Michael Harrington said in an interview in 1979 that he has taken pride in being "to the left of the possible." He was a socialist in the 1950s, when it was courageous to be one, and he is the author of "The Other America," the 1962 book on American poverty amid affluence that propelled him to fame. He is considered to be an intellectual godfather to the New Frontier and Great Society social programs. The attention he received in this role led to a nervous breakdown, which resulted in his 1974 book, "Fragments of the Century."
Today, American politics is headed in exactly the opposite direction from the conventional big-government solutions to which Harrington is passionately committed, and he apparently is feeling ignored. One indication of this might be the design of his new book, "The Next America," which has big type and lots of pictures. Because the book obviously exists for Harrington's words and not for Bob Adelman's photographs, the format suggests Harrington feels that, unless his readers are hit over the head by the book's design, his words will be ignored.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that Harrington's prose continues to be well crafted, there is a lot to ignore in this book.
For openers, he begins his treatise about the decline of America by offering a lesson drawn from walking across Greenwich Village on his 49th birthday in 1977. He no longer sees the "serious, often joyous, commitment to antivalues" that characterized the Village in 1949, when he and his Bohemian comrades of the era were young. Instead, he sees junkies and winos.
I submit that Greenwich Village is symptomatic and symbolic of nothing other than itself. Even in its heyday, the point of the Village was to offer a refuge to those on the fringes of, if not entirely outside, the "real" America. Almost by definition it is one of the worst possible places to get a handle on what's going on in this country, either its rise or decline.
When Harrington gets on the road in search of a sense of optimism about the future, he doesn't do much better.
In the flatlands of New Jersey, he takes one look at the means of production -- the industrial complexes -- that, presumably, he feels workers should control, and "loathed these sights." Then he catches himself in an "esthetic fallacy" and realizes that to the workers, they mean jobs. This "industrial moonscape" works.
In Florida, he apologizes for taking Disney World seriously. Disney World is the most successful distillation of the fantasies of North Americans in existence. It works. Why feel that examining it is somehow a betrayal of principles?
In a North Carolina Holiday Inn, tears come to Harrington's eyes when he sees a white waitress matter-of-factly serving coffee to an old black man. I don't want to minimize the importance of the civil rights struggle, but Harrington should know that social change has been outstripped by economic change in the South since the '60s. That's the way things have to work in newly industrialized North Carolina these days.
In terms of public policy, Harrington persists in his eerie lack of touch with what is conventionally considered reality. "Of all my hopeful attitudes," he writes, "the one which is most controversial -- in middle-class society at least -- is my conviction that the unions have an enormously progressive role to play in the country." Yup. He's right. Unions are not generally thought of as being progressive these days. And for reasons that many might consider excellent.
He argues that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration "made some overzealous, nitpicking errors in its early days," but that the jackasses at OSHA did not begin to compare to the fools running the automobile and steel industries before "reindustrialization" became a buzz word. Right again. But apparently of marginal importance to that agency's future.
I've traveled through North America a more-than-average amount in the last two years, talking to people of many circumstances, and I agree with Harrington's premises that America has made some terrible mistakes in the past, but that it seems to be getting its act together. North Americans are coming up with ingenious ways of getting into the 21st century successfully. They also take perverse delight in confounding theorists from New York, Washington and Los Angeles with the diversity of their approaches. Perhaps this is why I am disappointed in Harrington's chronic inability to support his premises convincingly. I am also bothered by the apparently unconscious snobbery that has Harrington, this repeatedly self-described "socialist intellectual," constantly patronizing the very people he's going to have to convince if his dream of a socialist America is ever to come to fruition.
Halfway through the book, Harrington clearly states what his problem is: "I am a prophet without honor again, which is a familiar, even comfortable, role for me. Only this time I am in my early fifties. I am no less persuaded by my critique of the established -- mean -- wisdom than I was two decades ago. Only I am more anxious and impatient and I am conscious of time's winged chariot."
That message comes across to the reader loud and clear from the very first pages. In an era when liberals and leftists are desperate to find new alternatives to Reaganesque prescriptions, Harrington offers nothing new, only an attempt to offer it louder. That is why this is such a sad book.