To my mind journalists too often eschew the past in their reports. In so doing the current issues and events that they write about enter the public domain as if they had no antecedents, no context within which they developed—no historical contingency.
I feel the problem acutely when I write about urban poverty. I often try to raise awareness of the struggles of the poor in America’s cities. So I comment on food, clothing, and shelter, as well as employment and the cultural representations of the poor in the news. Rarely, however, do I bring up the history of poverty in America; not one of my posts has been about how the poor have gotten to where they are today. I’m not even sure that I’d even know where to begin…
This to me is irresponsible. How can anyone attempt to understand and, ultimately, to change a social problem like urban poverty without learning how it developed over time? I say this in part because I’m committed to history intellectually and professionally, and also because the past informs the present, whether we care to acknowledge it or not.
Let me share an example.
I recently read a fiery article by Josie Raymond, one of my favorite bloggers, on the rather disparaging remarks that South Carolina’s Lt. Governor Andre Bauer made about the poor people in his state. In short he compared South Carolinians who receive government aid to stray animals:
“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better.”
Needless to say thousands of Americans are outraged, as they should be. Hundreds have signed petitions demanding that Bauer apologize. Indeed any time high ranking politicians are insensitive enough to dehumanize their constituents, the American public should (must!) demand that they atone for their transgressions.
Yet what resonated with me was the latent Social Darwinism in Bauer’s rhetoric—particularly the idea that the weakest among us, the animals who “don’t know any better,” must not be helped to reproduce. This is an ideology which, sadly to say, has not evolved very much since its mid-nineteenth-century origins. I’m amazed at how comfortable current ideologues feel proposing that the best way to eradicate poverty is to condemn the poor…
Similarly I couldn’t help but think about how skeptical Bauer was of efforts to alleviate poverty through direct governmental aid. To my mind he sounded like Andrew Carnegie decrying “charity” back in 1889:
“It were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown in to the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy. Of every thousand dollars spent in so called charity today, it is probable that $950 is unwisely spent; so spent, indeed as to produce the very evils which it proposes to mitigate or cure.”
Carnegie believed that the poor were too morally depraved and socially inept to improve their own conditions. In turn he proposed that wealthy men like himself “give back,” not by donating money to individuals, but by building philanthropic institutions to benefit society writ large.
While I wouldn’t argue that this kind of elitist ideology hasn’t changed over the course of one hundred and twenty years, I do believe that the Andrew Carnegie-types (the Robber Barons) of the Gilded Age still influence the political and economic elites of the current era. The so-called “Gospel of Wealth” certainly inspired my undergraduates: I’m amazed at how many of my students preferred Carnegie’s philanthropy as a solution to economic inequality to the universal employment, shortened work days, and increased wages proposed by Eugene V. Debs.
Anyway—this is just a long way of saying that we live what the past has produced. It behooves us to think through history whenever we seek to understand the world in which we live and the direction that it’s going.