Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Living New Deal

I heard Gray Brechin speak last night in Berkeley about California's Living New Deal Project. He's attempting no less than a complete inventory (and photographic record) of FDR's public works projects in California.

What's really impressive about Gray's project, aside from his visually polished description of it, is the sheer weight of his examples. In fact, the government built a staggering number of California schools, hospitals, parks, museums, theaters, courthouses, post offices, golf courses, roads, bridges, culverts, etc. during the 1930s.

We use these facilities every day, whether or not we know their provenance. This fact, and their frequently stunning beauty, is the most effective reply to those who cast the government as an incompetent nuisance.

The event was hosted for the first time by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment--Clark Kerr's old outfit--and was very successful. Until last night, these talks happened at the Cal faculty club, which was cool in its own way, but the IRLE support is a very welcome development.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Review of Obscene in the Extreme

I just read Jonathan Yardley's Washington Post review of Rick Wartzman's Obscene in the Extreme. To each his own, of course, but I wondered about some of the major points.

Rick's book is about John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and its reception, especially in Kern County, where there was a movement to ban it. Yardley notes that the novel deals with the Dust Bowl migration and hopes of starting fresh in California. Then he makes an extremely misleading claim. "The issues this [migration] raised have long since been resolved," Yardley maintains, "and many descendants of the Okies now live in comfort in a state whose economy is larger than those of all but a handful of the world's countries, but the book continues to move readers."

Long since resolved? Well, yes, many Dust Bowl families and their descendants ended up doing fine. But how about the people working those same jobs now? Is it possible that the novel still resonates not only because the book is easier to teach than more demanding novels, as Yardley supposes, but also because the underlying labor issues it documents persist in spades?

As Carey McWilliams observed at the time, the Joads' problems weren't exactly new. What distinguished them from what came before and after was the fact that the Joads were white, English-speaking citizens who could vote. In fact, California agribusiness continues to rely on a low-wage, disenfranchised, and easily exploited labor pool. And farm labor isn't the only forum for those issues, as T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain showed in 1995. (That novel owes something to Steinbeck as well as Voltaire.)

Yardley mentions McWilliams in passing but suggests that his appearance in the book, along with other "endless dollops of information," is a form of padding. I think that misunderstands Rick's goal. The book offers a snapshot of Kern County in 1939 and then places that snapshot in history. So I can't knock the book for mentioning McWilliams, the Wobblies, or other relevant players. I'm not sure I would have been interested in the snapshot if Rick hadn't added that historical context.

Yardley ends his review as follows: "A further difficulty is that Wartzman seems to have little if any literary judgment and fails to subject The Grapes of Wrath to careful scrutiny. No doubt it is an important novel, but whether it is a good one is another matter altogether, and this question Wartzman simply avoids."

I'm baffled by this. Again, it seems to misunderstand the book's goal, which isn't to critique the novel but to depict its reception in a particular time, place, and cultural context. Besides, we're not exactly short on critical readings of this or any other major American novel. The woods are full of them.


Deep Clean

I tracked down one of my favorite articles on Los Angeles: "Deep Clean" by Edward Zuckerman. I'm not sure why this essay, which appeared in the May 1993 issue of Harper's Magazine, isn't widely anthologized.

Zuckerman, a New York writer transplanted to Los Angeles, contrasts his new home's penchant for producing entertainment schlock with the fastidious professionalism of the city's top car detailers. The juxtapositions are comical. One paragraph describes a new film about a dog in a witness-protection program. The next one shows the detailer rubbing three layers of wax from the Brazilian carnauba palm into the body paint of a car. To do so, he employs a soft fabric used in sanitary napkins, since diaper cloth is too harsh. Then back to a vapid story meeting, and so on.

It's a nice piece of work, but it also captures an important truth about the American combination of high technology and low culture.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Lowell Bergman and Ramparts

I talked to Lowell Bergman about Ramparts this week. He told me some great stories about the magazine and its staff, but he also made some important points about media technology and finance in the 1960s and 1970s.

The conversation sent me back to my favorite scene from The Insider, where Lowell is played by Al Pacino. Check this out if you haven't seen it lately--classic Pacino.

I just realized that The Insider's focus on a whistleblower links it to another Pacino movie, Serpico. That was one of my favorites as a kid in the 1970s. Pacino's beard in that film deserves a lifetime achievement award.