Reviews — From the October 2015 issue

Means of Dissent

America’s lost culture of opposition

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Discussed in this essay:

Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, by Steve Fraser. Little, Brown and Company. 472 pages. $28.

Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, by Bryan Burrough. Penguin Press. 608 pages. $29.95.

The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century, by D. W. Gibson. The Overlook Press. 320 pages. $27.95.

For years I lived in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, which was shared by the students and faculty of Columbia University and impoverished Hispanic and black people. When winter turned to spring and the days grew less cold, the sad, timeless division between the poor and the materially well-off made itself apparent in a particularly vivid way. As temperatures climbed into the fifties, you could tell the Columbia people from everyone else by a simple method. The students and professors wore shorts and sometimes flip-flops, while their neighbors kept winter coats and parkas on well into April. They were poor. Their feeling of vulnerability was not diminished by a warm day in spring.

Engraving of a mass meeting in Tompkins Square, in New York City, in support of the Great Uprising of 1877 © The Granger Collection, New York City

Engraving of a mass meeting in Tompkins Square, in New York City, in support of the Great Uprising of 1877 © The Granger Collection, New York City

One of the peculiar things about economic inequality is that the people who are most articulate about it are not poor, while the poor themselves have said little, at least in print, about their situation. There are exceptions, like Cadillac Man, who wrote essays about his many years of homelessness and then published a book in 2009, but these days most writing on poverty is left to privileged opinion writers and reporters. Of course, you don’t need to have experienced poverty to write about it. What you need is to be injured, angered, or embittered in some fundamental way, to have experienced pain and humiliation. No class is immune to that. From Karl Marx to Dorothy Day, the revolutionary or reformist spirit has often been embodied by materially comfortable people who, by some serendipity of character or circumstance, are preternaturally sensitive to material suffering.

Who writes the accounts of poverty in our time? Who reads them? We are surrounded by fine, noble, sometimes furious discontent. Reports and commentary about poverty proliferate. The quality of investigation and analysis is often superb. Yet it all seems to take place in a vacuum. Last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a long essay arguing that America should pay reparations to its black citizens, especially those most impoverished, for the atrocities of slavery and the effects it has wreaked on black life through the generations. Liberals roared their approval, praised Coates for his courage, and then the news cycle turned up something else for them to talk about. It was clear that such people had little or no stake in any of the issues he was addressing. The ones who did were too busy drowning in their circumstances to be aware of it.

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’s Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence will be published in January by Yale University Press, and his memoir about money will also be out next year, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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