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Growing Up Abused – a review of Cold New World: Growing Up In A Harder Country

by Paul H. Rosenberg Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2000 at 4:31 PM
rad@gte.net 562-436-3113

A book that puts human faces on the sinking left-behinds--particularly the youth--of America’s slowly-dissolving middle class. The second of 3 books reviewed that testify against the blaming of the poor for their suffering.

error Growing Up Abused--By The System That Still Promises Everything
    By Paul Rosenberg
    rad@gte.net

A book that puts human faces on the sinking left-behinds--particularly the youth--of Americas slowly-dissolving middle class.

Cold New World: Growing Up In A Harder Country
    By William Finnegan / Random House
    421 Pages; $26.00

In the epilogue of Cold New World: Growing Up In A Harder Country, journalist William Finnegan notes that "the past quarter of a century has produced the first generation-long decline in the average worker's wages in American history, and the stresses on kids and families have been ferocious." Of course, millions still did better than their parents, new opportunities continued to unfold, but nonetheless, "the ranks of the upper middle class and the rich have grown overall, the middle class has shriveled for every category of educational attainment, and the ranks of the working poor have grown enormously." Yet the life experience of the those falling downward has remained almost invisible, except in sensationalized fragments or momentary tales of loss. The way it's supposed to be--one generation's success built on another's--so dominates our thinking we can't even begin to focus on the fact that for most it's no longer true, much less begin to figure out how to fix it.

Cold New World takes us to four different locales flooded with different variations of Horatio Alger in reverse. First is New Haven--home to a black community since the 17th Century--which saw its black population skyrocket from 5,000 in 1930 to 23,000 in 1960, just when industry began to leave. The central figure in this section, Terry Jackson, comes from a family that had two generations of homeownership and long-term employment in that all-but-vanished industrial base. But none of his grandmother's 5 children owned a home, 4 were unemployed, and all 6 of her grandchildren had lived with her at some time. The author's personal connection with Terry draws us into this story, which is compelling in itself, but adds little to last years' far more comprehensive treatment of a Baltimore neighborhood's downhill struggle with the drug trade in *The Corner* by David Simon and Edward Burns, which featured a similar black family, but did a superior job of connecting individual stories with the larger forces closing in on them.

The next section, located in Saint Augustine County in Deep East Texas, is held together by a riveting story encompassing the entire county. Nathan Tindall had been county sheriff for most of 42 years till his defeat in 1988. He commanded such respect that his usual method of arresting criminals was to call them on the phone and tell them to turn themselves in--and don't forget the evidence. He often found or gave jobs to those he'd arrested, especially young offenders, white and black alike, providing a homespun rehabilitation program and economic development program all rolled into one. He was an old-fashioned Texas populist, which he'd gotten away with just by doing his job so well. Under his protective wing, a beleaguered, long-suffering black community made some gains to balance its continuing history of loss.

Shortly after his defeat, a highly-celebrated federally-coordinated drug raid caught and convicted 54 people--50 of them black--but didn't lay a finger on Tindall, who was clearly the prime target. Over 200 officers participated in a raid on an alleged $3 million-a-week drug ring and turned up just 5 ounces of cocaine. This broader story illuminates various direct connections between the background forces of racism and growing class inequality and the individual lives of those Finnegan introduces us to.

The third section, set in Washington's Yakima Valley has an active political dynamic in the background: the central character's parents are farmworkers involved in an ultimately successful unionization effort by the UFW. But their son, Juan Guerrero, is so disengaged, this has virtually no bearing on his story. A Kurt Cobain fan, he's an "ironic individualist," a blackbelt who disdains gangs and enjoys snowboarding, apparently typical of no-one but himself, yet Finnegan finds in him a lens to refract and reflect the various alternatives around him.

Mindy Turner, protagonist of the fourth section in northern Los Angeles County, is the opposite, joining--or trying to join--a series of conflicting groups, most notably a white-supremacist skinhead gang, followed by its anti-racist counterpart, both refuges for white kids shoved out of the middle class, who beneath their deep differences share a matter-of-fact quasi-tribal sexism. Like Juan, she serves as a vehicle for uncovering novelistic insights galore, which make for a fascinating, horrifying read, but there's a deeper level of fragmentary meaning-making none of the participants seem aware of. Finnegan speaks of his subjects confronted by two forces, "liberal consumerism" and fundamentalism, but what he shows us, especially here, is more like consumer fundamentalism--absolutist tribal identities fueled by corporate niche marketing of music, clothes, and above all attitude.

Finnegan's close connection to his subjects humanizes them in the midst of their dysfunctional and often destructive activities, but his close-focus approach rarely reminds us how common such behavior has been historically, or how widespread economic opportunity and now-decimated structures of community support have been crucial in helping wild, confused, disoriented youth grow into mature adulthood. Only the section on East Texas affords us some concrete sense of the possibilities lost.

These stories trouble us--as indeed they should. But if they're to be more than a sophisticated form of social pornography, we need to be more than troubled. While it's important to recognize the full depth of desperation these teenagers face, it's equally important to recognize that nothing Finnegan writes about is beyond our power to change.

 

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