In just its fifth year of existence the Fox Cities Book Festival is already arguably Wisconsin’s premier gathering of writers and readers. This year’s April 11-18 event gives us not just great authors, but also an April 13 fundraiser featuring the music of Cory Chisel along with Wisconsin’s first Poet Laureate Ellen Kort and Obvious Dog. See the website for details (www.foxcitiesbookfestival.org).
2012 happens to be the 50th anniversary of some of the most influential nonfiction books in American history. The year 1962 saw the publication of landmark works in feminism (Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl), philosophy (Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), history (Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns ofAugust), economics (Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom), Americana (John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America), the environment (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring) and social justice (Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States). Each work in its time inspired passionate discussion; most are still cited in contemporary academic and popular literature.
For political progressives, Silent Spring and The Other America are of special note because each had direct influence on public policy regarding environmental protection and poverty. Rachel Carson’s plea for restraint in chemical treatment of natural resources received a barrage of criticism from apologists for industrial pollution, yet the Kennedy Administration’s Science Advisory Committee assigned Carson and her book high marks. Though efforts to malign and misrepresent Carson never ceased and continue, virtually every positive step to protect the environment over the last 50 years can be linked to Silent Spring. The book literally started the environmental movement.
Harrington’s The Other America represents a rare example since World War II of a left leaning intellectual influencing White House public policy. John F. Kennedy was made aware of Harrington’s work through Dwight Macdonald’s extensive review in The New Yorker (Macdonald later wrote that “Between us, Mike Harrington and I made a difference”), while Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” has roots in The Other America. Johnson’s “Great Society” successes like Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start would probably not have been passed absent critical public support mobilized in part by exposure to Harrington’s book and press coverage of it. While Harrington advocated substantial government intervention to ameliorate poverty, his major impact was simply to bring attention to the issue.
Poverty in America in 2012 is in some ways worse than 1962, especially in terms of the willingness of our so-called leaders to ignore it. According to the Census Bureau’s new “Supplemental Poverty Measure,” 100 million Americans (1 in 3) are poor or “near poor.” Despite the shocking numbers, neither of the two major political parties has on the table any serious anti-poverty measures; the issue will get scant attention even in this presidential election year.
How to account for the lack of attention to poverty in America, especially to the idea that government might actually be able to help? Journalist BarbaraEhrenreich argues that the political right and many mainstream Democrats coopted and reframed Harrington’s “culture of poverty” thesis to justify the dismantling of programs designed to help the poor. Harrington biographer Maurice Isserman agrees and notes that during the last two decades of harsh attacks on the poor we’ve had “no Michael Harrington to answer the challenge.”
Douglass MacKinnon, who served as press secretary to former Republican Senator Bob Dole, recently released a memoir about his life growing up in abject poverty. He believes poverty’s not an issue because politicians just don’t care. In a New York Times op-ed he expresses anger at official Washington: “Not one elected official has gotten in touch with me to ask if I might want to discuss poverty, my experience and possible solutions.”
If MacKinnon’s right, leader apathy about poverty is a sad commentary in a country where elected officials pledge to “promote the general Welfare.” But I think there’s more to it than that. When Michael Harrington published his work in 1962, the fact that he had Socialist political leanings was almost irrelevant. Major media of the time opened up space for a serious discussion of poverty, and even conservatives like William F. Buckley gave Harrington’s book a hearing.
But today we rely on The Other Media for news and information. If LBJ and Harrington were around now, the story would be not that the President had read an important book and developed an anti-poverty program centered on it. Rather, the story would be Republicans alleging that the President’s poverty program was influenced by a radical Socialist intent on turning the United States into Europe.
Think I’m exaggerating? Consider 2009 when President Obama appointed Van Jones as Special Advisor for “Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation” at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Jones’ bestselling The Green Collar Economy is as close to a Harrington style social welfare manifesto that a modern president is likely to read. Yet due to The Other Media’s enabling of Obama critics, resulting in a fixation on Jones’ prior political affiliations and statements, the “green economy” ended up receiving little meaningful coverage and no visible public mandate.
Today’s problem is not a shortage of great books or ideas. The problem is a shortage of great media willing to open up space for reasoned discussion of ideas that challenge the status quo.
Tony Palmeri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh