Reporting the Zeitgeist: Journalism, Literature, and Social Movements

In a review of The Unwinding by George Packer, Thomas Frank laments the failure of journalism to affect reforms to help a middle class that is in the throes of economic decline. As he writes, that failure “should perhaps call into question the utility of journalism and argument and maybe even prose itself.” His is an age-old complaint. In the years following 9/11, critics decried the failure of the novel to adequately voice how much this event changed and affected American lives. Since then, there have also been cries that novelists fail to capture the zeitgeist in a post-economic decline. That’s all well and good. It certainly speaks to the hope that the novel still has relevance in our social media-besotted world.

Frank’s complaints however speak to a far deeper concern. More than ever America is facing problems associated with social and economic inequality. The middle class is disappearing before our very eyes while poverty rates are soaring. And yet, in spite of this, no one seems able to address these problems. Congress has been ground to a standstill with Republican obstructionism, forcing Democrats and President Obama to take inadequate, halfhearted steps to ameliorate the damage. The American public likewise has been muted. A few years ago, Occupy Wall Street rose to the challenge and called out the financial institutions that have plundered the economy and have been allowed to continue with business as usual. And while OWS continues in some form (they’ve been particularly successful with their Rolling Jubilee campaign by buying off debts in bulk from banking institutions), they have yet to form a massive coalition with their bold ideas on attacking debt and inequality. The U.S. debt incurred by outrageous spending during the Bush years have gone down. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s due to the austerity measures imposed by Congress because of the Sequester. So the economy has been allowed to grind its heels, growing at a slow pace while Wall Street continues to reap financial benefits.

Frank correctly points out the dilemma of journalism and prose to address these deep inequities: Does prose still have the power to influence and effect change as it did over a century ago? In his review, Frank points out the plethora of books on the economy alone that have been published in the past decade, each one with titles that scream of an impending economic doomsday, and each one bearing very little social and political impact. There is an alarming and almost comical (if it weren’t so depressing) effect to the titles that were published––Age of Greed, The Age of Austerity, The Age of Turbulence; The Betrayal of the American Dream, The Looting of America, Why America Failed. They recall a time, so long ago, when I used to read books by the dozens with such titles, books including Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Frank’s own What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which answer questions about who controls what and who benefits from our current state of affairs. They were eye-opening and informative, particularly The Shock Doctrine, which had predicted the austerity measures now taking place in developed nations through the neoliberal policies that wrecked the economies in South America. They helped me to shape my own politics, which, very briefly, led me to the Green party. Unfortunately they were also repetitive and didn’t offer much in the way of real world solutions.

I should note here that I have yet to read Packer’s The Unwinding, though I’ve heard much about it and would like to read it soon. I’m far more interested in Frank’s overall argument about the usefulness of journalism because, as I’ve written previously, it is one that has been argued before. The arts in general has been accused of failing to rouse the masses out of their stupor to foment revolutions or, at the very least, political reforms. Where have all the protest music gone? a cry went up following the war in Iraq, even though such criers took time to mention artists like Neil Young, the Dixie Chicks, the Coup, and others that have written searing indictments against that foolish invasion. Where are the great novels or movies about that war or the economic downturn, others have said, while yet again, pointing out such examples, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Incredibly Fast and Extremely Loud or John Updike’s The Terrorist, that did just that. Still others cried that there was no definitive novel released in the past ten years which had sharp and incisive insights about that day on the measure of The Great Gatsby several generations ago. Anis Shivani was perhaps pointing this out in a blistering attack against the mediocrity of contemporary writers when he wrote:  “On the great issues of the day, they are silent…they desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded.” Or, in other words, the failure of literature to boldly embrace political ideologies is due in no small part to the fact that contemporary writers, those denizens of MFA programs, have turned literature into navel-gazing, creating work about domestic, mundane, first-world problems to be read and critically analyzed by academics. “We like to remember the muckraking era,” as Frank writes of journalism’s similar failures, “because of the amazing real-world transformation journalism was able to bring; our grandchildren will remember our era because of the big future naught accomplished by our prose.”

While it is true that mainstream media does an atrocious job of informing the public, the truth is much more nuanced and not always terribly flattering toward the American public. While I’ll agree that literature, journalism especially, has a social responsibility to inform and engage, that responsibility can only go half-way. Little is said or written about the responsibilities of citizens. Perhaps the real problem here isn’t so much the failure of literature to engage in the public but in unrealistic expectations of what literature is able to do.

Like so many critics, Frank seems to think that journalism or prose itself created the revolutionary paradigmatic shifts that led to social and economic reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries and not the American people themselves. The muckraking era he speaks of was also a part of the Progressive Era, which arrived at the heels of the Populist Movement, both of which were brought into fruition by an engaged, involved, and, yes, informed citizenry. If journalism and literature influenced the masses, it was only because the masses influenced journalists and novelists. One is dependent on the other; one cannot exist without the other. And public alone determined how they engaged with the information available to them. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was based on his research about exploitative labor practices in Chicago meatpacking plants. Yet his depictions of the poor sanitary conditions in these plants, not to mention the various body parts that were ground up with the meat, outraged the public so much that it pushed for legislative reform. Out of this reform came the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some forty years later, John Steinbeck, along with photographer Dorothea Lange, had far better success with a newspaper series he wrote for the San Francisco News called “Harvest Gypsies.” Again the public was so moved by the plight of the Okies in California during the 1930s Dust Bowl that it pushed the federal government to take action. Child labor laws were strengthened and food and economic relief was provided.

But these examples did not exist in a vacuum. They were part of social movements that sought reforms through the political process. Americans had far greater trust in the government as an efficient tool for these reforms and exercised their responsibilities as citizens by staying informed through newspapers and/or radio. These were hardly perfect times. Racial inequalities were still enormous and even the most liberal of organizations failed to fight for social justice for blacks and women. Some of the New Deal’s biggest supporters were Dixiecrats, while some of the country’s worst anti-immigration laws were passed during the Populist and Progressive eras. Yet these movements did build the foundation onto which future civil and political rights activists were able to fight. And this was all the doing of the American people.

The trap that Frank and so many others fall into is in believing that the people are without agency and are in need of an elite to prod them to action. But this is simply not the case. If prose fails to influence the masses, it is only because the masses refuse to be influenced or they are already influenced but fail to know what to do about our current dilemma. The latter seems to be the more likely answer, since polls have shown that Americans are not deaf, dumb, and blind to the social conditions around them. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, 44% of respondents polled that the government shouldn’t have bailed out the banks; 53% think that the banks haven’t been prosecuted enough, while only 30% believe that banks help economies grow and create jobs. A healthy majority also believe that the wealth gap created by bankers, traders, and financial executives is still too large. Clearly Americans get it. The real question we face is: What do we do about it?

If there is a failure of prose and journalism it is this: failing to provide Americans with that answer. As I wrote before, one of the reasons I stopped reading books about the economic and political conditions in this country was precisely because they were more diagnosis than cure. But that should not be the responsibility of writers, pundits, and journalists. Rather, we should be paying more attention to what people are doing in the trenches, the people out there who are fighting back often under the radar of the media spotlight. These are the activists who are fighting against the assault on women’s reproductive rights, against voter suppression laws and civil liberties, against the attacks on labor and unions, and against corporate money in politics. The American people do not need to be educated or lectured to about their social condition. They are living it every day of their lives. Rather what they need are game plans: a way out of our current situation and a way toward building a sustainable consensus toward social, political and economic justice. This is not, nor has it ever been, the work of writers. Our job is to observe, record, sympathize with, and illuminate the people, mood and events that shape our zeitgeist. In the end, it is ultimately up to the American people to decide on what to do next.

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