THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson



 

Children of Paradise

Cagney
They know which side their bread is buttered on.

 

Among the many disturbing images in "J. Edgar", Clint Eastwood's film about the late FBI director, is a scene in which Hoover appears on screen in a movie theater, speaking in a short film that can properly be labeled as a piece of government propaganda. It is the 1930s, and Hoover is in his early days as director. Levels of unemployment in the United States make today's troubles seem negligible by comparison. Outlaws like John Dillinger are folk heroes for attacking the most reviled institution in the country, the banks, and waging war against the enforcers of the cruel capitalist system, the police. The audience's reaction to Hoover's paean to law and order ranges from indifferent to derisive. They are inattentive and impatient for the main feature to start. The instant it does, they begin cheering for the bad guys, making a mockery of Hoover's pathetic attempt to sway public opinion in favor of law enforcement.

Nothing if not shrewd, Hoover then sets out on a campaign to make heroes of his federal agents, which results in the release of "G-Men" in 1935, in which James Cagney plays one of the good guys (for a change).

And thus one of the main battles of the culture wars was engaged.

Conflict between the powerful few and the powerless many was hardly invented in Hoover's time, but very hard times like the Great Depression deepen social rifts that are ordinarily subverted to the necessities of daily survival. When ordinary living becomes extremely difficult or even impossible for large numbers of people, it is little wonder that working stiffs sometimes root for the bank robbers against the cops, or join forces with one another in protest against injustice. It is no great mystery why a musical about Bonnie and Clyde, of all degenerate people, should have opened just the other day in New York, during another period of economic deprivation and political confusion. Let us remember that only a couple of months ago, Occupy Wall Street was a media sideshow, until a New York city police officer was caught on video pepper-spraying unarmed female protesters. There's nothing like rapacious bankers and police brutality to stir up the restive masses. While most police departments around the country seem to have behaved with restraint towards the occupiers, violent confrontations like the one in Oakland between police and protesters, and another unprovoked abuse of pepper-spray at a University of California campus, only serve to remind us how badly the police can behave when they are not properly trained or commanded. By making victims of the protesters, they favor the movement with more attention than it would otherwise manage to attract.

It is all too easy to draw simplistic parallels between different eras, but we mustn't disregard the similarities either. The denizens of the various Occupy encampments have behaved more like scofflaws than revolutionaries. They are not just latter-day hippies, disdainful of all the trappings of civilization and looking to overturn the world order, but largely educated young people frustrated by their inability to find worthy jobs within the existing system and to pay their college loans. We haven't been witness to the kind of random destruction carried out by anarchists at meetings of the World Trade Organization, for example, and what few incidents of this kind there have been seem to have been instigated by peripheral figures who are not part of the movement proper (to the degree to which the movement can be defined at all). We also generally acknowledge today that the police are not a tool of corporate interests but perform a dangerous but necessary duty, by confronting all manner of despicable and violent people, that most of us would not and could not do for ourselves. The actions by police to clear various public spaces of their tent villages aren't in the same league as, say, the military attack on the Bonus Army in Washington in 1932, in which several people died and more than a thousand were injured. The statements and actions of a few idiots notwithstanding, both sides have learned a few things from clashes past: the occupiers have not condemned our entire economic system but mainly its lack of accountability, and municipal governments have responded by declining to treat the protests as a mortal threat to the American way. Hoover's rigid moralism may live on in some hearts and minds, but it has not had a salient effect on the current situation.

Nonetheless, we would appear to be in a relatively prolonged period of widespread discontent, and can expect the public's allegiances to remain divided. In this respect, the 1930s are instructive. Just a couple of years after the release of "G-Men", William Wyler directed "Dead End", based on a popular stage play about poor kids in New York. As much as any movie of its time, "Dead End" captured the great divide between social classes by depicting the desperately poor living, literally, in the shadow of the obscenely wealthy. More notable than even Humphrey Bogart's turn as the gangster Baby Face Martin, who comes back to his squalid Lower East Side neighborhood to see his mother, was the emergence of the Dead End Kids. Those who only remember Leo Gorcey, Gabriell Dell, Huntz Hall et al. from the sophomoric Bowery Boys comedies of a later period, would be startled to see them play a bunch of ruthless street toughs: gangsters in training. A year later, they were recast in "Angels with Dirty Faces", in which Cagney returns to form as a hardened criminal, with Bogart as his main rival. (The movie is most famous for the final scene in which Cagney is led to the electric chair.) While both of these movies, like most others of the genre, convey a blandly moralistic motto, the underlying message is clear: the real criminals are the ones rich enough to rig the rules of the game to benefit themselves. The powerful write the laws to preserve the status quo, so the downtrodden have no choice but to take matters into their own hands.

Historical optimists will note that the hardships of the Depression did not in fact spawn a society of hoodlums, but a self-reliant and determined generation of soldiers and workers who, after winning World War II, ignited the greatest expansion of economic prosperity in the history of the world. A bit simplistic, perhaps. A confluence of fortunate events conspired to make this upward trend possible, among them: America's domination by default of a literally demolished world economy; industrialization on a heretofore unimagined scale, which included outfitting the largest military machine every built; and unionization, which grabbed a large share of corporate profits for workers further down the ladder. All of these factors contributed to our post-war strength but would turn eventually into our Achilles' heel. We can no longer dominate the world economically (the rhetoric of presidential candidates notwithstanding) and feel this come-down acutely. Our grotesque military spending has become a drain on many other economic and social priorities. The unions are victims of their own success, having become as sclerotic and corrupted as the institutions against which they were once an essential countervailing power.

Are the one in four American children living in poverty today the vanguard of a more self-sacrificing generation that will rebuild the nation anew? Do the swelling ranks of students suddenly eligible for free lunch at school represent an opportunity as much as a tragedy? Last week, "60 Minutes" profiled a 15-year-old girl and her little brother who live in their father's truck. She seemed to be an unusually strong and resilient child, accepting of her fate. "It's just life", she said. She has dreams of becoming a lawyer and an advocate for children. It's easy to believe that this redoubtable child will make it, because it's easy to be misled into believing that sheer will is all it takes to rise above misfortune. The truth is that she is just one of 1,100 homeless children who attend school in Seminole County, Florida. That's just one county, in one very hard-hit state. She may indeed get what she wants from life, and if not her, some other child in similar circumstances will no doubt get to the top of the hill. Then some callous politician will hold her up as an example of hard work, determination and the American dream, while ignoring the millions of others for whom the legacy of a childhood of grinding poverty will have been little more than a bitter and broken spirit.

A critical difference between the Great Depression and today's crisis is that in the 1930s we hadn't yet built a vast middle class. A common refrain among those who grew up in that time is that they didn't feel poor because everyone else was, too. This is somewhat overstated, as the juxtaposition of high-rise apartments with cold-water tenements in "Dead End" makes it only too plain that some people managed to do very well for themselves even in the worst of times (the one percent, if you will), and that the poor were well aware of the disparity. Still, many studies conducted around the world have indeed shown that relative levels of well-being are a much more important determining factor in people's sense of overall satisfaction in life than absolute levels of income or wealth. Politicians as divergent in their views as John Boehner and Barack Obama like to point out their humble origins, but both of them, born into the baby boom, enjoyed a level of existence, even in working class families, that was far more comfortable and secure than that of the preceding generation. It is reminiscent of Ann Richards' withering comment about George H.W. Bush: he was born on third base and thought he had hit a triple. Before the 1930s, most people were what we would call today the working poor, living at relatively low levels of subsistence even before the crash of 1929. There was no health insurance, no unemployment benefits. Few people at any time are born with the Bush family's advantages, but in the post-war years a decent living was well within reach of a majority of Americans, and for most of their children and grandchildren, as well. A good many of today's poor kids, by contrast, were living in comfortable homes with full refrigerators and a strong feeling of security before the floor, almost literally, fell out from under them a couple of years ago.

It is impossible to say whether that sense of loss will make them fundamentally different from the Dead End Kids, whether they will carry scars that will hold them back more than propel them forward. The Herman Cains of the world, who somehow imagine that their success is available to everyone, can well afford to excoriate the unemployed for not finding a job. It is an object of almost religious certitude that anyone in America can break into the big time, despite crushing evidence that the overwhelming majority of us haven't and never will. Ignorance of this reality permeates all levels of society. The poor buy lottery tickets in the vain hope of rising to the top, but we could anoint a lottery millionaire every day for a hundred years and still not have enough of them to fill more than two-thirds of an average-sized baseball stadium (which is fitting, since they will be the only ones who can afford to buy a ticket). Those who carry the ideological mantle of J. Edgar Hoover sneer at the protesters, denounce "class warfare", and describe how cushy life is for the poor today. Tell that to the tens of thousands of kids, living with their parents in motor vehicles, who don't have a place of their own even to go to the bathroom. The most destructive legacy of Hoover and his era was the false idea that a glorious past free of "un-American" views can somehow be recaptured, and that the way to do so is to wage all-out war against anyone who challenges orthodoxy and defies those who wield power. Because cultural experiences cannot be erased, such struggles can never be definitively won. Ongoing conflict only hardens positions and perpetuates hostility. And as in any other war, collateral damage is the lives of innocent children.

December 4, 2011
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