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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Review: ‘Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class’

Two years ago, Campbell Soup Co. announced it was closing its Sacramento plant near my home. Seven hundred people would lose their jobs — good, middle-class jobs, as the politicians like to call them, the kind that let you cover the mortgage and the car payments and maybe set a bit aside for the kids’ college. The TV news trucks clumped around the plant gate and the story went national. Local leaders, who were so keen to hold on to the jobs that they’d previously ladled out tax breaks to Campbell, wrung their hands. The media calculated the fallout on families, nearby businesses, and the neighborhood. The community mourned. We were losing something important, and the story needed to be told.

What’s gone under-told is a similar story of loss, equally big and arguably even more damaging, that has unfolded a few miles north of the now-empty Campbell plant. In the decade since I left the Sacramento Bee, my former employer has shed just as many jobs as Campbell axed at the tomato soup plant. These too were  good middle-class jobs. And my former colleagues — editors, reporters, critics, photographers, printers, designers — are not the only culture workers put out on the street.

The local arts and lecture group that showcased writers folded. The symphony and opera canceled their seasons. Tower Records, founded in Sacramento, went bankrupt and was liquidated. Locally, this put hundreds of people out of work, many of them artists and musicians who used their Tower paychecks to keep their creative careers alive. Largely out of sight of the TV cameras and out of the notice of most of us, a region’s creative class is being hollowed out.

In his deeply reported and passionately argued new book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, Scott Timberg shows that the cultural hollowing of my town is not unique. Everywhere, musicians, painters, architects, designers, actors, reporters, and writers are struggling, as are many of the institutions and people upon whom creators have long relied to cultivate, curate, publicize, support, and sell their work. They have been hit, each cultural discipline in its own way, by broad changes — iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Craigslist, dwindling public support of colleges, globalization, outsourcing, income inequality. These changes “have undermined the way culture has been created for the past two centuries…,” he writes, “and nothing yet has taken its place.”

The great strength of Timberg’s book is his telling of the creative class’s hidden stories of personal struggle and institutional decay in the midst of what, to the casual eye, looks like cultural plenty. Their plight does not scar cityscapes with the boarded-up buildings and abandoned neighborhoods that mark the loss of middle-class manufacturing jobs in places like Flint or Detroit. There are no Comic Relief shows for them or iconic laments like Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown.” Theirs is more like a farm crisis of the Great Depression: Bumper crops grew fence line to fence line, food prices were low, but farmers could not make the mortgage.

In Culture Crash we meet people like Andrew Wake, who worked his way up the ladder, first playing music, then writing about it as a freelancer, and finally landing a staff writer job on a South Carolina paper owned by the Gannett chain. In 2011 Gannett fired the paper’s whole arts and entertainment section and Wake found himself on the ladder again, this time headed down. Writing jobs in his field were disappearing — nearly 80 percent of arts reporters and critics for print publications have lost their jobs since 2000, Timberg reports — and freelance budgets had been eviscerated. His savings gone, Wake moved home to live in his boyhood bedroom, where he pieces together a living from occasional articles and the pay he gets for caring for his grandmother.

And we meet members of the indie-rock band Grizzly Bear. The band stands high, Timberg tells us, on popular music’s pyramid: Top-10 records, songs in popular movies and a Super Bowl ad, performances on TV and at Radio City Music Hall. Nonetheless, the band’s members share apartments and some have no health insurance. Except at the very pinnacle of popular music, enthusiastic fans and critical esteem do not yield economic security for the musician, only a life of constant self-promotion on social media, endless touring, and little time for creation.

Perhaps these stories resonate so well in Timberg’s telling because he has lived a similar one himself. After two decades writing about culture, the last six years for the Los Angeles Times, he was axed from his job when the Times was looted and driven into bankruptcy by its new owner, a billionaire Chicago real-estate barbarian. He soon lost his home in foreclosure.

What ties Timberg’s experience to those of the creators in his book is a pragmatic understanding that American culture thrived in the last century because it was thoroughly middle class:

We’ve become accustomed to seeing creative beings as either soaring deities or accursed gutter-dwellers. Certainly, some were, and some are. But these two associations have obscured the fact that culture, as we understand the term, tends to originate in the middle class, depends on a middle-class audience for its dissemination and vitality, and leads most of its practitioners, if they are lucky, to a middle-class existence.

The mutual dependence of creator, curator, critic, and consumer met in what Timberg calls the “middlebrow consensus.” Middlebrow was a term of contempt in the mouths of 20th century critics like Dwight Macdonald. But to Timberg the middlebrow consensus — “the sense that there was a shared body of artistic and intellectual touchstones that educated middle-class people should know about” — is what put John Cheever and George Balanchine and Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein on the covers of popular magazines and network television shows. The alternative to the middlebrow consensus turned out not to be a wider embrace of the high seriousness of modernism. Instead we saw the triumph of focus-grouped entertainment and celebrity worship. Macdonald and his fellow highbrows “did not realize how good we had it.”

Should we care if the creative middle class falters? To Timberg, the answer is self-evident. Culture makes for a better society: “more alert, more alive, more compassionate, more connected to both past and present.” A culture made only by artists with trust funds or wealthy patrons, one that dances only to investor demands for blockbusters, would not speak truth to power or rock any boats. Democracy would be diminished.

But as Timberg himself repeatedly details, his faith in the uplift of serious art and the canons of quality is no longer widely shared. Older American traditions like anti-intellectualism and the Puritan rejection of art have now been wedded to a market fundamentalism that measures the worth of art only by what consumers will pay for it. And they have found a new ally in the brain-dead critical studies academicism that regards the very notion of quality and worth as a species of oppression. Culture Crash asks us to extend our sympathy and our hands to the creative class. In many quarters the reply will instead be shrugs and sneers.

And this hostility makes it even harder to answer the question of what is to be done. “What we need most decisively is to reconnect culture to the burghers and rebuild the institutions that made the connection work the last time around,” Timberg writes. “It also means acknowledging that the creative class needs certain middle-class protections.” Those protections, in his telling, sound a lot like those that have just been lost: things like a return of subscription and bundling, so that publishers, recording companies, and movie studios can cultivate serious artists and distribute their work using the profits of mass culture blockbusters. And he would add a big dose of public funding for culture and journalism.

Unrealistic? In this moment, yes. But it’s the writer’s job to lay out the scope of a needed solution even — especially — when it swims against the tide.

Culture Crash is something more important than a work of wonkery. It is a confession of faith in the enduring value of America’s democratic culture. It is a jeremiad about the fate of the men and women who devote their energy, intelligence, and imagination to the work of making that culture — not in the expectation of riches, but for the pride in their craft and the hunger to help their communities and nation understand themselves. Culture Crash is a statement of solidarity with them.

It belongs on the short shelf of books, among them Daniel Rodger’s Age of Fracture and George Packer’s The Unwinding, that explain how an older America of common culture, shared risks, and national purpose has crumbled, leaving each of us, soup maker or musician or critic, to make our way, unsheltered and on our own, through the gales of the market.

Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, is a former deputy treasurer of California and former deputy editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.

Book Review: ‘To Make Men Free’

The summer after my sophomore year, I was too young to draw a paycheck but too old, in my father’s estimation, not to work. He set up his politically precocious 15-year-old son in a full-time volunteer job with the campaign of a candidate vying to represent Wisconsin in the United States Senate.

About which party I would serve, there was never a doubt. To my father — raised by Presbyterian parents who owned a filling station in small-town Iowa; trained as a scientist; propelled into the executive ranks by the Eisenhower boom—there was but one party. The party that had pushed the G.I. education benefits that had made him the first in his family to go to college. The party that gave birth to the “Wisconsin Idea” of putting the scientific and academic expertise of the University of Wisconsin at the service of the entire state. The party that planted parks and gleaming public schools in the corn fields long before the new neighborhoods sprouted ranch houses and split-levels. The party of Teddy Roosevelt and Ike, the party of Lincoln.

That was 1964. Today’s Republican Party, with its hostility to public schools, science, and all forms of public investment except the military, is no longer my father’s GOP.

As Heather Cox Richardson explains in To Make Men Free, her briskly written history of the Republican Party, this transformation is part of a longer pattern. Each generation of Republicans has had to navigate what she sees as the nation’s enduring tension between the promise of equality of opportunity in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s protection of private property. And as each generation has made its choices, “The Republican Party repeatedly has swung from being the party of the middle class to the party of the rich, following pathways laid down during the peculiar years of the Civil War and its aftermath.”

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by northerners alarmed by passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the door for slavery to spread to the prairie lands that had been put off-limits by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Republicans saw the new law, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision which soon followed, as evidence of a rising Slave Power determined to use its unified control of the federal government to monopolize the West for slavery, close out free labor, and undermine democracy.

Richardson illustrates this clash of visions with two speeches of the era. In the first, Sen. James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina Democrat, declared in 1858 that society must have a class to do the menial duties — “the very mud-sills of society,” he called them — to free their betters to govern and cultivate “progress, civilization, and refinement.” In the South, the governing class owned the mud-sills. In the North, capitalists paid their mud-sills wages, gave them the vote, and, Hammond gibed, pretended that the day would not soon arrive when free labor would use the ballot to take away their betters’ property and seize control of government.

A year later, in 1859, Abraham Lincoln replied to Hammond. “By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital — that nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it,” he said. But capital is the fruit of labor, and labor the superior of capital. Contrary to the “mud-sill” theory, labor and education let men rise above a fixed position. Free labor is “the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.”

The next year, when the Democratic Party split, Lincoln and the Republicans won the White House with only 40 percent of the vote. And when, in response, Southern states soon seceded, Republicans were left in control of Congress too and free to carry out their vision. Over the next decade they reshaped America.

They enacted a Homestead Act, created land-grant universities, subsidized construction of the transcontinental railroad, and raised tariffs to encourage domestic industry. They amended the Constitution to abolish slavery, guarantee equal protection of the laws, and protect the voting rights of citizens against racial discrimination. Out of wartime necessity, they passed the nation’s first income tax, issued “greenback” paper money, and created a system of national banks. “They argued the national prosperity could grow only from a strong and broad base, not from the top down, and they insisted that the government must guarantee all men equal access to economic opportunity,” Richardson writes.

But their free labor vision soon ran up hard against the realities of the world they helped create. An industrializing economy widened the gap in wealth between the new barons of railroads, industry, and Wall Street and the nation’s workers and farmers. Labor grew restless and militant. Little more than two decades after the party’s founding, a new generation of Republicans, dependent for their power on political machines fueled by patronage and the dollars of wealthy businessmen, had turned their backs on Lincoln’s vision and turned the army’s guns on striking railway workers in 1877. Hammond’s mud-sill theory, Richardson argues, had taken over the party created to oppose it.

The Republicans would twice more swing back to the Lincoln vision, adapting it to new challenges.

In the first swing, at the turn of the 20th century, aristocratic reformers like Theodore Roosevelt and Republican progressives in the Midwest and West like Robert LaFollette and Hiram Johnson challenged the hold on their party by Standpatters and the wealthy. When today’s Republicans attack things like the income and inheritance tax, the direct election of senators, the anti-trust laws, the protection of natural resources, the ban on corporate contributions in elections, they are undoing the work of their own party.

The second swing came in the 1950s, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who receives from Richardson a more appreciative profile than any figure in the book except Lincoln. “Like Lincoln and Roosevelt before him, Eisenhower revived the classic Republican view of government,” she writes. He followed “a middle way between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands of the welfare of the whole nation.” He balanced the budget three times and cut military spending. He also expanded Social Security, funded investments in science and engineering education, and gave birth to the interstate highway system. “Under his direction, the middle class expanded, and the country thrived.”

Why, after Eisenhower’s success, as after the successes of the earlier Republican progressives, did the Republican Party soon return to serving big business and pursuing policies that widened economic inequality and ended, in 1929 and again in 2008, in Depression and the loss of the White House? A recurring theme of the book is that conservatives would recoup power by deploying the imagery of cowboy individualism and portraying government initiatives as handouts to African-Americans. But those rhetorical ploys were always available. Richardson does not explain why they worked only some of the time. To Make Men Free is longer on narrative than analysis.

And at times, even the narrative is wanting. Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, is at her best telling the story of the GOP’s first half-century, a period she has written about in four previous books. But her account of the 20th century is sometimes sketchy, even unfairly so.

For example, Richardson summarizes Herbert Hoover’s response to the Great Depression in a single phrase: he “did channel some money into public works projects.” She ignores other measures, including creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and Home Loan Banks, which some historians have seen as precursors of the New Deal. Hoover’s action was too little, too late, too grudging, but it was more than Richardson gives him credit for. And she forgets even to mention that congressional Republicans forced John Kennedy’s hand by introducing what would become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and voting for it overwhelmingly and in greater numbers than congressional Democrats. Moderate and liberal Republicans of the Eisenhower variety played important roles in Congress and statehouses well into the 1990s, a part of the story she neglects.

But on the evidence of the Bush years and the furious Republican reaction to the Obama presidency, it is hard to quarrel with her judgment about where the GOP pendulum has finally swung: “Having been captured by Movement Conservatives, the Republican Party could no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”

It is not in the nature of political parties to tell true stories about their past. “For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights,” the Democratic Party’s website declares, putting down the memory hole the 150 years when Democrats were the party of slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy. Today’s Republican Party similarly genuflects before the portraits of Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan, ignoring Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. But Richardson’s book is a bracing reminder, to Democrats and Republicans alike, that there is a vital Republican tradition of active and responsible government — a tradition that once commanded a progressive father’s loyalty and once carried an idealistic boy’s hopes for an America of broader opportunity and equal rights.

Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, is a former deputy treasurer of California and former deputy editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.