Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich
By Kevin Phillips. Broadway. 496 pages. $29.95.
Reviewed by Paul Taylor
Kevin Phillips is the skunk at the American capitalist tea party. For three decades now, he’s been warning anyone who will listen that Wall Street snakes, corporate sharks, and their willing dupes from Washington, D.C., are taking the rest of us to the cleaners. What makes Phillips such an unlikely town crier about the perils of plutocracy (government of, for, and by the rich) is his own political lineage. He first came on the scene in 1969 with a book that grew out of memos he’d written as a young strategist for Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. The thesis of that first Phillips best-seller, The Emerging Republican Majority, was that the civil rights movement and the cultural permissiveness of the 1960s had generated a middle-class backlash that would enable Republicans to capture two key voting blocs-Southern whites and Northern ethnics. His analysis was dead-on. Campaigning on his playbook, the GOP stayed in the White House for 20 of the next 24 years.
But Phillips has always been even more fascinated by economic tides than by cultural ones (though he is deft at identifying their intersections). He is a Main Street Republican who has watched with mounting indignation as his party, the economy, and his country have been overtaken by Wall Street. Phillips argues that the “financialization” of the economy-the fact that more economic activity is now generated by trading and speculating than by manufacturing-is a harbinger of an empire in decline. He also sees it as the root of the “quiet depression” in living standards that has afflicted the middle class in an era of supposed prosperity.
Wealth and Democracy, his fifth book on these matters, offers a sweeping historical chronicle of the ways in which speculative manias and survival-of-the-fittest ideologies, voracious robber barons, and complicit governments have conspired through the centuries to separate the middle class from its money. Few can match Phillips for the muscular mix of history, demography, analysis, and outrage he brings to his work. You may already know that the ceos of large U.S. corporations earned 531 times as much as the average worker in 2000. But did you know that the share of the nation’s wealth owned by the top 1 percent of Bostonians was 37 percent in 1848? There are thousands of factoids of that order in this book.
The trees can get a bit dense, but Phillips never loses sight of the forest. He is of the school that sees our politics (and our attitudes toward wealth) as cyclical, alternating on a generational metronome between dominance by private interest on one side and by public purpose on the other. That ought to be a comforting premise for progressives. The 1900s brought us the Progressive Era; the 1930s, the New Deal; and the 1960s, the Great Society. The generational clock says we’re overdue.
Phillips is at his most interesting as he tries to explain why the public has been slow to be aroused by an economy that is “the most polarized and inequality-ridden of all major Western nations.” He discounts one popular theory-that 401(k)’s have made us a nation of shareholders whose self-interest now lies with the folks in the boardrooms rather than with those on the factory floors. Even with the much-hyped “democratization of wealth,” he points out that virtually all of the fruits of the 1990s stock-market boom went to the wealthy and the mega-wealthy.
Phillips also dismisses the proposition that a backlash against the rich must play out as class warfare. America is too politically heterogeneous for that. The pro-wealth policies of the right, he writes, have often enjoyed substantial support from low- and middle- income groups, especially religious and cultural conservatives. But he also notes that voter resentment against self-serving economic elites is “as American as apple pie.” It has been stoked through the centuries by our most-beloved presidents. And they have tended to come from the upper classes: Washington of Mount Vernon, Jefferson of Monticello, and the Roosevelts of Oyster Bay and Hyde Park. Lincoln was born poor but was a successful railroad lawyer before he became president.
So then, where’s our next Teddy Roosevelt? Be patient, Phillips advises. Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” in 1873, yet it took a full generation for the progressive reaction to take hold. All things in due time. And occasionally, a little past due.
A former political reporter, Paul Taylor is the founder and executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, which promotes free airtime for candidates.
Brown: The Last Discovery of America
By Richard Rodriguez. Viking. $24.95.
Richard Rodriguez’s nuanced opposition to affirmative action and bilingual education has evoked its share of boos in university lecture halls and, in some circles, has won him the unhappy label “race traitor.” His latest book is written with the to-hell-with-you insouciance of a man intent on provoking by confirming, and in equal parts frustrating, his adversaries’ dourest expectations.
“I write about race in America in hopes of undermining the notion of race in America,” Rodriguez declares. He writes of the color brown not as a fixed racial identity, like black or white, but as the essence of confusion, contradiction, impurity, and miscegenation. And it is in examining the shades of this “brown world of maybe” that he hopes the country will break free from the “partition-America” model and come to recognize itself as something more intriguing, a “coil,” a “pretzel,” a “Gordian knot with a wagging tail.”
It may be a while yet before America is as comfortable with the ambiguities of its complexion as Rodriguez is. In the meantime, he injects some desperately needed complexity to America’s thorniest debate. –Ben Ehrenreich
By Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins. $23.95.
We’re “told so much about What We Think, as a populace polled minute by minute, it begins to feel like extraneous effort to listen at all to one’s heart,” writes Barbara Kingsolver at the beginning of this graceful collection of essays, framed as a response to September 11. The more overtly political pieces attack such topics as the rigid conflation of “patriot” with “pro-war.” Other essays draw more subtle connections between the world we took for granted before the terrorist attacks and the danger it holds for our future. Genetically engineered food, mindless consumerism, our disregard for the planet-all help comprise an answer, Kingsolver writes, to those who ask why “they” could hate us so much. Nature is ever at the core of Kingsolver’s work. From the careful observation of a hummingbird building its nest to an allegory of a bear nursing a human child, she sees in the natural world both our failings-and our salvation. As in her fiction, Kingsolver’s deeply felt ethics are balanced with joy, urging us to appreciate the wonders that we know. –Andi Zeisler
Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War From the Other Side
By Tim Page. National Geographic. $50.
How many thousands of images have we seen of the war in Vietnam? Strange, then, that a photo book published 25 years after the end of the conflict could seem so vital. Another Vietnam presents never-before-published images taken by North Vietnamese photographers documenting the war. The book captures the humanity and determination of the other side: We see soldiers waving goodbye as they depart for the front lines, and volunteers hauling supply-laden bicycles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In one unforgettable shot, a medical team prepares for surgery knee-deep in the waters of a mangrove swamp. As Ho Chi Minh reportedly told a photographer who worried about developing negatives without electricity or proper supplies, “Obstacles make you clever.” –Dana Sachs
The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria
By Mark Honigsbaum. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.
Worldwide, there will be as many as 500 million cases of malaria this year. In The Fever Trail, Mark Honigsbaum traces the twisted turns of the battle against this disease, which until fairly recently still worked its ravages on Rome and London and rendered large portions of the United States virtually uninhabitable, and even now kills between 1.5 and 2.7 million people a year, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. He begins with the race to export the bark of the cinchona tree, the source of quinine, from its home on remote Andean precipices, and then steams onward to the current fight against drug-resistant strains of the parasite and the search for an effective vaccine. He spins an exciting tale, brimming with the exploits of swashbuckling botanists and touching on quinine’s vital importance in colonial warfare. Today, Honigsbaum notes, malaria deaths could be greatly reduced using low-tech tools, including insecticide-laced mosquito netting. Which begs the question of whether the funds now devoted to finding a silver-bullet vaccine might not be more humanely spent providing a more basic defense to the world’s poor. –B.E.
England, Half English
Billy Bragg and The Blokes. Elektra.
After paying tribute to American icon Woody Guthrie on the triumphant Mermaid Avenue albums, genial gadfly Billy Bragg returns to his home turf. His jaunty, regular-guy voice makes the perfect vehicle for these pungent observations of modern life in the U.K. The title track celebrates diversity, mixing in strains of reggae and Algerian music to underscore the point. “NPWA” uses big pop textures to denounce corporate supremacy: “No power without accountability!” Bragg fights his own cynicism in the melancholy “Some Days I See the Point,” while “Take Down the Union Jack” harks back to his roots as a feisty, anti-Thatcher troubadour. Kudos also to The Blokes, whose shaggy, bar-band grooves add to the immediacy of this vibrant set.
Belly of the Sun
Cassandra Wilson. Blue Note.
Her casual facade to the contrary, Cassandra Wilson projects a commanding intensity. Emphasizing blues over jazz, Belly of the Sun mixes eloquent originals with daring versions of old favorites, giving free rein to her smoky voice. Wilson reinvents Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” as a Joni Mitchell tune, trading the scrappy energy of the original for a seductive elegance. Her startling take on “Wichita Lineman” reveals a haunting beauty missing from the corny Top 40 hit, while a cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move” offers earthier thrills. Wilson’s own “Just Another Parade” gently uplifts, asking, “Why should I be afraid?” Highlighted by deft percussion, the acoustic backup enhances the magic-not that Wilson needs help in the charisma department.
Various Artists. Ram.
The folks at GasCD (Governments Accountable to Society and Citizens = Democracy) assembled this sprawling, two-disc benefit album to fund the legal defense of anti-globalization agitators. The lineup includes occasional all-stars (Ani DiFranco, Barenaked Ladies) and a host of compelling, less-famous artists, with few dull moments. Among the highlights: Rheostatics’ jagged, Neil Young-style lament “Bad Time to Be Poor”; thundering hard rock from Bionic, “A Political Song for Danko Jones to Sing”; and Bill Frisell’s breathtaking, eight-minute version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” Add radical spoken-word tracks from Nikki Giovanni and Gil Scott-Heron, and you’ve got a soundtrack suitable for solitary reflection or collective action. –Jon Young
Judith Helfand, Daniel B. Gold. 98 minutes. Toxic Comedy Pictures LLC.
It’s 1984 in Medellin, Colombia, the home base for Pablo Escobar’s notorious cocaine cartel. The drug lord has a grip on the city’s economy and politics and is on the verge of launching a bloody campaign of terror against his enemies nationwide. The city has become the world’s cocaine capital, awash with violence and a strange optimism, fueled by millions of ill-gained dollars. There’s not a life in Medellin that remains unaffected by the drug trade, and soon this will be true across the country.
This is the world into which Colombian director Víctor Gaviria digs deep in his latest film, Sumas y Restas (Additions and Subtractions). “The film is about the mentality of the city during the 1980s,” says the 47-year-old Gaviria one morning at the city’s livestock market, where he’s preparing for one of the final days of filming. “It was a culture in which we believed that illegality was a path toward wealth and well-being.
Narcotrafficking became like any old business,” he continues. “It was like making shirts.” In casting the film, Gaviria auditioned more than a thousand people, not one of whom was a professional actor, and some of whom were from the criminal culture the film sought to portray. Such documentary verisimilitude is the hallmark of Gaviria’s work. His other two feature films-Rodrigo D., No Futuro, which came out in 1990, and 1998’s La Vendedora de Rosas (The Rose Seller)- profile the hopeless and violent existence of young people in the slums of Medellin and were cast using juvenile criminals, addicts, urchins, and hit men.
Tragically, three of the actors from La Vendedora and nine from Rodrigo D. have since been murdered, mostly in gang- or drug-related violence. These deaths are arguably the legacy of the cocaine traffickers of the 1980s who trained hundreds of kids as hired guns, injected the drug scourge into the country’s bloodstream, and prompted a social and judicial breakdown.
Gaviria returns to the roots of these social crises in his newest film. Scheduled to debut in November, Sumas y Restas tells the story of a real-estate developer from a respectable upper-class Medellin family who gets involved in a drug deal thinking he can make some quick money to help finance a cash-strapped development project. But he soon learns that he can’t leave the business as easily as he entered it and finds himself fighting for his life against his new associates. The narrative emerged from a real-life experience of Gaviria’s co-screenwriter and longtime friend, Hugo Restrepo. “One day he came to me and said he had been kidnapped, that his partners had taken all his money,” Gaviria recalls. “He had a double life, and I hadn’t known.” –Kirk Semple