies. Where one could get a bachelors and masters degree tuition-free from the City University. Before the “financial crisis” of the 1970s (brought on, let us be clear, like all financial crises, by the bankers and not the people) opened the door for a jealous and vengeful rest-of-the-US to destroy the infrastructure the city that had built for its people (NY Daily News headline of October 30, 1975: "Ford to City: Drop Dead!"). (For a much better and more complete discussion of the history of the city and the people-centered infrastructure it had built, see “Working Class New York”, by historian – and no relation – Joshua B. Freeman). 

The bankers, as we have become used to, won. Jobs left the city, and it became more and more a “center of finance” catering to the well-to-do. The small factories that had covered the city left for lower-cost (read: “non-union") states when they could. And the same happened across the country. The industries that allowed people who had often less than a high-school diploma to work really hard and earn enough to buy a house, a car or even two, and send their kids to college – the steel mills of Chicago and Pittsburgh, the auto plants in Michigan and Ohio, “blue collar” jobs everywhere  – disappeared. And the folks who were born just a little too late to have worked in these jobs into retirement, as well as many who have seen their retirement benefits dwindle, are our new “near poor”.

But the disparity that strikes me most about the findings of the Pew study are between those with and without college degrees, with the latter group consistently and significantly more of the belief that their culture is superior. They are quite impressive in each of the countries surveyed. In France, apparently the new standard for cultural non-arrogance, the difference is 20%, with 15% of those with college degrees and 35% of those without having this belief. The country with the largest difference is Germany (25%/50%), while in the US, the difference is the smallest (9%, 43% of those with degrees and 52% of those without), but the percents for both groups are the highest.

Why are those without college degrees more likely to believe their own cultures are superior? Perhaps it is the obvious answer, that a college education broadens one’s outlook and decreases this kind of arrogance-born-of-ignorance. In this case, it is scary to think about what the US higher-education system is doing if 43% of college graduates still hold these beliefs. Or it could be, in part, that as opportunities, economic and otherwise, wither, it is nice to have something to hold on to, in much the same way that beliefs in an afterlife can be comforting in times of loss. Or maybe it is nostalgia – I may not look like so much now, but once I – and my country – was young and strong. I certainly don’t know. But I know that we need to understand the difference between nostalgia, remembrances accurate or inaccurate of the past, and what is recognizing that we have in many ways gone in the wrong direction for the last 30 years, guided not by ignorance but by selfishness and greed, and now need to change that direction.

Blow says: “We have to stop snuggling up to nostalgia, acknowledge that we have allowed a mighty country to be brought low and set a course to restitution. And that course is through hard work and tough choices.” Indeed.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Bonus Army: Forgotten or Relevant?


In 1932, the US government sent active duty army troops to attack its own WW I Veterans.
This is a guest post from Herb Freeman
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It was inspiring to me to manage to get to Zuccotti Square on Monday and to make my small contribution against the weather. I'm pretty old, but not anywhere old enough to have participated in the World War I veterans' bonus march in 1932, encompassing about 30,000 veterans and families, from all over the country, demanding that the government honor their promised $1.25 a day veterans' bonus in the middle of the 1930s depression.

Instead, President Hoover sent Major General Douglas MacArthur, Major Patton in charge of two troops of cavalry and four tanks, and oh yes, Major Eisenhower, who later called MacArthur "that dumb son of a bitch", not for dispelling and burning the veterans' makeshift dwellings, but for personally overseeing it. That overkill reaction, according to many historians led to Herbert Hoover's defeat by Roosevelt, who wasn't much better to the veterans.

Your Occupy the Highways, is what reminded me of this event, which has many parallels to what you are now accomplishing, and you may already know of this history, or have been reminded of it many times.  I just thought that it was significant that this action follows an American tradition of dissent, and not only the Arab Spring model.

Possibly better articles are on the History website and Wikipedia.  I didn't find any from a participant's point of view.



Fight on.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Steve Goodman



Writing about records has me thinking about music and performers. One of my favorites, possibly less well known all over the country than in his native Chicago, is the late Steve Goodman. He was a stalwart of the “folk revival” and author and singer of many important songs. When I first moved to Chicago in the early 1970s, he had a bar on Lincoln Avenue called “Somebody Else’s Troubles”, after one of his more popular songs. Its lyrics were typical of his wit as well as containing profound philosophy:

It ain’t hard to get along with somebody else’s troubles,
They don’t make you lose any sleep at night.
As long as fate is out there bustin’ somebody else’s bubbles
Everything’s going to be all right!

Among the other songs we loved were whimsical “Chicken Cordon Blues”, about a guy whose girlfriend buys only health food while he yearns for √©clairs and lasagna (“This stuff is so weird, the cockroaches moved next door!”), and “Lincoln Park Pirates”, about an infamous towing company of the time that “would tow almost anything off the street”. Written like a sea shanty, it contained many local references (common to Goodman’s songs) including the assertion that

All of my drivers are friendly and courteous
Their good manners you always will get
For they all are recent graduates
Of the charm school at Joliet!

For all I know, the city of Joliet, southwest of Chicago, might well have a charm school, but Chicagoans all know that it is the state prison to which Goodman is referring! After the “fat man” (he didn’t use the well-known name of the company’s proprietor) tows all the cars off the street, he plans to

Tow all the boats from Belmont Harbor to the Lincoln Park Lagoon…
And when I’ve collected the ransom, and sunk all the ones that won’t yield
I’ll tow all the planes that are blocking the runways at Midway, O’Hare and Meigs Field!

Goodman’s most famous song was, of course “City of New Orleans”, made famous first by Arlo Guthrie and then recorded by many others, including Johnny Cash. Another Chicago-area city is featured in that one; at the beginning of the trip, “the train pulls out of Kankakee”, a city south of Chicago which nicely rhymes with “southbound odyssey”.

Another song that is a favorite of my family is “You Never Even Call Me by my Name”. The original didn’t have the “last verse” added to David Allen Coe’s famous version. According to the story Coe tells on his album, he responded to Goodman’s assertion that it was the perfect country and western song by saying it wasn’t, since it “said nothing about mama, trains, trucks, prison or getting drunk.” So Goodman added a verse:

I was drunk the day my ma got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain.
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a darned old train!

Which led Coe to say that, indeed, it was the perfect country and western song. And it became almost an anthem in some parts of Texas. Mainly bar parts.

Another great song is the beautiful, wistful “Banana Republic”, most famously recorded by Jimmy Buffet, about sad, pathetic, American expatriates

Some of them are running from lovers
Leaving no forward address,
Some of them are running tons of ganja
Some are running from the IRS

who, in their drunkenness, wish the band would

Give me some words I can dance to, or a melody that rhymes.

 Interestingly, one of my other favorite songs recorded by Goodman, “The Dutchman”, another sad – or bittersweet – song about an older man with dementia and his caring wife, was not written by him but by Michael Peter Smith:

Let us go to the banks of the ocean
Where the walls rise about the Zuider Zee
Long ago I used to be a young man
And dear Margaret remembers that for me.

Meigs Field, the downtown commuter airport, was lost to the renovation of Grant Park in 2003, but Steve Goodman was lost to us almost 20 years earlier, dying from the leukemia that plagued him for much of his life in 1984, at the age of 36. He was a great Chicago Cubs fan and author of the classic Chicago chant “Go, Cubs, Go!” (“Hey, Chicago, whaddya say, Cubs are gonna win today!”).  According to his Wikipedia entry, “Four days after Goodman's death, the Chicago Cubs clinched the Eastern Division title in the National League for the first time ever, earning them their first post-season appearance since 1945, three years before Goodman's birth. Eight days later, on October 2, the Cubs played their first post-season game since the 1945 World Series. Goodman had been asked to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before it; Jimmy Buffett filled in, and dedicated the song to Goodman. In April 1988, some of Goodman's ashes were scattered at Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs.” That was a pretty big time in my family also, as my son Matt, then in kindergarten, was a complete Cubs zealot (I wish I could find the picture of him dressed for Halloween as Bobby Dernier, the second baseman on that team!)

Buffett titled his autobiography “A Pirate Looks at 50”; for Goodman, the Lincoln Park pirates were bad guys, so probably remembering him as the “Lincoln Park Pirate”, though tempting, would be inappropriate. But I do remember him, and continue to love his music. Peace be with you, Steve Goodman.
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