American Pictures: A Foreigner’s Perspective on Social Injustice in the United States
By Nils Hoernle
“The more cars (for lonesome flight rather than the cozy strolling of streets as in Europe), the more weapons (rather than communication), the more fortresses (instead of sharing), the more military build up (instead of sharing with the Third World through its proposed New Economic World Order) all the more does private industry enrich itself on this systematic subversion of society. The higher the barriers big business constructs between people, the higher the stocks will rise an Wall Street …”
The U.S. is a relatively young and immensely complex nation whose problems and their underlying causes cannot be easily outlined in one book, yet Jacob Holdt’s ‘travel book’ entitled American Pictures comes closer to completely describing, analyzing and documenting our society’s injustices than perhaps any other contemporary work. It is remarkable in that it is an emotionally charged visual and verbal experience which not only causes the reader to feel these injustices but leaves him with a rational understanding of why economic equality is a necessity. The numerous photographs which comprise a large part of American Pictures bear witness to Holdt’s portrayal of this country’s social, economic, and political shortcomings, serving as grotesque testimony before a worldwide audience to the huge gap between the American government and media’s self-image as a country which leads the fight for freedom and democracy ‘with liberty and justice for all’ on one side and a country of bigotry, selfish greed, racism, and rampant exploitation which leads to both physical and mental oppression and poverty on the other. Though for the many browsers of this book the pictures will suffice to carry its initial emotional impact, it is the text which delivers its main punch — characterizing a violent and oppressive American society from its colonial beginnings through the period of chattel slavery to its present position as an aggressive world power.
American Pictures is in many respects a 10-year travel diary which charts Jacob Holdt’s introduction to American society from his often-times naive and self-righteous cultural relativist stage through his mental and emotional development via numerous incredible experiences and human contacts to his much more advanced ideas and insights into the causes and solutions of the problems which threaten to destroy American society. Having grown up in Denmark’s welfare state he is completely unprepared for the poverty and the overwhelming indifference towards it that he encounters during his travels in America. His vagabonding takes him through the forced labor camps of blacks, Mexicans and poor whites trapped behind the ‘cotton curtain’ in the South, where he is shocked to find still intact the master-slave relationship which he later realizes characterizes every facet of interaction between whites and blacks in America. He next travels to the Northwest where he becomes embroiled in a shoot-out with FBI agents at Wounded Knee while trying to help native Americans keep their lands out of the clutches of mineral-hungry corporations. It is his selfless love for humanity which allows him to move back and forth between the worlds of the fabulously wealthy and the destitute with surprising ease, thus enabling him to live with the Southern “aristocracy”, get drunk with millionaires, and befriend street people, drug addicts, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, pimps and prostitutes. Before leaving the country he even attempts to bring about reform in the American prison system. The reader soon realizes that Holdt is better qualified than are most Americans to treat such complex issues as alcoholism, malnutrition, unionization, American religion, the K.K.K., black pride and integration.
It is not so much the absolute conditions of the people Holdt encounters in America that are the tragedy of this country, but rather the disparity between rich and poor, white and black, management and labor, educated and ignorant, etc., which reveal the true inhumanity of our society. His remarkable ability to capture its cruel irony and hypocrisy by juxtaposing the vast extremes of material wealth and intangible advantages such as education, health care, and equal opportunity in his pictures and essays reveals a society that blames its victims in its stubborn refusal to see them as such, thus making them prime targets for exploitation. He finds in America a government that jumps to the whip of big business but rolls over and plays dead in response to the screams of the impoverished.
Throughout his book Holdt emphasizes the idea that people are formed by the environment they live in. He illustrates this with numerous examples of how the ghetto has shaped its inhabitants and how America’s chattel slavery has shaped the American black. By contrasting American blacks with Africans and with other former black slaves in non-capitalistic countries, he finds again and again that it is the various stresses peculiar to a society or system of government (and hence of slavery) that have led to the present attributes of these peoples. Thus even within America he notices differences in the attitudes and behavior of blacks in the North and South. His vagabonding in both Northern city slums and rural Southern “slave camps” enables him to directly experience the deep humanity of the people relegated to the lowest realms of society. He is taken in by black members of the underclass who have no running water, electricity, food, or furniture but who, in spite of his white skin, treat him like a human being. He describes the subhuman conditions in which these people live and eventually comes to understand the psychological defeat they have undergone with respect to finding a meaningful place in American society. Some seem so broken in spirit that they simply deteriorate, while others, in an effort to retain a measure of self-respect, refuse to join as productive elements a society that treats them like trash. As one black women says to her West Indian neighbor — “You West Indians will scrub floors and do anything to make it in this country. It may be that you end up … in most top black positions, but I would never for anything in the world break my ass for the white man in order to get there. You have no pride …..” He witnesses how so many in the “underclass” turn to drugs and physically deteriorate in response to the deterioration of spirit which they could not bear while ‘clean’. Those more resilient to these effects of oppression often take their cues from the American capitalist system and find ways to exploit each other, often becoming pimps, prostitutes, or hustlers. Those who escape these alternatives are more often forced into crime as the only realistic means of survival. Thus from the time ghetto children are old enough to see, hear, and feel they have already begun to absorb these destructive patterns of behavior from their chaotic environment, and the ghetto child who has not witnessed a shoot-out by the first grade is a rare find indeed. If any members of the younger generation do manage to survive the repression of the ghetto, they then have to contend with the American system of education, which after having taught in American public schools, Holdt describes quite simply as “designed to make some into an elite and dispose of other’s as trash.” He then shows how our society further condemns the poor with its stingy welfare policies which in effect pronounce a death sentence on families in which there is a man present, thus fostering the destruction of the black family unit begun during the period of slavery. Eventually these detrimental aspects of ghetto life become ingrained in the culture and are reinforced as each successive generation gets further indoctrinated into its patterns of violence and self-destruction.
As a consequence of his many “psychic leaps” from the despondency of the ghetto to the luxurious wealth of the bankers, corporate executives and businessmen, Holdt soon begins to perceive the emptiness inherent in the lives of the affluent, yet often finds them to be sympathetic and concerned about the needs and lives of those less fortunate than themselves, stemming perhaps from the lack of human contact and isolation which results from their material vulnerability and which ultimately confines them to their lonely strata at the uppermost tiers of society. Because of constant fear of kidnappers and burglars, many of the parents and children Holdt encounters in these homes are permanently isolated from large segments of the populations resulting in the development of a deep-seated fear and distrust of the underclass. This effectively rules out the possibility of positive interaction and thus allows for the perpetuation of malignant myths about those they have only encountered as the master in the master-slave relationship. As a result Holdt witnesses the same alcohol and drug dependency in the isolated and closed upperclass society that he found in the ghettos, emphasizing the point that the stresses involved in acquiring vast fortunes and holding on to them are just os detrimental to the spirit as are the struggles of the poverty-stricken to survive. He is forced to conclude that “wherever the master-slave relationship is found neither master nor slave is really happy. Neither role permits either to became fully human and therefore serves to cripple and paralyze their minds and behavior.” Holdt seeks in vain to bridge this vast chasm which exists between the wealthy whose lives have little meaning outside of their material abundance and the often intense humanity of the poor.
In contrast to the emptiness characterizing the lives of the rich, the wealthy Southern “aristocrats” he finds in Georgia have bridged this gap. By administering paternalistic concern for their former slaves they satisfy their consciences in feeling that they are doing a service to humanity, while at the same time deriving direct emotional, social, and “comic” interaction from them. They thereby see themselves as “philanthropists” and as such feel morally and spiritually fulfilled. As such, however, they merely perpetuate the repressive stratification of society.
When he first discovers the many injustices in America Holdt looks for groups of people to blame, at times singling out white liberals who “do great and exhausting work in the ghettos, but whether they breastfeed or bottlefeed the underclass the result is the same: they are actually blaming the victims themselves by trying to adjust them to their unhappy casteless fate in an unjust caste society, instead of changing that society.” As he continues to vagabond across the country he begins to realize that nearly everyone is a victim and thus begins instead to ask “Where is the rainmaker who created the mud puddle?” If by the end of his travels he has found the answer to this metaphorical questions it is surely that the fault lies in the greed, selfishness and mass consumption inherent in the U.S. capitalist system itself. “When love is made a sales item, all our humanity is sold out. … “Disposable” society, backyard-dumping both things and human beings, has in this way killed love in society by isolating and alienating enormous population groups from each other.”
Holdt further implicates the system in his characterization of the large U.S. cities:
“The elevated highways symbolize the struggle against an inhuman systems and are equally significant of the powerlessness of those who ride them over increasingly misanthropic and deserted cities wherein they as a result of such distorted priorities no longer dare move on foot. Trapped by their own systems these lonesome whites must speed down the superhighway to get safely from the protected suburbs to their work downtown without being confronted by the rats, the misery, and the violence in the poor neighborhoods. Once in a while, however, up on their highways they do get shot at from the ghettos below such as I heard it happened in East St. Louis. In these barren, anxiety-ridden and seemingly ‘neutron-bombed’ landscapes it becomes a deadly necessity to have a car. The reasonable answer therefore is to create even more concrete spaghetti and human sterility while there is not enough money for public transportation for the poor.”
With all the emotion and bitterness characteristic of the oppressed, Holdt extends the misguided rationalization inherent in the capitalistic mentality to explain how media reinforces our empty society, and he further links this mentality with the U.S.’s support of bloody and repressive regimes in Central America and in the Third World all of which is permitted by the mindlessness and indifference of the majority of Americans. Thus the documentary photographs in American Pictures serve to dig a grave for the American version of capitalism and the essays drive the nails into the coffins leaving it up to the reader to decide whether or not it should be buried.
American Pictures is an extremely difficult book for any American to read, but it, is perhaps most distressing for the whites it was intended to educate, as Holdt often does not hesitate to put much of the blame for our society’s injustices on the white middle and upper class segments of the American population. This has surely had the effect of souring many a potential reader toward Holdt, his book, and the many harsh and distasteful realities inherent in American society and government. But the genuinely human readers who recognize the importance of this work will not be discouraged by the guilt, responsibility and sadness which it instills in them, instead acting to alleviate these by making an effort to correct society’s ills. As Holdt points out, “the failure to feel guilt is the basic flaw of the psychopath, who is capable at committing crimes of the vilest sort without remorse or contrition.” Thus for many would-be philanthropists this book often has the effect of causing our self-righteous indignation over this outsider’s critique of our society to melt away in the heat of emotion as we struggle to find a finger-hold by which to grab a brick from the prison of guilt he is building around us so that we might eventually rationalize our way out. But every argument, every brick, is quickly cemented over until we are trapped inside the prisons alone with ourselves and the pain which comes from knowing and finally having to face the cruel fact that we are guilty. The admission of this oppressive guilt burns away the layers of rationalization which we had previously used as excuses to protect ourselves from the realization that our very life-styles and unconcerned attitudes not only allow but are the direct cause of our great injustices towards society’s discarded people. In this way American Pictures allows the reader to be ‘reborn’ as a thinking, feeling human being in a position of renewed but humble strength, allowing him to see the oppressed as equal human beings and thereby bring about change for everyone’s mutual benefit, as opposed to the “infernalism or paternalism” that results when we consider ourselves to be superior.
(All rights reserved. Text @ Nils Hoernle, all images @ Jacob Holdt)