The George Collins Book Club
When you’re so desperate for book recommendations that you turn to a bald twenty-something burnout for help. Gods above help you.
Linh Dinh – Postcards From The End of America
“Stories make a place. Without stories, there is no place, but without place, there can still be stories. If your stories are not organically grown, but imposed on you by those who hate everything about you, then you’re virtually dead.”
When you think of persuasion, what mechanisms come to mind? In the heat of a family conversation or a drawn-out Twitter exchange, many people will think of news and numbers as the silver bullets in their six shooters. If you’ve got hard data from the tallest ivory tower in the land, it’s game set and match, right? Not a bad mentality necessarily, as statistics play a crucial role in contextualizing the magnitude of problems or creating helpful visuals. But for many ordinary people these presentations are too robotic. They lack any sense of rhetoric or appeal to the human side of life.
Now there’s an intriguing word: rhetoric. The means and methods of persuasion. We on the left often dismiss rhetoric as being synonymous with lying or deception, but we forget that it was taught as a staple of university English and philosophy courses as recently as two decades ago. In our obsession with number crunching and academic credentials, we’ve forgotten how to communicate truths in a way that resonates with Joe Somebody down the road, and we’ve ceded the emotional appeal territory to right-wing nationalist movements who yank the chains of an angry and desperate proletariat. As media historian Stuart Ewen says, people are emotional, people are rational. Those aren’t paradoxical traits of who we are; they’re who we are. Numbers may carry truth, but we’ve been pushing the climate change numbers for decades and still face pushback from citizens on whether or not the phenomenon is real.
What’s missing are the core of any person’s experience: stories. Like the insulin that opens cells to absorb glucose, stories are what connect the indecipherable numbers to the relevance of everyday life. Entire societies functioned on oral tradition all the way up to contact with European colonizers. Few things could achieve that central status in a tribe, kingdom, or nation, and it can’t be denied that stories still function as a keystone of our cultures through books, films, music, folktales, and so many other mediums.
Stories also serve an overlooked purpose in the political sphere. 2018 Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed stated it well when he said in an interview with The Real News Network that stories of ordinary families suffering the damages of climate change could drive environmental activism at the local level. “Go back 50,000 years,” he says, “you can talk about why a mother tells her kid not to go to the river. She doesn’t say ‘fifteen out of every hundred people who visit the river are liable to drown;’ instead she says ‘let me tell you about the other boy who drowned.’” Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were dismissed by large swathes of the American electorate as factoids plugged into climate lobby server rooms, and it contributed to their losses in their respective presidential campaigns. People talk shit about “Ivory Tower Professors” who indoctrinate their students with lefty bullshit disconnected from reality because these institutions are perceived to be soulless halls of arbitrary knowledge instead of rich academies of learning about the human experience.
I kept these ideas of the importance of stories on the brain as I proceeded through author and poet Linh Dinh’s Postcards From The End of America. Beginning as a reader-funded blog that still updates in 2019, the book compiles five years of Dinh’s travels throughout the United States to visit the people ravaged by the rise of globalized corporate capitalism. Settings include a town massacred by fracking in Pennsylvania where the total population now numbers six people, the decaying bones of Levvitwon, New York where the original suburb was conceived, a reservation town in Montana with a high indigenous population where the people are succumbing to ennui, and a tour of the growing homeless problem in Portland, the whitest city in America. Dinh finds most of his subjects at the local watering hole, as he says these are the best places to snag friendly banter with ordinary folks. Step off the train, glide into the dive, grab a barstool, and meet the newest signing to the Postcards roster: that’s how these chapters go.
Despair rides the frequency of almost all of these people’s lives whether it be in the concrete jungles of Manhattan or the remains of an old resort town in California. These impoverished workers were raking in the dough as industrial workers, farmers, and factory managers. Now they trudge to work each day with bad knees and a growing list of medical problems to earn a slave wage that covers all the bills if luck is in their corner that month. Accompanying the written word are a series of photographs of the people Dinh meets. The diversity is stunning and throws a right hook at the narrative that the rural United States is whiter than mayonnaise on snow.
It may sound like a bleak book, and, well, it is. Reading about a woman being laughed at as she dumpster dives outside a Detroit Greyhound station ain’t the kind of smut you use to get your girl squirting in bed. But our current media climate seems hellbent on painting people driven to right-wing extremism out of desperation and third world-level conditions as irredeemable racists and hicks who eat their own shit. These kinds of accounts are refreshing and crucial to stopping that erasure. That alone makes Postcards required reading for every politician or snot-nosed keyboard warrior typing “Learn to Code” at every underclass family stuck in a Rust Belt sinkhole.
Speaking to journalist Chris Hedges about the book, Dinh issues a bold statement based on his travels: “Multiculturalism is over.” Not in the sense that whites will hoard themselves away in Aryan Nations-style enclaves, as they can’t afford to do that as they still need to ride the bus to and from work with everyone else. Instead, each community will accept a certain ratio of people, but their lives are already so tumultuous that they can’t tolerate any more radical changes. It explains why migrant Latino and Asian workers experience animosity even in areas where their labor is crucial. Different people moving in and out of town can be an unsettling prospect when the world around you is changing and leaving you in the dust. Herein lies the appeal of a Donald Trump: what we have now isn’t working even though we’re constantly being told to change by people who never even visit our towns. Something’s got to give.
It may be a somber prediction, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in Dinh’s assessment. The power of community is evident throughout the book, and many of the people Dinh speaks to show strong bonds with their fellow humans in several ways. Maybe it’s their continued dedication to the place they know or their devotion to their neighbors. The people of Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania may not have much, but Mark and Andrea Lane still run the town’s food bank in honor of their deceased daughter who was murdered by her asshole boyfriend, and nobody needs to prove their need to walk away with a loaf of bread. That’s a bigger heart than you see on most federal aid agencies these days. These communities may become more of an esoteric circle not welcome to outsiders, but community is itself an act of resistance in a culture driven by vapid self-interest and radical individualism. From that angle, these people gouged by capitalisms jaws are resisting in the best way they can: by holding onto each other.
Postcards From The End of America is not a feel-good story; it’s a brutal and honest assessment of where the United States sits, but it’s necessary reading to understand the plight of the underclass and the pressures that drive them to want to torch the system at the ballot box. Few have been able to capture this reality better than Dinh, and if we hope to ensure that right-wing nationalism never rises again, we must once again believe in the power of stories.
Find Dinh’s blog here: http://linhdinhphotos.blogspot.com/