|Dorothea Lange, Kern County, California, 1939|
By the time I got to the film's credits, I was seething and emotionally spent, as anyone must be in the face of such monstrous avarice. The bankers, economists, politicians, and policy-makers indicted in the film, most of whom still have their fortunes and their jobs (including one or two running the US Treasury), devised and promulgated financial schemes designed entirely to enrich themselves and a relatively small number of shareholders, schemes they knew must inevitably implode and impoverish the rest of us. For a time, it seems, the whole monied world was enchanted by these men, or at least believed that those we wanted to trust had everything under control. You leave Ferguson's film knowing two things beyond a doubt, that the individuals and structures that caused the destruction remain firmly in power, and that nothing meaningful has been done to reform the system. The global banking and finance system is a vast humbug that must eventually fail under the weight of its own corruption.
A few days after I got home, I went to hear Dr. Lisa Dodson speak about her book, The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert An Unfair Economy. Dodson is a self-described "public sociologist," a kind of academic investigative journalist who spent several years interviewing the so-called working poor, people who often cannot meet their basic living expenses despite having one or more jobs. As an academic, she is in control of a raft of statistics, which together paint a horrifying picture of the American underclass. Here's one such number: In America today, fifty percent of all children will rely on food stamps at some point before they turn eighteen. This is unnerving. In the richest nation in the world, one in two children will require public assistance to keep from going hungry.
A friend of mine who worked in a large public hospital is fond of declaring that the United States is becoming a third-world nation. This was the picture in my head as I listened to Dodson describe the impossible compromises a brutal economy forces on the working poor in healthcare, childcare, housing, and anything resembling a family life. These compromises threaten children's health, their education, their happiness, and impact the social fabric in everything from drop-out rates to crime to psychological well-being and civic bonds. In other words, Dickens' shivering waifs Ignorance and Want are our own.
Dodson's book is not simply about the economic underclass, however, but about the middle-class men and women who work beside them, typically as managers and supervisors. Working-class jobs today are often service jobs, in retail, health care, food service and other areas that pay minimum wage and often provide few or no benefits. Those in mid-management positions know that the people they oversee often cannot support themselves on what they earn; they are all too familiar with the burdens their workers bring with them from home. Dodson's book is about those supervisors who go against company policy to help these workers, by allowing them to leave early for a doctor appointment, by not docking their pay for a school conference, by giving them food or other resources off store shelves.
Dodson calls these gestures "acts of economic disobedience," and they are not done without the potential risk of losing one's own job. The people Dodson interviewed said they took action despite the risks because they could not turn away from suffering, and because to not act would make them complicit in a morally corrupt system. (How corrupt? Consider this: The four hundred richest individuals in the US possess more wealth that the bottom fifty percent of Americans. Four hundred have more than one hundred fifty-five million. No wonder we need all those food stamps.)
Heroic acts of empathy like those Dodson describes are becoming more common as they become more necessary. Such empathy is essentially an act of imagination. One must conceptually experience a reality not one's own, and respond to it with compassion and creativity. I was discussing with a friend the other day her idea that service is essentially a creative act. This is an intriguing notion, that service, which we think of as a response to another's need, can in fact be rightly conceived as exploratory, imaginative, original on the part of the giver. And if from creativity one extrapolates creation, then service becomes in essence an artistic response to the world.
As one who has known a number of people deeply embedded in acts of service, this makes perfect sense. Many of the individuals I know who minister to the needs of others, whether as nurses, case workers, educators, or others, are deeply creative people. It is no easy thing to respond year after year to the plights and sufferings of those less fortunate, and to do so effectively takes passion, commitment, spontaneity, resourcefulness, and ingenuity, all qualities of the artist at work. It also takes high levels of detachment, of savvy, of penetrating intelligence, also provinces of the artist, and the results are often equally as enlightening and inspiring. Indeed, the main difference between an artist and a creative service provider may be intention; one strives to create an aesthetic effect, the other a practical one, although I'm not all that sure of this distinction.
|Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) |
photographing for the FSA in 1936.
This all brings me around to the photograph at the top of this post. Dorothea Lange, like poet Elizabeth Bishop I wrote about in an earlier essay, is an artist I responded to at a very young age, well before I could articulate exactly why. I don't remember where or when I found the postcard of this image, but I remember I was moved not only by the defiance of its message but by the passion and compassion of Lange in taking it. She was working for the Farm Security Administration when she made it, a US government agency that employed photographers to document the conditions of poverty to support legislation to alleviate it. This was in the years following the Great Depression, when it seemed, as it does today, that the "big men" had taken America for their own. (In Inside Job, there's a similar image, of graffiti on an urban wall demanding, "Where's my fucking bailout?")
The Depression was a turning point in American politics. I believe we are at the fault line of a similar paradigm shift now, on a far larger scale in which old orders of dominion and false ego, be they economic, political, social, or personal, will be replaced by new modes and methods of action. Dorothea Lange left a comfortable career as a studio photographer to go into the streets and express the suffering of men in bread lines. Her art was her service. I know artists today who are leaving the studio to engage the changing times in direct, sometimes unglamorous, ways. I believe that those who remain in their practice are being called to service of their own. Lisa Dodson told me that many of the people who come up to her after her talks are artists seeking to make a contribution with their work.
This, I believe, is where the muse wants us now, in the world, bearing witness to the needs of humanity and serving the higher consciousness of love and compassion. Really, it must be so. Otherwise, the big men who care nothing for these things will continue to control everything, even the air.