Review: Losing Our Way by Bob Herbert

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By David Duhalde

The Great Recession’s poverty is just as hidden from public view among the formerly rich as it is among the poor and working classes. Bob Herbert, the retired New York Times columnist, chronicles the façade of economic security in his latest book, Losing our Way.

Wealthy Hunterdon County in western New Jersey, known primarily for its horse farms and scenic rolling hillsides, had experienced a dramatic increase in families seeking federal food assistance during the recession and its aftermath. The director of a social service agency that found itself offering assistance to an entirely new constituency told Bloomberg News “Sometimes people will come in a Mercedes. Sometimes they come in [wearing] Ralph Lauren. But you never know. That may be all they have.” (page 41)

These stories make Herbert's work as upsetting as it is uplifting. The self-proclaimed "intimate portrait of a troubled America" places summaries of academic work side-by-side with personal stories, including by my fiancé, about the four themes. The "way" was our willingness to spend heavily on public works, public education, and other social goods even if it means higher taxes and a long-term return on investment. Herbert walks the reader through 12 chapters about the themes of employment, war, education, and infrastructure.

He juxtaposes the seemingly separate, but interconnected, policies that our elected leaders enacted with deadly consequences. Herbert recalls the Bush administration’s unprecedented call for simultaneous tax cuts and war. Foreign conflict was paid for with our money that was needed at home. The president and politicians of both parties sent our young people to fight Iraqis and Afghanis, but were unwilling to battle our crumbling infrastructure. 

Through profiles of wounded soldiers and workers, Herbert chronicles death, injury, and recovery on the international and domestic front. Soldiers continue to be killed and maimed long after many high-level government officials had concluded the wars had limited benefit. Congress and the president funnel billions into these conflicts while ignoring our outdated public works. Instead of terrorism, US residents are killed by broken levees or collapsing bridges, and are poisoned by compromised water systems. 

Herbert also unmasks the corporate agenda behind much of "education reform." He separates the proponents of education reform: the well-intentioned Bill Gates, the malicious Michelle Rhee, and the money-hungry Rupert Murdoch. Gates' oversized wallet propelled his social experiment of small schools within one building into existence. The scheme, which was abandoned with little fanfare, is unable to build community or significantly increase graduation rates, while successfully pushing the most troubled students into other, failing, schools.

Rhee's toxic mix of self-righteousness and an affinity for termination (she gleefully invites a news crew to watch her fire an educator) led to the downfalls of both her and the DC mayor she served. Murdoch and scores of others charter advocates cannot hide their interests in the profits from the privatization of public education. They work night and day to undermine the social support of school as a public good.

The chapters on the troubled job market cover both the young and old, and were deeply personal, especially to me. Herbert interviewed one of my own loved ones. He tells her story of frustration at the inability to break into a profession that she not only went to school for, but was promised would have jobs in abundance. Instead, she found herself both living in cramped space at home and experiencing glass ceilings at work. For her, many others, and myself things have slowly improved as the economic recovery moves along. But many young adults remember when the question was what job you would have after college, not if you'd be working.

Herbert knows hiding poverty and economic insecurity are not new, and neither are the solutions to ending them. He cites Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic, The Other America, which shocked many comfortable people at the time with the fact that poverty was not disappearing for millions of their fellow citizens. Thirty years after the first publication, Irving Howe asked: How can you allow such a scandal to fester in this country? Herbert writes “that question is no less relevant and the scandalous extent of poverty in America no less shameful.” To combat inequality and injustice, Herbert advocates a heavily used tool of the 1960’s: disruptive politics.

Bob Herbert's book is an unequivocal reminder that well-organized and disruptive protest is a proven method of social change. Our country’s ideological extremes motivate much of the support for disruptive politics in the Obama era, such as the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and today’s Black Lives Matter movement. It is a refreshing call for collective action in a time when many liberals would rather embrace another messianic presidential run (substituting Elizabeth Warren for Barack Obama - because the first time worked so well) than question their own dismal track record.

In the epilogue, Herbert calls for new leadership -- not of a president or a new party, but from grassroots leaders. As for how those people can make lasting change, Herbert opines:

The short answer is direct action. The legendary organizer Saul Alinksy taught that there were two main sources of power: money and people. As virtually all of the money is currently on the side of the entrenched power, the only viable option for ordinary Americans is the creative use of their own energy, intelligence, and superior numbers. Democracy might have taken a beating in the United States, but it is not dead. A tremendous amount of power still resides with the people. And history has shown again and again that direct action, when properly organized and sustained, can be remarkably effective. The abolitionists, civil rights activists, labor organizers, and feminists all understood that democracy was not meant to be a sporting event, a pastime for interested onlookers. Taking responsibility for one's individual circumstance and the well-being of the country has always required much more than merely casting a ballot...Without that kind of increased citizen involvement no real change for the better can be expected.

After three decades of bipartisan neoliberalism, it is hard to disagree.

David Duhalde was the YDS national organizer from 2006 to 2008 and currently researches for a campaign finance reform group in Washington, D.C. He is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.


 

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Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 9 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.