Monday, November 18, 2013

Muckraking and the American Dream

As a teenager, my political epiphany came through literature. Although already leaning toward a liberal perspective, I had no core philosophy with which to connect my instincts until I began studying Jack London, the muckrakers, and the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. Suddenly, I was immersed in business and government corruption, post-war expatriate society, surrealism and socialism. 
     On the record, it was English class. In reality, it was Political Science 101.
Upton Sinclair
      One of my early “teachers” was David Graham Phillips, who apprenticed as a reporter in the late 19th century for
The New York Sun and New York World and subsequently wrote about the quest for success, his characters usually finding the empty rewards of power and social prestige. Success, he concluded darkly, was "the accumulation of riches enough to make a stir even among the very rich."
    I also learned from Robert Herrick, who looked with passion at attempts to reach humane values in an industrio-capitalistic society. His heroes and heroines struggled through the "rat race," their antagonists not just individuals but the coarsening of competition for materialistic success. Idealism and materialism – those were the underlying values he dramatically juxtaposed in The Common Lot. His next novel, Memoirs of an American Citizen, published in 1905, traced the rise, work and character of a self-made executive and capitalist he named Edward Van Harrington. That early anti-hero's belief was that the strong must rule. His methods included ruthless competition and bribery without scruples, remaining faithful only to a personal code of individual responsibility and productive work. The reading public naturally made comparisons with two famous tycoons, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.
     Herrick's later books, published between 1924 and 1933, were even more cynical about humanity. In Waste, engineer Jarvis Thornton finds the progressive movement of his time a sham. His marriage is shattered by property-mad society. In this world, he realizes "a sense of corruption working at the very roots of life, turning it into some obscene joke, a meaningless tale told in the void - waste. All waste."
     The author's lost faith in Western civilization was mitigated only by his hope for a future in which "men will begin the search for the good life not by accumulating possessions, but by building personalities at once governable and creative."
    The first two decades of the twentieth century were riddled with indictments of corrupt, materialists and their destructive works. Upton Sinclair chronicled the exploitation of workers by corporate capitalism, beginning with The Jungle, his 1906 Chicago stockyard nightmare, and climaxing in Oil, a vision of the Harding era oil scandals, industrial warfare and corruption that was adapted for the powerfully atmospheric film There Will Be Blood.
     Frank Norris focused public attention on railroad control of rural life, Winston Churchill described large city business-political machines, and Ida Tarbell examined the Rockefeller system in her History of the Standard Oil Company.
     My personal touchstone was Lincoln Steffens, who told the sad story of the American cities in the pages of McClure's Magazine from 1902 to 1904. Perhaps the most philosophical and consistent of the muckrakers, Steffens had studied in Europe in the late nineteenth century, most notably in the laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt. Upon returning to New York he became a journalist. But by the time he began to unravel "the shame of the cities," his intention was clearly not the presentation of facts for public judgment.
   
Lincoln Steffens
 "This is all very unscientific," he wrote, "but then, I am not a scientist. I am a journalist. I did not gather with indifference all the facts and arrange them patiently for permanent preservation and laboratory analysis. I did not want to preserve, I wanted to destroy the facts. My purpose was no more scientific than the spirit of my investigation and reports; it was....to see if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame, would not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride. That was the journalism of it.
I wanted to move and to convince. That is why I was not interested in all the facts, sought none that was new, and rejected half those that were old."
     As the country drifted on a sea of expedience, Steffens realized that fact-finding alone would not change the direction that the emerging "American Dream" was taking. He looked at the world through eyes of zealous advocacy, and concluded that the "master methods" of "despised businessmen" and "braggart politicians" were practiced also by the population at large. 
     "The boss is not a political, he is an American institution,” he claimed, “the product of a freed people that have not the spirit to be free. And it's all moral weakness; a weakness right where we think we are strongest....We are responsible, not our leaders, since we follow them. We let them divert our loyalty from the United States to some 'party'; we let them boss the party and turn our municipal democracies into autocracies and our republican nation into a plutocracy."
     Steffens moved from city to city – St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York. Some of them had already acquiesced under competition, power-brokering and the success and excess of the most unscrupulous. His characters weren’t fantasy visions; they were pillars of city life, still in power when he wrote about them. 
    In St. Louis, for example, he learned the history of Edward R. Butler and saw the indifference of residents to his "boodling." Colonel Butler was an Irish horseshoer who had transitioned from handling mules to arranging elections. His "boodling" involved influential citizens, capitalists and great corporations, Steffens wrote, "for the stock-in-trade of the boodler is the rights, privileges, franchises and real property of the city, and his source of corruption is the top, not the bottom of society." Working with corporate managers, the colonel "organized and systematized" the special-interest capitalism of his city.
     When circuit attorney Joseph Folk exposed the Butler system, the people of St. Louis remained silent: "When Butlerized tickets were announced, there was no audible protest. It was time for an independent movement. A third ticket might not have won, but it would have shown the politicians how many honest votes there were in the city, and what they would have to reckon with in the force of public sentiment. Nothing of the sort was done. St. Louis, rich, dirty and despoiled, was busy with business." 
     In a postscript, written only a year later, Steffens reported the Supreme Court's reversal of the "boodle" convictions Folk had obtained. "The whole machinery of justice," he wrote, "broke down under the strain of boodle-pull."
     As a study of interest-group dynamics, Steffens' reporting demolished the myths that corruption came from the bottom of society, that it was merely a sign of "growing pains," that the immigrant was lawless, the politician innately bad and the businessman innately good. The Shame of the Cities was a devastating progress report on the American Dream.
     While the business manager emerged as villain, the reform politician appeared as potential savior. Theodore Roosevelt was Steffens' model leader in the opening days of the century, and his program of reform looked like a way out of shame. The nationwide adoption of Roosevelt reforms, he wrote, "would result in a revolution, more radical and terrible to existing institutions, from the Congress to the Church, from the bank to the ward organization, than socialism or even anarchy."
     A century ago progressive journalists made an articulate case for government intervention and regulation. However, Roosevelt's attempts to challenge the power of business met with resistance in Congress. Steffens eventually labeled it a "chamber of traitors," and along with other advocates turned his eye toward corruption at the Federal level. Ultimately, the journalists and the President parted company when Roosevelt found himself and his congressional allies under fire.
     In February, 1906, David Graham Phillips' new series of articles on political corruption began to appear in Cosmopolitan. It was called "The Treason of the Senate."
    President Roosevelt fired back. "In Pilgrim's Progress,” he noted, “the Man with the Muckrake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of on spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eye with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muckrake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes save of his feats with the muckrake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces of evil."
     As Steffens saw it, Roosevelt the reformer had become a "careerist on the side of the people." A revolution in moral concern, he decided, would not come from the White House or Congress. By 1908 he had turned away from muckraking journalism. It seemed to him like pointless shouting, and offered no viable solutions. Instead, he moved toward a form of socialism founded on Christian ethics, and began a series of personal trials which took him through World War I, brief optimism about the Russian Revolution, and finally back to advocacy journalism in the 1930s.
     Steffens' change was paralleled by the shift in American literary sensibilities. After World War I altruism gave way to skepticism. Idealism had failed, and many writers and artists, those who didn't physically leave the continent, began to openly sneer at capitalism and its elite competitors.

Part three of “In the 60s: Education of an Outsider.” Originally published April, 2008
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