July 2006 - AYJW Newsletter
By Julie Polovina
July 2006 AYJW Newsletter
Dear Association of Young Journalists and Writers members,
One of the most awesome responsibilities that reporters have is to fairly and accurately cover world events. With this in mind, I thought it was important to travel to Israel last month in order to learn more about the current conflicts in the Middle East that I aspire to one day cover for a daily newspaper.
As I toured the city of Jerusalem and placed my hands on the Western Wall, hiked through the Negev Desert, learned about Israel’s past and present conflicts with surrounding countries in Tel Aviv during a visit to the spot where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and spent 10 days traveling with eight Israeli soldiers younger than myself, I thought to myself that this country was nothing like the media has made it out to be.
I couldn’t wait to write home to my family and friends that their fears of me being hurt in this small state situated in between few friendly countries were unfounded. After all, where in America could you leave your doors unlocked and welcome strangers for the Sabbath? In which major American city can you walk at 2 a.m. and not fear that you will be mugged or worse like you can in Jerusalem? And, after all, most violence has been located in the West Bank where no Jewish settlers currently reside.
But, as we slept in tents in a small Bedouin community in the desert last week, word came that Hamas gunmen from Gaza killed two Israeli soldiers and captured another. These events followed Hamas’s recent declaration that a 16-month cease-fire would no longer be in effect. Inevitably, a swift and forceful Israeli military response occurred.
These events were a sad conclusion to a trip that gave me hope in a powerful Jewish state that had fought successfully in a series of wars since Israel was created in 1948 in order to prevent events like the Holocaust from occurring ever again. I was hopeful after visiting the city of Haifa where Jews and Arabs coexist peacefully and speaking with Israeli soldiers who wish for a similar peaceful co-existence with Palestinians. Therefore, it was hard to see a group of radicals preventing this progress from taking place.
It is time for the world to realize that Hamas’s terrorist attacks will cause only great pain to both the Israelis and Palestinians and take action. The Palestinians who elected Hamas five months ago must realize that this party is impeding peace which will at the very least hurt them financially and go to the polls during the next election with a new agenda.
After all, The New York Times wrote on June 29, 2006, “If things go on like this, Palestinians can look forward to endless rounds of reckless Hamas provocations and inexorable Israeli responses. That is why things must not be allowed to go on like this. It is not just Israel that needs to be delivering that message to Hamas.”
As student journalists and writers, it is our responsibility to continue to watch the coverage of these events so that we one day may cover them fairly and accurately to give the world a balanced view of this conflict and others like it around the world.
I encourage you to join the debate about the Middle East conflict and how reporters can cover it on The Association of Young Journalists and Writers Forum.
To participate in the forum, you must be a member of AYJW. Log into the forum with your first name followed by your last name with a space separating first and last name (i.e. John Smith). Use your AYJW password and begin your discussions.
Please contact the AYJW at firstname.lastname@example.org with any suggestions, ideas or if you would like to contribute to the AYJW Newsletter.
Editor & Writer of the Universal Journal/AYJW Newsletter
2005 First Prize AYJW Winner
May 2005 Author of the Month
* The opinions mentioned in this newsletter are those of their respective authors and are not the opinion of AYJW. Anyone who holds an opposing view or would like to develop the stated view, are not only welcome but also encouraged to submit articles, discuss on the forum or reply to the newsletter with an op-ed.*
2006 Prize Winner Announcement
The annual AYJW $10,000 Grand Prize, $1,000 First Prize, $500 Second Prize, $2,000 Scholarship and $2,000 Literary Essay Prize were announced on July 1st. Congratulations to all of the winners!
$10,000 Grand Prize Anita Martinez Vail, AZ
$1,000 First Prize Philip Devitt Westport, MA
$500 Second Prize Michael Hurley Arlington, MA
$2,000 Scholarship Trisha Fleurimond Maplewood, NJ
$2,000 Literary Essay Ashley Warren Tucson, AZ
For more information about each of the winners, please visit http://ayjw.org/winners.php.
Kate Hendrickson named July 2006 Author of the Month
Selected writings by this month’s author:
Falling From Favor
By Kate Hendrickson
As Nicholas Lemann asks in a recent article, “Why is everyone mad at the mainstream media?” The mainstream media can’t seem to please either its critics or advocates. Unfortunately, the non-partisan media is now floundering and steadily losing its popularity. What caused its drastic decline? The hypotheses are numerous: economics, politics, waning journalistic quality. But by focusing on economic or political reasons, I think reporters are ignoring the larger picture. After all, the media is as much a commercial enterprise as any other and as such, it must cater to the demands of the audience in order the make a profit. If sensationalism and partisanship are becoming standard in today’s reporting, the audience must want them. Lemann’s article, along with those of Richard A. Posner, Jonathan Chait, and the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, demonstrate for me how lower costs, media polarization, and audience demands affect the mainstream media. In addition to these arguments, my own observations have convinced me that due not only to economic and viewer changes, but also to our entertainment-driven culture, the mainstream media is falling from favor.
Many articles examining the state of the media jump to point fingers at the politicization of journalism. According to an article by Richard A. Posner in The New York Times, liberals think the decline of mainstream media has lowered its quality, while conservatives praise the changes for countering the so-called liberal bias of the media. Posner maintains that “the mainstream media are predominantly liberal . . . not because the politics of journalists have changed.” Rather, he asserts this phenomenon results from economic changes. “The vertiginous decline in the cost of electronic communication and the relaxation of regulatory barrier to entry” mean there are more outlets than ever vying for consumer attention. More competition breeds polarization because each media source struggles “to occupy an overlooked niche” by catering to a relatively select segment of the market. Thus, as Posner concludes, news reporting is experiencing political polarization because of the changing economic landscape of the media.
Other critics argue that the fallout of the mainstream media is due in large part to poor reporting practices. In a piece for New Republic, Jonathan Chait highlights some bad habits of journalists that cause “misleading, sometimes wholly inaccurate coverage.” Although most journalists are indeed liberals, this alone does not cause biased news. Liberals often don’t fully understand the conservative viewpoint, and this confusion manifests itself in untrue assumptions. Another cause of deceptive (although unintentional) journalism is the “preconceived patterns” into which news items are categorized. In this lazy form of journalism, “[reporters] merely act as conduits for political attacks generated by the opposition.” Facing so much criticism, reporters sometimes overcorrect and in doing so, hurt themselves even more. Over-the-top evenhandedness impedes the truth when a reporter covers two sides of a story as equally valid when one side employs “demonstrably wrong information.” Posner cites this practice as another example of journalists pandering “to the popular taste for conflict and contests by . . . reporting both sides of an issue, even when there aren’t two sides.”
Perhaps the trend most damaging to the non-partisan media is the use of personal opinion as fact. Both Chait and Lemann address this issue. “For all the talk about the importance of objectivity,” Chait contends, “reporters are surprisingly willing to express their opinions openly when it comes to matters of pure politics.” Lemann notes that while the nonpartisan mainstream media is losing audiences “at an alarming rate, . . . openly ideological, anti-mainstream media, quasi-news programs, like Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, have huge followings.” Posner attributes this to the reinforcement people seek of their own ideas. The public doesn’t read the news to be well-informed so much as to be entertained. Posner boldly states that political coverage in the news “is oriented to a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded.” The focus on competing red and blue states in the 2004 election corroborates with Posner’s diagnosis. More attention was given to which candidate was ahead in the polls than to party platforms. But while certain sticklers may complain about this, it must be recognized that the media is a commercial enterprise like any other; as such, it must fulfill consumer demands to make a profit. When the media resorts to sensationalism to garner audiences, the demands of the audiences themselves are largely responsible.
Combined with changing audience demands is the rising competition in the media market. The birth of the blog created a tough rivalry for the mainstream media. Since a weblog is cheaply and easily produced, virtually anyone can create one and enter the world of amateur reporting. Without the worry of advertisers or large circulation for funding, bloggers can address much narrower audience segments than the mainstream media. The most serious challenge presented by blogs, according to Posner, is that they don’t compete on a level playing field. Posner claims bloggers “are parasitical on the conventional media,” copying and reposting news from the mainstream media. In response, the media rushes stories to the press, sometimes cutting corners and committing errors.
By effectively addressing these issues, the articles of Chait and Posner influenced me the most. While reading them, I could trace parallels between their observations and mine. Their conviction that the mainstream media is working to satisfy audience demands supports my belief that there is a larger cultural factor at work: the cult of celebrity. In today’s politics, reporting focuses on the personal lives of politicians, not their civic backgrounds or platforms. Let’s call to mind again the 2004 election. John Kerry’s wife, Theresa Heinz, received immense coverage. For weeks, I couldn’t open a newspaper without seeing a reference to a certain press conference at which Heinz responded rudely to reporters. Her personal traits were contrasted with those of Laura Bush, as if the personality of a candidate’s wife affected his capability for leadership. Reporters even went so far as to speculate Kerry married Heinz for the prestige her name and money would add to his campaign. The most infamous example of all, though, is the outrageous coverage of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. I venture to guess there is not a single person in America unfamiliar that story. But I wonder how many citizens recall Clinton’s economic policies?
Not only does political coverage often read like a spread from People magazine, but it is also directed like a Hollywood production. The most recent example is President Bush’s address from New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. From a dramatically lit Jackson Square, Bush assured the country that New Orleans would rise again. Although much of the city was underwater and deserted, the camera never panned from its picture-perfect stage. Perhaps Bush’s PR people thought the evidence of destruction would dampen the president’s uplifting message. They acted like movie directors, pairing an ideal location with an optimistic script. The most conspicuous aspect of the address, however, was how well-lit Jackson Square was as the rest of New Orleans sat powerless and dark. Reports the next day noted that the White House dragged its own generators to New Orleans to ensure proper lighting for the address. Truly, the effort and production seem characteristic of Hollywood, not Capitol Hill.
The most humorous way in which politicians have entered the public’s fascination with celebrities is the attention paid to their wardrobes. During the 2004 debates, commentators evaluated the color of ties worn by Bush and Kerry. Since Bush wore a “power”-colored blue tie, did he have an advantage? The wives of the candidates were subject to wardrobe scrutiny as well. I remember a spread in People covering the changing styles of Laura Bush. The magazine informed us that she wore a lovely pantsuit to such and such a convention, but what did she do at the convention? No one knows, it would seem.
America has always been an entertainment-driven society. There is nothing inherently wrong in that. But lately, this entertainment frenzy encroaches upon other aspects of culture, particularly the mainstream media. As many media critics point out, readers must sift through various partisan publications, balancing the extreme viewpoints against each other, in hopes of finding the truth. The mainstream media is struggling to hold on to an audience that is rejecting balanced reports in favor of blatant opinions. An article reporting on a survey by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation cites that people believe authentic journalism is threatened by “a marketplace culture that drives new media and leads to sensational and simplistic journalism.” According to Harwood, the public also worries that “the drive for profit, especially through entertainment,” steers the media away from providing unbiased information. This is certainly true, as those like Posner point out. But equally important, I think, is the influence of our entertainment culture on the media. Media critics are so quick to cast blame on the media itself that they neglect to see the part played demands of audience. The audience wants to be entertained and reinforced in their beliefs, and as Posner notes, “being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of the audience” instead of fulfilling “the idealized ‘thirst for knowledge’” called for by critics.
Although I have been wary of the mainstream media in the past few years, I had no substantial claims against it. These articles, particularly those of Chait and Posner, articulated my suspicions. Furthermore, they supplied me with a context in which to interpret the migration of politicians onto the red carpet. As the journalists contend, changes in reporting practices account for this paradigm shift, but not entirely. I now believe audiences should accept some responsibility for the changes in the mainstream media instead of ruthlessly bashing and pointing fingers at the industry. After all, isn’t it rather ironic how the public decries the current state of the so-called biased media, when in fact the media is only attempting to satisfy the needs of the public?
A Bartholobowian Classroom
By Kate Hendrickson
Entering a literary theory class, I was unsure of what to expect. I feared discussions of lofty thoughts and abstract ideas that would neither pertain to nor interest me. Surprisingly, I found myself examining my educational experience from new standpoints. Debates over the ideas of David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow particularly intrigued me. Although the two writers vehemently contradict each other, I wavered between their opposing arguments. While I agreed with Bartholomae on the importance of discourse and recognizing its sway over our environment, I disliked his belittling of the individual. At the same time, agreeing with Elbow’s emphasis on originality, I disagreed with his “teacherless writing class.” I commended both writers for seeking solutions to the obstacles faced by student writers. Their methods of empowerment vary radically, however, and each seems too extreme to be very practical or realistic. After reflecting on their arguments and evaluating my own education so far, I concluded that the ideal classroom in the university would synthesize Bartholomae’s structure and Elbow’s freedom, thereby introducing students to the cultural forces present in writing, while at the same time allowing them to explore their individuality.
Bartholomae’s essay “Inventing the University” struck me in its parallels to my own education. This piece focuses on the discourse of academia. Bartholomae believes student writers struggle because they do not understand the discursive practices at work, and yet they must “appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse” (4). To possess the discourse of academic writing, Bartholomae contends, requires “a special vocabulary, a special system of presentation, and an interpretive scheme” (7). By giving students the opportunity to possess the discourse, he hopes to enable them to accept the privilege of authorship.
According to Bartholomae, knowledge “makes discourse more than a routine” (6). Although he addresses academic discourse in the university, I believe that it is present and influential in earlier education as well. As I read Bartholomae’s sample student essays, I revisited my seventh grade Language Arts class, where Mrs. Smith introduced us to the most necessary of evils, the five-paragraph essay. I was duly indoctrinated and soon acquired the habit of categorizing information into three main points supporting a main thesis. Although this technique can act as a positive learning tool, I venture to call it evil because it can become mindless and habitual. Indeed, it required more thought and effort for me to write an essay that did not follow this outline once I became so accustomed to it. I understood how to write an informative and structured paper, but I didn’t comprehend that I could possess the words and move beyond a fill-in-the-blanks formula. The discourse of my middle school education created this formula, but I did not even recognize its existence. Bartholomae identifies this same situation as one of the obstacles hindering collegiate writers.
To overcome falling into cultural clichés, Bartholomae prescribes knowledge of the discourse at work. With an understanding of the discourse, the student advances to the status of “insider.” Bartholomae argues that only after recognizing the cultural influence present in discourse can a student begin to write individually, doing so by writing against the discursive definitions (“Writing With Teachers” 86). This statement jumped at me because it articulates an experience from my junior year of high school. In my AP Language and Composition class, we were drilled on rhetorical devices and terms and analyses. Although I initially found the work tedious, by the end of the year I was confident in writing an adequate academic paper. Prior to this class, my literary analyses were nothing more than recycled summaries from the textbook. I read the accepted opinions and reformed them to sound somewhat like my own. My AP Language class led me to believe I had the authority to write something original because I knew the words that opened the doors of academic discourse. I became, in Bartholomae’s terms, a writer who understood the motives of my audience and could “both imagine and write from a position from privilege” (“Inventing” 9).
Imagining this privilege, Bartholomae contends, can be detrimental when it leads students to believe they have written something insightful and original. He argues that discourses pre-exist us, and so it follows that nothing we write is truly new or unique. He claims that ignoring this “is a dangerous and counterproductive practice” (10). In Bartholomae’s view, then, because I adopted the rhetorical jargon without examining its underlying discourse, my writing in AP Language was “more a matter of imitation or parody than a matter of invention and discovery” (11). To trace my education in Bartholomae’s perspective, I unknowingly copied the discourse of writing in middle school and later learned its technicalities in high school. Or, as he more harshly puts it, I learned to “crudely mimic ‘the distinctive register’ of academic discourse” (19). It is now up to my college professors to involve me in “scholarly projects” allowing me act as a colleague “in an academic enterprise” (11). Although I identified with the problems of student writers presented by Bartholomae, I disliked his strict emphasis on the role of the teacher, and here is where Peter Elbow comes in.
Elbow’s book Writing Without Teachers reads easily and conversationally. His version of empowering student writers eliminates the teacher. He boldly states that teachers often make the worst readers because they are too good of readers. They do not expect to be wowed by student essays, so they do not pay close attention to what they are reading (127). In addition, teachers are no less subject to emotion than anyone else, and their subjectivity can be apparent in their grading and teaching (120). I applied this perspective to the role of the teacher promulgated by Bartholomae. Bartholomae emphasizes the need for teachers to illuminate the workings of discourse. He does not take into account, however, how the subjectivity of teachers may influence the writing of the students. For example, by urging students to write against the discourse, isn’t the teacher essentially telling the students what to write? Elbow makes this point in a response to Bartholomae, arguing that the best way to empower students is to encourage them “to think for themselves and not be dupes of others thinking for them” (“Interchanges” 91). Remembering a literature course my freshman year in college in which the professor rejected interpretations straying from his own, I sided with Elbow on this point.
While Elbow does not altogether discredit the importance of discourse, he does not focus on the social construction of language. According to Elbow, by belaboring the point, teachers discourage students from writing. When students try to appropriate the discourse, their writing is reader-based and they submit their papers silently asking, “Is this okay?” (“Being a Writer” 92). The solution posited by Elbow is the formation of teacherless writing classes. A group of peers makes better readers because they follow your writing from week-to-week, witness your reactions, and are familiar with your particular language (Writing 129). Elbow further contends that since response is what compels us to write in the first place, teacherless writing classes are more beneficial because they generate genuine responses.
Whereas Bartholomae believes students can only write individually after acquiring the terms, limits, and effects of discourse, Elbow believes writing courses fail students by “break[ing] up the skill into its ideal progression of components” (136). He stresses the importance of freewriting in his response to Bartholomae. He claims “nothing is better . . . at showing us how we are constructed and situated” (“Interchanges” 89). Students can discover discursive influences without being dictated to by teachers. Unlike Bartholomae, Elbow believes in the power of the individual to create. Although he acknowledges social construction, he encourages students to “make as many decisions as they can about their writing—despite the power of culture” (“Interchanges” 90).
At the heart of the matter, I believe, lies the distinction between academic and personal writing. Bartholomae prefers academic while Elbow favors personal. Their preferences then shape their solutions for student writers. Because academic writing interests Bartholomae, he centers his solution on the appropriation of academic discourse. Students should question the language surrounding them and examine the discursive elements present. Elbow, however, finds that academic writing teaches students to distrust language. This directly opposes his belief that for students to “experience themselves as writers,” they must learn to trust language (“Being a Writer” 78). Both writers makes valid points that today’s universities should consider when creating composition curriculum. Having completed only a year at the university so far, I lack the authority to pass judgment on the writing instruction at CSU. However, an evaluation of my earlier education together with insight gleaned from the arguments of Bartholomae and Elbow, I am justified in offering my own version of the ideal college composition class, a blending of Bartholomae and Elbow.
From early on, in true Bartholomae style, I memorized terms of the discourse—literary terms, devices, and forms. The work became repetitive from year to year, but as a result, I entered my AP language class with a firm understanding of the components of the discourse of writing. Although I had appropriated the terms without being made aware of their defining discourse, I still found this information pertinent and practical coming to college. Having acquired the basic, underlying structure of the discourse of writing, I was now ready to be introduced to its social construction. Based on this experience, I believe Bartholomae is right in his diagnosis of student writing: Without knowledge, discourse is nothing more than routine. However, the routine is necessary because it creates steps in between the progressive stages of writing.
An entirely “Bartholomaic” classroom, however, depends absolutely on discourse and this presents a problem for my ideal class. For Bartholomae, nothing exists outside of discourse. He even goes so far as to say teaching students to write “as though they were not products of their time, politics and culture” is merely a “reproduction of the American myth” (“Being a Writer” 70). By reiterating this, I believe instructors would discourage students and prompt them to wonder why anyone bothers to write at all. To counteract this, I would include an “Elbowian” aspect in my classroom. Elbow invites students to “write as though they are a central speaker at the center of the universe” (80). As both Bartholomae and Elbow point out, writing requires a certain amount of pride and arrogance. Bartholomae suggests these can be acquired by appropriating the discourse, and Elbow argues they emerge out of personal writing that emphasizes the individual in the face of cultural construction; they are uncovered when “writers take themselves too seriously” (81). In my utopian classroom, students would be familiarized with both solutions and then encouraged to pursue the strategy best suited to their learning style.
Ideally, writing in the university should teach students the importance of discourse, as well as reinforce the importance of the individual. Elbow and Bartholomae both stress that students should think for themselves. But an Elbowian instructor tells students to focus on personal experience, and a Bartholomaic professor tells students to fight against overriding discursive practices that define personal experience. In both classrooms, the instructor is still telling students how to write. Instead, I propose that university professors give students a little credit and let them explore various writing processes. Instead of spending so much time arguing amongst themselves, professors should throw back the curtain obscuring the academic world from students’ eyes. In this act, professors could also take a step back and allow peer reading to play a role, although not a dominant one, along with traditional teaching. By synthesizing the opposing components of Bartholomaic and Elbowian classrooms, an ideal, and effective, composition class would include students in the conflicts. Students certainly see for themselves the obstacles faced by writers. But if only they could see the wide range of solutions available—with Bartholomae at one end of the spectrum and Elbow at the other—then they just might discover their own form of empowerment and finally feel comfortable writing within the academic discourse.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing 5.1 (1986): 4-23.
---. “Interchanges: Response.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 84-87.
---. “Writing With Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 62-71.
Elbow, Peter. “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 72-83.
---. “Interchanges: Response.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 87-92.
---. “From Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. viii-ix, 117-141.
A Call to Change: The Relevancy of The Jungle Today
By Kate Hendrickson
Upton Sinclair’s radical novel The Jungle continues to shock today’s readers just as it did originally almost one hundred years ago. Its graphic descriptions of tainted meat products and merciless working conditions in Packingtown draw in readers with morbid fascination. Sinclair intended his book to call his audience to action against the poor conditions faced by the immigrant “wage slaves.” He pushed for a revolution toward socialism after observing the corruption of capitalism. The public, however, largely ignored Sinclair’s primary cause, the workers, and instead pressed the government for tighter regulations in the food processing industry. Although the novel sparked the passage of Meat Inspection Act in 1906, and many subsequent food safety bills, the food processing industry was never entirely reformed. In some ways, in fact, the current situation is worse than it was a century ago due to the centralization of food processing and the small number of companies that handle the nation’s food supply. Also, horrible working conditions similar to those in Sinclair’s Packingtown can still be found across America. But just as Americans paid little heed to Sinclair’s concern for workers, citizens today largely ignore the shortcomings of today’s greedy capitalism. Instead of overlooking The Jungle as merely a piece of historical propaganda, readers should recognize the striking parallels between Sinclair’s experience and their own in 2004. However, although the concerns of food and worker safety presented in the novel are still relevant today, Sinclair’s solution of socialism is not realistic for modern-day America. Instead, a reformed and redefined capitalist society could greatly improve food and worker safety.
Throughout The Jungle, Sinclair’s vivid and gruesome descriptions of unsanitary food churn the stomach, and one cannot help but wonder how the poor people who consumed the products fared. Sinclair does cite a few instances of food poisoning, one such example involving canned meat. According to the novel, diseased cattle became the “embalmed beef.” The rotten meat had killed more United States soldiers than actual fighting during the Spanish-American War, but infected cattle continued to be packaged and consumed during the nineteenth century. Despite various food safety acts that have been passed in the last hundred years, food poisoning is a problem today just as it was in The Jungle. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 5,000 Americans deaths every year result from contaminated food.1 Everyday, tainted food sickens 200,000 Americans, hospitalizes 900, and kills 14—and it is believed that only a fraction of food poisoning incidences are reported.2 Major outbreaks occur due to the increase in global trade and the centralization of the food processing industry.
With the increase in the global food trade, Americans now eat more foreign foods than ever before. Our system of inspection, however, is not equipped to inspect all of the food imported daily. This causes problems when the imported food is not handled sanitarily in its original country. One such example includes strawberries that were brought into the U.S. from Mexico. In 1997, hundreds of schoolchildren on the west coast became sick and were diagnosed with Hepatitis A.3 Authorities traced the infection back to strawberries consumed in school lunchrooms. Upon investigation, they discovered that the Mexican workers picking the strawberries were not required to wash their hands and were spreading various diseases through the food. The severe centralization of food processing also holds the potential to spread contaminated food to large numbers of people. Today, only a select few farming operations manage the food processing for the entire country.4 Because the factories are so large and ship to so many parts of the country, a single problem can affect people nationwide. In fact, one cow with E. coli can contaminate 32,000 pounds of ground beef.5 A government health official recently reported that feedlots at these large-scale farms are similar to “a crowded European city in the Middle Ages” when people dumped their waste products out their windows and into the street below.6 Cattle are packed into small pens amid each other’s manure. Also, although cattle naturally eat only grasses and grains, dead poultry, dead pigs, and dead horses are frequently mixed into the diet of the animals at the corporate farms.7 In some cases, these farms breed pathogens better than they breed cattle, and the infected meat is then shipped to consumers all over the nation. For example, a ConAgra beef plant in Greeley, Colorado tested positive for E. coli in April of 2002. Despite the presence of pathogens, however, the plant was allowed to continue selling beef from batches that had not been tested.8 When a recall was eventually issued, it came too late. ConAgra had shipped the contaminated beef nationwide, due to their negligence, five children acquired permanent kidney damage and one woman in Ohio died. The cases of the Mexican strawberries and the ConAgra beef sound eerily reminiscent of The Jungle. These instances, however, are only two out of hundreds of such scary stories—and they are not fiction.
Since Sinclair never aimed for food inspection laws and did not trust in their effectiveness, perhaps he would not be shocked that food conditions today, in some ways, mirror those of his Packingtown. He would be disturbed, however, to learn that miserable working conditions similar to those of Jurgis and Marija still exist in America. In The Jungle, a family of Lithuanian immigrants struggle to find employment. Their extreme poverty forces them to settle for the lowest wages and the meanest work. Today, many immigrants face an equivalent situation. Since the Industrial Revolution, peasants have been relocating to urban areas with hopes of a brighter future.9 The influx of workers, however, is indirectly proportional to the number of available jobs. “Efficiency” has become the ultimate goal of most businesses, and in most cases, efficiency means replacing human workers with machines. This trend has led to an enormous amount of layoffs, and when suddenly uprooted from their jobs, the unemployed often have no choice but to take dangerous, low-wage jobs, even though today’s minimum wage hardly supports a decent lifestyle.10 In fact, although the monetary value of today’s minimum wage is higher than that of 1968, its real value is 27 percent lower.11 Rolan Hoskin, an unemployed electrician, faced just such circumstances. He found himself working for ten dollars an hour cleaning a cast-iron pipe manufacturing factory in Texas. Hoskin died while cleaning a conveyor belt in June 2000 because government regulations were not being followed at the McWane, Inc. factory.12 In fact, when an inspector from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration visited the facility, he “found countless employees with visible scars, burns, and other wounds.”13
Although OSHA was created to protect workers on the job, their standards are routinely ignored because companies find it cheaper to pay OSHA fines than to implement its regulations.14 Employers, however, are not entirely to blame. After all, OSHA inspects only 2 percent of America’s workplaces every year, and many of its guidelines are based on data from the 1950s. Despite the need for worker protection, OSHA’s budget has decreased by one-third since 1980. Perhaps then it is no surprise that in the last thirty years, 200,000 Americans have died on the job.15 But not only do accidents occur on the job, like Jurgis’ experiences, but occupational diseases also threaten today’s workers just as they did in The Jungle. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that 50,000 deaths every year result from occupational disease.16 Black lung commonly afflicts miners, and the disease asbestosis causes problems for those in close contact with asbestos. Based on the statistics, it seems that employers care only for the potential output of their workers and not their humanity. In many assembly-line jobs, employees become interchangeable because skills or talents are not necessary to operate machinery. Charles Handy, a renowned business professor, explains that businesses have become inhuman because workers are their last priority. Echoing the sentiments of Sinclair, Handy charges that organizations without soul, organizations that ignore their workers, “become machines with human parts.”17
In The Jungle, Sinclair likened workers to “cogs in a machine.” By the end of his novel, he hoped to have convinced readers that only socialism could counteract the unfairness of capitalism. Although a good idea on paper, a system in which the distribution of property and income falls under social control rather than market forces, its implementation in the United States is simply unfeasible—and un-American. According to economist Joseph Schumpeter, “American development practically skipped the phase of socialism.”18 The socialist tradition held out in countries with slow economic development, like Russia, but it never took root in America because capitalism in the New World evolved so rapidly. In addition, Europe had generations of poor peasants that supported socialism across centuries of history. Such a poverty-stricken group, an “under-employed and frustrated set of intellectuals,” was not produced by the relatively young United States until the immigration boom in the nineteenth century.19 In Sinclair’s proposition of socialism, he fails to note that America was founded on the idea of free enterprise. Socialism discourages the individual, but the theme of American life is “determine your own destiny.” To suddenly adopt the European socialist concepts would feel, to many Americans, like the betrayal of the American forefathers. However, Sinclair’s analysis of capitalism as corrupt is still valid, and rectification needs to occur. But instead of a radical switch to socialism, a reformed system of capitalism would most effectively govern the United States.
A redefinition of capitalism, according to Charles Handy, would constitute a system that “delivers the means but not necessarily the point of life.”20 When capitalism becomes greedy, it tends to benefit only the select few who take advantage of it. As Handy points out, “capitalism thrives on inequality.” If left in the hands of avaricious individuals, capitalism delivers vast sums to a small number of citizens while overlooking the majority. In order to ensure a fair distribution of the wealth reaped by capitalism, the government should be allowed some control. Market socialism combines elements of collectivism and capitalism. Enterprises are publicly owned, but production and consumption are determined by market forces rather than a totalitarian government. Under these circumstances, the American government would be able to use some of its market wealth to make life possible for all citizens, as Handy asserts, “not to give away the money, but to invest that money, in order to build a decent society.”21 And why should we not actively pursue a decent society?
Upton Sinclair sought an honorable society through his muck-racking articles and novels. He hoped that by illuminating negative aspects of capitalism he could incite others to take up his cause as well. Of all his works, The Jungle, received the most public reaction. For the readers, however, the plight of the workers fell away in the threatening face of unsanitary beef. Although the government has passed numerous food safety bills since 1906, many are still widely disregarded by the food industry today because the government has not allotted the necessary resources to inspection agencies. Contaminated food falls through the cracks everyday, as do thousands of underpaid workers. The number of jobs in America does not increase in conjunction with the country’s population. Just like the immigrants portrayed in The Jungle, many workers face dangerous jobs in order to survive. Although Sinclair’s socialist solution would not work in America, he correctly assessed the need for a reformed market system. Because of the striking similarities between Packingtown circa 1906 and America today, The Jungle’s concerns for safe food and working conditions are still extremely relevant today. Nineteenth-century readers may not have stepped up to the challenge of reform suggested by Sinclair, but perhaps today’s readers will take heed and answer the call for change.
Buhle, Paul. “The Cultures of Socialism in the United States.” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, July/August 2002, 1-112. http://search.epnet.com
Handy, Charles. The Hungry Spirit: Beyond Capitalism, A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World. New York: Broadway Books, 1996.
Hasansky, David. “Food Safety.” The CQ Researcher Online 12, no. 38 (November 1,2002): 897-920. http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2002110100
(accessed December 4, 2004).
Hatch, David. “Worker Safety.” The CQ Researcher Online 14, no. 19 (May 21, 2004):445-469. http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2004052100 (accessedDecember 4, 2004)
Schlosser, Eric. “Fast Food Nation: The True Cost of America’s Diet.” Rolling Stone, September 3, 1998. http://htdocs/ayjw.mcspotlight.org/media/press/rollingstone1.html
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper & B Brothers Publishers, 1942.
1. David Hasansky, “Food Safety,” The CQ Researcher Online 12, no. 38 (November 1, 2002): 897-920, http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2002110100
(accessed December 4, 2004).
2. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001) 195.
3. Hasansky, 900.
4. Hasansky, 902.
5. Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 204.
6. Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 200.
7. Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 204.
8. Hasansky, 910.
9. Paul Buhle, “The Cultures of Socialism in the United States,” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine (July/August 2002): 1-12, http://search.epnet.com.
10. David Hatch, “Worker Safety,” The CQ Researcher Online 14, no. 19 (May 21, 2004): 445-469, http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2004052100 (accessed December 4, 2004).
11. Eric Schlosser, “Fast Food Nation: The True Cost of America’s Diet,” Rolling Stone, September 3, 1998, http://htdocs/ayjw.mcspotlight.org/media/rollingstone1.html
12. Hatch, 445.
13. Hatch, 446.
14. Hatch, 447.
15. Hatch, 450.
16. Hatch, 452.
17. Charles Handy, The Hungry Spirit (New York: Broadway Books, 1998), 152.
18. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1942) 336.
19. Schumpeter, 330.
20. Handy, 50.
21. Handy, 221.