Sound public involvement demands that we keep abreast of public affairs. Perversely and tragically, our mass media may have done more to impede this than to promote it. We have access to more information than ever before but so-called news outlets cover meaningless things. They have become entertainment, not news. The challenge to counteract this crippling trend is all the more difficult because the trend is a product of public demand. A new ethic must arise if democracy is to survive.
- Tillie Olsen, Silences (1962).
- Anzie Yezierska, Red Ribbon On a White Horse: My Story (1950).
- Robert S. Levine, Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
- William Attaway, Blood on the Forge (1941), “a scalding, uncompromising novel on the Great Migration and its impact on the Southern black man.”
- T.R. Reid, A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System (Penguin Press, 2017). This book “will help” those unfamiliar with economics “grasp why our tax code, designed more than a century ago for a national industrial ecomony is so at odds with our 21st-century needs.”
- Rob Riemen, To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018): “With right-wing populists surging, Riemen’s dire warnings cannot help appearing prescient.”
- Carolyn Forché, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance (Penguin Press, 2019): “ . . . an account of a young woman’s encounter with horrific human suffering and resistance in a foreign country, and her resulting political awakening . . . ”
- Richard Haass, The World: A Brief Introduction (Penguin Press, 2020): “The consequences of ignorance, Haass warns, are serious: American disengagement from the wider world and poor decision-making at a moment of mounting global dysfunction.”
- Megan Rapinoe, One Life (Penguin Press, 2020): “The soccer star’s memoir gets into her political awakening as much as it does her sports career.”
- Kim Ghattas, Black Wave: Saudi, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East (Henry Holt and Company, 2020): “Instead of feuding over theology, Ghattas shows, Saudi Arabia and Iran transformed latent religious divisions into weapons wielded in the pursuit of political power, by cultivating and often arming sectarian militias across the region.”
- Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): “. . . Srinivasan . . . wants us to think more fully about sex, as a personal experience with social implications”.
From the dark side, at times when people were not aware:
- Peter Fritzsche, Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich (Basic Books, 2020.)
- David Paul Kuhn, The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working Class Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2020): “The Day the White Working Class Turned Republican”
Documentary and Educational Films
- The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: this cautionary tale about propaganda explores manipulation of public opinion by Venezuela’s five privately owned television stations, all “politically aligned with oil interests”
- David Alfaro Sequeiros, Man the Master, Not the Slave of Technology. (1952)
In Hugo’s Les Misérables, Valjean’s reflections did not end with his own responsibility. Right or wrong, he also considered the social context of his comparatively insubstantial crime.
Then he asked himself-- Whether he had been the only one in fault in his fatal history. Whether it was not a serious thing, that he, a laborer, out of work, that he, an industrious man, should have lacked bread. And whether, the fault once committed and confessed, the chastisement had not been ferocious and disproportioned. Whether there had not been more abuse on the part of the law, in respect to the penalty, than there had been on the part of the culprit in respect to his fault. Whether there had not been an excess of weights in one balance of the scale, in the one which contains expiation. Whether the over-weight of the penalty was not equivalent to the annihilation of the crime, and did not result in reversing the situation, of replacing the fault of the delinquent by the fault of the repression, of converting the guilty man into the victim, and the debtor into the creditor, and of ranging the law definitely on the side of the man who had violated it. Whether this penalty, complicated by successive aggravations for attempts at escape, had not ended in becoming a sort of outrage perpetrated by the stronger upon the feebler, a crime of society against the individual, a crime which was being committed afresh every day, a crime which had lasted nineteen years. He asked himself whether human society could have the right to force its members to suffer equally in one case for its own unreasonable lack of foresight, and in the other case for its pitiless foresight; and to seize a poor man forever between a defect and an excess, a default of work and an excess of punishment. Whether it was not outrageous for society to treat thus precisely those of its members who were the least well endowed in the division of goods made by chance, and consequently the most deserving of consideration. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Second – The Fall, Chapter VII, The Interior of Despair.]
Richard Wright wrote of the social and economic injustice he knew from childhood.
- Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945), an autobiographical novel about Wright’s childhood.
- Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), a collection of novellas about African-American life in the Deep South during Wright’s era.
- Richard Wright, The Outsider (1953), of a black man’s attempt to escape and dismal past and start over in Harlem.
- Richard Wright, Eight Men (1961), eight stories of “black men living at violent odds to the white world around them.”
- Richard Wright, Early Works (Library of America, 1991).
- Richard Wright, Later Works (Library of America, 1991).
Tillie Olsen wrote about struggle against injustice from a feminist perspective.
- Tillie Olsen, Yonnondio: From the Thirties (University of Nebraska Press, 1974).
- Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle (1961).
Anzia Yezierska wrote about tenement life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
- Anzie Yezierska, Hungry Hearts (1920).
- Anzia Yezierska, Salome of the Tenements (1923).
- Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers: A Novel (1925).
- Anzia Yezierska, Arrogant Beggar (1927).
- Anzia Yezierska, The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection (Persea Books, 1993).
Other writers who raised consciousness about injustice in the United States:
- Meridel Le Sueur, Ripening: Selected Work (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993).
- Martin Delany, Blake, or The Huts of America (1859, first published in book form in 1970), written in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the life of African-American slaves in the ante-bellum United States.
- William Attaway, Blood on the Forge (1941), “a scalding, uncompromising novel on the Great Migration and its impact on the Southern black man.”
- Ann Petry, The Street: A Novel (Houghton Mifflin, 1948): a too-little-known novel on the social injustices confronting a young African-American woman in the 1940s.
- Omar El Akkad, American War: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017): “El Akkad’s novel, his first, opens in a distant future when the United States as we know it is barely a memory, permanently knocked off the world stage by climate change, plague and intrastate conflict. The novel’s nominal narrator (a conceit that is quickly pushed into the background) is a historical researcher who has devoted his life to studying ‘this country’s bloody war with itself.’”
- Nell Zink, Doxology: A Novel (Ecco, 2019): “It has many . . . things on its mind, including a subversive history of American politics from Operation Desert Shield through the start of the Trump presidency, and it’s superb. In terms of its author’s ability to throw dart after dart after dart into the center of your media-warped mind and soul, it’s the novel of the summer and possibly the year.”
- Alexandra Kleeman, Something New Under the Sun: A Novel (Hogarth, 2021): “A Climate Nightmare in a Burning Los Angeles”.
Other novels highlighting social awareness:
- Jennifer Haigh, Mercy Street: A Novel (Ecco, 2022): “Abortion, guns, vigilantism, drug dealing, white supremacy, bitter misogyny and online fetishism all figure in the tableau Haigh expertly details.”
- Pankaj Mishra, Run and Hide: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022): “It’s a tale of three university classmates coming of age in the ‘New India,’ an era of turbocharged economic progress accompanied by ‘the ideologies of self-cherishing that, emanating in Britain and America, arrived, fully articulated, in India in the late 1980s.'”
- Jennifer Close, Marrying the Ketchups: A Novel (Knopf, 2022): “A large Irish American family; a large Irish American bar and restaurant owned by said family; said family reeling in the wake of the death of a grandparent; a wayward daughter returning to her birthplace after a failed career in a different city; multiple points of view in alternating chapters as various members of the Irish American family struggle with marriage- and work-related problems . . .”
- Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead: A Novel (Harper, 2022): this is Dickens’ David Copperfield reset in Appalachia. “Of course Barbara Kingsolver would retell Dickens. He has always been her ancestor. Like Dickens, she is unblushingly political and works on a sprawling scale, animating her pages with the presence of seemingly every creeping thing that has ever crept upon the earth.”
Film and Stage
- A Face in the Crowd, about a charlatan who gains a public forum and then is exposed. The film is about the dangers of an uninformed citizenry in the age of mass media.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was a Polish composer whose compositions reflect his suffering under the Nazi regime. For many years, he was known as Moisey Vainberg, a name under which much of his work appears.
- Fantasia for Cello & Orchestra, 52 (1953)
- Symphony No. 8, “Polish Flowers”, Op. 83, is a choral symphony that recounts the horror of Nazi occupation and offers an idyllic vision of freedom and equality under what Weinberg imagined would be the Soviet liberators.
Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985), "Native Informant" album, mainly a “lament for the victims of the Egyptian Revolution” of 2011 and musical commentary on the Lebanese Civil War
Honegger’s final three symphonies are social commentary during a turbulent era.
- Symphony No. 3, H 196, "Liturgique" (1945)
- Symphony No. 4 in A Major, H 191, "Deliciae Basillensis" (1946)
- Symphony No. 5 in D Major, H 202, "Di Tre Re" (1950)
Uniformly serious in tone, Miloslav Kabeláč’s first six symphonies comment on life in post-World-War-II Czechoslovakia.
- Symphony No. 1 in D Major for strings and percussion, Op. 11 (1941–42)
- Symphony No. 2 in C Major for large orchestra, Op. 15 (1942–46)
- Symphony No. 3 in F Major for organ, brass and timpani, Op. 33 (1948–57)
- Symphony No. 4 in A Major, "Chamber Symphony", Op. 36 (1954–58)
- Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Minor, "Dramatic", for soprano without text, and orchestra, Op. 41 (1960)
- Symphony No. 6, "Concertante", for clarinet and orchestra, Op. 44 (1961–62)
- James Lee III, Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet (2018) (approx. 22’) was “inspired by historical aspects of indigenous Americans”.
In a lighter vein, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (Gilbert and Sullivan) skewered Victorian-era Britain’s society, conventions and even royalty in their comic operas.
- H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Lass that Loved a Sailor: “satirizing the rise of unqualified people to positions of authority and poking good-natured fun at the Royal Navy and the English obsession with social status” (links to Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group production in 2012, and a 1959 D’Oyly Carte recording)
- The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu: the Japanese setting was a thin disguise for a grand poke at “English bureaucracy” (links to a film version and a performance at Lyric Opera of Dallas; see also this Groucho Marx clip).
- The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty: an extended jab at “conventions, sense of duty, family obligation, the ‘respectability’ of civilisation and the peerage, and the relevance of a liberal education” (links to a 1968 D’Oyly Carte recording, a 1981 Broadway cast recording and a performance at Loyola Opera)
- Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri: taking aim at “English law and the House of Lords” (links to a 2005 production, a 1960 D’Oyly Carte recording and a 1951 D’Oyly Carte recording)
- Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride: lampooning “male chauvinism and vanity in the military” (links to 1961 D’Oyly Carte recording and a performance at Harvard-Ratcliffe)
- Trial By Jury: a spoof on the British legal system based on Gilbert’s brief experience as a barrister (links to a D’Oyly Carte recording and a University of Texas production)
- The Yeoman of the Guard, or The Merryman and His Maid: the darkest of the G&S operas (links to 1964 D’Oyly Carte recording, 1950 D’Oyly Carte recording and a 2003 Rowan Opera Company performance)
- The Gondoliers, or The Kind of Barataria: a “satire of class distinctions” and their often-preposterous methods of resolution (links to a recording conducted by Malcolm Sargent and a performance at Loyola Opera in New Orleans)
- Utopia Limited, or The Flowers of Progress: on the absurdities of protecting corporations at the expense of people (links to 1975 D’Oyly Carte recording)
- Theo Bleckmann & The Westerlies, “This Land”
- Clifford Lamb, “Blues & Hues”
- Billy Bang, “Vietnam the Aftermath”
- Terri Lyne Carrington, “Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue”
- Vijay Iyer, “Uneasy”
- Eric Bibb, “Dear America”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Paul Simon, “American Tune”
An odor has remained among the sugarcane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating
petal that brings nausea.
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.
The delicate dictator is talking
with top hats, gold braid, and collars.
The tiny palace gleams like a watch
and the rapid laughs with gloves on
cross the corridors at times
and join the dead voices
and the blue mouths freshly buried.
The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,
whose large blind leaves grow even without light.
Hatred has grown scale on scale,
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,
with a snout full of ooze and silence
[Pablo Neruda, “The Dictators”]
- Kevin Young, Brown: Poems (Knopf, 2018): “This new collection of verse by the poetry editor of The New Yorker (and director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) is political in the best, most visceral way — critical, angry, squinting hard at the culture — while remaining at the same time deeply and lovingly personal.”
- Lawrence Joseph, A Certain Clarity: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020): “Not the first poet to meditate on political economy and empire, Joseph is distinguished by his knowledge.”
- S. Brook Corfman, My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites (Fordham University Press, 2020): “Poems of fear and foreboding that live with the knowledge of climate crisis, without resorting to self-righteousness or self-flagellation.”
- Rita Dove, Playlist for the Apocalypse: Poems (W.W. Norton and Company, 2021): “It’s about the weight of American history, which Dove treats as news we’re still actively metabolizing.”
- Martín Espada, Floaters: Poems (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021) “combines a sharp political awareness with a storyteller’s knack for finding beauty and irony in the current moment”.