Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gang Leader For A Day - Sudhir Venkatesh

When Sudhir Venkatesh set out to begin his sociology research on the economics of urban poverty at the University of Chicago he could not have known that his embedded work would cross all the lines of academic objectivity and bring him deeply into the lives and dealings of his subjects. Rather than being his work's flaw, Venkatesh's involvement in the  world of the Robert Taylor housing project uncovers not only the economics of urban poverty, but also a divergent, and all-too-invisible world to much of American society. Predictably Venkatesh's experiences open his eyes to many of his own, and society's, misconstrued understandings about what it means to be poor in America.

Gang Leader For A Day is at its most powerful when Venkatesh pushes himself and the reader beyond comfortable assumptions unchallenged in mainstream society. That this book can at times feel so revealing is the strongest testament to America's willful ignorance and tacit - and sometimes overt - paternalistic attitudes towards people who live in poverty, particularly black Americans. That Venkatesh's work is so novel is perhaps the greatest indictment of a political and economic system that does little more than pay lip-service to ensuring equality and fair opportunity for the less fortunate. In its pages we learn the stories of people who are not only ignored by the system, but often have to work against it to ensure their family's survival. In chronicling the continual hustle of people who need to rely on every resource at their disposal to get along, Venkatesh forces any thoughtful and comfortable reader to challenge their assumptions about where our society places value and what we expect of ourselves and others in our attempts to live the good life.

Though meandering at times, Gang Leader For A Day, makes a strong case for a re-examination, not only of the politics and economics of poverty in America, but about our society's willingness to ignore the lives of people who live alongside us every single day. Contentedly drawing a picture of American life that discredits the experience of any people is something we have always done, Venkatesh reminds us that for as long as books like his seem a revelation, we do it still.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Journey of Crazy Horse - Joseph Marshall III

Striving to communicate the man often obscured by the legend of uncertain history, Joseph Marshall III's biography of Crazy Horse draws upon the oral histories of the Lakota in the hopes of teaching us all more about his ways and life. Central to Marshall's writing is the belief that Crazy Horse was no more or less of a man than anyone else, and that the values and actions he demonstrated are no less relevant today than they were on the plains of the 19th century.

Crazy Horse's life was at once blessed and cursed. A man rooted deeply in the ways of his parents and ancestors, a strong and loyal Lakota, he was nonetheless fated to face perhaps insurmountable odds and witness the destruction of his people's way of life. Though he provided an example for those with eyes to see, not enough Lakota or whites would follow in his footsteps - the decisions and blindness of that time is a legacy that the United States will never fully escape.

Yet Crazy Horse remains in our consciousness as though a bolt of lightning that has once split the sky. Brilliant and luminescent it was tragically an all-too-brief radiance imprinted upon our collective consciousness. Yet if we take the time to reflect upon that brilliance there is much to learn about the world, the way to live, and ourselves. Such lives can be a gift to all people - if we are ready to accept it. Crazy Horse was a far from perfect man, and perhaps he helped to lead his people to their demise. We will never know if, had he acted differently, things would have been different for his people. But if he were perfect his life would have nothing to teach us. That he was flawed and all-too-human remains his greatest gift, not only to the Lakota, but to us all. That we may each walk in his ways is blessing. As he is remembered, his journey begins anew.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Gulag Archipelago I & II - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

"Do not pursue what is illusory - property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life - don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don't claw your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart - and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well."

While the Soviet Era has ended and the Gulags and repressive regimes have been - ostensibly - dissolved, what Solzhenitsyn has left us with are questions about our own humanity and how societies get to a place where the people are seen as their own worst enemy. The first two parts of the The Gulag Archipelago trace the manner in which the Soviet Union grew its police state following the Russian Revolution and throughout Stalin's rule; how laws were passed to systematically limit dissension and control the populous through unapologetic policies of terror. For someone who has a limited knowledge of Russian history much of the historical aspects were obtuse and required a better background than I had. What these details serve to illuminate is the sheer mass of people whose lives were ended - both figuratively and literally - by the seemingly schizophrenic policies and practices of the Soviet rulers and police state to ensure a continued hold on power. Using the metaphor of a sewer system Solzhenitsyn leads us to wonder if the Russian state could have survived as long as it did without employing such vast numbers of the population in the prison system and without extracting essentially free labor from millions of its own citizens.

Where the work shines is in Solzhenitsyn's focus on the details of prison life. From arrest through incarceration the writing gives the necessary human touches so that the reader can easily place themselves within the prison walls and wonder at their own humanity. I could not help but wonder not only how I would have acted as prisoner, but also as a guard or citizen in such a regime of terror. Once this projection takes place it is hard to believe that Russian citizens were any more or less human than ourselves and wonder at our own capacities. Would each of us be a political prisoner? An interrogator? A guard? A caring bystander who forwards mail? Or a thief abusing, raping and taking advantage of his fellow prisoner? As difficult as such questions are they are nonetheless crucial as we each puzzle over our own humanity and what it means to be human and humane to those around us.