It is difficult to consider where one would start when describing the previous week. Events in places as diverse as Ferguson, Missouri and Mount Sinjar, Iraq have gripped the attention of people all around the world, and it appears that the crises in both regions have no discernible end in sight. Meanwhile, the deaths of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall have left gaping holes in the very soul of America’s entertainment industry. The sudden and shocking death of Williams, of course, left everyone in shock, but both figures represented the heights of 20th century American cultural history. Meanwhile, with multiple foreign policy headaches for the United States in Iraq, Syria, Gaza Strip, and Ukraine, Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, and a still-unresolved immigration crisis bringing thousands of unattended youngsters from Central America to the United States, the whole world seems to convulse in pain, outrage, and above all, sadness. And that’s not even taking into account horrendous stories that have received far less attention, both here and abroad.
As I attempted to comprehend the last week and also study for comprehensive exams (yes, it’s been quite the week for me) my mind has wandered back in time, to 1974 and a certain famous—if not, in fact, infamous—article for Dissent magazine. Michael Harrington’s essay, “A Collective Sadness,” spoke to a nation that just experienced the first ever resignation of its chief executive, and was struggling with the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam. The essay, in the Fall 1974 issue of Dissent, can also be seen as a lament for the American Left—a realization that no one seemed to have answers for the American people, least of all those who’d been struggling on a variety of political and cultural fronts for years. The following will pull from the version of the essay published in the book 50 Years of Dissent, based off the original Fall 1974 essay.
Harrington’s essay principally dealt with crises within the community of American Catholics, using them as a proxy to talk about the problems facing the nation as a whole. Harrington wrote, “People can’t believe in either God or their country the way they used to; people just don’t know what to believe in at all.” He also acknowledged that America’s economic prowess that functioned to create a large middle class in the 1950s and 1960s had, by 1974, exhausted itself. But he noted that, unlike the Great Depression, the 1970s economic problems had “no clearly defined enemy as there was in the Great Depression,” showing that Harrington was well aware of how difficult it would be to push workers into a sustained, aggressive labor movement. This wasn’t an indictment of the labor force, as much as it was a diagnosis of how much American politics and economics had changed so much since the start of the New Deal in the 1930s. It was also Harrington’s warning of the potential vacuum into which the New Right, still growing in power in the 1970s, would step into as the decade wore on and the Democratic Party (and, in essence, the American Left) failed to provide new strategies to respond to stagflation.
Harrington’s essay is an important one in understanding the American Left in the 1970s. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s an excellent primer on the nation as a whole in the early 1970s. As Jefferson Cowie argued in Stayin’ Alive (where he has an entire chapter titled, “A Collective Sadness”), Harrington recognized that the Left no longer had an institutional liberal power base to push on issues such as labor and race. The essay “A Collective Sadness” occurred to me time and again this week, not just in reference to the events of the 1970s chronicled by Cowie, but also due to our discussions about The Invisible Bridge, and debates we’ve recently had over the historiography of the 1970s and 1980s. However, it also speaks to me as a document that says, “Yes, this is when our modern era began.” An age where the Left seemed primed to take power in the aftermath of Watergate, but failed to achieve anything of substance for years to come; an age where conservatism triumphed at the national polls but, time and again in the 1980s, found itself divided between the Reagan/Bush White Houses and grassroots activists; and, finally, a divided nation finding it difficult to address the major issues of the day.
I remembered Harrington’s essay, in other words, because quite simply it seems to me that the nation once again suffers from a “collective sadness,” or, perhaps to be more precise, a “collective uncertainty.” Being a historian often means being able to take the long view of events. The good news is that you’re aware that things can get better. The bad news is that, well, you’re also aware that things can get much worse.
One final note: I’d considered devoting my post this week to thinking about intellectual history and the events in Ferguson, MO. To be honest, due to comps prep and being emotionally drained from observing what’s going on, I just couldn’t get something together in time. If I had, it would certainly have addressed civil rights memory and current debates over the “carceral state” and the militarization of American police.
However, I do have some links, books, and journal articles in mind, so if you’re interested in any of those topics, I have a few recommendations (and please, if you have more to add in the comments, feel free to do so):
On Civil Rights Memory: Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s essay, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” from the Volume 91, Number 4, 2005 issue of the Journal of American History is still indispensable when considering how different groups of Americans remember the Civil Rights Movement. I’d argue this is important in considering responses to Ferguson from a variety of groups, and my post’s original content was going to be spurred by this image from Fox News’ coverage of the protests and clashes in Ferguson.
Carceral State (a term used to refer to the large-scale prison apparatus current forming the backbone of the American criminal justice system): this is a topic that’s gained a lot of coverage in recent years, most notably in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. However, another book has been released that shows the involvement of liberals in the early development of the current prison system in the U.S.—The First Civil Right by Naomi Murakawa. It’s a book I haven’t had a chance to check out but hope to do so soon. Also, The Condemnation of Blackness, as mentioned Friday night by Ray Haberski, is a great read on early 20th century views of crime and blackness. (For the implications of changing ideas of blackness and pathology in the academy, there’s always Daryl Scott’s Contempt and Pity.)
Police Militarization: of course, the most notable work is Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, which has received plenty of attention in the last week due to the police response to protests in Ferguson, MO.
On Ferguson itself: there’s plenty of good stuff on Ferguson (and I certainly expect folks in the comments to add more), but just to give some diverse flavor: there’s Jelani Cobb’s analysis on The New Yorker website; Charles C.W. Cooke’s analysis of how conservatives should think about Ferguson over at The National Review blog; Rembert Browne’s observations after spending several days in Ferguson; and, finally, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brief thoughts on a particular element of the debate over Ferguson after being out of the loop for some time.
Check out those links, articles, and books for some historical context around what’s going on in Ferguson. And, as always, if you have more to add, please do so in the comments!
 Michael Harrington, “A Collective Sadness,” Fifty Years of Dissent, pgs. 111-119, quote on pg. 114.
 Harrington, pg. 117.
 Jefferson Cowie. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York: The New Press, 2010, p. 214.