The Camden chapter is particularly galling. The authors take pains to emphasize the post-industrial gloom of the city, which is across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. (Compared to Camden, West Baltimore looks like West Egg.) Yet the portrait feels insufficiently complex. Hedges and Sacco casually dismiss generations’ worth of minority civic activism with a flippant line about “compliant black elites whose loyalty rarely extended beyond their own corrupt inner circle”; they assert that, in Camden, “the world is divided between the prey and the predators,” thus reducing urban poverty to an Animal Planet documentary. They refuse to grant Camdenites any sort of agency, and it just rings false.
In 2010, a young urban planner named Gayle Christiansen chronicled several efforts at urban renewal in Camden, reporting on entrepreneurs and small-business owners who were attempting to revitalize their neighborhoods, one shoe shop and construction company at a time. These efforts—which ultimately may not succeed—are as telling as Days’s compendium of the city’s unalloyed woes. It’s not that Hedges and Sacco should balance every grim story with a hopeful one. But misery and hope coexist, and occasionally intersect. Camden is a third-world setting, but it is filled with people acting on first-world ambitions, and this is as much a part of Camden’s story as the crack houses and hookers.
Throughout the book, you get the sense that Hedges and Sacco looked just hard enough to find the evidence to support their thesis. And, yes, the book is a polemic, meant to decry unjust policies and processes and galvanize public protest against them. But it uses people to make its points, and there’s something off-putting about oversimplifying real lives to support what is ultimately a political argument. When writing about people who are so far out of society’s mainstream—people who are reduced and stereotyped by everyone they meet—there is a moral obligation to write about the person, not just his or her circumstances. I wonder how many of Hedges and Sacco’s subjects would recognize themselves in Days?
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In a book ostensibly about people who live on the margins, the person we hear the most from is Princeton resident Chris Hedges. I respect that, to a point. Every story reflects its teller, and Hedges is open about his allegiances. But he is injudicious, and the excesses ultimately sink this well-meaning, well-reported book. He is there, for instance, to underscore a section about Native-American poverty with a clumsy “The tyranny we imposed on others is now being imposed on us”; he is there in the coal-darkened West Virginia hinterlands, a landscape where misery can speak for itself, asserting that “those who carry out this pillage probably believe they can outrun their own destructiveness. They think that their wealth, privilege, and gated communities will save them.” It is as if he didn’t trust that we’d get his point, so he pounds it home, page after page after page, with a constant, You have nothing to lose but your chaaiiins!
It’s exhausting, and I say this as a pro-labor zealot who agrees that corporate excess has crippled the working class. American society has failed in spectacular fashion, and it’s good that journalists are venturing out to record the wreckage. But the best work Hedges did for the Times in, say, Bosnia, proved that when the evidence of tragedy is so obvious and overwhelming, a good reporter need only describe it and let the facts speak for themselves.
One can’t help comparing the book to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Walker Evans-James Agee collaboration that profiled three southern sharecropper families at the tail end of the Great Depression; its subjects demand your empathy, but never your pity. Or, more recently, to 2011’s Someplace Like America, in which photographer Michael Williamson and journalist Dale Maharidge chronicled their own cross-country poverty tour. In that book’s introduction, Maharidge reflects on the surprising tenacity and resilience he saw in the eyes of American’s junkies, squatters, laborers, and dreamers. They have been battered, but they are not beaten. “You cannot defeat people with eyes like these,” he writes.
But throughout Days, in the oral histories and the illustrations, the subjects’ eyes are downcast or vacant, as if awaiting either a savior or the guillotine, whichever comes quicker. (The only smiles and exuberance come in Sacco’s sketches that accompany the final chapter, a segment on Occupy Wall Street in which the protests are compared to the actions that toppled Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the Berlin Wall.) Hedges and Sacco looked America in the eye, and maybe this is what they saw. But it doesn’t feel like the whole picture.