Blogger Kathleen Geier observes:
"We are now several years into what has been one of the deepest, most sustained, and catastrophic economic downturns in U.S. history. One notable feature of this downturn is how relatively infrequently our current hard times are finding representation in popular culture. ... Even amongst the abundance of fluff and escapist fair that Hollywood produced in the 1930s, filmmakers then frequently and directly acknowledged the role of the Great Depression on people's lives, in a way that films and television don't often do today."
Geier seems to me exactly correct. The logical follow-up question: Why? How can such an overwhelming experience go so unnoted?
I'd suggest two answers.
Unlike in the Depression, we're not "all in this together." The United States of the 2010s is a much more stratified society than the United States of the 1930s. The media executives who oversee our popular culture lead lives far removed from those of less-advantaged Americans. They sell into a market more internally segmented and subdivided than the market of the 1930s.
And also unlike the Depression, we cannot agree on what has happened to us. The U.S. is polarized, as well as stratified, and even the most basic facts become ideologically charged. The political right and the political left each have their own histories of the Great Recession, with almost no points in common. And you'll tell a very different story about the recession if you blame it on President Obama than if you blame it on reckless banking.
Yet the economic disaster around us is too big a story to go untold -- or to be left only to the news columns and the op-ed pages.
That was my thought, anyway, a year and a half ago, when I set out to do what Geier laments has gone undone.
In my day job as a political pundit, I talk a lot about the dysfunction of the American political system. That dysfunction is not a new fact, but it has taken on new importance in these hard economic times.
So I took on a second challenge: to write a story in which the recession appears just as it does in the lives of so many Americans, an unremitting reality.
"Patriots" is a comic novel, a satire about Washington and Washington politics. It tells the story of an aimless young man, dropped into Washington because he has failed at everything else, who finds himself in the middle of the political machinations that render the U.S. government so useless to its people.
In the story, a new president is about to take office. He's got big plans to turn things around. But his plans threaten the power and position of important people, and they set out to destroy him. My aimless young man accidentally becomes a central figure in the plot -- and he must make some big decisions about what side to take.
Political ambition pushes him one way. A nameless feeling of ... something else ... pushes him the other.
What I wanted to show and explain was why your government has gone AWOL at exactly the moment when decisive action was most needed.
I wanted to show and explain how wealth buys powers in Washington and how power is used to gain wealth.
I wanted to show and explain that, despite all the reasons for cynicism, the right person can make a difference for the better.
Did I succeed? I await Geier's verdict -- and yours.
Here's an excerpt from David Frum's "Patriots":
We had an event to get to: a 6 o'clock reception hosted by regional electrical power distributors for the New York-New England congressional delegation.
It took only a few minutes to reach the venue: Capitol Hill's favorite restaurant, John Henry's Steakhouse. The name was kind of a joke. John Henry's occupied the ground floor of a marble-faced building erected in the late 1970s as the headquarters of a union, the International Brotherhood of Railway Workers. Dwindling numbers had long ago forced the union, like most unions, to abandon its palatial former headquarters. The only reminder of the building's original purpose were the carved scenes in the building's lobby of muscular men working on the railroad.
The restaurant name spoofed the old railwaymen. But the interior of John Henry's owed nothing to the age of steam. It was all aquamarine glass, shiny chrome, and butterscotch leather -- very different from Washington's usual drab style.
As soon as we entered, Senator Hazen was greeted by a pleasant-faced middle-aged woman in a functional office hairdo and bright red suit jacket. "Senator Hazen! So delighted you could join us!" She hurried the senator deeper into the room.
I was distracted by a waiter carrying a tray of lamb chops. Soon followed another tray: miniature crab cakes. Senator Hazen did not like me to drink on the job, but he surely would not wish me to go hungry.
Grilled vegetables on skewers with goat cheese! I love goat cheese.
Duck spring rolls!