At the MLA Convention, I picked up a book from Penguin with the title Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman. The book collects various vignettes, along with some poems and longer essays, on life in these Untied States by a set of novelists and poets. They are almost completely free of attempts to generalize; instead, they just focus in on particular stories set in particular places, almost all of them (reflecting their writers’ own lives) in cities. They are consistently well-written and moving.
In his introduction, Freeman writes: “America is broken. You don’t need a fistful of statistics to know this. You just need eyes and ears and stories. Walk around any American city and evidence of the shattered compact with citizens will present itself. There you will see broken roads, overloaded schools, police forces on edge, clusters and sometimes whole tent cities of homeless people camped in eyeshot of shopping districts that are beginning to resemble ramparts of wealth rather than stores for all. Thick glass windows and security guards stand between aspirational goods and the people outside . . .” (x).
I don’t know why such a stark statement of the case should shock me. And shock isn’t exactly the right word anyway—unless it is the shock of recognition. Still, there are the multiple ways we all find everyday to evade this knowledge, the ways we carry on our normal lives and try to ignore the fact that our politicians refuse to face up to even the most glaring of our nation’s problems, and that our media/culture never focuses on anything substantive, and that our elites work hard to make things worse even as they spin tales about how they are making things better. We think of emergencies of the past—the Depression, World War II—and imagine a nation actually focused on the real issues and determined to roll up its sleeves to address them.
Maybe that’s a fantasy, but FDR (for all his faults) did things—and he had a solid majority urging him to do those things. Today, instead, a strong minority (and one that has power beyond its numbers due to gerrymandering and the undemocratic Senate) aims to take away the healthcare subsidies and food stamps that are just about the last meager help offered to the most destitute. There appears to be an absolute refusal to even acknowledge the suffering at the bottom of our society. And it is that refusal, along with the fact of the suffering, that marks America as broken. The old conundrum of poverty amidst plenty stalks the land. How can we be so rich and so mean at the same time? How is it that we use our resources so foolishly?