Let Us Now Condescend

The final season of David Simon’s The Wire, which probed the blood marriage between the news media and politics (by way, granted, of the police force, but I didn’t want to turn this into a polygamous thing), was exceedingly brilliant, not only for its writing, its casting, its accuracy, etc. etc., but for its attempts to neuter a much abused and almost entirely illogical phrase. Reporters at the show’s fictionalized version of the Baltimore Sun were continually chided to dramatize “the Dickensian aspect” of any given story, an emphasis, as the show’s website has it, on “the heartstrings,” without being “bogged down with a lot of social context.” What this focus fails to account for is that, for Dickens, a novel is nothing but social context. “Dickensian” characters are largely allegories for social classes, reflecting both their own unique experiences along with those of every single person who might be like them. Oliver Twist is an everyman, or if not that, an everyorphan. The problem with this view is that, past a certain point, characters in the “Dickensian” mode cease being human. Hard Times (1854) is the author’s most bombastic novel, and also his easiest forgotten. In a way, Dickensian storytelling is kind of like communist cinema; devoid of discernible individuals and thus void of discernible men. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Karl Marx credited Dickens with “more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

Why all of this is relevant is due to the actual media’s latest “Dickensian” experiment, one that I can now safely comment on since it appears to have run its course. The Big Money, an online subsidiary of Slate, itself a subsidiary of the Washington Post Co., recently announced the inauguration of a feature dubbed “Recessionary Road,” a “cross-country trip to discover what the stimulus looks like from the ground.” This attempt to chart the ramifications of a multi-billion dollar abstraction on the lives of its citizens is, in principle, a noble one, and indeed, one that has been tried before. In 1936, Fortune magazine commissioned novelist-cum-journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to chronicle the redoubling effects of the Great Depression on the daily lives of tenant farmers in the United States. Agee was twenty-seven; the draft he submitted to Fortune, for, let us recall, a magazine article, was several hundred pages long. Roughly forty percent of that article’s first sentence, set down in Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, reads as follows:

“It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of ‘honest journalism’ (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading…”

Agee was deeply shaken by any attempt to chronicle a human life through the careful application of a handful of words. So instead he generated whole reams of them, detailing precisely why such a process would be impossible. It was one thing for Charles Dickens to chronicle the lives of Britain’s middling classes by way of a cast of colorful characters with even more colorful names, but Agee, a graduate of Philips Exeter and Harvard, couldn’t bring himself to write in the Dickensian mode without giving up his soul.

This ethical quandary has likely not occurred to the higher-ups at the Post Co., or to Agee’s literary successor, Chadwick Matlin. “Recessionary Road” seeks to take on human-sized questions and problems, yet manages only to supply answers in the most grandiose, abstract of terms. “Is a job saved the same as a job created?” the article asks, belaboring a sort of economic pun, but the question itself is one that becomes immediately obviated when put into an even remotely human context: does the difference matter to the person who learns he won’t be fired? Hell no, but he’s probably thankful for it all the same. Matlin and Co. (since it seems far less cruel to ascribe the project’s transgressions to a slew of co-conspirators than to a single reporter) don’t actually ask anyone this question, however. When it comes to describing actual stimulus sites (a health clinic, a water treatment facility), Matlin is all narration, describing the perils of GPS navigation while editorializing the bigness or smallness of any given stimulus price tag. The only genuine people that they profile are people with no direct connection to anything whatsoever, about half a dozen in total, from a pair of street musicians to a bowling alley clerk to a “twentysomething” fry cook. One of the people they interview, “Ken, 54,” is the Secretary of the Interior. The musicians and the bowling alley get their respective websites plugged for free.

Since so few people are actually awarded face time, we’re forced to ponder why, exactly, any of these individuals were necessarily selected at the expense of any other. All are generically upper-lower class. Some are minorities. Most acknowledge not only that they’ve yet to undergo any discernible life changes as a result of the stimulus, but as a result of the recession in the first place. Yet it’s likely that, on average, I meet more strangers over the course of a single day than Matlin and his roving photographer manage to capture over the course of their multi-week odyssey.

This is the supposedly Dickensian aspect, but Matlin isn’t exploring the microcosmic effect of transnational events on the little guy – he’s casting a select group of little guy’s to fill out his own narrative. He’s not reporting: he’s authoring. As if to dramatize the error, or to make it so ludicrous that it escapes serious commentary, not only has “Recessionary Road” lost James Agee’s moral compass, but Walker Evans’ iconic photographs, filled with grit and tragedy and drama, have been replaced with…with this guy:

Credit: The Big Money

In case the effect of the words is lost on anyone, “Recessionary Road” wants us to know that its profiles are just cartoons.

These people, as the “twentysomething fry cook” contends, aren’t really touched by the stimulus in any noticeable way, and maybe that’s part of Matlin’s point: to let us know that the President’s stimulus hasn’t reached the people it was intended to help, but that, in and of itself, is a political agenda entirely separate from the humanist, or rather, human-interest angle that Matlin pretends to be covering. Such is likewise the case when he minces the distinction between “recovery” and “stimulus,” opining that “Obama would prefer me to say it’s a trip to document Recovery Act projects across the country. Wait, no, I can’t call it that, either. Because if I call the stimulus the Recovery Act, then I’m going to be explicitly siding with Obama.” Matlin’s apparent journalistic objectivity prevents him from “explicitly” siding with a politician, but that doesn’t stop him from subjectively alerting us to his displeasure at the Obama camp’s preferred labeling, either.

Even relatively innocuous moments are painted in this fashion. While covering an event in my hometown of St. Louis, Matlin inserts that St. Louis mayor Francis Slay “says he’s a ‘big fan of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’ like he’s talking about Albert Pujols.” Having (disclosure) once met Mayor Slay at a then-local donut stand, I can assure you that yes, he is a politician, but why would his words here be at all disingenuous? The ARRA (an acronym that very well might not have existed at all up until this very moment) just delivered $7.8 million to his city, which certainly isn’t a lot as, say, a fraction of national debt, but is obviously a major boon for any mayor. Yet Matlin needs to make insinuations about everyone’s ultimate sincerity so that we, like Matlin, can conclude that “[t]oday was about the politics, not the projects.” We can’t view the human component of the stimulus (sorry, sorry, Recovery Act!) if the actual import of the legislation is already a foregone conclusion in the author’s mind.

The mission statement for “Recessionary Road” makes a claim to a host of “big philosophical questions,” among them the “job saved versus a job created” dilemma, but after reading the actual posts, it becomes facile to supply the answers – not the actual answers, of course, but the answers that Matlin is all too ready to supply independent of anyone else’s input. James Agee couldn’t bring himself to inflict the trauma of journalism on his subject, but for Matlin and The Big Money, covering the recession just becomes their own exercise in supply-side economics.

Hey, if roving reporters can abuse economic puns, then so can I.

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