Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day: Thinking about the two Americas

I took this photograph on New York's Fifth Avenue during the Reagan recession in 1981, when the growing gap between the two Americas of rich and poor became harder to ignore, given that the Reagan administration was clearly identifying more with the former than the latter. (Not long after, Reagan made his feelings about organized labor perfectly clear by firing the striking air traffic controllers, giving union-busting a new respectability.)

This was a window display at Tiffany's, and what caught my eye was all the affluent, jaded Fifth Avenue shoppers pausing a moment to look at the figures and murmur words like, "Oh, look -- they have the same bags." Two different kinds of bag ladies, an ironic reflection on deep social divisions.

The divisions are even greater today, the rich richer, the poor poorer -- and their ranks growing, as working Americans struggle more than ever, with so many of the decent jobs getting sucked overseas in pursuit of lower wages. At the same time, housing and health care are becoming more and more expensive.

But we don't talk about it nearly enough, and our two-party system is hardly doing much of a job of responding to the crisis. Republican control of the White house and Congress is part of it, of course. But where are the Democrats? How can it be that only one Democrat, John Edwards, has become known for talking about the two Americas? Why aren't they all? Timid Democrats inside the Beltway who are afraid of being accused of fomenting class warfare are one reason. Eight years of Clinton-era triangulation also left their mark, compromises that had real NAFTA-style price tag attached to them.

And then there's the media. Take Labor Day, itself. I remember a time when there was at least a token effort to give working men and women their due in the media on this, their day. You don't see a lot of that kind of coverage anymore. In fact, it's hard to find any at all. The focus now is on the day of rest, the recreational opportunities of the last holiday weekend of the summer. Sure, you have all the local labor organizations hosting Democratic politicians, but coverage of those events is walled off as "just politics." You know, just another "special interest." But who has time or space in the media to talk about the struggles of ordinary working people when there are fatal stingray attacks to be reported?

And even when social and economic issues are covered in media like the New York Times, there's the question of how they are covered. All too often, happy talk headlines and rosy stats dominate the front page, while reality is banished to the end of the story deep inside the newspaper, where few readers follow. MediaBloodhound dissected several front page stories in one issue of the Times last week with surgical precision (hat tip to The Sideshow for the link) in this post:
In succession above the fold, the three lead stories were largely about the struggle of the economically disenfranchised. Yet you wouldn’t know it from their upbeat headlines, slanted perspectives, curious structures and crucial omissions.
One example is the story about Metlife's seeking to sell the old Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village middle income housing developments for $5 billion. The sale will wipe out much of what affordable housing remains in Manhattan, because these attractive units would immediately be converted to luxury condos by any buyer.
Moreover, even when the lives of those affected by this deal are noted, it's only in counterpoint to the ebullience felt by the minute percentage of fat cats poised to make a killing.

But most, like Marilyn Phillips, 52, a nurse who has lived in Stuyvesant Town for 14 years, pay stabilized rents. She and her husband, a social worker, pay $1,700 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. News of the sale worried her. “It may mean we may no longer be able to live here,” she said. “The management is intent on making this luxury apartments and driving the working class out.”

MetLife and real estate investors view the sale far differently.

“It’ll be the largest sale of a single property in U.S. history,” said Dan Fasulo of Real Capital Analytics, a real estate research and consulting firm. “No doubt in my mind. It’s truly an unprecedented offering and an irreplaceable property. It would be impossible today to get a property of that scale in an urban location. And that neighborhood has become so desirable.”
But such giddy business observations and behind-the-scenes jockeying are the focus of this article. It’s riddled with lines like, “As one executive involved in the sale put it, ‘This is the ego dream of the world: 80 acres, 110 buildings, 11,000 apartments, covering 10 city blocks in Manhattan.’”
There's more -- including a chilling picture of the Times minimizing the negative impact of a perfect example of George Bush's callousness toward ordinary people. Be sure to check out the rest of MediaBloodhound's post.

In Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." That's a fantasy, but in the equally fantastical distorting mirror our media hold up to us, everyone in America is comfortably middle class, without a care in the world.

Winning back the House this fall -- as well as the Senate, though that's a long shot -- will help change this climate, but it won't solve much in and of itself. It's going to take pressure from all of us, if this country is ever going to start dealing with its real problems. Happy Labor Day. Time to get to work.


Avedon said...

In fairness, Edwards isn't the only Dem who is talking about it, he's just the only one who (a) the media considers worth mentioning (because he was once on the national ticket) and (b) is blogged-in enough to do things like post about it and send out e-mail on the subject.

ZeitgeistRover said...

I would say that Edwards is the only democrat of significance who not only talks about the issue of poverty, but has made it the battlefront of his political activities.

There is a huge difference between: talking about the issue every once in a while and making the issue a cornerstone of your public work.

There are lesser-known democratic figures like Jesse Jackson etc. who talk about American poverty - but they have little to no political clout as national figures.

Edwards still yields a lot of influence. Hundreds line up for his rallies for minimum wage initiatives and demand for the right to unionization - he is the only one who is at least attempting to make the issue of growing income disparity part of our national debate.

Good for him. He deserves credit for not making the issue of "Two Americas" just a sentence in his political platform, but one of the major themes/issues/concerns of it. Though, I must say that the national media hardly covers him. They have started focusing on him lately due to their heightened interest in a prospective Edwards '08 presidential run, but other than that it has really been the local media that has aided Edwards' efforts by covering his rallies, townhalls, and other events in states all over the country.

Madison Guy, you captured a telling picture.