Issue 168 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
My favourite books
|Kit Hollerbach is an alternative comedian|
As a Yank, I've always been a bit sensitive to the fact that most people on the British left are revolted by anything American. To be fair, I can't say this is without reason. After all, exports like nuclear warheads and McDonalds--to say nothing of Lloyd Grossman, aren't going to win us any prizes in the popularity stakes. But running parallel to its imperialism and bad taste, America does have a tradition--albeit at times fragmented and suppressed--of intelligent socialist thinking.
One such thinker is Studs Terkel, whose books helped turn my embarrassingly naive political thinking on its head. In his book, Working (1974), he skilfully interviews a wide range of people about their jobs, from farmers to pharmacists, steel workers to statesmen. He lets the people speak for themselves. In doing so, a farmer's heartbreaking account of living in a truck makes a mockery of the statesman's smug respectability.
Terkel's genius is getting people to open up to him. They speak to him candidly and often with poignancy and vision about what they do for a living, how it relates to their lives and how it defines them as people. Alfred Pommier, a car park attendant, looks for meaning in his job: 'I could drive any car like a baby, like a woman changes her baby's diaper. Lots of customers say "How do you do this?" I just say, "Just the way you bake a cake, miss." When I was younger, I would swing with that car. They called me Lovin' Al the Wizard.' Others talk about their frustrations. Mike LeFevre, the steel worker says: 'It isn't that the average working guy is dumb. He's tired, that's all.'
This collective voice gives these workers the dignity they deserve and shatters any prejudices we might have about the importance of their work. It also questions America's whole capitalist ethic and stresses the importance of labour unions and working towards more than a 'Monday through Friday sort of dying'.
In American Dreams: Lost and Found Terkel once again takes tape recorder in hand. This time we hear from ex Miss USA, a Japanese couple interned during the Second World War, the first black mayor of Detroit, Arnold Schwarzenegger, an ex-KKK member and others, immigrants and natives, young and old, rich and poor, known and unknown. When asked to mull over the 'American Dream', many find that their own experiences are more like nightmares--filled with disappointment and bitterness.
This is a damning indictment of the 'two-car-in-every-garage, chicken-in-every-pot, mom-and-apple-pie' myth of America I grew up with. As Miguel Cortez puts it: 'This is no my dream. I not come to this country to clean floors.' And yet the book is oddly uplifting as Terkel holds a lot of store in people's capacity to change. The ex-Klan leader went on later to win a human relations award and an uneducated Appalachian woman became the poetic voice of her community. Needless to say, Schwarzenegger shows himself to be the brainless ass we expect: 'I'm a strong believer in Western philosophy, conquering and going on. It's a beautiful philosophy, and America should keep it up.' Still, the reader is a voyeur here and bullshit included, this is fascinating stuff.
Finally, in his latest book, Race, Terkel, with terrifying appropriateness, looks at the legacy of racism in America. This is oral history par excellence. Here, he talks to the likes of Mamie Mobley whose son was lynched in 1955 for looking at a white girl, to Lucy Jefferson who marched in Selma in 1965 with Martin Luther King, to affirmative action activists and bigots alike. Again these are fascinating and remarkable accounts, and the conclusions they almost unanimously draw point the finger of blame at an economic system that has let them down. 'Surprise, surprise', I hear you say.