Writing Truth to Power

Harriet Beecher Stowe writes a novel called Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In it she uses narrative to show how man’s inhumanity to man makes beasts of us all and that through Christian love, man overcomes his brutishness and finds his nobility.

The book is used to help end slavery. Slavery is then replaced by a share-copping system that is legitimized by Jim Crow. Brutish conditions continue and grow throughout the Industrial Age (sweatshops, child labor, tenement slums). The book is co-opted into the existing power structure, an unsightly symptom of a systematic rot is “cured,” and the rot is allowed to go on about its merry way to cause other, more seemly, mayhem.

Upton Sinclair writes a book about worker exploitation in the US. He calls that book The Jungle. Set in the slaughterhouse district of Chicago, he paints in graphic detail a picture of inhuman living conditions and soul killing despair. Here, socialism and the organizing of labor are the gateways to humanity’s freedom.

The public is outraged, but not as much by the squalid conditions under which the working classes must live, but by the picture of where the family’s Sunday dinner is coming from. The meat, not the people, spurs the public to action and the solution to the problem shown in The Jungle is the eventual formation of the Food and Drug Administration.

More recently, a plethora of books are hitting the shelves of the local B & N, decrying the problem of obesity in our nation (and increasingly in the rest of the “first” world as well). Books that offer as remedy for the problem controlling portion size, varying one’s diet and purposeful exercise are leading the food and diet industries to declare war on trans-fats and “bad “ cholesterol. Books intent on changing destructive, gluttonous behavior have been retooled into clarion calls not against waste and greed but against the food itself.

It is the nature of our public mind to be outraged by individual excesses while, either through ignorance or obedience or faith or laziness or some combination thereof, we neglect analysis of the root causes of what insults us. So over and over again we “fix” the malfunctioning cog while the machine of injustice chugs along its merry way. Slavery was a symptom. The plantation system of production and its attendant practices of brutality, inequality, and inhumanity were the diseases. Unclean slaughterhouses were but one outcome of a business ethic that treated the cows and butchers like pieces of meat to be bought and sold for pennies a pound. Obesity must follow a culture of over consumption, wanton waste and unsustainable growth. Until the consciousness of the public is sufficiently raised to look up from the tree and see the entire wood, the compost of the forest floor is all we will ever know.

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