Monday, September 18, 2006

# Posted 2:20 PM by Patrick Porter  

POVERTY WITH A SMILE: Controversy is swirling around Australia's experience of the Great Depression, the economic crisis that impoverished and immiserated its victims from 1929 until the mid 1930's.

Or did it? A new book by David Potts argues that, actually, poverty wasn't the universal experience of the Depression. Unemployment peaked at 25%. Wages kept their value.

And even those who suffered materially from the Depression survived, and even found a purpose in the crisis that made life bracing and meaningful.

I haven't read the book yet. Its price might make me poor. So there's a risk that I am misrepresenting his views.

But I find something viscerally distasteful in the suggestion that we should celebrate historical poverty itself as ennobling, or destitution as somehow redemptive.

One important distinction: we can and should celebrate people's heroic efforts to battle against it. From the very first moment of British settlement, when the newcomers couldn't farm alien terrain, they had to tough it out until relief ships arrived.

And its hard to deny that people could and did find meaning and value in it.

Or that the suffering was not distributed equally.

But Potts seems to stretch to callous extremes, arguing that not only were they heroic, but they had a rollicking good time being battered into desperate need. Families looking for berries or mushrooms in the bush had a nice time, and unemployed men who went looking for gold liked the scenery. Meanwhile,
those reduced to selling door-to-door could find themselves transformed into successful small businessmen.
Selling door-to-door when you were once a clerk or a miner probably was a difficult adjustment. People do feel their own sense of status and self-worth, and a highly skilled worker might not enjoy being 'transformed' into a less skilled position.

And even when things got really bad, well hey, it didn't really hurt:
going without food intermittently for two or three days, or five or 10, or even a degree of persistent hunger, does not damage the body or health"
Where to begin with a pitiless statement like that?

One might wonder under what circumstances Potts might admit that it was grinding misery and that it hurt people?

Finally, he uses oral history, stressing that people remember the experience more ambivalently, often recalling the dog days with warmth, nostalgia and pride.

As indeed they would. That would be a mechanism of surviving and retaining your self-worth.

Oral histories recorded forty or more years after the event can tell us much about how people remember things. They are less reliable, however, in telling us what they thought at the time. Oral history is notorious for the fact that the stories often change over time.

I'll have to get my hands on the book somehow. But I'll need convincing that the Depression wasn't bloody awful for lots of people, who hated what it did to them before it was softened by the comfort of memory.
(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

There's something tidy about setting out first that part of your opinions about a book which have nothing to do with what's actually in the book. Publishing them before you've read it seems like a good approach. There are many other book reviewers who would do us all a big favor if they did likewise.
dear m.c.

I conceded at the start of the post that I might be misrepresenting his views, given I can't get a copy right now.

However, there were several quotes from his book in the review I cited, and the reviews I read agreed on the main thrust of his argument.

'nothing to do with what's actually in the book' - have you read the book yourself? or are you trying to be snide?
I seem to recall an article linked over at The American Scene a while back that pointed out that many professional book reviewers (they had percentages) can be demonstrated to have not read the books they review... there's good money in that! :)
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