The Politics of Loss
by Ira Nerken
Ira Nerken, an attorney, is director of Widowed Persons Grieving Support Groups, a self-help organization based in Washington, D.C. This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 7-14, 1989, p. 595. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Falling from Grace: The Experience of Downward Mobility in the American Middle Class, by Katherine Newman. Free Press, 320 pp., $22.95.
A debate has been raging over whether the U.S. is in the midst of military, economic and social decline -- whether it is and will remain Number One.
Yale historian Paul Kennedy kicked off the debate with The Rise and Fail of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. Unlike most serious works of history, it became a best seller. After examining the factors that led to the decline of imperial Spain in the 1600s and the British Empire around 1900, Kennedy turns to the U.S. What he calls the "imperial over-stretch" of American military and political commitments worldwide, coupled with our increasing inability or unwillingness to meet our socioeconomic needs at home, leads him to forecast the imminent decline of U.S. power and prestige. In line with his sobering conclusions, Kennedy offers U.S. policymakers a difficult prescription, on which many have gagged. "The task facing American statesmen over the next decades," he counsels, is to "‘manage’ affairs so that the relative erosion of the United States position takes place slowly and smoothly."
More than a few American statesmen, along with political commentators and scholars, have chosen instead to bash Kennedy and his thesis. The anti-declinists argue that the U.S. is, can and must remain Number One, and any suggestion that we accept something less is isolationist, defeatist and probably un-American.
Whether or not we are heading for decline, it is fair to say that Americans have passed over a line in our political psyche. Problems no longer appear as issues that call for management and solution, but as questions about us as a people: who we are, what we are capable of, where we are going. Americans are experiencing their problems not simply as problems but as losses -- events that take from us something we fear cannot be regained or replaced.
We have yet to recognize the central role that loss now plays in national thinking. Nor have we addressed its effects on our collective identity in such a way that we do not fall into depression, numb ourselves into mindless complacency ("Don’t worry, be happy") , or resort to grandiose self-delusion ("Still Number One!") We need to shape political discourse so that we find in the realistic discussion of what we have and haven’t lost -- including illusions about ourselves -- opportunities to think about the grief we are going through, and what recovery may look like.
Beyond overcoming the denial so common to grief, we face the more general problem of the American prejudice against dealing with loss. We equate loss with losing, with failure, with being washed up. We Americans don’t like to lose, and we attach a certain stigma to people who do. The limits of our compassion for the poor, for example, derive in part from the conviction that, if they would only try harder, they could be winners instead of losers.
"Hundreds of thousands of middle-class families plunge down America’s social ladder every year," Newman notes in her preface.
They lose their jobs, their income drops drastically, and they confront prolonged economic hardship, often for the first time. In the face of this downward mobility, people long accustomed to feeling secure and in control find themselves suddenly powerless and unable to direct their lives.
While other citizens worry about economic and social decline, these Americans are experiencing a "falling from grace" -- which is distinct from being poor -- in a particularly virulent form.
Newman looks at how "downward mobility" affects members of four different groups with distinctly different subcultures in America’s middle class (mid-level professionals, union members, etc.) She shows that people’s success in not only retaining pride and dignity in the face of the loss but in finding the meaning and purpose necessary to recover an effective life depends on how they and those around them interpret what the loss means. If solving our problems now depends on the ability of our political culture to motivate and support us in confronting loss, the implications of Newman’s study are striking.
Newman begins by examining middle managers who have lost their jobs as firms "downsized," merged, or were victims of hostile takeovers (part of what leads Americans to talk about decline) For these executives, their families and friends -- immersed in a culture of upward mobility -- financial success means everything. These people find that many of their children, accustomed to sheltered lives, turn on them when they experience loss. Sons and daughters of a "culture of meritocracy," these children were "taught that worthy people are successful . . . that success is indicative of merit," that the wealth the family once had meant they were "intrinsically smarter or more diligent than their [less successful] counterparts." People who do not make it, this aspect of our culture seems to be saying, are not only shameful but defective -- a view that makes it very hard to accept loss as a part of life. "When the successful fall from grace," the ideology of "meritocratic individualism . . . boomerangs . . . [f]or if individuals are responsible for their own destinies [i.e., success], there is no one else to blame in case of failure." The corporate managers Newman interviewed were often unable to accept what had happened to them and begin new lives. They became mired in depression, self-recrimination, shame and isolation as family support dwindled, friends drifted away, and their former employers referred to them, in the past tense, as "dead wood."
In a pointed exception, gay corporate managers, according to Newman, were generally less depressed, more optimistic, and better able to move on with their lives. Part of the reason, she notes, is that they did not have to support a "nuclear family" (or lose that family’s support). She attributes much of their recovery to "very extensive friendship networks" that did not desert them after they lost their jobs, precisely because financial success was not the key to shared identity. One might also argue that, as gays, these men had already learned a great deal about the loss and recovery of identity and the difficulties but also the potential for growth in that experience.
The once well-paid professionals that Newman interviewed now held down such jobs as groundskeepers and janitors. Yet she found spirits high, self-recrimination absent, belief in the future intact. Somehow these men had taken "from this cataclysmic event a sense of purpose and meaning that has sustained them in the years thereafter." The air-traffic controllers have found a way to interpret their losses not as humiliating defeat, nor reason for self-blame, but as a reason to keep going. Appropriating the "peculiarly American ideal of misunderstood crusader," as Newman puts it, they have dedicated themselves to convincing the public and Congress of the rightness of their grievances (emphasizing air-traffic safety, not money) and the injustice of what was done to them. The air controllers’ hero, Newman was told, was no longer Reagan but Martin Luther King.
What makes the air-traffic controllers’ response to loss particularly instructive is how they found unity and purpose not in parochial complaints but in "identifying and elaborating existing readings of the wider culture" that allowed them to see their struggle in a self-respectful, self-affirming way. Surely there is a lesson here for our politics. In such rereadings of our national experience, we could find self-enhancing ways to translate our losses into new meanings, motivate ourselves, and indeed forge a new sense of identity through confrontation with, rather than flight from, our problems.
Newman’s study of factory workers in Elizabeth, New Jersey, might also constitute a basis for public discourse and deliberation about loss. Left without jobs when the Singer Sewing Machine Company shut its flagship plant there, workers told Newman a story of how their employers had abandoned them after years of ignoring the plant and ignoring workers’ suggestions on modernizing and on how to save their jobs. But it was how they told their story that gripped Newman. They consistently interpreted what had happened to them as a betrayal of traditional American values, such as craftsmanship and loyalty to workers.
Their reaction illuminates a way of seeing the current American political focus on traditional values not only as Americans’ way of talking about the suppressed subject of loss but even as a basis for a critique of current property relations, in which owners have no continuing responsibility to those they once employed, or of a country whose human resources are plundered and abandoned.
After describing the downward mobility of divorced women with children, Newman ends her book with a plea for attention to those highly skilled human beings who are "dumped on society’s junkheap" in a "monumental waste of intelligence, motivation and aspiration." She eloquently summarizes how brutal it is to be "evicted from the American dream," and how the cynicism with which losses are currently being inflicted on even the middle class is eating away at our commitments to each other and to our work.
As our losses accumulate, the entire nation will eventually have to confront them and decide what they represent. Decline? Defectiveness? Our failure as a people? Why not simply answer reality? -- a reality we can adjust to.
When our losses can no longer be avoided or denied, we will either grow more and more disappointed in ourselves as losers in life’s (and world) competition, or we will find a new way of seeing ourselves that allows us to be more compassionate with ourselves and more understanding of others. This is the challenge American politics now faces: to help Americans face loss and, in the process of recovering meaning and purpose for our collective lives, forge an identity more secure, more cooperative, more productive than the old one -- better even than being Number One.