Thursday, November 12, 2009

How the winners treat the losers

Raina Kelley of Newsweek reports on the new book American Homicide by Randolph Roth. We're not surprised to hear that America is the most murderous nation in the Western world, but we've held that title for about 200 years now. So what drives it? Persistent poverty, lax gun laws, gangs, drugs, greed, jealousy are the usual culprits. But those things don't match the way the homicide rate fluctuates. What does match? Politics. More precisely, the way political winners treat the losers. Do all citizens feel represented, respected, included, and empowered? Is he secure in his social standing and has hope in moving upward? It's easy to get over disappointments. If not, if he feels alienated from the American Dream, small offenses can trigger murderous rage. When our persistent differences -- race, religion -- are politicized homicide rates go up. They went up in the South after the Civil War. Rates fell during the Depression because FDR "increased Americans' faith in the country, their leadership, and one another." Words matter, as Obama is learning. In spite of the increase in guns and the cries of the militants on the Right, Obama has been emphasizing inclusion and crime rates have dropped.

In another book commentary that is related at least in the way I see things, Julia Baird, also in Newsweek, discusses photographer Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon. Lange is famous for her New Deal work of farmers displaced by the Depression. Her photographs are noteworthy for the way she treated poor people with respect and was able to capture their courage and beauty. The economy, not the people, needed moral reforms.

Contrast that to today's economic problems. The poor only appear in mainstream media as obese, sick, sad -- powerless and to be pitied. They got that way because they deserve to be. Throughout this crisis we have focused on the rich -- are they getting what they deserve? Is Wall Street going to be reformed? But we've been ignoring the poor. We certainly haven't been respecting them.

You can see Lange's most famous photo Migrant Mother here.

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