A few nights ago I was reading the new issue (#53) of Rosebud; this is the journal that in issue #52 published an excerpt (“The Gentleman and the Willow”) from my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel La pasión de los nómades, or in English: Passionate Nomads (www.aliformpublishing.com). It’s a print magazine whose website, at www.rsbd.net, is worth checking out.Anyway, I read Kitty Baker’s story, an excerpt from her unpublished novel Dandelions of Spring, called “The Occupiers of 1932.” The excerpt centers on the occupation of Washington D.C. by a mass of homeless and hungry veterans, and then-President Hoover’s use of military force to remove them. For a journalistic account of this Occupation see the article “History for Kossacks: The Occupation of Washington, 1932,” published in the Daily Kos on November 6,2011: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/11/06/1033841/-History-for-Kossacks-The-Occupation-of-Washington-1932 The historical events are made all the more poignant by the fictionalized presence of a teenage girl – daughter of a veteran who is there with her, and wishes he could be sure he would ever be able to afford to send her to art school – who is there to observe and draw the scenes around her.
At one point, as the troops have gathered and begun their attack, one of the veterans comes to understand what is happening and says: “We’re the enemy. Once we were heroes!” When the removal was complete, General MacArthur is reported to have said: “The rioters lost heart in the face of a power they could recognize as overwhelming, even though numerically their advantage was some five or six to one.”
This “official story” seems cynical at best, the distorting and biased word “rioters” aiming to de-legitimize the validity of the veterans’ complaint and of their aggrieved humanity; the latter part of the sentence obscuring the fact that this ragtag bunch of protesters had come to petition their government non-violently, and in return faced the overwhelming military might of the very country in whose name they had previously fought in WWI.The parallel to the recently squelched “Occupy Wall Street” movement is unmistakable and chilling: the images of police attacking non-violent protestors, burning the books donated to a portable library, etc. It is all the more chilling in this political season of the 99% versus the 47%, when we face the possibility of electing a President who’s avowed agenda (though he pretends the opposite in the campaign’s final weeks) is to dismantle the entire safety net – along with what’s left of a regulatory system of economic and other protections – which has been created in the disastrous wake of the first Gilded Age and subsequent Great Depression.
But rather than descend into a merely political debate, a flurry of claims and counter-claims and questionable statistics, let’s allow the narratives themselves – literary and actual – to influence our affective and reasoned response to the monumental choice that faces us on November 6.
In that spirit let me share the following portion, very slightly adapted, from a 2008 essay posted to my “Arte Retórica” column in the blog “Tertullian’s Corner”, in the online journal Tertulia Magazine which only recently ceased to publish. What I wrote then, in this the essay’s core, strikes me as entirely pertinent to what we face these four years later as we lurch further into a new Gilded Age that may still be reversible.
The truths that most affect us – and potentially transform us – are sometimes better revealed within the passion and subjectivity of a well-told narrative (whether factual or fictional or even mythical) than in the mere accumulation of data. All utterance is subject to interpretation, after all, and thus to argument. A truly valid rhetorical practice must therefore transcend the mistaken objectivity of mere “facts” (or “factoids”) lined up by polemicists on either side of a political divide.One such narrative, for me, is the one that Sara Gruen weaves in her novel Water for Elephants (Algonquin, 2006), whose subject, briefly stated, is an old man’s remembrance of his Great Depression-era stint on a circus crew. It is arguably as harrowing in its revelations of humankind’s potential depravity and grandeur as, say, The Kite Runner, whose demons one might carelessly dismiss as merely exotic, or pertinent only to those barbaric lands to which our nation’s best and bravest are presently bringing civilization and democracy.
In Gruen’s novel there is everything: from the most sordid to the most redeeming and love-saturated sex; from soulless violence and cruelty to courage and heroism, to a powerful commitment to the keeping of promises – a simple human endurance, in short, never wholly erased by the humiliating anti-climax of crushing poverty and oppression, or of old age. The particular love story at center is deeply poignant, as is the nuanced characterization of the protagonist as an old man. And from the opening sequence, in which what one thinks has just happened has not happened really (or at least not as imagined), the suspense never wavers.
In short: a fabulous novel, deeply imagined and researched, revealing our not-so-distant national history in ways that our real and imagined progress tends to obscure. The story is firmly rooted in the facts and down-to-earth realities of a cruel era, all of which it transcends. The particular, the immediate, the national and local, is made universal. And closer at hand to Khaled Hosseini’s Afghanistan of fewer decades past than we might have wished to imagine.For that matter, as I read Lizzy Ratner’s article (in the February 25  issue of The Nation) about the homeless and maimed in the deepening shadow of New Orleans’s post-Katrina face lift, Gruen’s Depression-era America seems frighteningly current.
“This is a Dickens novel that we’re living in right now,” says one of Ratner’s journalistic protagonists. “It’s like A Tale of Two Cities.”
While Donald Trump’s International Hotel and Tower New Orleans (“number one address for elegant living”) rises heavenward like its mythic Babylonian counterpart, the huddled masses down below are cast out of the housing market, which is being rebuilt for a whole other demographic. In a city whose housing market, pre-Katrina, was over half rental, and in which 52,000 rental units were destroyed in the flood, (not to mention another “4,500 relatively unscathed public housing apartments” bulldozed by HUD), a whopping 85 percent of federal aid has gone to home owners while the fair-market rate for rental properties has soared out of the working class’s means.
“The result,” Ratner reports, “is that the funds allocated by Washington’s recovery gurus to rebuild the Gulf area are expected to restore only 43 percent of Louisiana’s rental apartments – and only 37 percent of the city’s most affordable rental housing, according to PolicyLink, a national advocacy group promoting social and economic justice.”
“Poor people just have not been the priority in this recovery,” says another of Ratner’s sources. “And I think the fact that this situation hasn’t been treated with the urgency it deserves is exactly why we’re seeing these huge homeless camps in New Orleans, why so many people are living in abandoned buildings and why so many people are suffering in Third World conditions in the United States of America two and a half years after Katrina.”
In Gruen’s novel, the most vulnerable members of the circus crew are simply “redlighted,” a euphemism for being thrown off a moving train under cover of night. Isn’t what is happening to the vulnerable in New Orleans (not to mention Mexico’s corn farmers, or countless victims of Bush-Cheney’s “homeowner society” in the present foreclosure crisis) simply a more sophisticated form of the same practice?
“As for local leaders,” Ratner reports, “they have sometimes seemed less interested in resettling the poorest Katrina survivors than in finding ways to keep them out of their neighborhoods. In numerous instances […] elected officials have pushed bans on multifamily apartment complexes – measures that would effectively freeze poor, often African-American renters out of those ZIP codes.”
Woody Guthrie, writing of Mexican Americans’ plight in an era of cheap bracero labor, sang it like this: “Some of us are illegal and some just not wanted.