Happy Birthday, Studs!

by Jeff Siegel

Those of us of a certain age don't have heroes. Growing up with Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam tends to make one suspicous, cranky and cynical – just on general principles.

On the other hand, we do have Studs Terkel. Studs celebrates his 95th birthday today (May 16), and he has been fighting the good fight for most of those 95 years. He fought McCarthy and the black list. He fought racial discrimination long before the Civil Rights era. He fought Nixon and Vietnam, and he is fighting Bush and Iraq today. More importantly, he is the voice, through his writing, of every one of us who isn't one of the bosses.

Studs has never lost sight of the fact that all of the big shots, that all of the money men, that all of the free enterprise in this country would not exist unless each of us got up in the morning and went to work. The bosses, of course, are not interested in this. We're only numbers on a spreadsheet, expenses to be laid off to raise the stock price. Studs' most famous book is called Working, in which he interviews people about what they do for a living. It's a revelation – working people talking eloquently about their work. It's something that Donald Trump and his MBA-driven clones can't even imagine.

Studs has written 12 books; his biography will be released this fall. I especially like The Good War, an oral history about World War II, and Hard Times, which does the same thing for the Depression. The latter is especially interesting reading the next time you're in Starbucks.

(The photo is from a U.S. government archive and in the public domain.)

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Liberal Arts Dude said...

Studs Terkel is one of my absolute favorite authors. My favorite passage from "American Dreams: Lost and Found" is the one of the ex-Ku Klux Klan member who becomes a community activist alongside a black woman. Two ordinary people from vastly different backgrounds who learn to recognize each other's humanity and to work together for their common interests. One implicit vision in Terkel's work is the political realization of that populist vision--something in 2007, seems so far away. My latest blog post deals with the sobering reality of trying to turn something like this vision into reality. An actual political party for working people.

Jeff Siegel said...

Americans, for whatever reason, have never embraced populism. In the past couple of decades, in fact, we’ve adopted an almost anti-populism, in which we look to the moneyed classes to tell us what to do and assure us that all is well while they pick our pockets. One of the great mysteries in the growth of the Republican Party in the past couple of decades has been its ability to get working people to vote against their economic interests, whether it was Michigan autoworkers voting for Ronald Reagan or the lower middle class in Ohio waiting in line to vote for George Bush in both 2000 and 2004. If I had to guess, I’d point to two reasons. First, since we have not traditionally had the class divisions that Europe has had, voters have not seen a need for a working class-based party, like Labour in Britain or the Social Democrats in Germany. Second, we have always had race to divide us. The Populist, and to a lesser extent, the Progressive, party foundered on just that issue. Southern whites, no matter how much they hated the gold standard or the tariff or wanted to bust the trusts, didn’t want to be in the same party with African-Americans.

Liberal Arts Dude said...

Hello Jeff

That to me is very unfortunate. I see a real need in American society for a political party based on class interests. And I don't necessarily mean a Marxist or a Socialist party either. I could live with having a liberal democracy but with the interests of working people represented in popular discourse, debates, and political campaigns -- for real rather than just in rhetoric. If your analysis is correct, then to change it would mean a change in Americans on the cultural front first before the political reality of a populist party can be realized. The environmental, feminist, gay and lesbian, and civil rights movement prove that such a change is possible and can be done. But it will take an active movement working in the timespan of generations before something concrete can be achieved. Like it took the environmental, feminist, civil rights, gay and lesbian, etc. generations before they became mainstream.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything stated here and would only add that the use of TV commercials to support politicans is another factor that should not be underestimated. TV today practically rules all national campaigns. Lets not forget that in much of Europe, TV ads for politicans are, and I underline, illegal!

If one accepts that advertising is a form of brainwashing, you can start to see what I mean.

C'mon, how else could Willie Horton have elected a President?

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