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Radically American: Theodore Dreiser and His Call to Fix Democracy

Radically American: Theodore Dreiser and His Call to Fix Democracy
Fri, 7/19/2013 - by Frances A. Chiu

"We must stop expecting those who have great power and official eminence to carry out our democratic will, and look to our neighbors who are as poor and as worried as we are ourselves....Only the mass can get America out of the mess."

In the last two parts, we’ve seen how the American novelist Theodore Dreiser poured scorn on the 1% — whether it was the American 1% oppressing less fortunate Americans or joining hands with the British 1% to oppress the world. Here, in the final essay of this series, we’ll look at Dreiser’s even more timely criticism of double standards for the rich and poor, the press, and race relations, as well as his own “radically American” proposals for creating “peace and plenty” for everyone.

If there was anything truly shameful in the midst of America's post-Depression poverty, Dreiser wrote, it was “the cries to the effect that the incompetent should be allowed to die — not the rich incompetent but the poor incompetent”; obviously, “there is a distinction to be made here, as you should know.” Why was it that those who ridiculed the so-called “lazy WPA worker who leans on his shovel” never had anything to say “about the wealthy with their breakfasts served in bed every morning and their maids and butlers and valets to wait on them and wash and dress them and comb their hair and their resorts and smart districts such as Park Avenue, Newport, East Long Island?”

Of course, as we know today, that would have been a tall order for a conservative of Dreiser’s days — a bit like asking our Republicans and corporate Democrats to distinguish between the unemployed mother on EBT juggling two part-time jobs and the Hamptons lady of leisure who spends her time lunching, shopping, primping and prepping at Bergdorf’s for that all-important charity ball or opening night at the museum.

Nor can our various party apparatchiks discern any hypocrisy in Rick Santorum’s rant against college education or Rahm Emanuel’s shutting down of Chicago's public schools: the one denying to others an education he had and the other denying to impoverished children the education his children enjoy. Not to mention the glaring lack of concern for undergraduates about to struggle with a 6.8% student loan rate. This tolerance, if not admiration of inequality, goes a long way in explaining why our 5% gushes over "Downton Abbey." It is doubly ironic that as they do so, we suffer higher child poverty rates, higher college tuition, and less social mobility than any other developed nation — including Finland, France, Denmark, and yes: even Dreiser’s much despised Britain.

For all that, Dreiser growls, Americans don’t seem to complain about their nation’s gross inequities. Perhaps it comes down to our deeply instilled Horatio Alger belief — that anyone can rise to the top even if this possibility is shrinking before our very eyes. Yet even so, why are they so clueless about those “on top of the heap” and their attempts to “stop the world from moving” by accusing those beneath them of “trying to interfere with ‘order’” — when the real truth was “just the other way about?”

Well before Warren Buffett's famous statement to the effect that class warfare is waged from above — namely those of his class — Dreiser had already emphatically claimed that “It is the defenders of things as they are who interfere with order, because the natural order of things is movement.” That’s because Americans have been “lied to by the press, the radio, the pulpit” and taught to deflect their criticism of “billionaire thieves who are robbing them by means of a complicated and unnatural system” to “other poor persons or slightly richer ones nearer home” — despite the palpable fact that “they are so near the need of it themselves" If Americans had any sense, “they would favor more of it, not less.”

But, of course, they didn’t. They preferred to wail, “Big business is being driven out of the US by just such tactics! The American Constitution is being undermined! The country is being ruined!” Yes, back then they had their Tea Party tools too. And not least, cultural elites were hardly more advanced despite whatever claims to liberalism. Hence, the shunning of John Steinbeck after his publication of Grapes of Wrath (1939) — not to mention the virulent criticism of Dreiser himself particularly when he was nearly shoved off a train.

It is equally telling that unlike many other whites living in a period of Jim Crow laws and KKK popularity, Dreiser drew attention to issues of race inequality: perhaps not altogether unexpected given his criticism of British imperialism and the “Nazi regime.” Yes, there were signs of progress as blacks “are now succeeding to a remarkable degree” — with so many “artists and writers and musicians of importance.” Dreiser probably had in mind the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s or perhaps Richard Wright whose bestselling Native Son (1940) he praised.

But overall, despite emancipation in 1865, blacks continued to suffer great inequities: their “living conditions are the worst in the country” as the vast majority remained “without clothing and food, without a vote, without civil liberties, living in pigsties.” Having already mentioned in Tragic America that blacks were not only hired last, but paid far less than whites, Dreiser would express consternation at the markedly shorter “life expectancy of Negroes... 47 years compared with 59 for all white persons.”

Again, it is interesting — and disturbing — to discover parallels today, nearly 50 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the recent reelection of our first African-American president. Many commentators have already noted the increased wealth gap between blacks and whites during the post-2008 recession with blacks earning about 57% as much as whites. Even when they share very similar credentials (e.g., same caliber of education and experience), blacks are more likely to be underemployed or unemployed.

Similarly, despite the improvement of life expectancy, the white male lives 5.4 years longer than the black male, and the white female 3.7 years longer than her black counterpart. Not least, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, it is worth pointing out that voting for blacks still remains only slightly less problematic: we are reminded of discriminatory laws aimed at black voters in Jim Crow America — especially as states like Texas attempting to restore voter ID laws.

In light of growing anti-Nazi sentiment, Dreiser observed, wasn’t it curious that nothing was being done about American racism, or as he put it, “Americans who have shown themselves slavish in their admiration of Hitlerism?” Seriously, “What word do you hear....against the anti-Semite Father Coughlin” who used “word-for-word excerpts from Goebbels’ propaganda?” And what is being “done about the Ku Klux Klan which advocates and carries out a terror in no way differing from the Hitler terror in Germany?” Funny, indeed, "how our British patriots in Washington” are trying to “get us into a war to save British Hitlerism but are doing everything they can to put Hilterism into operation right here.”

Yet, there is still hope. Our greatest people have always risen from the 99%. Let’s remember that “We in America have no time to waste arguing about Russia’s plan,” Dreiser reminds us. Rather, “We need an American plan” as found in our “Constitution and Declaration of Independence.” These are the “anchors of our democracy and welfare.” We don’t need empire; we need a democracy — something that “cannot be advanced by war or 'fighting ‘isms.’” The questions we need to ask are “Does it or doesn’t it add to the general wealth of the whole community?”

For the simple fact, Dreiser believed, is that we need to take matters into our own hands and “stop expecting those who have great power and official eminence to carry out our democratic will.” No more futile wars for profits: let’s set an example for the world by renewing our own democracy.

Let’s begin by “look[ing] to our neighbors who are as poor and as worried as we are ourselves — combine with them to make various of such ordinary mortals our representatives and support those who do something practical in the matters immediately concerning us.” Let’s fix our “street car fares, taxes, sewerage system” — or our highways, bridges, and power grids. Because that’s “where democracy must start — at the bottom.” Again, let’s be “radically American.” (And we all know that radical means from the roots, right?) We are the ones who know that America is worth saving because “the greatest democratic tradition of America” is, after all, “the tradition of Labor.” For centuries, “our people,” undaunted and undeterred, have engaged in “spontaneous mass movements.” That means “nothing less than our radical tradition” — one that proceeds from John Brown through Coxey’s Army and “the Bonus army of more recent years” [1932] — to Occupy Wall Street, with its blogpost of July 13, 2011, promising a “radical democracy of the future” and announcing in a Dreiser-style shout, DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY”: a theme in Occupy’s own Declaration of Independence. Or to quote Bruce Springsteen, “We are alive,” his Occupy-inspired paean to our national mass movements, “Our souls and spirits rise/To carry the fire and light the spark/To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

At the end of the day, Dreiser recognized that “only the mass can get America out of the mess.” It was true in 1941 and arguably even truer today in 2013. Because when we finally reclaim the values in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Dreiser tells us, “the un-American monopolists will see them and will say: ‘That’s America.’”

Frances A. Chiu is writing a book on Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man for Routledge. A graduate of Oxford University, she teaches literature and history at The New School.

 

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