Today we have Southern rejectionism and belligerence, as in the 1850s, economic inequality as in the 1930s and a cultural war as in the 1960s. But the period this smells most like is the crisis of the 1890s.
It was during the turn of the last century, when the press was endlessly fawning over the "400" wealthiest families and their entertainer-friends, that William Sydney Porter (right), writing as O.Henry, produced the collection of stories known as The Four Million. His idea was that, instead of fawning over the 400, he would write about all 4 million people in New York, tell their stories, which were just as good, maybe better, than those of the 400.
We have something similar and even more frightening happening in our time. The media is endlessly fascinated with the 1600, as in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the White House and those who seek it. It’s endlessly fascinated by the antics of the rich, especially the undeserving rich like Paris Hilton or Anna Nichole Smith. But what about the 16 million? That’s how many Americans today live in "extreme poverty," defined as a family income under $9,903 for a family of four.
These people are wholly invisible, to the print media, the TV media, even the Web media. The Administration’s "solution" to the problem is to eliminate the program that came up with the number.
This is precisely what was happening at the end of the 19th century, to which this crisis era provides a curious kind of coda. The issues then were our expanding international role, industrialization, and the technology revolutions of motors, telephony, and mass production, which were grinding workers and farmers underfoot. Today we face the need to change our international role, post-industrialization, and the technology revolutions of the Internet, nanotechnology, and hydrogen. Once again workers and farmers are being ground underfoot.
But the similarities to our past, and our ignorance of the reality, doesn’t change the fact of the 16 million, or the impact of the fact on the
rest of us. One-third of these 16 million are age 17 or under. That is over 5
million young American lives currently being wasted. If Al Qaeda or an army of African
children are to develop in this country, this is the raw material.
A century ago, when similar problems were being ignored in American cities, Jacob Riis brought his camera into the tenements of New York (left), where many of that era’s poor lived, and came out with the classic How the Other Half Lives.
Critics of the time claimed he posed his photos, that conditions either
were not that bad, or couldn’t be helped, or shouldn’t be.
These same stories exist today. Nearly identical pictures can be taken today. Do we
have someone among us with the courage of a Jacob Riis, and a camera
phone? Do we have a writer like O.Henry in the blogosphere, who can
tell these stories? More important, do we have popular blogs who will
spread these stories, these pictures, and make certain they’re seen,
that their message is heard?
That’s the real challenge of American journalism in 2007. Find the
truth, print the truth, spread the truth. Make the 16 million live.