PETER SCHRAG, "THE FORGOTTEN AMERICAN," HARPERíS, AUGUST 1969

There is hardly a language to describe him, or even a set of social statistics. Just names: racist-bigot-redneck-ethnic-Irish-Italian-Pole-Hunkie-Yahoo. The lower middle class. A blank. The man under whose hat lies the great American desert. Who watches the tube, plays the horses, and keeps the niggers out of his union and his neighborhood. Who might vote for Wallace (but didnít). Who cheers when the cops beat up on demonstrators. Who is free, white, and twenty-one, has a job, a home, a family, and is up to his eyeballs in credit. In the guise of the working class - or the American yeoman or John Smith - he was once the hero of the civics books, the man Andrew Jackson called "the bone and sinew of the country." Now he is the "forgotten man," perhaps the most alienated person in America. . . .

He does all the right things, obeys the law, goes to church and insists - usually - that his kids get a better education than he had. But the right things donít seem to be paying off. While he is making more than he ever made - perhaps more than heíd ever dreamed - heís still struggling while a lot of others - "them" (on welfare, in demonstrations, in the ghettos) are getting most of the attention. "Iím working my ass off," a guy tells you on a stoop in South Boston. "My kids donít have a place to swim, my parks are full of glass, and Iím supposed to bleed for a bunch of people on relief." . . .

All of these things are side manifestations of a malaise that lacks a language. Whatever law and order means, for example, to a man who feels his wife is unsafe on the street after dark or in the park at any time, or whose kids get shaken down in the school yard, it also means something like normality - the demand that everybody play it by the book, that cultural and social standards be returned to their civics-book simplicity, that things shouldnít be as they are but as they were supposed to be. If there is a revolution in this country - a revolt in manners, in standards of dress and obscenity, and, more importantly, in our official sense of what America is - there is also a counter-revolt. Sometimes it is inarticulate, and sometimes (perhaps most of the time) people are either too confused or apathetic - or simply too polite and too decent - to declare themselves. . . .

"Everybody around here," you are told, "pays his own way." In this world the problems are not the ABM or air pollution . . . or the international population crisis; the problem is to get your street cleaned, your garbage collected, to get your husband home from Vietnam alive; to negotiate installment payments and keep the schools orderly. . . . Somewhere in his gut the man in these communities knows that mobility and choice in this society are limited. He cannot imagine any major change for the better; but he can imagine change for the worse. And yet for a decade he is the one who has been asked to carry the burden of social reform, to integrate his schools and his neighborhood, has been asked by comfortable people to pay the social debts due to the poor and the black. . . .

The liberal wisdom about welfare, ghettos, student revolt, and Vietnam has only a marginal place, if any, for the values and the life of the working man. It flies in the face of most of what he was taught to cherish and respect: hard work, order, authority, self-reliance. He fought, either alone or through labor organizations, to establish the precincts he now considers his own. . . .

Suddenly the rules are changing - all the rules. If you protect your job for your own you may be called a bigot. At the same time itís perfectly acceptable to shout black power and to endorse it. What does it take to be a good American? Give the black man a position because he is black, not because he necessarily works harder or does the job better. What does it take to be a good American? Dress nicely, hold a job, be clean-cut, donít judge a man by the color of his skin or the country of his origin. What about the demands of Negroes, the long hair of the students, the dirty movies, the people who burn draft cards and American flags. Do you have to go out in the street with picket signs, do you have to burn the place down to get what you want? What does it take to be a good American?

To return to the HIS 104 Documents page, please click here.

To return to the main web page, please click here.