Sunday, September 22, 2019

Nihilism in the Heartland

9/22/2019--I don't think I have ever read a book review that depressed me so. This is what it looks like when the universe doesn't care about my purpose--nothing left but cut off individualism and conspiracy theories. This is why the Socialist Workers Party hates the identity politics of the progressive wing--it divides people. Rich Lord's review of We Are Still Here in the PG.
Jennifer M. Silva spent Nov. 8, 2016, in a coal town in Central Pennsylvania, and when she arrived for an interview wearing an “I voted” sticker, it didn’t go over well.

“I wouldn’t be proud of it, no offense,” her interviewee told her. “Are you paying attention to what’s going on around you?”

Yes, she was, and if you are too, you’ll find many chilling moments in Ms. Silva’s second book, “We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America.” If you’re familiar with post-industrial towns and neighborhoods, you’ll recognize her interviewees, ache for them and likely quake for our future.

By Jennifer M. Silva
Oxford University Press ($24.53).

Ms. Silva, an assistant professor at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, spent months in midstate coal towns, conducting more than 100 interviews with a diverse selection of natives and newcomers. Her goal was to explore the ways the lives of working-class Americans inform their politics. She ended up scraping for something — even something painful — on which to pin some hope.

“They have all become acutely distrustful of the institutions that could connect their individual problems up to collective action,” she writes. Many of her interviewees were “struggling to convince themselves that ‘America’ stands for something larger than individual greed,” and diving deep into cynicism and conspiracy theories that only render them less politically relevant.

Studies from decades back found that most working people had some sense of allegiance — to their union, church, profession, political party or country, Ms. Silva writes. In 2016, she found allegiance “virtually nonexistent,” replaced by a fatalistic version of rugged individualism.

Ellen, for instance, “derives a sense of self-worth from rejecting dependence on others and sacrificing to make it on her own,” while maintaining a cold distance from a heroin-using sister and frowning on the family members and public servants that preserve her.

Jacob, a welder, “projects fearlessness, emphasizing his willingness to take risks and live with the consequences” and scorns fast-food workers who aspire to earn more, noting that he has “more chances of dying at my job than they do at theirs.”

The parade goes on, with interviewees reflecting that great American value of standing on your own two feet — and getting nowhere. Asked whether they’ll vote, nearly two-thirds say no.

“Whoever they want to win is gonna win, and it’s all a matter of who has more money,” Danielle tells Ms. Silva.

“Big money runs this country,” Austin adds, explaining his decision not to vote. “If you think they’ll take less so you can have more, you’re ignorant. They keep us bickering amongst ourselves while they live above the law.”

The decision not to vote, of course, does nothing to shake the grip “they” have on our nation’s resources. And yet, even those of Ms. Silva’s interviewees who have coherent hopes for government don’t vote on that basis.

Her subjects “express a great deal of support for policies that expand opportunity in terms of education, health care, fair pay and good jobs,” she writes. But if they vote at all, they’re likely to choose the candidate who is “in your face” and “don’t give a crap” what anybody else thinks, as one interviewee puts it, “because we don’t give a crap, and that’s what this country needs.”

One thread excited most younger interviewees: conspiracy theories. “Betrayed by institutions, detached from political or religious organizations, and distrustful of government,” Ms. Silva writes, “young working-class adults briefly lit up, their faces flushed, words flowing quickly, when they proved to me that they could not be fooled by the illusion of democracy.”

Ms. Silva notes that democracy historically serves working people only to the extent that they “form associations based on a larger sense of ‘we.’”

What unites many of her characters? The presence of trauma, often due to sexual abuse, abandonment, economic dislocation, injury or addiction in their lives or their families. Ms. Silva wonders “whether affinities built around pain could serve as a bridge between individuals and the larger society, perhaps replacing or supplementing older kinds of identity politics, like class or race.”

Certainly, the #MeToo movement has shown that alliances built on trauma can move the needle. It remains to be seen whether pain can be a long-term organizing principle and can overpower interviewee Daniela’s chosen philosophy: That as long as “nobody’s messing with us, and nobody comes to my door and nobody’s threatening me, putting a gun to my face, I don’t have to worry about nothing.”

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