Thursday, 31 July 2008

Cold New World, William Finnegan's 1998 study of American poverty, is subtitled 'Growing Up in a Harder Country'.

Finnegan's immersion technique includes spending a lot of time with his subjects. But you often feel as though the tone is changed by the fact that they are being observed.

How many times have wee seen individuals on TV being videoed as part of a news story. The smiles, the contentment, the assurance that observation by an outsider brings.

In Finnegan's book we learn about disagreements, shootings, knifings, aggressive behaviour. But the fights are never 'caught' by Finnegan's voice recorder. The action takes place off-stage, as it were.

What we do get are the voices of his subjects. Finnegan is a self-confessed small-'l' liberal and you would expect him to take the part of the people he writes about.

He does, and in his epilogue takes exception to government inaction on behalf of the underclass he chronicles. Yet in the same book he takes exception to the 'fundamentalist' approaches of some of the young people.

fierce and rigid answers [fundamentalism] supplies to the bottomless conundrums and bottomless pain of black America.

This on p 50. But it could also be said that nuanced approaches to inequity merely buttress the status quo. Where were these nuanced approaches when the Protestant 'fundamentalists' of 16th century Germany and 17th century Holland were pushing their own agendas?

This oversight is odd, too, because in the epilogue admits that you can't expect young people to have a good historical grasp of their situation. It seems that Finnegan lacks the same thing.

Is it possible that well-meaning journalists like Finnegan are diluting the strength of a message that, potentially, can turn around a battelship on a dime?

At least Finnegan gives us the opportunity to see the dynamics at work. In the absence of his creative method, we would be simply overrun by statistics and exhausted by position statements and other paraphernalia of the political process.

Yet Finnegan takes it upon himself in the epilogue to become an op-ed writer.

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