Photo: Jobs fair in Dallas, Texas.

Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

Rash Report: Political and pop cultures ignore jobless

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • September 2, 2011 - 7:23 PM

The kickoff of Labor Day weekend was a kick in the teeth to U.S. workers after the Labor Department reported Friday that no new jobs were created in August, and that the stark, stubborn stat that matters most -- the total who are un- or underemployed -- rose to 16.2 percent.

So this week, finally, a great debate erupted over how to address the jobs crisis. Unfortunately, it was about an actual address -- when President Obama could clock in to present his jobs plan to the nation.

As usual when he faces Republican representatives, Obama lost, retreating from his request to talk to Congress on Wednesday after House Speaker John Boehner called his bluff.

And as usual, media matters drove the debate.

Had Obama addressed the nation on Wednesday, he could have drowned out the critical cacophony coming from that night's GOP candidate debate. Now he'll have to hustle to avoid being sacked by Thursday's NFL season kickoff.

Forgotten in all of the noise were the anonymous jobless, and that's typical. Seemingly ignored by our political leaders, they are also missing from pop culture today.

Politically, America is a country cleaved into interest groups of ever-smaller sizes. So the unemployed could actually be a considerable constituency. But because both blue- and white-collar workers have been pink-slipped, and there are fewer union members overall, the cohort's hard to organize.

Of course the worries about unemployment go beyond the jobless.

A survey of six polls taken this year -- one each from Fox News and CNN, and two each from Bloomberg and CBS/New York Times -- shows that on average the economy and jobs are the top concern of 48.5 percent of Americans, while the deficit and debt were the top concerns of 16.3 percent.

And yet the debt debate dominates, partly because "the debt-ceiling debate was the opportunity for all Republican legislators, but particularly the energized freshmen, to make budget cuts happen," said Kathryn Pearson, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

"It's not as if they are ignoring this [jobs] issue, but it's a question of if they are willing to compromise to actually get something done."

Hollywood hasn't worked overtime to focus on the jobless, either.

During previous hard times, hard looks at those who were struggling were the norm. But instead of sorrowful workers in "The Grapes of Wrath" or "Norma Rae," we see a soulless corporate downsizer in "Up in the Air," the one great film from the Great Recession.

This week's top film, and bestseller, focuses on race relations in 1960s Mississippi. But even "The Help" has a strong subtheme of the role that jobs play in people's lives -- just as there is in "Mad Men" and the two new fall TV shows that will try to channel it, "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club."

All four take place, and have the sensibility of, midcentury-modern America. Each are unlike postmodern portrayals like "The Office," which riffs on the inanity of cubicle culture.

And instead of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen-like troubadours singing about troubled times, last Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards' cultural touchstone was Britney Spears receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.

"The drive for entertainment or distraction is simply enormous, and maybe it has to do with the difficulty of life in 2011," said Philip Levine, who was named U.S. poet laureate last month. "Pushing things out of our potential awareness -- it seems to me that's something that popular art does too often: tickle us."

The jobless aren't laughing.

And neither is Levine, who knows a lot about culture -- and how work culture influences it -- as a former Detroit autoworker. His experience suggests unusual insight into how essential a job is to a person's identity, and even how chronic joblessness may impact the nation's artistic expression.

Being an auto worker "influenced my whole life and, of course, if it influenced your whole life it's going to influence your writing, or your painting, or even your dancing," he said. "I took a vow I would put into poetry a world that hadn't been put there yet."

In their headlong rush for headlines, it's doubtful Obama, Boehner and the GOP presidential candidates will hear, or heed, a poet.

But hopefully they'll listen to today's autoworkers, and others without work, and try to help them.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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