Monthly Archives: May 2010

Robin Hood in the Greenzone

As of Friday, May 28th, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood had made almost 200 million dollars world wide, which seems like a whole lot of coin, but the earnings don’t yet equal what the film cost to make (estimates range from 155 to 237 million).  At the same time Robin Hood has been roundly trounced by most professional film reviewers.  Entertainment Weekly, which I find to be surprisingly trustworthy, gave the film a C-, and A.O. Scott at The New York Times pronounced the film drearily un-merry.

The film opens with a gnarly battle scene, in which Russell Crowe plays a low-ranked soldier, Robin Longstride, in the post-Crusade army of King Richard the Lionheart.  The English are attacking a French castle, igniting giant sacks of oil to set fire to the castle doors.  In return, the attackers get boiling oil poured down on them through slats in the castle towers.  During this battle Richard the Lionheart is mortally wounded.

The film then veers back and forth between palace intrigue, in which Richard’s little brother, John (who is petty, greedy and vindictive), succeeds his older brother as king, and the story of Robin Longstride, who sets out for Loxley, England, on a quest to return the sword of a slain knight.  In a series of unlikely, yet compelling events, Robin Longstride poses as the slain knight Robert Loxley and pretends to be married to (old) Maid Marion, who is played with considerable verve by Cate Blanchett.  In Loxley, Robin discovers that his own dead father was a talented stone mason who was executed for standing up for the rights of the people of England.  Robin takes on his father’s cause and helps the people of Loxley outwit the government’s marauding tax collectors who are plundering what they cannot legally collect to fill the coffers of King John.

The film is meant to explain the origins of Robin Hood:  where did he come from, and why did he assemble a team of merry men to rob noblemen traveling through the forest in order to distribute their wealth to the less fortunate?  In Ridley’s tale, Robin’s origins are decidedly working class.  He is the son of a stone mason and is poorly paid as a member of the King’s army.  He is class conscious, too, as when he explains to his buddies why they must leave the army after the King’s death:  “If you thought it was hard getting wages from him when he was alive, try getting wages from a dead king.”  Cate Blanchett points out that Robin Hood reflects Ridley’s own working-class background:  “He’s a working-class guy from the North, so he’s always had a healthy disrespect for authority, and he feeds that into this.”

On the other hand, if we are watching Robin Hood from an American perspective, where Presidential authority is embodied by an African-American Democrat, anti-authoritarianism can sound downright conservative.  As A.O. Scott and other reviewers have noted, there is a whiff of Tea Party populism in Robin’s rhetoric.  He crusades against the increased taxes of King John, and he also defends the right to bear arms: “If it’s illegal for a man to fend for himself, how can he be a man of his own right?”  But Robin Hood’s more general cause is that of good old fashioned Libertas: “In tyranny lies only failure. Empower every man and you will gain strength.”

Perhaps the most interesting choice Ridley made was to insert Robin Hood’s origins into the political intrigue of Medieval England.  Richard the Lionheart really did lead crusades in the Holy Land in the late 1100s; as part of this crusade he bore responsibility for an atrocious massacre of Muslims at Acre (pronounced Ak-ko, a beautiful city still standing on what today is Israel’s Mediterranean coast).  His successor, King John, was a petty, tyrannical King, nicknamed “softsword” because of his general lack of prowess in battle.  According to one source, his government’s policies “irrevocably estranged the lower classes.”

And thus the real message of this century’s Robin Hood may have as much to do with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as is does with anti-tax populism or economic redistribution.  The screenplay was written by Brian Helgeland, who also wrote last year’s fast paced anti-war thriller, Greenzone.  This might explain why Robin, in response to a question from King Richard the Lionhart about the righteousness of the Crusades, recounts with considerably sadness how he felt as he looked into the imploring eyes of a Muslim woman before she was killed.

The myth of Robin Hood is one of the most indelible myths in Anglophone culture; ballads that first referenced the famed bandit appeared in Medieval England as early as 1429.  Perhaps Ridley’s film is evidence that Robin Hood is one of the most plastic myths as well.  In one film, Ridley has yoked the Robin Hood legend to a muddled blend of populism, socialism, peace activism, and strident feminism.  Early in the story, for example, Marion tells Robin: “I sleep with a dagger. If you so move to touch me, I will sever your manhood.”  Later she kicks some serious butt on the battlefield.

If Ridley’s version of the story is a bit dreary at times, and outrageously ahistorical at others, I’m OK with that.  Our own moment is a bit dreary as well.  We’re fighting two wars, struggling with how to restore dignity to labor, and fighting against a right-wing populism that is wrongly directed at the dwindling rights of those who have the least.  When Robin Hood tells the people of England to “Rise and Rise Again until the Lambs Become Lions,” I hear strains of that old Civil Rights hymn, “We Shall Overcome.”  And I hope, fervently, that we will.

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.  She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.

“Greening Up” Urban Communities and Displacing the Poor

The drive up South Halsted Street to the campus of my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago, reveals how much this section of the Near West side of Chicago has changed in the last 10 years.  Once a blighted area of vacant storefronts, ramshackle houses, and trash-strewn lots, the area now called University Village is, today, an upper-middle income neighborhood of luxury condos, $700,000 townhomes, lush lawns, trees, and upscale retail shops.  The neighborhood offers a ten minute drive to downtown Chicago and the Museum Campus, a bike trail, a huge medical district to its south, and easy access to expressways, public transportation, and UIC’s outdoor running track. It took a while but, beginning with the razing of several dilapidated and “notorious” housing projects nearby, the neighborhood has been redeveloped into a cleaner, “greener,” safer community.   The question is, for whom?

Do all groups benefit equally from the “greening up” of urban communities?  What has “greening up” meant for the urban poor and low-income groups in University Village, and in urban communities in other cities? And how might answers to these questions serve to inform the planning and re-development of urban communities in the future?

  • Research finds that lower-income groups are often forced out of a community when higher-income groups move in. When this happens, ”gentrification with displacement” is said to occur.  Property values often increase in gentrified communities, but so do taxes and other expenses.  In what became University Village, many poor and working class residents moved out of the area because they could not afford the increased rent, property taxes, assessment fees, and othercosts.
  • Partly because of the correlation between income, race-ethnicity, and residential patterns, many of the people moving out of gentrified communities in inner-cities are African American or Latino. Confronted with a shortage of affordable housing in the city, minorities and low-income groups may move to areas outside the city, where housing is cheaper. The Brookings Institute reports, in fact, that a majority of all racial and ethnic groups in large metropolitan areas now live in suburbs, and the number of poor people living in suburbs is increasing five times as fast as the number of poor people living in cities.
  • In Chicago, some suburban communities are experiencing problems traditionally associated with inner-city communities (e.g. housing shortages, concentrated poverty, and drugs).  Thus, another potential adverse side-effect of “greening” may be the displacement of urban problems to other communities rather than the resolution of such problems.  If the ultimate goal of “greening up” communities is to improve the quality of life for everyone, including those of future generations, then simply transferring problems elsewhere defeats the purpose of “greening” in the first place, doesn’t it?  And how does transferring poor folk and problems that disproportionately affect them (such as a diminished ability to control where they live) advance “environmental justice?”  It doesn’t.

No one group should have to shoulder more environmental burdens (such as  pollution) than any other group). Group disparity in exposure to environmental hazards is one factor that led to the development of the environmental justice movement.  Most of the 450,000 abandoned waste sites (brownfields) in America are located in or near low- income, working-class, and minority communities.  The poorest of the poor often live within one mile of a brownfield. Most African Americans (71%) live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards. Asthma attacks send African Americans to the emergency room three times as often as whites, and that blacks die twice as often from asthma as do whites.

To work against the potential adverse effects of “greening- up” urban communities, we need to avoid simple, quick, short-term solutions.  Research suggests that urban renewal programs that focus on a single factor (such as tearing down or refurbishing dilapidated housing) simply do not work.  Providing affordable housing does not help much if people lack the income and the education or training that would allow them to maintain a dwelling.  Thus, we must not only increase the availability of affordable housing but also create more jobs at a livable wage, increase access to health care, and fund job training and education at higher levels.  Improving the quality of life for lower-income families is a monumental task, but a more comprehensive approach can ensure that all groups live healthier, longer, and more productive lives.   And it is this promise that gives some sweetness to what might otherwise be an entirely bitter visit to University Village.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies

Tea-partying while White

At a recent extended family gathering a relative of mine asked me, “So what do you think of your President now?”  I indicated my firm support, briefly explaining why I thought health care reform was really important and good, and then asked for her opinion.  “I don’t know enough [about policies] to say, but he just scares me.”  I asked why, expecting something about the deficit or “big government,” but she said, “I don’t know why.  He just scares me.”  I tried to probe for specific reasons, but she reported that she wasn’t sure and didn’t “want to talk politics.”

I teach my students in undergraduate critical-thinking courses that it is not legitimate to attribute negative motives to people unless you can credibly explain how these motives are related to what the person actually says.  This is a particularly important principle, I say, if you disagree with someone – and even more important if you strongly disagree.  By that standard, it would be wrong to charge Helen with “racial prejudice,” let alone “racism,” but in the absence of specific reasons to be scared of Barack Obama, it’s also hard to imagine that her fear does not have something to do with his being a black man.

Helen (not her real name) is a white senior-citizen widow living almost entirely on Social Security in a modest one-story house that she owns outright.  She never attended college and worked as a clerical worker after she helped raise her three children as a stay-at-home mom.  Her husband, who also had no college, was a front-line supervisor in a steel mill now long gone.  Later in another fleeting conversation she expressed interest in and sympathy for the Tea Party.

I’ve known Helen most of my life, and I have never heard her use explicitly racist language or express anything but a kind of paternalistic sympathy for the plight of African Americans, with whom she has had almost no experience.  There are many nonracial reasons why she would not and did not vote for President Obama.  She is a life-long Republican, a small-town Protestant, and in her early ‘70s, somebody who is rooted in a more traditional set of gender roles and family arrangements that Democrats seem dismissive of.  But she also lives in an atmosphere that is common among the white working class as I’ve experienced it – an atmosphere infused with a free-floating anxiety that any gains for black people will come at some loss to white folks like her.

This atmosphere is not specific to working-class whites, but my guess is the anxiety is more intense for the working class than among more securely affluent whites.  It is this anxious atmosphere of a racial zero-sum game that I suspect informs many of the “supporters” and “sympathizers” of the Tea Party movement, not the boldly explicit racism of the 10% who have told pollsters that “racial prejudice against Barack Obama” is one reason for their support of the movement.

Of course, the class position of the Tea Partiers isn’t clear.  Recent polling has revealed somewhat contradictory notions of who they are, with a Gallup Poll finding, “Tea Partiers Are Fairly Mainstream in Their Demographics,” while a New York Times/CBS News poll proclaims, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated.” Both headlines, it turns out, are both true and deceptive.  Both polls show that Tea Partiers on average are whiter, older, and have higher incomes and higher levels of education than the population as a whole, though by somewhat different degrees.

The most widely used demographic class marker for electoral politics is whether a person has a bachelor’s degree – if they do, they’re counted as “middle class,” if not, then “working class.”  By this marker, self-identified Tea Party “supporters” are substantially working class, 68% for Gallup and 62% for the Times.  This is less than for the population as a whole (which is 70% for persons 25 years or older), but still “fairly mainstream.”  Thus, Tea Party supporters are disproportionately middle class, but the majority is working class just like the population as a whole.

Neither white racism nor racial zero-sum anxiety is class exclusive.  The real tragedy  is that many working-class whites like Helen do not have a clear sense of the actual policy alternatives provided by the Democrats and Republicans.  Part of the reason is that our public discussion is allergic to principled debate about public policy.  Not that it never occurs, but most often it is framed by politicians’ caricatures of each other’s policies.  Meanwhile, political reporters use their expertise not to explain the different policies and who might benefit or be harmed by them but rather to explain the different political tactics behind the caricatures.  In the absence of clear reporting about policies as if they might actually matter to real people, Helen can be satisfied to “not know enough” while forming opinions based on vague anxieties related to appearances and antique loyalties.

According to these polls, Tea Party self-identifiers (the vast majority of whom are not active participants in movement activities) are a demographically diverse group of mostly conservatives and Republicans.  At somewhere around 20% of the adult population, they are a decided minority of all voters, of all white voters, and of all working-class whites.  It is also worth noting that in all national polls, the attitudes and views of Southern whites disproportionately affect the national numbers.  In the 2008 Presidential election, for example, only 43% of whites voted for Obama across the nation, but 52% did so in the Northeastern states, 49% in the Western states, and 47% in the Midwest.  The national number is so much lower because only 30% of whites in the South voted for the man who scares Helen.

Jack Metzgar

Fighting for More Than the Past

Between September 2007 and April 2009, while Youngstown’s Kelly Pavlik reigned as the world middleweight boxing champion, journalists consistently presented him not only as being from Youngstown, but as reflecting its essence. Obviously, representing a diverse, multi-racial city through a white working-class male boxer excludes many of those who call Youngstown home. At the same time, these representations reveal not only a continuing media fascination with Youngstown but also troubling ideas about what it means to be working class today.

It’s not unusual for sports writers to attach a single narrative to a boxer.  Thirty years ago, they defined former world champion and Youngstown native Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini through the story of his effort to win a belt for his father, Lenny, who had failed to get a title shot after returning from World War II. As Pavlik rose through the ranks, the media latched onto a traditional rags to riches narrative. This story- not one of his own choosing- defined him as a fighter restoring pride in his ‘down and out’ hometown. Yet even as he’s been cast as representing a comeback for the city, Pavlik has been hailed as a ‘throwback,’ a nostalgic symbol of a previous order, where working-class men, not just fighters, were straightforward, uncomplicated, and tough. Much has been made of his ‘old-school’ training methods: swinging a sledgehammer and flipping truck tires. For the boxing press and for many in Youngstown, Pavlik spoke to the idea of an ‘authentic’ working class that reflected a ‘real America.’

Similarly, the fact that he was the son of a former steelworker, trained by a driveway sealer in an old pizza-parlor on Youngstown’s Southside made his a story about a ‘blue-collar’ guy from a ‘blue-collar place.’  Sportwriters often reserve the term ‘blue-collar” for white fighters in the United States. Prior to his world title victory over Jermain Taylor, Pavlik’s promoter Bob Arum described him as the ‘ultimate blue-collar warrior.’ Similarly, the local newspaper, the Vindicator declared that ‘Pavlik followers have blue-collar fever.’

Of course, Youngstown has long been identified as firmly blue-collar. Writing in Sports Illustrated in 2008, Richard Hoffer described how Youngstown, and industrial America, used to be:

It’s hard to picture the bustle now, but Wilson Avenue…was a row of rowdiness, bar upon bar, open for all but two hours each day, to better service three shifts of thirst. Imagine the scene: Workers from U.S. Steel, Republic, National, Inland disgorged at once, a camaraderie enforced by prosperity…Everybody made a great wage, right out of high school, and nobody’s mother or wife ever had to work. That’s gone of course, not coming back. The postapocalyptic feel — the ruins remain untouched.

As John Russo has argued here, sports are one of the few fields in which blue-collar values and identifications are positively valued. Carlo Rotella, Professor of English at Boston College, has argued that boxing in particular is intimately associated with industrial labor through its emphasis on working with the hands. We see this in representations of Pavlik that draw on Youngstown’s working-class culture and history. Such associations are especially important as blue-collar places and people are being reshaped by the effects of de-industrialization.

Many older Youngstown residents see the city moving away from its blue-collar roots. Mike Pavlik Sr., Kelly’s father, who worked for 19 years at Republic Steel, commented that Youngstown is “a blue-collar town, it’ll always be a blue-collar town, you know, it’ll never be a white-collar town, until all the baby-boomers are gone and then it might turn over to a white-collar town.”

Following a period of inactivity, fights against what were regarded as ‘lesser’ boxers, and a recent defeat, Pavlik’s stock has fallen both locally and nationally. In the wake of this, the tendency to present blue-collar places as outdated has revealed itself more clearly. Media coverage of places such as Youngstown often contrast romanticized and simplified ideas of the ‘past’ with a present in which such cities are portrayed as relics of a bygone era. During 2009, following Pavlik’s withdrawal from a potential fight with Paul Williams due to a serious staph infection, rumors escalated regarding his lifestyle. Within these stories, Youngstown– previously held up as the source of Pavlik’s strength, determination and resilience — was now seen as the problem. In a February 2009 article on the website Boxing Insider asked, ‘Will the poverty-stricken city of Youngstown end up being not only his ultimate inspiration but also, tragically, his inevitable downfall?’

On April 17th in Atlantic City, Pavlik lost his world titles to the Argentinian southpaw Sergio Martinez in a twelve-round decision. Where Pavlik had previously been glorified as a ‘throwback’ due to his come-forward fighting style and his sheer determination and aggression, his style was now described as outmoded.  Pavlik, some suggested, lacked the skills to effectively compete in boxing’s new economy, represented by Martinez, the slick, skilled, ring-technician. David Greisman, writing for Boxing Scene, explained Pavlik’s defeat this way:

Kelly Pavlik, child of the steel city of Youngstown, Ohio, is blue-collar, workmanlike, punching in and punching out, a man with sledgehammers in his hands. Sergio Martinez, product of the Latin America country of Argentina, is machismo in motion, fluid on his feet, confident in conquest, a swashbuckling swordsman whose fists become blades.

Power against speed.

Will against skill.

Pavlik was bigger and stronger. Martinez was smaller but sharper. He cut Pavlik, and then he cut him down to size’

For others, the defeat was evidence that Pavlik must change. Writing for The Sweet Science, Springs Toledo declared that both Pavlik and Youngstown suffered from a failure to ‘diversify.’ He stated that while the ‘laborer’ and his ‘blunt instruments’ had initially been enough to bring Pavlik success now, ‘Pavlik has gone as far as he can go without making fundamental adjustments to his machinery.’ Instead, he must ‘realign his equipment to meet styles more sophisticated than simple punchers and over-eager athletes’, in much the same way that Youngstown too must adapt; ‘new initiatives are developing technology-based companies with some success. Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik wants to become a part of the renewal plan.’

Stories about Youngstown and Kelly Pavlik reveal the extent to which working-class bodies and places are seen as outmoded and outdated. In her study of the closure of the auto industry in Kenosha, Wisconsin, The End of the Line, Kathryn Dudley notes that the loss of industry marked a shift from the ‘culture of the hands’ to the ‘culture of the mind.’ Within this new order, white collar values and education are now prized at the expense of physical strength and toughness. The value shift was written on the landscape of cities such as Youngstown as abandoned factories were torn down or refurbished as offices or museums.  And it’s reinforced by the emphasis on universities, like Youngstown State, as the keys to revitalizing deindustrialized cities and on higher education as ensuring a better economic future for both the community and its residents.

All of this highlights a growing ambivalence about what it means to be working class.  Like the working class itself, the boxer and his city are romanticized through the lens of the past and marginalized in the present. While recognized for their past prosperity and accomplishments, they are increasingly presented as peripheral, occupying a position on the margins of national culture, unable or often unwilling to adapt to the demands of the new, ‘post-industrial’ economy.

But both Pavlik and Youngstown, like the working class itself, exist in the present.  They are not simply relics from a previous time. They are individuals and communities that continue to fight for a more prominent position in America’s economy and its imagination. Kelly Pavlik’s story is not just local, nor is the story of Youngstown itself.  They are stories about America today.

James Rhodes

James Rhodes is a Simon Research Fellow and sociologist from the University of Manchester.  He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies.