Paul Theroux is a travel writer and novelist. I was introduced to his work decades ago by a colleague at the Department of City Planning, who knew of my interest in trains and transit and other countries. I read several of his early books: The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Riding the Iron Rooster. He branched out from trains, walking the whole coast of Great Britain in The Kingdom by the Sea. Theroux has been all over the world, and in particular all over what had been called the Third World, and then the Developing World, and more recently the Global South, generally mingling with and writing about the ordinary people there, but also meeting with writers and intellectuals like himself.
Now age 75, he did something recently he had never done before: wrote a travel book about his own country, Deep South. The book, for me, provided several big surprises. In light of recent events I’ve included extended excerpts and other commentary below. It’s a long post I suppose, but not to those of us who read books.
Theroux did not try to provide a complete picture of the South. His interest was in just part of it.
Everyone knows that in the smugger pockets of the South there is wealth and stylishness and ease – estates, horse farms, fine dining, salubrious cities, upscale suburbs, some of the finest real estate in America. (However) the poorest parts of America can also be found in these sunny states, in the most beautiful parts of the South, the rural areas: the Low Country of South Carolina, the Black Belt of Alabama, the Mississippi Delta, the Ozarks of Arkansas. These poor folk are poorer in their way (as I was to find) and less able to manage and more hopeless than many people I had traveled among in Africa and Asia. Living in the buried hinterland, in fractured communities and dying towns on the sidelines, they exist in obscurity.
He attended gun shows, and went to churches and football games to get a sense of the region in general. But when asked what he wanted to see he said “take me to the poorest places.” And his main interest wasn’t all the poor, it was mostly the Black poor. He also went to several historical sites associated with the Civil Rights movement.
I drove toward Philadelphia, a place that had been on my mind for years. In June 1964, near this small farming town, three civil rights workers were murdered by the local Klan. The portion of the Highway 19 that I would travel on was named the Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner Memorial Highway, for those activists who’d been killed during the Freedom Summer – a season of voter registration and protest, of running battles and bloodshed. I had missed that tragic time. I drove on this highway almost fifty years later in a spirit of catching up on unfinished business, with a suggestion of atonement, because in that summer I had been so far away, in Nyasaland, preparing to celebrate the independence of Malawi.
The first big surprise was the large-scale presence of immigrants in the rural Deep South. There? Immigrants in New York, New England, Chicago, California, of course. Maybe in some booming southern cities and suburbs. In Virginia or North Carolina. But in the rural Deep South? And not just any immigrants, immigrants from a very large country with a very old culture who have only recently started coming to the U.S. in large numbers.
In a landscape of whites and blacks, the most conspicuous person I saw was this man, my first Indian in the South, the owner-manager of a motel, a dot Indian with a caste mark on his forehead rather than a feather Indian. Motels, gas stations, convenience stores: they had a lock on them, and the first stood for many I was to find. One of the whispers in the South is that whites sold these businesses to Indians as an act of defiance, in order to keep them out of the hands of blacks. I met hundreds more Indians, nearly all of them from the state of Gujurat in western India, many of them recent immigrants.
Why the South? According to another Gujurati:
“Warm weather is a factor,” he explained of his choice of region. As for the motel business: “Indians can’t run restaurants, because we are Hindu, and the selling of meat would be a problem…how could you run a restaurant and not taste the dishes?”
After a while, Theroux concludes that the places he was visiting were very similar to, but more hopeless than, part of the Global South he had visited, with just a few of exceptions. Here in the U.S. there are good roads and places to stay almost everywhere, making traveling much easier than he has been used to. And, though he doesn’t call attention to it, many of the poor people he speaks with in the book have had extensive health care for their many ailments, especially if they were older, something that would not be true in poorer countries. Otherwise, he continually remarks on how what he sees reminds him of those poorer countries.
There was something vaguely colonial about the presence of Indians in the rural South, which reminded me of Africa: the Indian shop in the dusty, upcountry town, the overpriced and grubby merchandise, the locals squatting under trees, giving parts of the South an even more dramatic, sleepier, unfixable Third World appearance.
The presence of Indian shopkeepers, the heat, the tall dusty trees, the sight of plowed fields, the ruined motels and abandoned restaurants, the inactivity, the somnolence hanging over the town like a blight – all these features made it seem like a town in Zimbabwe.
No better off than places in Africa, the backwaters of the Deep South seemed to Theroux to be worse off psychologically, with a feeling of hopelessness. Perhaps because of the presence of a much better life not far away and on TV, showing people what they did not have. And perhaps because in this poorest part of the U.S. things are actually much worse than they used to be, something else I was surprised to find.
I said “Brookhaven seems like a friendly enough place.” “Friendly, but the town is dying. The politicians sold us out – everything shut down. Stuff is made in China and India. We sent jobs there. And the Indians came here. They’re running the gas stations and motels. What do you make of that?”
“Business doesn’t seem to be thriving.” “This was a busy town once,” Marvin said. “We had three carpet mills. Burlington carpets was big. Muffler plants, boats, some others. They all left – probably went to Mexico or China. All we got now is the wood chip plant over on Midway.” Burlington Industries, makers of rugs and carpets (“tufted bath and accent rugs”), had a manufacturing plant in Monticello of a million square feet. It closed, and its 200 employees were laid off, in 2005.
The old backbreaking jobs were gone, and the newer businesses were failing – catfish farming, furniture making, and the Schwinn bicycle plant twenty miles away in Greenville that closed in 1991, with 25 workers laid off. There were also serious layoffs at the Viking Range plant in Greenville.
“This is a declining town. River traffic is way down. We’ve lost population, from about fifty thousand to less than forty thousand. This was a thriving place. We had so much manufacturing – trailers for big-rig trucks, Fruit of the Loom men’s underwear, Schwinn bikes, Axminster Carpets. They’re all gone to Mexico, South America, China.”
As yes, the carpet mills of Greenville, MS, with a connection to my hometown in Yonkers, NY. At one time the Alexander Smith Carpet factory there was the thought to be the largest factory in the world, and employed 5,000 or more. Then, in 1954, in the midst of a union strike for higher wages, it closed.
Most of the operations were shifted to Greenville, Miss., where a modern plant staffed by nonunion labor had already been built, with money from a state‐sponsored industrial‐development program.
The result was the start of the decline of urban west Yonkers, where I was born.
People still live on Moquette Row, the two‐story stone row houses built by the company in the 1880’s to house its workers. Coworkers are still remembered fondly; the wages and the bitter strikes are not: Much changed after the mill closed. Areas such as the Hollows and Nodine Hill near the Smith mill consisted of families whose sole reason for living in Yonkers was the work provided by the mill. Some stayed when it closed, many more left.
The Thruway and the Cross County Shopping center opened the same year, accelerating the suburban development of east Yonkers, putting in place the divide recently chronicled the in the HBO series Show Me A Hero.
Theroux is from New England, which has the weakest economy in the country between the 1940s and the “Massachusetts Miracle” of the 1980s, as its factories shifted south, long before offshoring and foreign competition. He acknowledges this history.
I was to hear this story all over the rural South, in the ruined towns that had been manufacturing centers, sustained by the making of furniture, or appliances, or roofing materials, or plastic products, the labor-intensive jobs that kept a town ticking over. Companies had come to the south because the labor force was available and willing, wages were low, land was inexpensive, and unions were non-existent. And so a measure of progress held out the promise of better things, perhaps prosperity. Nowhere in the United States could manufacturing be carried out so cheaply. And that was the case until these manufacturers discovered that however cheap it was to make things in the right-to-work states of the South, it was even cheaper in the sweatshops of China. The contradiction and impoverishment of the South has a great deal to do with the outsourcing of work to China and India. Even the catfish farms – an important income-producing industry all over the rural South – have been put out of business by imports from Vietnam.
The decline of northern industrial cities, especially those that did not also have large office- and service-based economic sectors, was painful. It wrecked the U.S. private sector labor movement. But it also closed what had been a horrific income gap in this country. In 1930, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, per capita income in the Southeast was only about half the U.S. average, and in Mississippi it was about 60.0% below the U.S. average – compared with 67.6% above average in New York State. In 2015 per capita income in the Southeast was just 12.4% below the U.S. average, with 27.7% below average in Mississippi and 21.9% above average for New York State.
One could say that free trade is doing the same thing on a global scale, and is therefore a route to economic justice. According to the theory of comparative advantage, trade should work out to the benefit of just about everyone, provided certain assumptions are met. But economists have forgotten about those assumptions, or never considered the possible impact of, those assumptions not being met. The most critical assumption is that imports (that cost jobs) are paid for with exports (that create jobs).
What happens in the long run when imports are paid for with debt, with a country going deeper and deeper into debt and selling off parts of its future to consume more than it produces in the present? There is NO discussion of this question. Just as there is no discussion of what happens in the long run when businesses pay their workers less and less, and yet sell them more and more, with the difference covered by inadequate retirement savings, and rising public and private debt. The long-run result is disaster.
With some of our trade deficit worse for us, and not as good for people in the Global South, as other parts of it.
With those at the top eventually finding out what happens to top predators when excess predation causes the bottom of the food chain to collapse. Unless they are, and for only as long as they are able to be, bailed out.
For those at the bottom, what has been worse that economic decline are the social and psychological consequences of a plunging standard of living. And not just for Black people. As someone told Theroux:
“You find a lot living out here” she told me. “Drugs are a problem. Drive along a side road at night and you’ll see white girls prostituting themselves to get money to support their habit. Mothers pimping out their children to men. Thirteen-year-olds getting pregnant – I know two personally, but there are plenty of others. It’s not a black thing. White girls at Christian schools who get pregnant wrap their stomachs tight with belts to abort the child, because there is nowhere for white pregnant teenagers in Alabama to go. They’ll be kicked out of school if they are found to be pregnant.
And then comes the next surprise. Toward the end of the book Paul Theroux, the epitome of an urbane, intellectual, cosmopolitan New England liberal, seems to get angry. And as he gets angry, he begins to sound like…Donald Trump.
“If Greenville happened to be a city in a Third World County, there would probably be lots of money pouring in.” “This was a federal Empowerment Zone – ten years, ten million dollars pumped into the economy.” “Ten million isn’t much compared with the hundreds of millions I’ve seen in U.S. aid to Africa,” I said. “A small single country like Tanzania or Ghana might get seven hundred million. For schools and clinics.” “That’s news to us.”
Ah that old Right Wing canard – all your tax dollars are going to foreign aid. Surely Theroux knows better, knows that with the exception of military aid to counties such as Israel, humanitarian foreign aid is a tiny share of the federal budget, much lower as a share of the economy than in other developed countries, and much less than it once was. But having seen things improve in the Global South over the decades, and confronted for the first time by what he sees at home, this man – who has spent his life bringing the lives of even the poorest people in the poorest countries to Americans – seems to resent every dime.
“We’re poor,” he said. “I don’t deny it. Our tax base is so low.” “How low.” “It’s $300,000.” “To run the whole town?” “The whole town, yes” he said. “We just got a federal grant of $450,00. Sounds like a lot, but it isn’t.” Given the hundreds of millions in aid, both government and private, dumped into Africa, it did not sound like a lot of money. It was the price of an above average house where I lived in Massachusetts. “Out of that we have to pay teachers, the fireman, the police, the town hall workers, and so much else. Infrastructure needs tending to, and that costs money.”
Janet casually mentioned to me that one of her sons spent part of every year in Africa as a volunteer in some sort of community development. “Helping people.” “Where in Africa” “Zambia,” she said. Suppressing a mocking laugh, I remarked to her that parts of Greensboro – the decaying houses, the areas of shacks, the dirt roads, the boarded up shops, the Indian-owned gas station and moth eaten Inn Motel, the many idle youths, the odors of woodsmoke from burning blue gums and the pong of freshly plowed land, the red roads, the lumber mill – so much here bore a distinct resemblance to places in Zambia I had seen. And this being the case, why wasn’t her son provoked to do anything in Greensboro? “That’s a good question,” she said. “I wish you would talk to him.”
Then, in his last road trips to the south, Theroux goes a little further, to Arkansas, and visits Bill Clinton’s hometown and the areas around it. And in another surprise, his anger takes a new direction.
“How about Bill Gates, and Clinton, and the other charities – get any help from them.” “We never see them, we get nothing – they want to help Africa,” she said. “It really bothers me that Clinton does so little here. I wish he’d help us. He’s in Africa and India, and the other people are helping in the Third World and those countries. We don’t see that money. Don’t they realize our people need help?”
“The Clinton Foundation has billions and spreads it all over the world,” I said to him, as I had said to Pat Atkinson in Russellville. It seemed an obvious question. The foundation was immensely wealthy, and from time to time – if you looked at its website – you’d read of the former president promising money to people with projects in Africa or India, or this: “Chelsea Clinton took time out of her 10 day humanitarian trip in Africa to meet some of the kids her AIDS work is benefitting.” I asked, “Do you see any of that money.” “No,” Dr. King said solemnly. “We have not received any funding support from the Clinton Foundation or the Global Initiative.” “Would you like to get some?” “Yes.”
I said,” Bill Clinton spends a lot of time in Africa and India. Couldn’t he do something to help?” “If Clinton came here,” Andre said, “the good ole boys would say, ‘Why you coming here? Why you want to change things?” He looked around the room for approval, and got the nods he expected. “That’s why he doesn’t do it.”
“What about the foundations? The charities? The do-good organizations.” I asked. “Ever get any money from them. The Clinton people.” “I heard back there yesterday you talking about him,” Rickey said. “He was governor. He was president. His philanthropic charity is worth a couple of billion. I don’t see him spending any of it in Arkansas.” “Clinton’s complicated,” I said. “Aren’t we all.”
Our charity choices aren’t any different that the Clintons’. Sure there are poor people in the U.S., but the U.S. is a rich country, and surely all those taxes we pay can be used to meet their needs. Meanwhile, in the Global South people were starving en masse in our formative years. So we donate to Catholic Relief, Doctors Without Borders, Maryknoll for whom my wife’s uncle was a priest in Tanzania for decades, and where our donations helped to build a school.
And to the extent that we have sought to aid the American poor, it has been here in Brooklyn where the poverty rate is still far above the U.S. average and the absolute number of poor people in poverty is higher than it had been at NYC’s low point in the late 1970s – as poor young people flood in from the rest of the country.
One of the ironies of the shift of manufacturing to the South is that it dealt a terrible blow to the urban Blacks of the Great Migration, who had moved north to take factory jobs that – for a generation or two – had moved them into the middle class. The result was a social decline, beginning with the decline of the Black family chronicled by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the early 1960s, for which he was branded a racist. Continuing with the massive crime wave associated with young Black men that went on for 30 years. And ending with the early 1990s crack epidemic, which was so bad that the life expectancy of urban Blacks actually fell. As those who had participated in the Great Migration in search of opportunity and personal dignity saw their communities, and often their families, collapse around them.
From the last section of The Warmth of Other Suns.
In New York: “I’m sitting out front now,” he is saying to me over the telephone, “and I see them ducking down these drug holes. They come here so beautiful, and in a few weeks they look like they climbed out of a garbage can. We’re the ones that’s killing ourselves.”
In the suburban South Shore neighborhood of Chicago: Had a study, like the 1968 Kerner Report on the state of race in America, been conducted of Ida Mae’s adopted neighborhood, it might have concluded that there were, in fact, two neighborhoods – one hard working and striving to be middle class, the other, transient, jobless and underclass; one, owners of property, the other, tenants and squatters; one, churchgoing and law abiding, the other drug dealing and criminal – both coexisting on the same streets, one at odds with the other. Ida Mae lived in the former world but had to negotiate the latter. The transformation had been so rapid that the city had not had a chance to catch up with it.
A man in his sixties stands up as if to speak for them all. “We live in this neighborhood,” the man says. “We own houses and pay our taxes. We’re scared to go outside. Practically every evening there is a shooting. I don’t care about their rights. Maybe you have to get the good ones to get the bad.”
From Deep South, about a woman who fled to southern poverty in Mississippi from the city.
I came here from Chicago to save my children from being killed by gangs. So many street gangs there – the Latin Kings, La Raza, the Popes, the Folk Nation, and more. At first where I lived was OK, the Garfield section. Then, around the late eighties, early nineties, the Four Corners gang and the BGs – Black Gangsters too – discovered crack cocaine and heroin. Using it, selling it, fighting about it. There was always shooting. I didn’t want to stay there and bury my children.
I know about the Garfield section on the West Side of Chicago. It is, per capita, the murder capital of the city. For total murders the leading area is the adjacent community of Austin, a lovely neighborhood much like affluent, integrated Oak Park just across the city line, and one that had been integrating itself before riots on the night Martin Luther King was shot burned down the commercial areas, and then all the factories in west Chicago shut down and moved out.
One my children currently works for a service organization there, and when she told me she was considering taking that job I went out and rode a city bus through the neighborhood. I don’t know what’s wrong with this place, I told her, but it isn’t the buildings (which would sell for huge money in west or north Brooklyn). But the gangs are there now, too. And just as one can sense the difference between Austin and Oak Park, across a street from each other, so one can sense the difference between Austin and Garfield Park, on the other side of the train tracks. One of my daughter’s jobs is to ride a bus taking high school kids to and from The Loop for their work-study jobs. Recently, while passing through Garfield Park, the bus driver took a stray bullet. (Fortunately she was not on the bus that day).
If you can overcome the accent and are interested in Chicago, you might try watching this.
Unlike the problems of the Black poor in the rural South, the problems of urban Black America have been well chronicled, discussed, agonized over, in your face on TV, and for a time in your back as the alleged gun held by those demanding your wallet, for decades. Relatively few thinkers thought of the causes in social terms – the defeat of the Black Church by Rap culture.
More spoke of economic issues. For those on the Right “welfare” was causing social decline, particularly family decline, in the Black community, by providing women an alternative source of income to a man, and thus making only the best men acceptable partners. For those on the left, such as William Julius Wilson, the author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, it was the loss of the jobs that had allowed men to serve in their traditional role as providers that led to social collapse and family. Consider the last scenes of the excellent documentary movie Los Angeles Plays Itself, excerpted from a Black-made movie about Black people in that city. The mother gives the long-unemployed father money, so he can give it to his children, and have it seem as if he is worth something. And then, with nothing else to do, he drives off past a massive, abandoned tire factory that once provided thousands of jobs in South Central.
(Rest of the story. With imports from Asia and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach booming, industrial land in metro Los Angeles is in desperate short supply. The factory, abandoned at the time the movie was made, has been turned into a bustling distribution center. So it has been on the two coasts, but not necessarily elsewhere.)
But the real story about Black America, the story that the data shows, is that the tragedy of the urban ghetto wasn’t the whole story. It wasn’t even the majority of the story. The real story is one of near continuous ascent over 50 years.
Educational attainment – way up, if still not having caught up with Whites. Average income – also up, though still trailing as well. Poverty – still above White levels, but way down. Life expectancy, with the exception of the crack epidemic, rising – though it has not yet caught up with Whites.
Then there is the end of Jim Crow. The large scale Black participation in, if not dominance of, sports and entertainment. The increase in the number of Black business executives, lawyers, professors, judges, mayors, governors, senators, congresspeople. President. It turns out that it is these signs were representative of the predominant direction of Black America, not the tragedy of the ghetto.
And then, as Generation Greed passed out of the street crime-prone years, an end to the Black crime wave, except in places like Chicago. Though the police seem not to have noticed. Only the family issues, those first identified, remain.
Along with this is the decrease in racism, generation by generation, though it still remains in backwaters of America. This decrease is noted by Theroux in his chapter, “One’s Born Today Don’t Know How it Was.”
Later in the book he wrote about young Black women trying to join previously all White sororities at the University of Alabama. He spoke to some White girls.
They were happy to talk with me, and the dozen of so I spoke with said they were in favor of integrating the sororities. They had black friends, they said; they wanted them as sisters; they hated the bad publicity.
“We don’t have a problem with black girls joining our sorority,” another said in response to my direct question. “Then why are they still segregated?” “The alumni don’t want it,” several said. “The alumni are against it, and they’re pressuring us,” one girls said. “They’re the ones giving money to the university – and to us – so they have a lot of power.”
Theroux’s conclusion: To the obvious question, Why would any student wish to join a sorority where she was not wanted?, the answer was, They were wanted.
Here was a university that needed the National Guard to protect black students when it was integrated under federal orders fifty years ago. A sensible person could not be blamed for thinking that the alumni would be eager to disavow this racist past and promote the idea that a lesson in tolerance had been learned, even in the corny to-and-fro of sorority politics. But the opposite was the case. The alumni went out of their way to demonstrate how they clung to their spiteful stupidity, beneath the gaze of the whole country, under the pretense of tradition.
Few people are open minded enough to be capable of change after their formative years. But people aren’t immortal either. All those protesting Trump and fearing the KKK is going to take over the country, go home and don’t worry. This problem is going away, generation by generation.
Unfortunately, however, other problems are getting worse.
Those growing problems of White people, in the aging suburbs and small factory towns and cities of the Rust Belt and Appalachia, are not in your face like the problems of the urban Black poor. They are out of view, like the problems of the rural Black poor. Perhaps because the victims don’t make much trouble, except when one of them shoots a whole bunch of people. Or in this election.
You can see them, however, if you watch the PBS Newshour, have a good memory, and put the all the individual stories together into a complete picture. One that involves all the calamities of the Black ghetto not long ago. Falling income (despite still rising educational attainment). Joblessness, dependence on the government, or on a shrinking number of part-time service jobs for which there is fierce competition. Single parenthood and divorce, plunging among the college educated, but soaring in the White working class. Drug addiction.
First there was the Crystal Meth epidemic. You could see that chronicled in the movie Winter’s Bone with Jennifer Lawrence.
A fluke? Only a problem for hillbillies? Then came the prescription drug epidemic, the heroin epidemic, the soaring number of laid off factory workers drawing down their savings or getting by on disability insurance.
I recall seeing this piece on the Newshour a decade or more ago, long before the Great Recession and financial crisis, about middle-aged former factory workers in southern Ohio. They spoke of their despair, many too proud to take minimum wage jobs, others simply unable to get them. Without pensions they were cashing in their retirement savings to get by, and borrowing against their houses, with the permission of their wives. This, I was told, was now a big trend.
As the men spoke the camera panned to a young women sitting next to them, who began to cry. Who was she? A production assistant moved by what she was hearing? The daughter of one of the men? Perhaps a combination. A production assistant whose father, or uncle, or family friend was in the same situation. I felt like crying myself.
There is the “battle of the sexes” for you. For those within families, it does not exist. There has been so much emphasis on the problems of women and girls for the past 30 years, and reasonably so. Take Your Daughters to Work Day. How can schools be better for girls. What is the biggest problem for millennial girls these days? The same problem that has faced Black women for 50 years – not enough good, stable, untroubled men to partner up with and form families. What is the biggest worry for middle-aged women? The future their sons (and their daughters) are facing.
Another report was on Midwestern demographics. Yes, the young were fleeing from places such as metro Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit and Milwaukee to New York or Chicago or the Sunbelt. But they were also fleeing to metro Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit and Milwaukee from smaller factory cities and rural Midwestern towns that were even worse off.
There was the roundtable discussion after a Presidential election several elections ago, when a PBS reporter asked what was the untold story of the election. And a reporter from the Midwest said it was the decline of the Midwest, with small towns emptying due to farm mechanization and small cities shrinking due to manufacturing decline. The conversation passed on to more pressing topics.
The places in the Midwest that are attracting young people and businesses on a large scale: metro Chicago and the Twin Cities. The Midwestern states that Hillary Clinton carried – Illinois and Minnesota.
And it’s not just the rural and small city Midwest. It’s the aging middle class suburbs closer to home. Consider this documentary I saw recently, about a middle class family that had two of three sons end up addicted to drugs.
Appalachia? Some factory town in south Illinois? Oh shit, it’s Poughkeepsie! And Staten Island. And Suffolk County.
But there are glimpses. How bad is it really? Are these stories the exception to a better story, as was the case of Black America?
This time the data says no. In fact, the data allowed me to see what others on the scene could plainly see with their own eyes.
Wage have been falling in this country for decades, with the decrease working its way up the income and education scale, but those at the bottom facing the decline soonest, and taking the largest hit. Just in the past decade.
Millions who did not get the defined benefit pensions the richest U.S. generations received, also did not save enough for retirement, and are facing poverty in old age. The data on how small the average 401K balance is, and how little it would buy over a lifetime of retirement, has been in the news for years. So has the level of foreclosures, as people cash out their home equity to keep spending on lower wages, lose their jobs, or both.
Then there is the much lower share of children raised in intact and non-disrupted families, compared with the childhoods the Baby Boomers and those before had received, something simply not discussed and faced up to. There is the rising tax burden and collapsing public services across the country. The federal old age benefits that made older generations better off, but will be taken away from those younger, as the federal government goes broke.
All adding up to the most shocking statistic of all. Among White people age 54 and younger (a few years ago), those on the negative side of all these economic and social trends in the wake of Generation Greed, the death rate is rising and life expectancy is falling. Mostly due to a soaring level of overdoses and suicides. The death rate is rising, the suicide rate is rising, for White men and women. There is the battle of the sexes for you, as experienced by those who came of age after the 1960s.
I wonder how angry Paul Theroux will get if he sets off in his car, starting next spring, and heads west to write a book Deep Midwest.
And the better off, in their isolated worlds, just didn’t see it. Over the past few months I’ve had some version of the same conversation several times. I’d say something like “things are really bad, unless people in our income bracket and up and our age and older are willing to make some real sacrifices to turn things around, they are going to get worse.” The response to the first part would be that I’m a “doom and gloomer,” and to the second part would be that it’s really only the super-rich who need to put in more/take out less, not merely affluent people like us.
The only exception was a conversation with a woman who had come to Brooklyn decades ago from rural/exurban Michigan, outside Flint. We were talking about my job and what I’ve been seeing in the economic data, and she told me about looking at the Facebook page of her young niece back there, one who had visited her in Brooklyn. It was filled with remembrances of friends – late teens, early 20s – who had committed suicide or died of overdoses. Comments from her niece’s circle were filled with a sense of hopelessness, she told me.
These are long-term trends. So why are the consequences and the backlash so bad now?
For one thing, working people are used to bad times, which come and go and even have their advantages. You don’t have to keep up with the Joneses when they’re laid off too. But eight years after the financial crisis, with many of them facing retirement into poverty, it’s sinking in that this isn’t part of the economic cycle. This is the rest of their lives, and their children lives, and perhaps their grandchildren’s lives.
Second, until recently the manufacturing sector that sustained so many of these areas was shrinking a relative sense, as other sectors and places grew faster. But not shrinking so much in an absolute sense. But that changed after the year 2000, when U.S. manufacturing employment started to plunge.
Decades ago, during the worst of the Crack epidemic, there wasn’t much empathy for the Black people caught up in it. Quite the opposite. At the time I wondered if would be any different if the same disaster was playing out in the suburbs, and among Whites. And now, to my surprise, I find that it isn’t. No empathy for anyone. None at all.
Consider this article, published early in 2016 in the right wing Weekly Standard, later removed from that publication’s site as Donald Trump took over the Republican Party, but still available on the website of the right wing National Review.
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
The young people who have showed up in New York don’t have enough possessions to require a U-Haul. Some of them are on the street. And all those White men who got in their U-Hauls and went to North Dakota to work during the oil and gas boom, now over, it seems, are thought to be just as lazy and shiftless as the hundreds of Black and Hispanic people who lined up for minimum wage jobs when a McDonalds opened in Harlem during the crack epidemic of the early 1990s.
And what did the Democrats have to offer these people? Instead of lazy malicious immoral dullards, they were branded as socially backward bigots in Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.”
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”
You could say that’s true to an extent. There are such people, most of them are older, with a way of thinking that is dying out, and Breitbart, whatever that is, can’t bring back. The offensive thing about this statement is numerical. “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” Half? Fifty percent? Why on earth did she say that? Does she really believe that? Perhaps because she was speaking to an audience of affluent suburban women, her donors, people like herself, she was trying to convince them that it was only half. Instead of the near 100 percent they, and those protesting Trump’s election, likely believe.
“But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
But it was too late. No one paid attention to the second half of that statement, because it didn’t fit the narrative. It seems that in this election, the person Donald Trump had been his whole life didn’t matter. But the person Hillary Clinton has been her whole life did matter. The issue isn’t bigotry, its snobbery. Bigotry seems to be going away. Snobbery, not so much. The election was tribal on both sides, and it was deplorable.
Given all this Donald Trump’s election has to be considered a surprise, but not a shock. The big surprise is that of all people, the desperate would turn to him.
At the end of this miserable year, the only person who has risen in my esteem is documentarian/comedian Michael Moore.
I had loved his early stuff, but hadn’t watched or read any of it since Fahrenheit 9/11. I felt that movie, released during the 2004 campaign, was an attempt to channel the anger many Americans, the same sort of Americans Donald Trump appealed to, were feeling in the wake of 9/11, against President George W Bush. By all but saying the Bush was in league with those dirty Arabs who had attacked the United States, and he was covering it up for them. Given that President Bush, in the face of that anger, had to his credit been saying things like “Islam is a religion of piece” and discouraged Islamaphobia, I found Fahrenheit 9/11 to be, well, deplorable, and stopped paying attention to Michael Moore.
Then I decided to watch his latest movie Michael Moore in TrumpLand. In it, Moore demonstrates a generosity of spirit and empathy with people of all kinds that one did not find elsewhere in this political campaign. He makes it clear that hostility to Mexicans and Muslims is not his thing. He implies that he understands that his generation and those before have left those following, including the millennials, with the short end of the stick, and that they are the inheritors, rather than the cause, of America’s problems. And he denied that those blue collar Americans, many of whom had voted for Barack Obama, were considering voting for Donald Trump because they were racists, misogynists, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. They are good people, Moore said, who are hurting.
It almost sounded as if he had been looking at the same data, and seeing the same documentaries and press reports, that I had. Or maybe it’s just the fact that he still lives in Michigan as well as New York. Or maybe, like Donald Trump, he benefitted from ignorance, of the things everyone knows that happen not to be true, allowing him to see the perfectly obvious.
And although he tried to convince those voters that Trump would betray them, and that Clinton was secretly on their side, he also foresaw exactly how Hillary Clinton might lose the election. Which is exactly how she lost the election.
Far more people are, therefore, paying attention to him now than did before the election, and he seems to be on an “I told you so” tour of some kind. To his fellow Democrats surprised at the result, he had this to say.
“What you mean to say is that you were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans and their despair,” Moore writes. “YEARS of being neglected by both parties, the anger and the need for revenge against the system only grew.” Then Trump came along and promised to destroy that system.
He said he is motivated to lead a movement to take over the Democratic Party, much as Donald Trump took over the Republican Party. If I lived in many of these United States I might be tempted to join the Democratic Party and help him. But since I live in New York there is no way I’d ever join its Democratic Party, so he’ll have to do it without me.