Our politics exist mostly in a pundit reverb chamber that loops endlessly in a self-referential fuss.
And then there's Peter Brown. He doesn't have a blog -- or a place to lay his head, for that matter. I met Mr. Brown on Canal Street in New Orleans where I had arrived recently as part of an ongoing journey by Greyhound, a now-three-year project to tell the stories of people struggling to get by -- in word, song, and image.
Peter, a veteran, just arrived back in New Orleans after spending nearly a year outside Dallas. He's home -- without a home. There's some work, but no place to stay. Rents have gone up more than 40 percent in one year. And there is only one remaining homeless shelter in New Orleans. Peter's so clearly exhausted. "I can't lay down, or they'll pick me up," he said, only too aware of the irony. "Why didn't you stay in Dallas?" "This is the only place I know."
The reality is that, for so many, America is neither blue nor red, but white, like a blank sheet of unrecorded votes. The people arguably most affected by this election are, in fact, the most disaffected.
For many who travel by Greyhound, the itinerant, the laborers, the single parents, the elderly, the veterans, the reservists, the working students, the afflicted, much of daily life is triage. And when you're struggling to get by, politics can seem a world away, white people yelling on cable, a spectator sport of, by, and for others.
Most of America's working and want-to-be-working classes are neither left nor right, but left out entirely. In fact, much of the left-right paradigm is a ruse. The issues in America are largely up and down, have and haven't, covered and not covered. Voter participation is directly proportional to income in America, and the result is systemically bad polls with a margin of error of minus the working poor.
Three years ago my first six-week tour by Greyhound. A downwardly mobile singer-songwriter opposed to the war, I had tried to figure what, if anything, I could do that would have any impact. Unable to come up with anything, I wrote a modern protest song, got an Ameripass that allowed me to get on or off any bus in America, and began singing in rallies and volunteer meetings, bus stations and college campuses. Along the way, I wrote songs and stories inspired by the people I came across.
Prior to becoming a singer-songwriter, I had been a journalist overseas (your standard career path). Based in London, I filed dispatches from such places as Iran, Rwanda, and Bosnia for, among others, ABC, CNN, and MSNBC. And so I thought I'd treat America as I would a foreign country in crisis -- only with a guitar and an iBook covered in duct tape.
In the 1930s, artists traveled the country, telling the stories of those struggling most. Through the W.P.A., later-luminaries like Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, John Cheever, and Ralph Ellison helped us to understand ourselves at a pivotal time in our history. And then there was Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath literally stirred the nation. And it was patriotic, this Americanism. We've got Flava Flav with a poetically large timepiece.
Lost in indices and productivity ratios are the faces and voices of those who are barely making it. The problem with numbers is that they are numbers, and numbers aren't stories. Numbers carry no emotive weight, they offer no point of connection. A number might as well be a symbol, a variable in an equation that makes the eyes of all but the wonkiest among us glaze over. Only stories have the power to move people, move people to action.
The Grapes of Wrath humanized the plight of the Okies, who lost everything in a natural disaster, the drought and wind storms that turned the wheat farms of Oklahoma -- where my grandparents would later start and fold a work-clothes business -- into The Dust Bowl. The displaced of this time, our time, are the Orleanians scattered about the country in the hundreds of thousands, trying to rebuild their lives from the ground up. As de facto national public transportation, Greyhound serves the majority of these Americans who have lost what little means they had. Yet their voices are barely audible above the daily hum of advertising and amusement in America.
At the end of my most recent six-week journey, I noted that, after 240+ hours on buses traversing more than 10,000 American miles, I had seen three laptops, not including my own. Three. On a recent trip from Los Angeles to Chicago to visit the headquarters of the Obama campaign, for which I think I'm the only itinerant surrogate, I saw none.
Ignoring the small fact that nearly every job of the future will have some component that involves computer literacy; ignoring that information on most government services these days resides online primarily, if not exclusively. What stands out to me, as an observer-participant of politics, is that nearly all of our news and public debate is self-reflective, self-selective, and self-reinforcing. There are people who are blogging and there are people who are not blogging. (I happen to be blogging). In between, a deepening divide of disparity and disenfranchisement.
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