Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Disunited States, by Vladimir Pozner

Seven Stories Press, 2014
(originally published as  “Les États-Désunis,” 1938)
302 pp


"Life is service. The One who progresses is the one who services his fellow human beings a little more, a little better, by working a little more, enslaving themselves a little better all the time." (26).

"Beginning and end, and beginning again." 

I've tried to write about this book three times here and it just comes across very stupidly to my ears. So I'm just going to offer a few insights into this book without really "reviewing" it.  You'll find  my favorite review of this book here at Words Without Borders, written by Scott Borchert who provides great analysis.

French author Vladimir Pozner was touring America in 1936,  and as he went from coast to coast and back again, he got a firsthand look at what was actually happening in this country at the time.  In his Les États-Désunis, published in 1938, he chronicled the time spent here along with his observations. His book is now published by Seven Stories Press in a translation by Alison L. Strayer.  After I read it, my immediate reaction was to think that in spite of all of the "progress" this country has made since that time, some things have barely changed -- a very discouraging  thought  if one considers the implications for a large number of Americans as this nation moves into the future.

Since I'm not really writing what I'd consider a "review,"  I'd like to point out a few parallels between Pozner's observations in 1936 and our current society in 2014.
  •  In 1936, the prevailing philosophy in America  ran somewhere along these lines, and should sound familiar to our modern ears:
"Every American, wretched though he may be, can become a billionaire or president, if he is frugal, industrious, pious, etc. If you are poor and old or young and unemployed, you have only yourself to blame."  
  • As Pozner traveled coast to coast, he discovered a nation in crisis -- a nation of people caught up in social, economic and class turmoil, racial prejudice and disparity, and a great deal of social unrest.  Sound familiar?
  • He  discovered  that the owners of  giant corporations had little to no disregard for the environment, worker health, worker safety, and the law. Case in point:  that of Union Carbide, which started work on a "thirty thousand-horsepower hydropower station at Hawk's Nest, West Virginia." The work would entail digging a tunnel (32 ft diameter) between Gauley Bridge, West Virginia and Hawk's Nest, with the added bonus of harvesting silica for other uses. After only a few months working underground, men who were happy to even have work started becoming ill, and when they went to the company doctors, they were told they had "tunnelitis," a non-existent disease, or "high blood pressure," even though the contractors knew the men were suffering from silicosis. Doctors were forbidden to use the word, and handed out pills that did no good. Workers began dying, new ones were brought in immediately to take their places.  When the company was finally sued by three hundred workers after an autopsy on a dead man revealed silicosis, the contractors in charge of the project lined up their own witnesses, gave jurors rides home each day, and ultimately settled after a hung jury.  White workers' families received more in redress than black workers' families, and of course, just like today, that was after the lawyers considered their own fees and handed out a sum of their own choosing.  To make matters worse, families who received settlement money (which was pretty much nothing) were threatened with being cut off from federal relief programs.   The company's political connections helped when its representatives were called upon to answer to Congress, and of course, they denied any knowledge of wrongdoing.  Its profits, by the way, skyrocketed. Sound familiar?
  • Another "sound familiar" moment: the author discovered that "gangsters" have their own capitalistic empires that reach far and wide throughout the country -- that "gangsterism is the crime industry in the era of monopoly, and its largest branch, racketeering, is nothing but the continuation of capitalist competition by other means." Gangsters had police, judges and other state officials in their pockets. More importantly, he finds that gangsters come mainly from "poor big-city neighborhoods," have had "no professional training," and that
"unemployment and its consequences -- enforced idleness, giving up the pleasures and necessities of life -- can lead certain people to a life of crime."   
Pozner uses  a wide array of different media to examine this America in crisis:  interrogations and testimony, newspaper articles, speeches, letters, songs, interviews, chats etc all serve to  illustrate this point. It also made me think that the forces put into place to protect  free-market capitalism and the flow of corporate profits to help stimulate the economy were (and still are)  in some large measure responsible for some of the nation's woes. Here's one further example at work:  one of the most intriguing parts of this book came from an interview with an unemployed shoemaker relating how the Pinkerton Agency (unbeknownst to him)  hired him  to get into a particular company and spy on other workers, often having him speak up about union organization, strikes and Communism  to see how other his fellow employees reacted. Arrests were made and people lost their jobs in the process, and worse.

In Boston, Pozner speaks with William H.L. Dana, grandson of Longfellow, who takes him on a tour of  an "itinerary of events" from this country's Revolutionary War period, then on to Concord, to Cambridge, and finally back to Boston, where Pozner wants to discover 
"What has become of the descendants of the patriots, the Minutemen who inscribed in the US Constitution the inalienable right of all to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Ironically, he finds that some of them have become members of the conservative establishment, now calling for area teachers to sign a loyalty oath or lose their jobs.  As he also learns, "From its glorious past, this crowd retains only the memory of witches burned near Boston two and a half centuries ago.”  But the good news, at least for Pozner, was that in "Real America," there were people who were trying in their own ways to actively protest against the system. 

I absolutely loved this book, and I will add that  Pozner's observations should not be disregarded simply because of the point of view from which he writes.  Highly, highly recommended. 

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