A Review of Terrible Virtue

NY JOURNAL OF BOOKS: TERRIBLE VIRTUE

BY: JANET LEVINE

March 29, 2016

“The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography.”

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is fictional autobiography (told almost exclusively in an imagined first-person narrative voice) of 20th century feminist icon and birth control advocate and activist American, Margaret Sanger.

But is this the autobiography Margaret Sanger would have written if she had chosen to do so toward the end of her life?

The title stems from a Margaret Sanger quote from 1914: “It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.” She adds: “A woman’s duty: To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in her eyes, to have an ideal, to speak and act in defiance of convention.”

With these words, Sanger, as Feldman notes, found her mission.

What is also “terrible” in this novel perhaps is the toll Sanger’s lifelong activism imposed on her two husbands, three children and many lovers. Among other questions, Sanger’s crusading raises the dilemma of whether activists living for a cause, can also be married or even raise children. Of course the “virtue” resides in the remarkable effectiveness of the activism Sanger espoused.

The novel takes the reader of a fascinating and compelling gallop through the surface of Sanger’s life as imagined by Feldman. The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography. Yet the novel does range over the highlights of Sanger’s life from a small town in upstate New York to a final home in Tucson, Arizona.

Sanger was born into poverty, a daughter of an alcoholic free thinker and town renegade and a haggard mother always exhausted by the bearing of and caring for 13 children. Due to the sacrifice of two older and devoted sisters Sanger was able to train as a nurse. Early on she championed several social justice causes, mingling with, learning from, and working with other progressives.

Ultimately she brought her leadership skills, powerful personality, and idealism (abetted by constant awareness of her mother’s childbearing suffering that caused her untimely death) into legalizing contraception. This struggle consumed her life and led often to violent conflict with puritanical, patronizing lawmakers, sentenced her several times to prison, and left her little option to further her work but to seek asylum in Edwardian England.

Sanger’s narrative is interrupted by short accounts from her children, husbands, sisters, and lovers that counterbalance and often confute Sanger’s telling of her life in which she gives short shrift to the great cost she exacted from those she loved and who loved her. Another fascinating element of the novel is the vignette appearances of the likes of Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, and other luminaries of progressive movements in the early to mid-20th century.

Among many other pioneering ventures, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 (illegal), founded Planned Parenthood in 1952, and in 1960 heralded Congress’s legal protection of “the Pill.”

This is a timely book. Since 2010 hundreds of new laws chip away at women’s choice, access to contraception, sexual education, and abortion—all passed by conservative lawmakers. Women’s rights are assailed today by the same puritanical zeitgeist that railed against Margaret Sanger in 1916. Sadly, Sanger’s work is not yet completely done.

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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]

frank-fear-landscape

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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Reader’s Forum–Mary Fridley talks EVICTED

 

mf-picture

In a conversation with Fred Newman some years ago, I asked him how he decided what books to read. He basically said, “If you enjoy the conversation, read it; if you don’t, don’t.” After reading Evicted, I immediately recommended it to Cathy Stewart because I believed that she and other independents would appreciate the conversational journey the book and its author Matthew Desmond take us on. While it is not an easy journey, I found it to be an extraordinarily compassionate and thought-provoking one. Since Desmond is perhaps the quintessential “outsider” – a white, Harvard-trained academic – I appreciate that he took the time to build relationships with people who we get to know, not as “subjects,” but as a delightfully human group of Black and white women and men (whose stories remain with me) trying to fight/manipulate a system that refuses to relate to them, regardless of color, with any humanity at all.

I have spent much of my adult life doing all I can to end poverty, but reading Evicted showed me how easy it still is to relate to it as an abstraction rather than as an endlessly complex and interconnected industry out of which it is becoming more and more impossible to escape. Thus, I appreciate that, while Desmond does not shy away from sharing the foibles and failings of Scott, Patrice, Arleen and the others we meet in Evicted, he does so without blaming or shaming them.  As he says in a Huffington Post article I recently read, “Eviction is fundamentally changing the face of poverty. One way we can interpret eviction is like, ‘Oh, it’s a result of irresponsibility, it’s bad spending habits.’ But if you’re spending 80 percent of your income on rent, eviction is much more of an inevitability than an irresponsibility.”

He is also sensitive to the fact that the housing/eviction crisis is not impacting everyone the same way. I was touched/haunted by his observation that, “If incarceration has come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, evictionwas shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” As a woman and an independent determined to transform a political system that is locking out growing numbers of Americans regardless of race, class or gender, I am glad we have an ally in Matthew Desmond and look forward to continuing – and growing – this much needed conversation.

Mary Fridley is the Director of Special Projects at the East Side Institute and a longtime independent activist from Brooklyn, NY.

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Reminder: P4P Call Tonight with Lisa McGirr

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As we get ready for our conversation with Lisa McGirr on her book,  The War on Alcohol, I thought you would enjoy reading this review of the book that appeared in Volteface in March.  Christopher Snowden explores Lisa’s book and the historical roots and connections with the war on drugs.

 

VolteFace

/vɒlt’fæs/

VolteFace is a space that offers fresh perspectives on drugs policies, lifestyle and culture.

 

Eighty three years after Prohibition was repealed, can there be anything new to say about the ‘noble experiment’? Lisa McGirr’s new history The War on Alcohol emphatically answers that question in the affirmative.

Historians have tended to write about Prohibition as if it was doomed from the start and have therefore focused on the long campaign leading up to the 18th Amendment and the rather shorter campaign for the 21st Amendment (which abolished the prohibitionist 18th). Narrative histories of the fourteen years separating these two events fill their pages with tales of organised crime, the dubious glamour of speakeasies and the comic aspects of a doomed crusade. Since Prohibition is, it is assumed, dead for good, we can afford to laugh at the fanaticism of its adherents and marvel at the antics of bootleggers.

All entertaining stuff, but less has been said about the experience of ordinary drinkers living in Dry America for whom life was neither glamorous nor fun. This is where McGirr comes in. The title of The War on Alcohol is clearly designed to invite comparisons with the modern War on Drugs. A lesser writer might have hammered the similarities between these two disastrous follies into the ground, but McGirr is content to allow readers to make their own connections. She leaves it until the end of the book before drawing explicit parallels, of which perhaps the most significant is the disproportionate harm caused to ethnic minorities and the poor, both as suppliers and consumers, in the respective ‘wars’.

Prohibition disproportionately targeted ethnic minorities and the poor (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Prohibition disproportionately targeted ethnic minorities and the poor (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Prohibition corrupted institutions from the inside out and unleashed a wave of vigilantism that came close to a reign of terror in some towns and cities. One notable difference between Prohibition and the war on drugs is that there has never been a grassroots anti-narcotics society to compare with the formidableAnti-Saloon League. Having secured the 18th Amendment, the League effectively became an armed militia of teetotalitarians, conducting raids on private property with the tacit, and often explicit, support of local police, the Prohibition Bureau and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The League were true believers in the dry cause, but any mob of volunteers could join officials and private detectives in enforcing the Volstead Act. For some vigilantes, the 18th Amendment was nothing more than an excuse for persecution and score-settling. As McGirr recounts, the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a terrifying revival once its members decided to become soldiers in the war against liquor. Unsurprisingly, some drinkers received more attention from the hooded order than others.

McGirr vividly illustrates the ways in which the 18th Amendment was used as a ‘blanket pretext to invade workers’ homes, clubs, gatherings, and boarding houses’, with detailed case studies in such localities as Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh. Much of this research is new and McGirr provides enough empirical evidence to show that the racial and class bias of Prohibition enforcement was not confined to bad apples and rotten boroughs but was a systemic, nationwide phenomenon. ‘The country is not being run for their benefit’, said the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals when it was suggested that Prohibition was deeply unpopular with foreign-born workers. It showed.

The Klu Kux Klan took up the prohibition cause asa guise for their own racism (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Klu Kux Klan took up the prohibition cause as a guise for their own racism (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Gusfield’s classic sociological study Symbolic Crusade portrayed Prohibition as a war between WASPs and the urban proletariat. It is a view with which McGirr seems to sympathise (as do I) and it is undoubtedly true that European immigrants, blacks, Mexicans, Catholics and the urban poor were hit harder by Prohibition than cider-brewing farmers and millionaire wine collectors. Unable to afford the better quality alcohol enjoyed by the affluent, these groups were also more likely to suffer from the ill effects of cheap moonshine, which included being blinded, crippled and killed.

But it is an ill wind that blows no good. For budding entrepreneurs of any background, the illicit alcohol business was a get-rich-quick scheme. ‘The illicit liquor traffic has become a means of comparative opulence to many families that formerly were on the records of relief agencies’, reported the Federal Council of Churches in 1925. The same could be said of many drug dealers today, but the opportunities afforded to working class bootleggers were accompanied with great risks. Buyers and sellers of moonshine among the urban proletariat were much more likely to be prosecuted and imprisoned than their counterparts in high society.

The similarities between the war on alcohol and the war on drugs are striking, but they are not the core of McGirr’s thesis. Her main argument is more interesting. She contends that Prohibition led to the creation of the modern, heavy-handed American penal state. It was not, she says, a mere bump in the highway of history. It had a lasting impact not only on American drinking culture (male-dominated saloons never fully returned) but on the relationship between the American people and their government.

The First World War that preceded Prohibition and the New Deal that followed it both involved a significant expansion of government, but historians have often portrayed the period of 1920-1932 as a period of conservative retrenchment. Not so, says McGirr. The era saw the ‘greatest expansion of state building, outside of wartime, since Reconstruction’. Thanks to Prohibition and the crime wave that accompanied it, police raids on private property – including private dwellings – became commonplace, state surveillance was stepped up and the federal prison population rose threefold. By 1930, more than half of all prisoners had been convicted on drink or drug charges.

The (highly corrupt) Prohibition Bureau employed far more people and had a vastly larger budget than the Bureau of Investigation which later became the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover watched the expansion of the Prohibition Bureau with interest and largely modelled his own organisation on it. The police, prisons and border control were all given bigger budgets to deal with the challenges of Prohibition. Government agencies, once built, rarely disband voluntarily and they had every excuse to keep growing in the 1930s. Prohibition, says McGirr, ‘permanently convinced Americans to look to the federal government for solutions to new national problems’. The war on drugs had gathered pace as the war on alcohol was burning out, providing a new stock of criminals to chase down and incarcerate.

J. Edgar Hoover took inspiration for the FBI from the Prohibition Bureau (Source: Wikipedia)
J. Edgar Hoover took inspiration for the FBI from the Prohibition Bureau (Source: Wikipedia)

The war on drugs grew out of Prohibition to a large extent. Certainly, it is was borne of the same strange progressive brew of optimism and authoritarianism that led Americans to believe that mankind could be remade by force of law. The drug war was, says McGirr, ‘founded on the same logic as the alcohol Prohibition regime, drew upon its core assumptions, infrastructure, and moral entrepreneurs’. Those with a better understanding of human nature correctly predicted that the market for other stimulants would grow once the market for alcohol was suppressed and McGirr makes the interesting point that the abolitionist approach to liquor influenced the Supreme Court decision in 1919 to ban non-medical addiction maintenance. It was this, as much as anything, that kick-started America’s illegal drug trade.

A further insight in McGirr’s book may come as a surprise to those who are new to this period of American history. It is easy to forget that the Republicans were once the party of black voters and city dwellers whereas the Democrats were the party of white supremacy and the countryside. This only began to change when the battle against Prohibition drove the oppressed urban workforce into the arms of Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt. By giving a voice to the millions of ordinary folk who resented the dry tyranny, the Democratic party – which had not won a presidential election since 1916 – was transformed and revitalised.

One might quibble with some of McGirr’s political terminology. Her assertion that ‘neo-liberalism’ is synonymous with big government is questionable and I raised an eyebrow at her claim that Prohibition was rooted in ‘proprietary capitalism’. In truth, the politics of the Prohibition era do not easily fit modern interpretations of left and right. McGirr argues plausibly that the anti-drink crusade spawned the modern ‘Christian right’ but although they were mostly Christians, the Anti-Saloon League and WCTU were born of the Progressive era and were not right-wing as most people would understand the term. McGirr briefly mentions the WCTU’s greatest leader, Frances Willard, but only to portray her as one of the era’s many casual racists. Perhaps she was, but she was also a trade unionist, a Suffragette and a socialist. This was not an unusual combination of traits for a teetotal crusader.

US Riot Police. The Prohibition Era led to the development of far more extensive, heavy handed policing policies (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
US Riot Police. The Prohibition Era led to the development of far more extensive, heavy handed policing policies (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Insofar as 21st century pigeonholes apply to pre-WWI America, the Drys were predominantly of the left whereas those who resisted the seemingly unstoppable march of progress, of which Prohibition was supposedly as a crucial part, were predominantly conservatives. If there is a political lesson to be learned from this book, it is that progressives are keen on passing laws while conservatives are keen on enforcing them. Prohibition had never been a conservative project but once the states had ratified the 18th Amendment, the likes of Herbert Hoover felt obliged to make sure the law was respected. In doing so, McGirr argues, Republicans became inclined towards ‘a kind of conservatism comfortable with a more expansive state’.

There is no shortage of books about Prohibition, many them very good (Andrew Sinclair’s The Era of Excess (1962) and Daniel Okrent’s Last Call (2010) are two personal favourites). None of them are quite like this, however. The War on Alcohol is original enough in its research and conclusions to be essential reading for any scholar of the period. Would I recommend it to someone who only intends to read one book about Prohibition? I think I would. The story is told in a broadly chronological order and all the key facts are there for those who do not know them. What sets it apart is the way it hones in on the social consequences of an extraordinary political project, the ramifications of which are still felt today.

Christopher Snowdon is an author, journalist and research fellow at theInstitute of Economic Affairs. Tweets @cjsnowdon

Chicago Tribune Reviews The War on Alcohol

 

Lisa McGirr’s ‘The War on Alcohol’ illuminates past,

sheds light on present

 

By Bill Savage                                                     January 14, 2016

 

The more-or-less official motto of historians is the famous line from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A codicil to this might be: “Historians who cannot connect the past to the present are condemned to irrelevance.” Far too many histories fail to make clear how their readers could learn from the past, not just to understand it on its own terms, but to avoid repeating its mistakes. Harvard historian Lisa McGirr’s new book, “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State” emphatically connects the past to the present.

Many excellent books have delved into this subject, both recently and during Prohibition, especially perhaps Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” and George Ade’s 1931 polemic, “The Old-Time Saloon” (full disclosure: I am working on a new, annotated, edition of Ade’s book). McGirr’s well-written and accessible volume is essential because she not only recounts familiar aspects of Prohibition with insight and verve — she clearly, cogently and persuasively connects that era’s politics and policies to our contemporary Prohibition: America’s decades-long “War on Drugs.”After recounting the story of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement and the Anti-Saloon League’s legislative victory in passing the 18th Amendment, McGirr delves deeply into what today we’d call the “identity politics” of Prohibition. The complexity of this social and political movement is astonishing: Anything that could get Jane Addams and the Ku Klux Klan on the same side of any argument is beyond simple summary. Nonetheless, McGirr is at her best when she delves into the complexities of how different sorts of Americans experienced Prohibition.

What it meant to live under the Volstead Act and government enforcement regimes differed based on what sort of American you were, and not just along a Wet-Dry axis. Rich or middle class or working class or poor, urban or small town or rural, white or black or Latino, male or female: Prohibition and its law enforcement effected everyone differently, in ways that had profound and lasting effects on American culture.

McGirr persuasively argues that President Herbert Hoover and the Republican overreach on enforcing a deeply despised law changed American politics more than most historians have understood (or admitted). Under the flag of repeal, African-Americans and white city dwellers flocked to the Democrats. McGirr writes: “Prohibition opposition became the cudgel that broke apart earlier loyalties and forged new ones.” The seismic shift of African-Americans abandoning the party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, cannot be overstated. For various urban white ethnic immigrants to see past their divisions and agree that the Democrats’ stance on repeal mattered more than anything else was also earth-shaking.

This change did not happen overnight: Anti-Catholic prejudice prevented 1928 Democratic Presidential candidate Al Smith for capitalizing on such a coalition sooner. But the subsequent four years of draconian federal encroachment on everyday life — and vigorous political organization and get-out-the-vote drives by Democrats — enabled Franklin Delano Roosevelt to lead the way to the New Deal by campaigning for repeal.

So, Prohibition caused a fundamental political re-orientation, one that enabled the Democratic Party to occupy the White House for 20 years, and to change the very idea of what the federal government should, or could, do about nationwide social issues. The New Deal (and the Great Society) government programs happened only because of the political realignment born of Prohibition and the very idea that the federal government should address social issues at all.

 

The relevance to 21st-century America, in the fifth decade of the “War on Drugs” declared by President Richard Nixon, is crystal clear by the time the “War on Alcohol” concludes. McGirr writes, “The U.S. war on alcohol built the foundations of the twentieth-century federal penal state. At the same time, the widened scope of federal power and the state administrative apparatus over a fourteen-year period oriented Americans ever more toward the nation-state for the resolution of social problems, while inspiring paradoxical disquiet over that very expansion of the government’s sphere of action.”

To cite yet another maxim about history, William Faulkner’s: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” McGirr eloquently demonstrates that while national Prohibition of alcohol died in 1933, it is not past; we are repeating its mistakes eight decades later. The contemporary American and international prohibition on drugs parallels the violent crime, extreme law enforcement and vast prisons born out of Prohibition.

McGirr reminds her readers that “The war on alcohol was brought to an end by a powerful combination of mass hostility to the law, elite opinion makers who dared challenge the consensus, and politicians who saw repeal as the road to the White House and even party realignment.” Perhaps books like McGirr’s will teach Americans to repeat the liberating logic of repeal. 

Bill Savage teaches Chicago literature at Northwestern University.

‘The War on Alcohol’  By Lisa McGirr, W.W. Norton, 330 pages, $27.95

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

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Reflections on Reflections on The Notion Of Family

 

By Omar H. Ali, Ph.D.

I first saw images of Latoya Ruby Frazier’s riveting book of photographs, The Notion Of Family, in an NPR article about six months ago entitled “A Rust Belt Story Retold…” I wasn’t sure what to make of the images, as they felt a little distant at the time, despite my being familiar–as a historian of black labor and politics–with some of the history of those communities living “in the shadow” of Carnegie steel mills.

And then, this week, after receiving and reading through Latoya’s book, I read the reviews and commentaries by Michelle McCleary and Dr. Jessie Fields, among others, on P4P.

I’m not sure which impacted me more–the book or the commentaries. This is not to detract from Latoya’s truly extraordinary book (few artists capture, which such honest detail, poor people’s lives by poor and working people themselves–making their stories their own). But reading through the snippets of Michelle and Jessie’s lives as part of their reflections made the images in the book feel closer.

You see, I know Michelle and Jessie. They are two of my long-time political colleagues–extraordinary women–who have spent many years building an independent political movement in the United States to empower ordinary people, poor people, the outsiders, the forgotten, the survivors. I don’t know Latoya. But Michelle and Jessie are helping me to better understand her work.

While each of their experiences are different from the other’s, there are similarities in their experiences and the roles that women played in each of their lives–their mom’s, grandmothers, aunts, or great aunts–in helping each of them thrive.

Michelle writes, “I had come to realize that the feelings of pain and shame that I and millions of people experienced were manufactured and NOT in our heads nor were our fault.  Those manufactured feelings were designed to keep us in our place.”

I then see one of Latoya’s photographs …

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier Pg 131, Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby, 2007

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier Pg 131, Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby, 2007

And I hear (read) Jessie’s words “Ordinary people, though poor and abused are leading and fighting.” Part of that leading is giving expression to the plight of the voiceless, nameless, and unseen–here voiced, named, and seen through new performances.

Thank you, LaToya, for your book of photographs; thank you Michelle and Jessie, for your beautiful, painful, and moving words; thank you, Cathy, for giving us P4P and a space to reflect and support those who “stand in the rubble and fight,” as Jessie poetically writes, as Michelle explains, and as Latoya photographs.

Omar H. Ali, Ph.D., selected as the 2016 Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year in North Carolina, is a historian and community organizer who teaches black labor and political history at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. E-mail: ohali@uncg.edu 
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Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST

 C ALL IN NUMBER

641 715-3605

Code 767775#

Dr. Jessie Fields reviews The Notion Of Family

 

The book, Notion Of Family touched and engaged me deeply in so many ways.

I grew up in the Black working class communities of South and West Philadelphia. Like Latoya Ruby Frazier I was raised by multiple generations of women. From a very early age I lived in the country in New Jersey with a great-grandmother, Cora Sparks who was a midwife. My mother was only 15 when she had her first child, my sister and 17 when I was born. Eventually I was brought to Philadelphia and lived for some years with a “grandmother” we called “mom”, really my great aunt, Adel Chandler, who had taken my mother in when her own mother lost custody of her children due to neglect. Grandparents, great aunts and uncles have often been life savers for young children, offering a level of support and stability that is difficult or impossible for a teenage parent to provide.

Adel Chandler in front of Del's Restaurant Photo by Dr. Jessie Fields

Adel Chandler in front of Del’s Restaurant
Photo by Dr. Jessie Fields

Mom Adel did that for me, she had migrated north from Florida to Philadelphia, part of the Great Migration, and came to own and operate a 24 hour soul food restaurant in the heart of the South Philadelphia Black community. It was she who worked endless hours, employed and fed people in her restaurant and supported the civil rights movement. She brought that spirit of climbing and aspiration of millions of African Americans leaving the south to build a better life.

The relationship between Latoya Ruby Frazier and her mother so beautifully captured in the book made me think especially of my own mother who grew up poor under the most abusive conditions and died in 2012 of metastatic uterine cancer that had spread throughout her body.

It was my mother who pushed me to work hard and it was because of the determination and discipline she and Mom Adel inspired in me that I became a doctor and community organizer.

Jessie and Kay

Jessie and Kay

Photographs in the Notion of Family, such as the photos: page 94, 97 and 106, 110, 111 expose in a very intimate way how the environment of Braddock manifest on the human body, the author’s own and that of members of her family and community.

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier pg 111: Video Stills from Detox Braddock, UPMC, 2011

I practice medicine in the Harlem community where I am very close to the community and to my patients.

Dr. Jessie Fields with patients in Harlem

Dr. Jessie Fields with patients in Harlem

The book speaks of how important Braddock Hospital was in the lives of the people of Braddock, and tells the story of the demise of this hospital, the only medical facility in Braddock. The people of the town fought, but the local political process did not respond to allow the hospital to be saved.

As a doctor and independent I felt proud of how the people of Braddock stood together and strongly protested the closing of their hospital.

 

 

 

image

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier, pg 78: UPMC Global Corporation, 2011

Ordinary people though poor and abused  are leading and fighting.

I believe hospitals and medical professionals can build partnerships in independent efforts to create innovative programs that help empower communities.

This I dedicate to my mother and all who stand in the rubble and fight.

~Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST

 C ALL IN NUMBER

641 715-3605

Code 767775#

 

 

PBS Art Beat Looks at The Notion Of Family

PBS NEWSHOUR

ART BEAT

A bird’s-eye portrait of what was once a thriving steel town

BY CORINNE SEGAL  November 16, 2015 at 5:18 PM EST

"Hopper Cars and Railroads along the Monongehela River 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“Hopper Cars and Railroads along the Monongehela River 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

Many people have never heard of Braddock, Pennsylvania, an industrial town on the Monongahela River, just a 20-minute drive from Pittsburgh. Just over 2,000 people live there. The town’s defining feature is itself a remnant of outdated industry — Andrew Carnegie’s steel mill, built in 1872.

But photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier‘s work tells a story that weaves Braddock into the social and economic fabric of the U.S. — one that began when Braddock was a thriving mill town and center of culture.

Frazier’s family dates back four generations in Braddock, having arrived there in the early 1900s as part of the Great Migration of more than 6 million African Americans from the South. Braddock was a hub of industry and commerce, with Carnegie’s mill operating in full force and one of his famous libraries serving Braddock since 1888. That was the life her grandmother knew while growing up in the 1930s, Frazier said.

“Some people remember, this is the place that had all the theaters, had all the bars, had all the shopping centers. That’s why people came to Braddock. They came to shop and for entertainment in that period,” she said.

"Railroads and Shipping Containers On the Monongahela River 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“Railroads and Shipping Containers On the Monongahela River 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

The steel mill was the center of the town, and most of its residents worked there and lived in Carnegie-built row homes. “That area, the way I see it historically, [was] the right of passage for black and white steelworkers,” she said. “At one point, we all lived there.”

But as the steel industry declined in the 1960s and 1970s, the area lost much of its vitality. White residents moved away from Braddock, leaving behind communities of color who were frequently barred from getting loans to buy homes elsewhere, Frazier said.

“What’s interesting is that through discrimination and racial and systemic oppression, you see how black people were entrapped in that area — through redlining, and not being able to get loans from banks to move to the suburbs, how they were left behind,” she said.

"The Bunn Family Home." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“The Bunn Family Home.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

For 12 years, Frazier has captured these changes in a series of portraits of the town and her family entitled “The Notion of Family.” But one home, she said, tells a unique part of this story: the Bunn family home, which sits in the neighborhood that residents call “The Bottom” just a block away from where she grew up. The home rests on a lot that used to hold multiple black-owned homes and businesses, including a cleaners and cafe that Frazier’s great-grandmother ran.

Over roughly the past decade, those buildings came down, leaving room for the lot to become a dumping-ground for city construction, according to Isaac Bunn, the third generation of his family to live in the house.

In 2000, Bunn said he filed an application through the Vacant Property Recovery Program to obtain the vacant land adjacent to his home, but described coming up against bureaucratic red tape multiple times, both in Allegheny County and later in Pittsburgh, where he traveled to check the status of the application.

Eventually, the block dwindled, leaving only his house there by 2009. “I’m trying to hold on to the land and gain a voice for the people, but it was very stressful and draining,” he said.

"The Bunn Family Home between Talbot Avenue and Washington Avenue 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“The Bunn Family Home between Talbot Avenue and Washington Avenue 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

For Frazier, the Bunn home is the latest chapter in a history that has disadvantaged people of color in industrial suburbs like Braddock. Bunn said he does not intend to leave the house, where his family has lived since 1949, and founded the Braddock Inclusion Project to organize residents’ input on city policies and development in 2013.

When Bunn — who she described as “extended family” — told her what had happened to the land surrounding his house, she rented a helicopter and photographed aerial views of the home to help raise awareness and resources for the Braddock Inclusion Project.

“I will continue to fight to hold onto the property as a means to preserve my family’s legacy and the history of a once-thriving African American community,” Bunn wrote in an email. “Without any black controlled assets [or] land … the future of Black America is bleak.”

Check out the images below for more aerial views of Braddock and the Bunn home.

"Edgar Thomson Plant and The Bottom 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“Edgar Thomson Plant and The Bottom 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

"Braddock Hospital Site 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“Braddock Hospital Site 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

"United States Steel Clairton Coke Works, C.I.T.E. and Monongahela River 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“United States Steel Clairton Coke Works, C.I.T.E. and Monongahela River 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST

 CALL IN NUMBER

641 715-3605

Code 767775#

 

From Kansas City, MO to Braddock, PA

A Review of The Notion Of Family 

by Natesha Oliver

The Notion of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier, pg 53: Mom Relaxing My Hair, 2005

Brightest Blessings To All:
Out of all the books that bring me into the reality of the working class struggle within my own race of people, The Notion of Family is the most honest and transparent view of how Black America, specifically although not exclusively, has suffered indignities in a form of racism that has been to long overlooked and ignored by elected officials charged with ensuring a fair and just economic presence by corporations “investing” in the communities…

Latoya Frazier’s unapologetic photographic depiction of her life takes away ALL excuses that have allowed corporations AND governing bodies to hide the truth of their involvement in the demise of a promised and expected prosperity in African American communities and the generational destruction that it leaves on families trying to cope with the struggle of losing a solid financial foundation within a political culture that already makes it difficult to live beyond impoverished conditions set up by the same Institutions brought in to the community to help…

The fact that Braddock, PA is one of many communities that has had to suffer from a lost of viable economic support that is gained by working is a testament to why HOW we vote is becoming more important than who we vote for.  Whether we vote Democrat or Republican is irrelevant when both parties partake in the systemic corrosion that result in communities murdered…

Whether there is strength to endure or drugs to numb the self defeating results of poverty, there has to be a change in HOW Americans allow the officials we vote in to office to remain bias and short sighted… Not supporting Bill Cosby but what He says, in respect to The Notion Of Family, ” The proof is in the pudding”, or in this case the photo…

To Latoya Ruby Frazier, Stand Strong My Sister, Stand Strong!!!
In Love & Light

Natesha Oliver

Natesha Oliver is from Kansas City, MO and is the founder of Missouri Independents Stand Together (MIST).

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST

 CALL IN NUMBER

641 715-3605

Code 767775#

Independent Pennsylvanians explore The Notion of Family

The Notion of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier

Review by Jennifer Bullock and Barbara Patrizzi, Independent Pennsylvanians

Barbara Patrizzi and Jenn Bullock

Artist LaToya Frazier’s courageously direct look at the racial, economic, and environmental injustices of a dying mill town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is so moving, it is worth every moment of the journey she takes us on.

With this photo documentary, Ms. Frazier gives us personal photographs of herself, her mother, her family, and her community to give us a powerful look at the impact of our country’s collective looking away.

With an unflinching and unsentimental eye, LaToya Frazier explores the complexity of relationships, pain, and a town’s decay on multiple levels simultaneously.  She juxtaposes the personal, familial, and societal struggles taking place in her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvanian.  The book serves at once as a stark but beautifully rendered family portrait, as well as a testament to the collective history of her troubled hometown.

The site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, Braddock was built largely by the toil and hardship of the African American’s who labored there, and suffered generations of physical, societal, economic, and environmental degradation. The photographs, and brief poem-like accompaniments, serve to bring us face to face with a world that many of us would not otherwise have the notion to embrace or appreciate on our own: a notion that Braddock is part of our own family – the human family, and we should not and cannot afford to avert our gaze.

What is strikingly original about Ms. Frazier’s photographic style is the bold and brave refusal to heroicize or glamorize her subjects (often herself, as there are many self- portraits here), or to make the images of urban decay more palatable to a mainstream audience by the use of stylistic techniques. Unlike, for example, the photographs of Mary Ellen Mark, who’s widely acclaimed Streetwise (also an Aperture publication), portrays her homeless teen subjects with an almost Annie Leibovitz-like style of portraiture. Even the iconic photos of Dorothea Lange, one could argue, disproportionately lean towards portraiture, and spare us from the harshest consequences of the agricultural calamity of the Dust Bowl.

Ms. Frazier’s work also treads confidently into the issue of environmental justice.  Since its birth in the early 70’s, the mainstream environmental movement has suffered from an almost complete failure to take action around the concentration of environmental degradation and pollution in poor, predominantly non-white communities. However, the last few decades have seen strong African American leaders demanding focus on this issue, and giving voice to the urgent need for these communities to become active participants in the environmental justice movement. Ms. Frazier’s photography touches heavily on this issue, illustrating the powerful forces that make the fight for environmental and health care justice such a daunting, though absolutely necessary, uphill battle.

Even in the digital age, if not for Aperture, the publisher of our finest photographic essayists, we would have virtually no widespread recognition for this type of work.  They do a characteristically fine job with The Notion of Family, and the interview with Ms. Frazier, and accompanying essays by Laura Wexler and Dennis C. Dickerson contribute immensely to a further appreciation of this stunning new voice in American photography.

As we both have lost our own mothers recently, we found the depiction of the female family bond, the love, conflict, and loss to be extremely, almost unbearably powerful and moving.

Crying as we read and reread Ms. Frazier’s statement in The Notion of Family:

“Looking both inwardly and outwardly I desire to move beyond boundaries.  Similar to Annie, Lucy, Xuela, all heroines from a Jamaica Kincaid novel, I am in search of a new space, place, and time.  There is a tight pressure and sharp piercing pain in my chest. The lack of deep sleep has not worn off. I feel a sense of imbalance.”

As leaders with independent Pennsylvanians, we are in search of a new space, place and time to push against the imbalanced political system and the two-party strangle hold on fair elections. We are working to create electoral justice in our home state of PA, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and all the towns, dying and flourishing, in between.  Thank you, LaToya Frazier, for your courageous vision and so beautifully giving us your / our heavy heart.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST

 CALL IN NUMBER

641 715-3605

Code 767775#

 

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