Social Justice Americana
A broad and remarkable new collection of books by journalists and social scientists helps us understand the ferment and frustration in America — from nomads, to trailer parks, to fracking communities, to rebounding neighborhoods in Detroit. This literature follows a special American tradition of documenting people and places.
America has enjoyed an extraordinary history of literature depicting the texture and complexity of out-of-the way communities. The earliest history of this literature goes back to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, based broadly on his travels in America. The book ultimately served as a form of early political science warning of a new kind of despotism that could arise out of our U.S. admixture of materialism, self-interest, democracy, and the subordination of Native Americans and African Americans.
20th century incarnations of U.S. travel/social commentary writing has included such literary masterpieces as On the Road, Travels with Charlie, Blue Highways, The Lost Continent, and so many others.
In popular culture, the desire of many of us to see or experience vicariously American places and subcultures outside of our own social or geographical locality has spawned many popular magazines, television programs, and documentaries, and even influenced the commercial film industry. Charles Kuralt’s iconic On the Road brought obscure, mostly rural characters into America’s homes, not accidentally on Sunday mornings. His weekly tagline was, “When I think I’m near the end, I always see the road a-bending. I wonder what’s around the bend.” This 10-year series tapped America’s yearning to explore – think Robert Frost’s (misunderstood) “the road not taken” metaphor – and to discover hidden personalities, eccentricities, and values in America.
Now in the era of the web and social media, the proliferation of place-based and travelogue blogs and sites designed to understand the hidden America is extraordinary (present company included). On top of serious and lengthy attempts to depict the life circumstances of communities and individuals in literature and traditional media, a massive record is being produced in the micro narratives appearing on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. One can only speculate how this diverse output will be mined in the worlds of big data and the digital humanities. The historians of the future will study the Americana of this period – the data and artifacts that tell our cultural and political story – through our social justice literature, media, and communications.
At the moment though, we need to better understand the life-circumstances, perceptions, and frustrations of people who reside in rural America, live in trailer parks, own family farms, drive trucks, and are struggling with the economic dislocations from closing industries and natural disasters. A remarkable new literature opens up this largely hidden world to us.
The New Social Americana Library
In an important corner of this Americana literary renaissance, we are witnessing an outpouring of new sociology and commentary on out-of-the-way communities. Led by Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Matt Desmond’s Evicted, and J.D. Vance’s popular Hillbilly Elegy, a broad and insightful literature – some travelogue, some place based – has recently emerged. This new literature focused on rural and hidden populations has every bit the energy and impact of the older traditions of urban sociology and journalism.
Here is a partial list of the most recent and best books of this genre – all worth reading.
Janesville: An American Story describes the family and community aftermath of the closing of a GM factory in Janesville, Wisconsin, Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown.
American Fire: Love, Arson, and a Vanishing Land investigates the 70-plus fires in Accomack County in Virginia to illustrate larger issues of depopulation, rural economic decline, and desperation.
Katrina analyzes the physical, psychological, political, and cultural aftermath of the hurricane through the voices of a broad array of current and former New Orleans residents, leaders, and observers.
This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Farm asks whether the traditional “Norman Rockwell” small family farm has a future amidst the whirlwind of markets, climate trade, technology, and attitudes.
Glass House follows the saga of the Anchor Hocking glass factory and the town of Lancaster, Ohio, to better understand the interplay of economics, technology, opioids, and politics as they ultimate shape community frustration.
A $500 House in Detroit tells the story of a young, idealistic urban pioneer who is trying to assimilate and navigate the complicated racial, political, class, and economic forces at the neighborhood level as Detroit pursues its comeback.
The Unsettlers follows a different brand of pioneers: individuals and families seeking to live off the grid, intensively pursuing a set of ethical, environmental, and social values in Missouri, Montana, and other opportune places.
Exiled in America describes the people, lifestyle, resilience, and policy connections of a community living in the Boardwalk motel – think the movie the Florida Project, but more extreme.
This Is Where You Belong follows movers and stayers all over the country to try to determine what makes for a sustainable and “likeable” community.
Boys in the Bunkhouse delivers a scorching account of men with intellectual disabilities who are housed in an old schoolhouse and employed in a meat processing plant in Atalissa, Iowa.
Invisible in Austin: Javier Auyero and his students explore the perceptions and experiences of low-wage workers in a go-go American city, especially the challenges of housing, schools, and daily life in a tech-driven environment.
The New Wild West describes the transition of Williston, North Dakota, from a rural farm town to a frenetic fracking town with all of the externalities of violence, real estate, and community consequences.
Nomadland follows a large and remarkably diverse itinerant workforce – mostly older people in trailers, vans and RVs – who make up a contingent workforce for seasonal industries, Amazon, and the new placeless economy.
Singlewide describes the “mobile home industrial complex” that shapes the daily lives of roughly 12 million Americans and affects diverse populations of children and families in primarily rural communities.
The Long Haul provides the viewpoint and observations of a trucker crisscrossing America, as well as insights about the more than 40 million people who are moving each year.
It is not accidental that all of this writing and social science has surfaced at this time. Politically, it is well-understood that Donald Trump and other populist politicians and media have tapped into distressed and disenfranchised groups and communities. There is a national urgency to understand what is going on in America; what is driving so many voters to populist, nationalist, and in some cases racist candidates and causes?
Many of these journalists and social scientists understood well before Trump that there was a serious undercurrent of disenfranchisement and anger in populations and places in America.
While the broad narrative of the “Trump voter” assumes a certain stereotype or even caricature of a white, rural, underemployed, angry, disrespected, middle-aged individual, an important takeaway of this new literature is that we have many, many versions of disaffected Americans: different races and ethnicities, different ages, educations, urban, rural, occupations, running from Milwaukee to Mobile.
The impact of public policy on these populations and places is an important subplot across all of this writing. From the vagaries of Section 8 housing vouchers, to trade and tax policy, to environmental regulation (or not), to the performance and resentment of social assistance programs; policy matters in both the objective circumstances of families and communities as well as the perceptions and resentments of pockets of voters.
Remarkable in this Americana literature is the ingenuity, resilience, and even optimism of so many challenged individuals and communities. There is tenacity and a kind of brilliance in working the system, such as it is.
This literature reveals so much. The sources of news and information, the primacy of emotion and feelings, the resentments of “others” where there is perceived preferential treatment, the distrust of government, and the pervasive role of religion in politics are all on display.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this largely qualitative work is that America encompasses many extremely desperate and disenfranchised communities and people, each with its own histories and explanations. If policymakers are going to be responsive, we will need to be much more nuanced and informed about the particulars of the racial, social, economic, and political divide.
It has been said that we are living in an empathy void right now. In fact, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s device for getting herself and her readers to “get” the circumstances of her subjects in Louisiana is to “cross the empathy wall.” Empathy, the idea of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, cannot be accomplished in 140 characters. This new literature about what is happening in the hinterland of America is remarkable and extensive. Although it is detailed and admittedly time-consuming, this library is certainly worth absorbing to understand the frustration and ferment in a large segment of our population right now.