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Thursday, October 27, 2016

WASHINGTON — For more than three decades, working-class Americans receded as cultural heroes, replaced in the popular imagination by swashbuckling entrepreneurs, brilliant innovators, and shrewd investors who make millions at the touch of a computer key.

It was not always this way. In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the people who operated the trains, worked the machines and tended the farms were stars of film and fiction. Think of Frank Capra movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life and the fiction of John Steinbeck, including his underappreciated novel, In Dubious Battle. It was a more democratic and egalitarian culture whose soundtrack was Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

After five years of economic travail caused by Wall Street excesses and increasingly widespread worry over rising inequality and declining mobility, the culture shows signs of changing again.

For the first time in a long time, working people are making their way back into the news. Fast-food workers have been underpaid for a long time. Only over the last year or so have their battles for above-poverty wages begun to grab headlines.

In 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich published Nickel and Dimed, her classic on the discontents of low-paid work. At the time, she was fighting against social winds, let loose by the tech boom and a soaring stock market, to bring attention to the many left out of our grand prosperity. Now, Ehrenreich has more company as gifted younger writers bring the toil of cooks and servers and warehouse workers alive for wide audiences.

What’s striking about the new labor writers is that they are not romantics. They don’t think that we can return to the ’30s or ’40s any more than we can re-popularize black-and-white movies. But they write with clarity, empathy and understanding, treating our economy’s service workers as flesh-and-blood human beings with responsibilities, families they deeply care about, and aspirations they’d like to fulfill.

If you have any doubt that culture affects politics, consider our celebrations of the life and mission of Nelson Mandela. He is now an internationally beloved figure because of his work for reconciliation, and rightly so. But we forget the time when the anti-apartheid movement was controversial, when some branded the African National Congress as a “terrorist” organization, and when, in 1986, Congress had to override President Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.

Political mobilization around the world was central to Mandela’s victory. In eulogizing him, President Obama used himself as an example of how the anti-apartheid movement defined a generation. The arts were a big part of this. Shortly after Mandela’s death was announced, Peter Rothberg of The Nation magazine posted his 10 favorite songs from “artists of all genres and stripes” who paid tribute to Mandela. Similarly, The New York Times offered a gallery of poster art produced over the years during which Mandela was imprisoned.

  • Dominick Vila

    Judging by the topics of discussion that dominate our conversations at home, at work, or in the news, it is evident that the silent majority is once again making its voice heard at all levels of government and society.
    Slowly, but surely, the culture of greed dominated by a tiny minority is being silenced by the clamor that emanates from those who work hard, pay their taxes, abide by the law, and expect to be rewarded for their civism by getting the services that were promised to us, by being able to support our families and dream of a better future for our children.
    The desperate demonization and hyperbole that come from those determined to preserve and advance the status quo confirm the gains being made by those who, until a few years ago did not have a voice and were not even able to dream of a better life.
    What we need now is people capable to inventing new technologies and products, capable of process improvement and, most importantly, capable of leading a society eager to pursue the dreams that made this country great not so long ago,

    • rustacus21

      … Your comments, but more directly, this article, brings into even sharper focus, the dyslexia our broader culture is often prone to. How could we have ever been duped to such a degree as to look at one another, as Americans & world citizens, in any other manner than as our ‘… brother (& SISTERS’) keeper? How could 2001-current ever have happened?! Buying into conservative lines of greed, paranoia, cold-heartedness toward the lesser amongst us, shows that we still have yet to reconcile much of the psychosis that have historically plagued us as a nation/civilization.

      Mr. Mandela’s impact will be felt far longer than that of his detractors, so lets continue to champion the endeavor of uplifting us all – even the hypocrites who now, intone all sorts of platitudes – NOW – but never, during his lifetime, saw fit to lend their time, attention or resources, toward ANY of the many efforts championed by Mr. Mandela (peace, health care for ALL, diversity, literacy, all eminating out of DEMOCRACY, etc.). Because after all, it is the social & psychological immaturity of contemporary conservatives, preventing them from seeing Democracy as the means of reaching national & international human equality. Religion makes that attempt but often falls short, due to its own ideological imperatives.

      Our nation’s founders saw what, even today, we as American’s are yet unable to, but of which Mr. Mandela readily embraced – personal self-sacrifice toward the uplift of the whole of society, being essential for the success of broader civilization. So instead of considering & repeating the psychosis’ of the right, we should continue reminding each other – & THEM – of the power of selflessness, giving, sharing, but most of all, opening our minds for the sake of simply understanding…

      • Jay Gould once said “I can pay half the working class to kill the other half.”

        Simply put, the people who bought into the 2001-present G.O.P. mantra believe that they are going to be the hatchet men in that scenario; that, as straight white Republican Christians, they are immune to the same policies which have clearly been designed to punish what is otherwise the Democratic base.

        This is precisely why the G.O.P. still clings to resistance against gay marriage, abortion and immigration reform even though they’re so clearly shooting themselves in the foot with it: The G.O.P. base is opposed to anything that helps anyone other than themselves.

    • bhaggen

      But today you can watch and see the US Federal Govt pulling off a stunt to recently lose $15B on the LAST GM stock sale,..recall the stock was ‘sold’ two previous times and lost $BILLION$ as well, not to mention the $Billions lost with the Chrysler bailout. Obama’s $1Trillion TARP provided less than 600 permanent full time jobs and continued the massive loss of tax dollars where Energy Dept funnel $100’s of Billions to Obama money launders. Follow the trail, Energy Dept gives billions to ‘Green Solar, Wind Farms, etc.”, immediately the company officers pay themselves a HUGE BONUS, send massive amounts of money back channel for Obama campaign, waste the remainder, go bankrupt and then the whole mess is dropped at the taxpayers feet. And the United Auto Workers Union owns GM,…you think it will get better??

      • idamag

        If you don’t have the intelligence to stay on topic, why don’t you go on over to a hate blog, you twit.

  • idamag

    Maybe they can devalue the working people only so long.

    • omgamike

      The time for that devaluing is rapidly coming to a conclusion. A conclusion that will see Americans in the streets. A second revolution, if you will. Those on the far right have said no for far too long — and got away with it for even longer. It is time for all that obstructionism and negativity to end. Hopefully peacefully.

  • Sand_Cat

    Well, I guess I’m not conventional, because I never had any use for “shrewd investors,” and the word “entrepreneur” has been so overused as a rationalization for somany bad Republican policies the word has become an obscenity for me.