Radio Interview with Ellen Feldman

Planned Parenthood Founder Gets Novel Treatment

Ellen Feldman’s “Terrible Virtue” Brings Margaret Sanger To Life

March 10, 2016 on NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowledge

 

Ellen Feldman appeared on “To The Best of Our Knowledge” shortly after Terrible Virtue was released.  I think you will enjoy listening to the show in anticipation of our conference call with Ellen on Sunday, January 22nd.

In the interview, Ellen talks about what drew her to writing a novel about Margaret Sanger,

Ever since I was a kid, I geuss, I thought she was the most amazing woman who wrought an amazing revolution….

…I think the history of what this country was like before she started her work.  Contraception was illegal in this country. It could only be prescribed by doctors and only to men and only to prevent disease.  And [Margaret] fought long and hard and went to jail repeatedly to make birth control legal and to improve women’s lives and children’s lives….She really changed the landscape of our country, the sexual landscape, the political landscape and the social landscape certainly.”

The interview runs about 11 minutes and is a far ranging conversation about Margaret’s controversiality, her relationship to the African American community, her history with eugenics, and her radical political roots in socialism and anarchism.

Terrible Virtue–a movie in the making

 

Planned Parenthood Founder Margaret Sanger Getting Biopic Treatment From Black Bicycle & Justine Ciarrocchi

Deadline Hollywood

by

December 14, 2016 8:30am

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EXCLUSIVE: As the organization’s centennial year draws to a close, the story of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sander will be heading to the big screen as Black Bicycle Entertainment and producer Justine Ciarrocchi have partnered to acquire rights to author Ellen Feldman’s novel Terrible Virtue. Black Bicycle’s Erika Olde will develop and produce the film adaptation alongside Ciarrocchi.

Ciarrocchi is the producing partner of Jennifer Lawrence and is developing Zelda, which tells the story of Zelda Fitzgerald. Ron Howard is attached to direct the film with Lawrence in the title role. The Oscar-winning actress is not attached to the Sanger project.

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Published by HarperCollins in March, Terrible Virtue focuses on Sanger as the daughter of a hard-drinking, smooth-tongued free thinker and mother worn down by 13 children, who vowed her life would be different. Following Sanger’s training as a nurse, her work alongside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists and other progressives and eventually her devotion to the cause of legalizing contraception, the film examines the risks she took and the impact she had that lasts to the present day.

One of the most groundbreaking and controversial figures in American history, Sanger emerged from the labor movement as the pre-eminent American voice for women’s sexual health and legalization of contraception. Credited with coining the term “birth control,” she established the first American birth control clinic in 1916, devoting her life to making contraception legal and along the way facing arrest and exile.

Sanger remains an icon and hero to progressives and feminists but a greatly reviled figure to the anti-abortion movement, which frequently has taken comments by Sanger about overpopulation out of context to imply racist intent. Work on bringing her story to the big screen begins just as abortion and birth control opponents look to make significant gains with the election of Donald Trump.

“Margaret’s story as an advocate who led the battle for birth control and eventually founding Planned Parenthood is so relevant given our recent election and today’s climate as we are once again forced to deal with basic human rights,” said Olde. “I share a mutual passion of the subject with Justine and look forward to bringing this topic and heroic individual to the forefront.”

Said Ciarrocchi: “The scope of Sanger’s complexity, both as a revolutionary and human being, is extraordinary. I blew through Feldman’s novel with such urgency, struck by the nuance, transparency and daring of her portrait. Her story explores the often brutal nature of activism and, most audaciously, the plight of the female soul. I’m thrilled to have found such passionate partners in Erika and BBE.”

Black Bicycle Entertainment is in production on Home Again, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer; Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead, starring Jessica Chastain, which just wrapped principal photography; and Whitney Cummings’ The Female Brain.

The acquisition of Terrible Virtue was negotiated by CAA, which represents Black Bicycle, Ciarrocchi and Feldman. Feldman is repped for publishing by the Emma Sweeney Agency.

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

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New Selection–Terrible Virtue

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Frank Fear Reviews Evicted

REVIEW: Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, New York: Crown Publishers, 2016[1]

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By Frank A. Fear, professor emeritus, Michigan State University

 

“Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American values is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”  (p. 313)

Eloquently phrased, so valid and compelling in substance…. Those words gave me great pause for thought.

I thought about America. How did it get this way? I thought about me. How can I make a difference?

The most sobering thought of all was this: nothing Matthew Desmond writes about is new.

At various levels we know severe poverty exists in this country. But most of us live a world apart—apart occupationally, economically, socially, and institutionally. But it’s different geographically. Wander a bit from Main Street or the suburbs. You’ll find it. And it’s closer than you think … often too close for comfort.

Desmond’s book should make us feel uncomfortable. He helps us confront this “other reality” in vivid and sometimes raw terms.

For me, the most discomforting part of the book was Desmond’s treatment of profit. There’s money to be made in the slums. Landlords, lenders, and other actors profit on the backs of vulnerable people—people living hardscrabble lives who don’t always know what tomorrow will bring.

Exploitation, now there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate,” Desmond writes (p. 305). I won’t forget that phrasing.

I didn’t read Evicted from cover to cover. I read Part One (through p. 107) to get grounded. Intrigued by the study design, I then turned to the end of the book and read about Desmond’s methodology (“About This Project,” pp. 315-336). Wondering about Desmond’s overall conclusions and recommendations I next read “Epilogue: Home and Hope” (pp. 293-313).

I used Epilogue as the foundation for reading the rest of the book. I highlighted (literally so, by marker) supporting documentation (the material cited in footnotes) and connected that evidentiary material to vignettes about people and relationships. Connecting those two domains—data about poverty (important to me as social scientist) with stories about poverty (important to me as citizen activist)—made the book come alive.

After finishing the book I spent time thinking about the meaning of Evicted. I concluded that it’s a Call to Arms. We must do more, and do better, as stewards of the commonwealth. Desmond says as much:

“Working on behalf of the common good is the engine of democracy, vital to our communities, cities, and states—and, ultimately, the nation. It is “an outflow of the idealism and moralism of the American people, wrote Gunner Myrdal.” (p. 294)

What might we do to serve the common good? I offer two recommendations. The first has to do with our role as benefactors. The second pertains to our role as political actors.

As Benefactors. A benefactor is a kindly helper. Millions of Americans are benefactors in the fight against poverty. We serve by volunteering time and giving money to America’s nonprofit agencies.

Not all agency work is the same, though. A good share of the work involves providing people relief from poverty and some of it targets the causes of poverty. If you’re like me then you’ve devoted more attention to relief and less to cause-remediation.

When I served as president of a municipal food bank I watched the client roll grow. More people needed food assistance. Many were children. Many were senior citizens. Many were “new kinds of people,” people you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with hunger, such as out-of-work professionals.

How could this be happening in America, I thought? I wasn’t the only person asking that question. And many times I heard this answer: “There will always be poor people in America. Our moral responsibility is to tend to their needs.”

Relief services certainly have a place. But raising more money to provide relief services to more and more people is an endless routine. It capitulates to the forces that cause hunger. And it makes benefactors problem responders, not problem solvers.

I believe America needs to reinvigorate its efforts to address the causes of poverty. One way to do that is by concentrating more time and money on agencies, programs, and services that target the causes of poverty by addressing those causes directly.

But it isn’t easy to identify those initiatives. Why? First, many evaluation systems only use financial indicators to judge nonprofit merit and quality (e.g., % of budget devoted to administration). Fiscal accountability is important, but it only gets at how agencies operate. Second, resources to help Americans make nonprofit choices don’t always do a good job of differentiating among diverse initiatives. Disparate activities are often lumped in a generic category, such as “Fighting Poverty.”

We need to be inquisitive and discriminating, first, then declarative and active, next. Volunteer. Serve on a committee. Become a board member. Make targeted financial contributions to projects with high impact. Endow a program to make a long-term difference.

I’m more convinced than ever—thanks, in part, to reading Evicted—that we must speak openly and passionately about shifting primary emphasis in this country from relief to remediation. Then we must act.

As Political Actors. Nonprofit initiatives are important, but local, state and national-level policies represent the cornerstone of transformation. With that in mind I very much like Desmond’s proposal—to expand the housing voucher program (pp. 308ff).

Sadly, though, poverty isn’t a primary concern politically in this country — and it hasn’t been a primary concern for nearly a half century. That’s why we don’t have the policies we need to attack poverty aggressively.

What a difference that is from the America of my youth! Poverty was on the national radar screen in the 1960s: we had a “War on Poverty.” Then the focus shifted substantially—from a progressive stance emphasizing commonwealth to a neoliberal ethic accentuating individual achievement.

“Capitalism … /has been celebrated/… not only as a wealth-generating engine,” David Brooks wrote recently, “it also … / became/ … a moral system, a way to arouse hard work, creativity and trust.” The creed? Focus on what you can get for yourself. “Everyone else can take care of themselves.”

The political rhetoric shifted correspondingly, too, from a Kennedy-esque “what I can do for my country” to cries for cutting taxes, shrinking government, and trimming regulations—three pillars of The Reagan Revolution. We hear those same cries today.

For decades, neither major political party made poverty a priority—even though data have shown clearly and consistently that a good share of America is being left behind. It’s the same in this election cycle. Poverty has been an off-and-on topic, mostly off, and sometimes back on, largely as a result of external pressure.

In September The New York Times Editorial Board published an opinion piece entitled, “The Failure to Talk Frankly About Poverty.” Hillary Clinton followed with plan to help America’s poor, but that plan was evaluated as lacking when compared to what other Western countries have done and are doing (e.g., Great Britain).

Part of the challenge is the way political parties go about their business. They use a routine I call “The Three P’s”Philosophy, Policies, and Programs. Party partisans talk about values they hold (Philosophy), the legislation they’ve enacted in the past and are pending today (Policies), and initiatives they’ve funded or intend to fund (Programs). Data and expert opinion are used to support the contention that America is “better off” (or at least improving) because of the party’s work. Then, on the flip side, party partisans use the Three P’s to argue that America has been hurt by what the other party stands for, has done in the past, and proposes to do in the future.

This either-or routine is patently familiar, the stuff of which stump speeches, party platforms, and candidate-authored Op Ed’s are made. That routine is connected intractably to what Desmond writes about poverty on pp. 316-17. For Conservatives the poverty narrative is mostly about individual deficiencies (e.g., having children out of wedlock). For Liberals the focus is largely on structural forces (e.g., loss of manufacturing jobs).

Desmond proposes another way of framing the poverty debate, a way that makes more sense to me as a Progressive—not just substantively, but morally as well. He sees poverty as a relationship involving poor and rich (emphasis added):

To understand poverty…I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.” (p. 317)

Desmond’s approach acknowledges that we (not just “they”) have a problem. It emphasizes our collective responsibility to serve the public good. And it’s a much-needed antidote to neoliberal self-centeredness.

How might we help that type of thinking grow and bear fruit? The first step is creating broader awareness of what’s going on—to become “Desmond’s Disciples,” as it were. But spreading the gospel won’t be easy. Survey data reveal that a majority of Americans (almost 70%) believe that people are responsible for their own welfare. And over 70% of those surveyed are pessimistic that poverty can be eliminated—even if the government made poverty a high priority.

Because change won’t come easily, I believe in approaching change as a political endeavor. What political acts might we take? Here are several examples.

Host a reading circle in your home with Evicted as common reading. Better yet, contact your local library and offer to organize a reading group in your community.

Write an Op Ed about Evicted for your hometown paper. Describe what’s going on in America and discuss its implications. Follow that up by writing a series of pieces about poverty, the plight of people, and what we can do—as everyday Americans and as a country—to address it.

Become knowledgeable about poverty-related legislation that’s before your state legislature and Congress. Identify representatives who support or oppose policies that lift people out of poverty. Endorse those who do. Volunteer to work on their campaigns. Speak out against those who don’t support poverty legislation. A good way to express support and oppose is by writing Letters to the Editor of your hometown newspaper.

Affiliate with local, state, and national-level poverty-focused organizations. Work with others to advance a political agenda that addresses poverty directly.

The bottom line: Do what you can and as much as you can. Lives hang in the balance.

If you think that interpretation is an exaggeration, consider what Jennifer Senior wrote in her review of Evicted:

“How can you hang on to a job, send your child to school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?”

Repeat those words to anybody who questions your activism.

Would they want to live their lives that way? Certainly not. If they did, would they want others to care about them? Probably yes.

We should care about those who live this way—today, right here, in America. And we should do something about it.

So let us.

[1] SYNOPSIS (from Amazon.com): “Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a sociological study of evictions, housing, and homelessness in Milwaukee. The book follows the lives of a number of tenants and landlords in order to examine how access to housing affects the poor. Desmond also includes historical background, statistics, and research findings to provide context for his narratives…. /The study shows that/…eviction is hugely disruptive, and those who are evicted face loss of property, intensified poverty, and an erosion in quality of housing. Evictions also disrupt jobs, and may increase depression and addiction. It’s not only that poverty contributes to housing precarity; housing precarity contributes to poverty. Moreover, a home can spell the difference between stable poverty, in which saving and advancement are possible, and grinding poverty, in which one staggers from crisis to crisis.”

 

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Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

 

EVICTED–an overview

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Matthew Desmond in his office in Cambridge, MA. Sept. 10, 2015. 

 

EVICTED

Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond

 Below is an overview of the book, prepared by the publisher that I thought would be of interest as you are reading the book, or reviewing the book as you think about our conversation with Matthew Desmond on October 23rd.

From Harvard sociologist and 2015 MacArthur “Genius” award winner Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America.

Today, poor families are facing one of the worst affordable housing crises in generations. Many are spending almost all they have to live in decrepit housing in our cities’ worst neighborhoods. What it means to be poor in America today is to be crushed by the high cost of housing and evicted when you inevitably fall behind.

In this groundbreaking book, Harvard sociologist and 2015 MacArthur “Genius” award winner Matthew Desmond takes us into Milwaukee to introduce us to eight families on the edge of eviction. 

  • Arleen is a single mother trying to raise two boys on $628 a month. After falling behind on rent, Arleen receives eviction papers and sets off into the coldest Milwaukee winter on record to find her family a new home. Eighty-nine calls later, she’s still looking.
  • Crystal, eighteen and fresh out of foster care, lets Arleen and her children stay with her even though she doesn’t “know them from Adam and Eve.” After repeatedly calling the police on behalf of a neighbor being abused by a boyfriend, Crystal and Arleen are both evicted. Crystal turns to prostitution to survive before turning back to her church family.
  • Vanetta, a devoted mother of three with no criminal record, participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut, sending her children into homelessness and Vanetta to prison.
  • A gregarious single father who serves as taskmaster and confidant to adolescent neighborhood boys, Lamar tries to work off his rent by performing odd jobs for his landlord.  A wheelchair bound double-amputee, he crawls through empty apartments, painting cracked walls and praying for strength. His story ends in tragedy.
  • Doreen Hinkston and her desperately poor but tight-knit family prepare to welcome a new baby into a home so rundown and dirty they refer to it as the “rat hole.”
  • Scott, a gentle night-shift nurse turned heroin addict, loses his license and middle-class lifestyle.  He moves into one of Milwaukee’s worst trailer park, where getting drugs is as easy as asking for a cup of sugar. Scott hits rock bottom before trying to get clean.
  • A grandmother who falls behind in rent after paying her gas bill because she wanted to take a hot shower, Larraine is evicted by sheriff deputies and her things confiscated by movers.
  • Pam and Ned are evicted from their trailer when Ned is on the run from the law and Pam is eight months pregnant.

The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords.

  • Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, evangelizes to her fellow landlords about the money that can be made on Milwaukee’s decaying North Side, saying “the ’hood is good.” She shows occasional kindnesses to her tenants, but says, “Love don’t pay the bills.”
  • In his twelve years at College Mobile Home Park, Tobin Charney has learned how to pull profit out of 131 dilapidated trailers. He takes home more than $400,000 a year running one of the poorest trailer parks in Milwaukee.

As Desmond lived alongside Arleen, Scott, and Lamar, he was also conducting a groundbreaking study that collected and analyzed years of novel statistical data about poverty, housing, and displacement. And what he found is that for the poorest families in America, eviction has become routine, and its effects are devastating.

  • Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, millions of Americans are evicted every year because they can’t make rent. In 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting families nationwide was unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely they would be evicted soon.
  • Poor people’s incomes have slumped, housing costs have risen, and federal policy has failed to bridge the gap. As a result, today the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates more than 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Housing assistance does not come close to meeting the need. Three in four families who qualify for assistance receive nothing.
  • Eviction affects the old and the young, the sick and able-bodied. But for poor women of color and their children, it has become ordinary. Among Milwaukee renters, more than 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted in their adult life, compared to 1 in 12 Hispanic women and 1 in 15 white women.  In poor black neighborhoods, what incarceration is to men, eviction is to women: a common yet consequential event that pushes families deeper into poverty.  Poor black men are locked up; poor black women are locked out.
  • Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.  It can cause workers to lose their jobs, prevent tenants from benefitting from public housing, and push families into substandard housing in undesirable parts of the city. It can also drive people to depression—even two years after the event, evicted mothers experience significantly higher rates of depression than their peers—and, in extreme cases, even suicide.
  • Many landlords won’t rent to families with children, and children themselves can provoke eviction.
  • The poor risk eviction if they report housing problems to the city or even if they call 911, especially when reporting domestic violence.
  • Eviction affects the communities that displaced families leave behind. For example, Milwaukee neighborhoods with high eviction rates have higher violent crime rates the following year, even after controlling for past crime rates and other relevant factors. 

Fixing this problem won’t be easy, but it is well within our nation’s capacity. 

Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The ability to work, get an education, provide for one’s children, stay sober and healthy: it all requires stable shelter. We’ve affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of an education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen. Housing should also be seen as a fundamental human need because without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.

Low-income families on the edge of eviction have no right to counsel. But when tenants have lawyers, their chances of keeping their home increase dramatically. Establishing publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court would be a cost-effective measure that would prevent homelessness, decrease evictions, and give poor families a fair shake.

Extending the right to counsel in housing court would not address the underlying source of America’s eviction epidemic: the rapidly shrinking supply of affordable housing. A universal housing voucher program would carve a middle path between the landlord’s desire to make a living and the tenant’s desire, simply, to live. Every family below a certain income level would be eligible for a housing voucher.

A universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country. Evictions would plummet and become rare occurrences. Homelessness would almost disappear. We have the money to fund such a program; we just choose not to. Each year, we spend three times what a universal housing voucher program would cost on homeowner tax breaks, which mainly benefit families with six-figure incomes.

Eviction encapsulates in a single, hard moment the depths of our nation’s poverty, the brokenness of our housing policy, and the human costs of a crisis caused by low incomes and high rents. This moment, when the ramifications of the crisis are felt most acutely, also offers a window into extreme poverty, economic exploitation, and human perseverance. Look at eviction and you arrive at a bigger truth: the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

Matthew Desmond is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and Co-Director of the Justice and Poverty Project. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, he is the author of the award-winning book, On the Fireline, coauthor of two books on race, and editor of a collection of studies on severe deprivation in America. His work has been supported by the Ford, Russell Sage, and National Science Foundations, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. In 2015, Desmond was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

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EVICTED

Poverty and Profit in the American City

Our current selection is an in depth look at the housing and eviction crisis in America.  Matthew Desmond, a MacArthur Fellow and Harvard sociologist, asks us to look more closely at eviction, not simply as a symptom of poverty, but as a cause.

We meet both families and landlords in EVICTED. The book tells the stories of 8 different families who face eviction whom Matthew came to know over the close to one year he spent living in the poor communities of Milwaukee.  In addition to his exhaustive field work, Matthew also examined housing court records, 911 calls and developed the Milwaukee Area Renters Survey that collected in person questionnaires from over 1000 families.

Here is a compelling video Matthew created about the book, in which he says,

If we want to erase poverty in America, we must do something about the stark lack of affordable housing in our cities, because without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

(If you cannot see the video, you can view it here.)

Matthew was a MacArthur Fellow in 2015. In this video, produced by the MacArthur Foundation he talks about his research and reporting process. Matthew hopes to help the country think bigger about solutions to the crisis of poverty.

(If you cannot see the video, you can view it here.)

Eviction, instead of being rare has become ordinary.  The prevalence of eviction, how common it is in low income neighborhoods is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.”   –Matthew Desmond

EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City is available through Amazon, your local bookseller and in most libraries. It is a compelling, important and heartbreaking book. I look forward to hearing from you as you dive in.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

EVICTION-Book Club Selection

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Can We Heal Our Great Divide?

Our current selection is Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith.  I know we are going to learn a lot from the book and have much to discuss with the author on our conference call on Sunday, June 19th at 7 pm EST.

Book Image

While you are getting started with the book, I was eager to share the TEDxOrcasIsland talk that Hedrick gave last year, entitled “Can We Heal Our Great Divide?” In his talk he lays out his economic theory of what has gone wrong and what we can do about it.  He speaks abuot how we have seen a “revolt of the bosses, a revolt from the top down.” He links rebuilding the American economy to reclaiming our democracy and talks about the need to end gerrymandering, expose dark money and the value of Top Two primaries.  And that it is up to the American people, from the bottom up to do this. Hedrick reminds us that American history shows us that we can make transformative change happen…look at the revolutionary war, the women’s movement, the 60’s.  He goes on to speak about the power of the civil rights movement.  He shares:

I remember when Martin Luther King put on his coveralls–he didn’t just give that speech at the Lincoln Memorial–he put on his coveralls, went out and got arrested. And they denounced him as an outside agitator. That was meant as a diss, an epithet, a denunciation…. Yes, he said, I am an agitator. Look in your washing machine, there’s an agitator in the center and it’s agitating the water and the soap to knock the dirt out of your clothes.  And I’m here to agitate the dirt out of our society–racism, discrimination, segregation.”

Hedrick goes on to say,

I think we need a new spirit of agitation in America.  We need a new generation of agitators, and I don’t mean just the young generation. I mean all of us generations together.  We can do it.”

I hope you will give his talk a listen.

If you cannot view the video, you can see it here.

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Reminder: Politics for the People

Conference Call With Hedrick Smith

Sunday, June 19th @ 7 pm EST

(641) 715-3605   Code 767775#

Next Selection-Who Stole the American Dream?

As we enter the final week of our celebration of National Poetry Month, I am very happy to announce that our next book club selection is Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith.

Book Image

Hedrick Smith is a bestselling author, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, and Emmy Award–winning producer. He has written five best selling books, including The Russians and The Power Game. As a reporter at The New York Times, Smith shared a Pulitzer for the Pentagon Papers series and won a Pulitzer for his international reporting from Russia in 1971–1974. in addition, Smith has been a producer for PBS’ Frontline.

In Who Stole the American Dream?, Hedrick Smith analyzes what happened to the American dream over the last four decades, how it is our economy has crumbled and we have become so divided as a country.

I met Hedrick in February in NH, when both he and Jackie Salit, the President of IndependentVoting.org spoke at the NH Rebellion We the People Convention.  Hedrick is an outspoken advocate for structural political reforms from campaign finance reform, to ending gerrymandering and top two nonpartisan elections.

It was a pleasure to hear him speak and I know we will greatly enjoy reading and exploring his book. Our book club conversation with Hedrick will be on Sunday, June 19th. I am looking forward to it!

IndependentVoting.org President, Jackie Salit in conversation with Hedrick Smith

You can get your copy of Who Stole the American Dream? on Amazon, at your local bookseller or library. It is available in hardcover, paperback or on Kindle.

Let me leave you with an excerpt from the Prologue:

A House Divided: Two Americas

Over the past three decades, we have become Two Americas.  We are no longer one large American family with shared prosperity and shared political and economic power, as we were in the decades following World War II. Today, no common enemy unites us as a nation. No common enterprise like settling the West or rockeing to the moon inspires us as a people.

We are today a sharply divided country–divided by power, money, and ideology.  Our politics have become rancorous and polarized, our political leaders unable to resolve the most basic problems. Constant conflict had replaced a sense of common purpose and the pursuit of the common welfare.  Not just in Washington, but across the nation, the fault lines that divide us run deep, and they are profoundly self-destructive, unless we can find our way to some new unity and consensus.

Abraham Lincoln gave us fair warning. “A house divided against itself, ” Lincoln said, “cannot stand.”

Americans sense that something is profoundly wrong–that we have done off track as a nation.  Many skilled observers write about this, but it is hard to grasp exactly how we arrived at our present predicament or how to respond–how to go about healing America’s dangerous divide.  The causes do not lie in the last election or the one before that.  They predate the financial collapse of 2008.  The timeline to our modern national quagmire lies embedded in the longer arc of our history, and that history, from 1971 to the present, is the focus of this book.”

 

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

with Hedrick Smith

Sunday, June 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number (641) 715-3605

Access code 767775#

 

 

 

Going Beyond Conventional Wisdom

The Boston Globe

BOOK REVIEW

‘The War on Alcohol’ by Lisa McGirr

Conventional wisdom about this country’s short-lived attempt to ban “the manufacture, sale, import, and transportation of intoxicating liquors” views it as a spectacular failure. The corrupt, inefficient enforcement and subsequent repeal of Prohibition inarguably demonstrated the difficulties involved in regulating personal behavior in the absence of a moral consensus.

But there is more to the story, and recent histories have sought to convey both the era’s colorful complexity and its checkered aftermath. Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” (2010) was an especially sharp look at the politics and personalities involved in both the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and its repeal, via the 21st Amendment, in 1933.

Popular culture has made Prohibition — in particular its flouting — seem like good, old-fashioned fun. But Okrent noted that our prevailing images of flappers, speakeasies, and liquor-impounding lawmen should be supplemented by darker ones of murdered rum runners and victims of poisoned hooch.

Lisa McGirr’s “The War on Alcohol,” though it touches on the politics of Prohibition, is less enlightening on its specific proponents and antagonists, and certainly a less lively read. McGirr’s central, and somewhat counter-intuitive argument, is that Prohibition, for all its shortcomings, laid the foundation for the expansion of federal power, the modern penal state, and our ongoing unsuccessful war on drugs.
McGirr, a professor of history at Harvard, avers that it is incorrect to view “the fourteen-year war on alcohol as an aberrant moment in the nation’s history, wrongheaded social policy waged by puritanical zealots of a bygone Victorian era, with few lasting consequences.”

In fact, she argues, Prohibition prepared the way for New Deal innovations, as the country increasingly looked to the federal government for social and economic solutions. Specifically, Prohibition fueled a national obsession with crime and helped create “a state that has been interventionist yet weak, heavy on coercion yet light on social welfare.”

One link — to the war on drugs — seems incontrovertible. “[T]he most consequential harvest of the war on alcohol,” McGirr writes, “was the uniquely American cross-breeding of prohibitionary and punitive approaches toward illicit recreational narcotic substances, in which the central government was to play a leading role domestically and internationally.”

McGirr adds to our understanding of the era with case studies of selective enforcement of the federal Volstead Act and state laws linked to the 18th Amendment. Enforcement, she writes, disproportionately targeted working-class, immigrant, poor, and African-American communities.

She locates the impetus for Prohibition in an alliance of Protestant evangelism and reformers’ “monumental anxieties over industrial capitalism, mass immigration, and the increasingly large and potentially volatile proletarian populations” concentrated in America’s urban areas.

Ethnic working-class communities came to see Prohibition — correctly — as “an attack on their leisure and personal habits.” They widely flouted the ban, though their drinking became more clandestine — and more expensive. Moonshine and boot-legging boomed, as did gangland influence, political corruption, and violence.

Accounts of Prohibition lawlessness traditionally have been “tinged with romance and nostalgia,” McGirr writes. But organized crime devastated poor communities, as did toxic liquor concoctions.

Enforcement, which included vigilantism, was not just selective, but harsh and even deadly. In Virginia, for example, violators overflowed the prisons and were subject to service on chain gangs and corporal punishment. Confrontations escalated into “the cavalier use of force,” and small-time operators could be shot.

McGirr treats at some length the relationship between a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and Prohibition. “The Klan leveraged the broad scope of the law,” she writes, “to pursue its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and white supremacist agenda.” Not that its mission kept Klan leaders themselves from drunken escapades, she adds.

Conflict over Prohibition helped precipitate what McGirr sees as an electoral realignment, with working-class immigrant “wets” moving to the Democratic column in 1928. The Democratic presidential nominee, Al Smith, whose Catholicism cost him votes in the South and West, lost to Herbert Hoover. But Franklin D. Roosevelt owed his victory four years later in part to repeal sentiment.

Before the New Deal, Hoover expanded federal power, McGirr writes, not least by framing crime (including Prohibition-induced lawlessness) as a national problem. “The radical federal endeavor to abolish liquor traffic is the missing link between Progressive Era and World War I state building and the New Deal,” she asserts.

Right or wrong, it is a provocative argument, even if the manifold failures of Prohibition also render it — as McGirr herself acknowledges — a paradoxical one.

THE WAR ON ALCOHOL: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic at the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein

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