Wednesday, September 9, 2009



L to R: Upton Sinclair, Michael Moore, Ida Tarbell, Jacob Riis

In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote his famous expose of the meatpacking industry in Chicago, The Jungle. In this book, he described in gory detail the hideous working conditions found in that industry (horrid worker living conditions, terribly long hours, ridiculously low pay) as well as a myriad of unsanitary practices and foreign objects (fingers and rat droppings) which were going into the nation's meat supply.

The public was rightfully outraged, and the resultant scandal caught the attention of then-President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, a sensible and conscientious Republican, pushed for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. It was a regulatory action which established much needed and long overdue government standards of safety which food producers and processors had to meet. Then, like now, conservatives and business leaders of the day howled their displeasure, but the public at large strongly supported such action, and the action stood. Meanwhile, in that same time period, Ida Tarbell wrote several books detailing dubious business practices by the Standard Oil Company of America. Photographer/journalist Jacob Riis focused on the terrible living conditions, slums, and tenements in New York city. It was the age of the muckrakers; journalists who exposed the evils and seamier side of American life and business, and it helped usher in the Progressive era of American politics. An outraged, morally offended public demanded and got necessary change in the form of increased government regulation over business and reforms in business and government itself. The people of that age saw wrongs which they tried to correct for the benefit of those to follow.

During the Great Depression, caused by greedy, laissez-faire free market economics of its day, the largely unemployed, poor, and suffering masses demanded and got even more necessary change: government regulation over the stock market, banking and business, as well as the legalization of labor unions, and the establishment of welfare, unemployment compensation, and Social Security. Again, conservatives howled and moaned at the changes enacted. But most of that generation realized the gluttonous mistakes of its preceding years and supported the beneficial enactments. That generation, too, saw wrongs they tried to correct so as to pass on a better world. They were responsibly looking toward the future.

"The greatest generation", to its credit, fought and won wars against oppressive true fascist and also communist regimes. They also set up needed and beneficial programs such as Medicare and OSHA, as well as passing long overdue Civil Rights legislation and embarking on a noble War on Poverty, in a common sense and unselfish effort to be fairer and better people's lives throughout the country. Again, conservatives and free market types howled and screamed at the change, but an overwhelming majority of the population strongly supported these actions. They even forged an unprecedented alliance between government, business, and labor to construct a national interstate highway system and even sent humans to the moon. Both endeavors contributed a great deal toward unparalleled prosperity and technological advancement. Along the way, though, this generation made a mistake or two. It set up a rigid and unworkable social code and its government engaged itself in an imperialistic disaster in Vietnam. But its motives were basically forward-looking and good.

Today, I am ashamed to say, this current, ruling "baby-boomer" generation, of which I am a member, is not quite measuring up to its predecessors. We have become complacent, self-absorbed, and ignorant in large measure when compared with those who came before us. Many of us started out well, by questioning and opposing the materialism of our culture, rejecting its rigid social code, and protesting against an unjust Vietnam War. But a good number of us became yuppies, more concerned with our own status and material acquisitions than with the well being of our society as a whole. We have lost our bearings, having been swept away in a sea of materialistic luxury items like cars, electronics, fine dining, sports and entertainment, and endless immersion in mindless TV sitcoms and adventure shows, all of which are fantasy and not real. Many of us walk away from hard challenges and abandon that which we don't find entertaining or fun. Unlike our predecessors, who properly reacted in horror and responded correctly to the revelations of muckrakers Sinclair, Tarbell, and Riis, we react in a far more benign way to modern-day muckrakers like Michael Moore. His last effort, Sicko, should have been received and acted upon in the very same manner as had been the works of previous muckrakers. Instead, though, our current mainstream media treats him as a sort of quirky fringe element rather than the bearer of an awful and relevant truth. Huge numbers of us, especially today's far right conservatives, view him as an extremist to be ignored or ridiculed at all costs, when he should actually be regarded as an American hero. 1 in every 6.5 of us today either cannot afford, or are denied, vital health insurance. People are concerned about this, but not concerned enough to take firm measures about it (and far too few are even willing to do that). In fact, large numbers of us scream and cry against a government-run system (which all other civilized countries have and adopted many years ago), and many of us lie to, and try to scare our elderly parents away from, support for such a system. Rather than endorsing government efforts to provide everybody universal, low cost medical care, many of us instead worry about what the government may take away from us to provide such a system. We worship individual , private profit and place it far ahead of the common good. Rather than investing in important infrastructure projects as our parents' generation did, we instead invest in wars for profit and squander, and put billions and billions of dollars into huge tax cuts for our very wealthiest few and their corporations. We pollute the planet at a murderous rate, and we always take the easy way out, as when we demand more drilling for oil in ever-vanishing, pristine wildlife areas rather than aggressively pushing for cleaner, alternate energy forms. We have produced dishonest and bigoted media liars like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and millions follow them religiously. Speaking of religion, many of our churches speak out strongly in support of the unborn but are strangely silent on quality of life issues like poverty and exploitation which affect the already living. We have little we can call entirely our own to be proud of, and very, very much we should be ashamed of (but many are not). We have failed in our major responsibility to pass on a much better world to future generations because we have been obsessed with ourselves.

I indict this baby-boomer generation on charges of irresponsibility, gluttony, insensitivity, greed, murder, self-indulgence, and short-sightedness. Conviction will be certain, as the incriminating evidence is all around us. Verdict: guilty as charged!

I apologize to succeeding generations for our failure to give you a country and world which is far better than the one which was handed to us. I apologize for the drop in your standard of living which we have frittered away on needless wars and tax cuts for the wealthy. I hope you will forgive us for our numerous thoughtless and selfish indulgences. I hope you will realize that not all of us have subscribed to the rampant conservative "me first" madness which has dominated much of our adult life and which will adversely affect you in years to come. People like Burr Deming at Fair and Unbalanced, Manigesto Joe at Manifesto Joe's Texas Blues, Marc McDonald at Beggars Can Be Choosers, Gwendolyn Barry at A New Global Myth, Vigilante at Sozadee, CA, MyCue23 and SJ at Random Thoughts, Nancy Hanks at The Hankster, Tim Fleming at Left of the Looking Glass, as well as Senators Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Representatives Dennis Kucinich, Anthony Wiener, and many, many other bloggers and government officials have all had their minds and hearts in the proper place and have had their sights set on a fairer and better future for you. But regrettably, their numbers have been much fewer than in previous generations.

But most of all, future generations, I hope and pray you will not fall prey to the shortsighted and materialistic temptations that have apparently overcome much of my generation, and that you will be able to build the far more equitable world we failed to build ourselves.


Stimpson said...

One of Upton Sinclair's most famous quotations is about the public reaction to The Jungle. It goes something like this: I aimed for Americans' hearts and hit them in the stomach instead. The point was that he wrote The Jungle intending to raise an uproar over working conditions in the packing plants but instead the result was a push for better health standards. People were more concerned about protecting themselves than helping workers. I suppose one should take one's victories wherever one can get them.

Another famous quote from Sinclair seems more apt in this case. Here I can quote precisely because I'm saving it for use in my blog: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it." This applies well to climate change (oil industry employees were/are in denial because it's in their interests to be in denial) and many other issues today. Heck, maybe every important issue.

I suppose you could substitute "believe" for "understand" in that quote and it would work just as well. Notice, for example, how a common response to muckrakers doing their work is always a refusal to acknowledge that the muckrakers have a point -- despite how obviously strong the point may seem to anyone without a vested interest. The response to Sicko from some quarters was that Michael Moore was simply wrong and there's nothing wrong with the system.

Jack Jodell said...

Thanks for the additional info on Sinclair, Stimpson. I didn't get into depth on him in this post due to my desire to keep it briefer. Interestingly enough, when Sinclair ran for the U.S. House and then later for the Senate (unsuccessfully both times), conservative factions of the day howled loudly and called him an extremist and a communist, kisses of death in those days. I guess it is simply a conservative trait in all eras to deny truth, attack its messengers, and to scare the public into not believing or electing said messengers. Someone should do a long and exhaustive thorough psychoanalytical study on the conservative mind and why it evokes such negative and antisocial behaviour from its possessor. I'LL never understand the conservative mind otherwise!

Max's Dad said...

Yeah, Jack, it's unfortunate but people like those four who raise hell and dig up stuff the corporate media won't touch are ridiculed as "nuts" and "loons" nowadays. I know I keep saying it but people are getting dumber and dumber. Idiocracy (a fine Mike Judge movie) is just around the corner.

Jack Jodell said...

Yeah, it's pretty disappointing to see such a seeming de-evolution right before our eyes. After seeing Obama speak tonight I'm a little more encouraged, but we'll see what develops, if we finally do something monumental and totally worthwhile, or if we just fade...

SJ said...

Great Prespectives. Thanks for these reminders of the lasting legacies of change in the last century.
Like you, I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping enough of our scared, misinformed and stubbornly short-sighted countrymen and their representatives snap out of it and protect what really matters: the people.

Jack Jodell said...

A lot of what we're truly made of will be evidenced by what finally happens on the health care reform legislation. After the rousing response Obama's speech got last night, I'm a bit more optimistic. But we'll see...

Gwendolyn H. Barry said...

What I value so highly about reading my Saturday Afternoon Post is the nearly always educational value of it and the lessons I receive as I do. Very excellent post! Your indictment is well founded. [You should be doing research for M. Moore.]

I am constrained the last couple of weeks (so happily and relieved!) by work at my bench for the pay. So I've been absent from the blogging crew... however; I've been up early to read. And read and read... and a humble thank you here to you for the history lessons that shed light onto the issues of the day. Superb~!

Jack Jodell said...

Thank you, Gwendolyn, and I am humbled and touched by your kind response. I am alaso delighted to hear that business has picked up for you---I hope that growth proves to be exponential!Thanks again, and keep up the great work on all fronts!