Over the past few months, I have again taken up my personal studies of 3rd world economic development and sustainability. It is easy to read a book about another culture. Many of the books deal in aggregate numbers. GDP per head at $300/person for example.
I am currently finishing a great book from the world bank called Voices of the Poor, which really shows the personal dimensions and tragedy of poverty and powerlessness. A personal story can be more powerful and moving sometimes than an economic treatise. To use paraphrase Stalin, "kill one person and it is murder, kills millions and it is a statistic." This is sad but true. The real implications of human events don't register with us in numbers, they have an impact with stories on a personal level. Books and films are great ways of telling those stories.
This weekend I watched the Film, The Grapes of Wrath. Most us remember the book as a tiresome project from high school English lit. Revisiting it with a few more miles behind me is highly illuminating. I watched the film on DVD, which came along with a bonus audio essay by two Steinbeck scholars. It was great stuff. It helps to understand poverty when you can see it in the near past through your own culture.
The film is powerful and moving as it is shows a simple family trying with dignity to struggle against forces the can't control or understand. They are herded into camps, vulnerable and victimized. The California of 1930's America was a rough place for migrants, with police brutality and injustice all around. The Joad family were Oakie's from the Midwest. They were hated by the Californians, many of whom just wished they would go home. Many weren't allowed to cross the border into California from nearby states.
The family from Oklahoma was disliked, because they were large (12 members), spoke funny (used harsh farm language). The film shows people killed with impunity and the dehumanizing aspects of poverty and being social outcasts. The essay on the film indicates that the book and the film were actually softer than the reality of the times.
At one point in time, the Grapes of Wrath was one of the most banned books in Americas libraries. Salinas, California had a special hatred of Steinbeck. Today in California and much of America there is a debate about poor immigrants coming into the US. I would urge those who take issue with immigrants, to revisit the past of "migrants" from within the US. The sad fact is that the same arguments used against immigrants were also used against poor internal migrants from Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, and other Midwestern states. The arguments were as wrong then and as they are today. Watch the film, then watch the essay to learn more about the history of poverty in America. It is insightful.
Steinbeck was a great author and finished the book in 5 months. He said he wanted the reader to feel the slow grind of poverty. Unfortunately like many, I only felt the grind in High School not the relevancy of the story. Being a little older makes me appreciate that these stories were meant to inform about real times, and real hardships inflicted on and suffered by peoples from my own culture.