So long, middle America
SOCIETY:Two powerful new books document the ongoing destruction of ordinary working communities in the US
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt By Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Nation Books, 304pp. £18.99
The Betrayal of the American Dream By Donald L Barlett and James B Steele, Public Affairs, 288pp. £17.9
THANKS IN PART to Andy Warhol, the Campbell’s soup can is an icon of America. In 2010, his 6ft-high image of one sold at auction for almost $24 million. Campbell’s started out in 1869 in a growing railway town called Camden, New Jersey. As it took off in the great US industrial revolution, the city was home to other symbols of American dynamism. The RCA recording studios and production facilities were there – John McCormack was one of the early stars who went to Camden to make records. Its huge shipyard, employing 36,000 workers, constructed some of the behemoths of the US naval fleet, such as the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Savannah. It sucked in workers from the southern states, from Ireland, Italy and Poland. All of them were in search of the American Dream of limitless opportunity for those who were prepared to work hard.
In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, the doughty American reporter Chris Hedges and the brilliant cartoonist Joe Sacco visit Camden, among other places. A local priest, Fr Michael Doyle, sums up its fate: “The whole thing went. It all went. There’s no saying ‘This area survived and that didn’t.’ None of it survived.” The factories moved towards cheaper labour, first in the South, then overseas. The theatres and shops followed. White families left in droves after riots in 1971, sparked when the police beat a Puerto Rican motorist to death.
Median household income in Camden is now $24,600 (€20,000). The high-school dropout rate is 70 per cent. Crime is rife, but half the police have been laid off because of budget cuts. “The movie theatres are boarded up or gone. There are no longer any hotels or motels. There are no more factories. There are used car lots, but no new vehicle dealerships. The only supermarket is on the outskirts of the city, isolated from the street crime.” The only food for sale in the city is fried chicken or doughnuts.
This almost apocalyptic vision is not typical of the US now. But it is not untypical either. Camden dramatises, in an extreme but nonetheless accurate way, the truth summarised in the title of another powerful new book, The Betrayal of the American Dream. Far beyond Camden, as Donald Barlett and James Steele, one of the best investigative teams in American journalism (now working with Vanity Fair), put it, “the optimism of the past has given way to raw fear – middle America worries over how to pay the bills, whether they can send their kids to college, whether they will ever be able to retire”. The old deal that defined the US – work hard, keep your nose clean, do the right thing, and you will be able to live a dignified life and watch your kids blossom in a world of endless opportunities – is off.