Random thoughts

Were the famous Dust Bowl photographs art, journalism, propaganda — or all three?
This idle question appeared on a Web site the other day. The answer, of course, is yes. Those haunting tableaux of stick-thin women dressed in recycled flour sacks, standing before unpainted shacks beside men in shapeless overalls and ragged shirts without a flicker of hope in their eyes captured the essence of the Great Depression and the drought that compounded its misery.
The government paid photographers to tour and document. It was a way to give those professionals income while they maintained and improved their skills: one very small part of federal meddling in the economy to stave off starvation and accomplish something of value in the process.
It was journalism because the pictures told part of the national story; propaganda because the photographers were drawn to the scenes that gripped their imaginations, drew their tears, provoked anger and in-spired determination to relieve suffering if they could find a way. Those black and white masterpieces are still acclaimed as the very pinnacle of photographic art.
The government is not sending artists out into the countryside to document this recession, as pervasive and stubborn as it is.
Who would they ask to say cheese? The banker whose bonus had been trimmed from eight figures to seven?
But that’s making light of a serious situation.
Factories — including those in Iola — have been forced to cut back. Well-qualified people remain unable to find work.
And because housing prices sank so far below purchase price, families have lost homes and a few have become homeless.
Disaster struck Michigan and the rest of the Rust Bowl years ago, leaving blighted neighborhoods that won’t recover for a generation. Those boarded up houses, paint peeling, windows smashed, steps broken, should be pictured to remind all of us of a number of things.
Part of today’s story is that the safety net has worked pretty well in most of the country. Unemployment payments substantial enough to feed, clothe and shelter families continue. Clinics in most cities provide medical care. Hospitals treat emergencies for those without insurance and shift the cost to those who do. The basics of life are available to those truly in need.
Perhaps what historians will say a decade or so from now about the recession of 2007-10 is that the governments of the world coped well and that the citizens of those nations gained, as people sometimes do from ad-versity, a fresh understanding that the primary goal of a representative democracy is to seek the highest good for the greatest number and that that result cannot be achieved without common action.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.