As a result, the book’s human portraits too often seem less important than the political frame in which they hang. The problem, I think, is that Hedges and Sacco set out not to document the state of a gut-shot nation, but to demonstrate that corporate greed is the finger on the trigger. To that end, and to its ultimate demerit, the book consistently reduces its subjects to the sum of their miseries, and excludes anything that would hint at a diversity of experience. Hedges and Sacco talk to all the prostitutes and drug casualties they can find, but to few people who might complicate the pictures of these communities and the economic forces that made them the way they are. In their haste to name villains and victims, they neglect the nuance of reality.
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?
To see a larger version of this image, click here.
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!