MONDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2023
How should our history be taught? Long ago and far away, as mere juniors in high school, we read The Jungle. It was a required text in a high school literature course.
At the time, The Jungle was a sixty-year-old novel—a "muckraking" novel at that! Today, the leading authority on the book offers this thumbnail account:
The Jungle is a 1906 work of narrative fiction by American muckraker novelist Upton Sinclair. ... Several passages expos[ed] health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meat packing industry during the early 20th century, which greatly contributed to a public outcry that led to reforms including the Meat Inspection Act.
The book depicts working-class poverty, lack of social supports, harsh and unpleasant living and working conditions, and hopelessness among many workers. These elements are contrasted with the deeply rooted corruption of people in power. A review by the writer Jack London called it "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of wage slavery."
Sinclair was considered a muckraker, a journalist who exposed corruption in government and business. In 1904, Sinclair had spent seven weeks gathering information while working incognito in the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards for the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. He first published the novel in serial form in 1905 in the newspaper, and it was published as a book by Doubleday in 1906.
We can't recall what we thought about The Jungle when we read it as part of that high school class.
Yesterday, though, we recalled the muckraking book. We did so thanks to a remarkable piece of muckraking journalism which appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times.
The report went on and on and on, at considerable length. At considerable length, the report describes many of the conditions mentioned above—"working-class poverty, lack of social supports, harsh and unpleasant living and working conditions, and hopelessness."
It was The Jungle all over again! This time, though, these conditions were being described "among many [underage children]" all across the United States—among many underage children, many of whom were working dangerous midnight shifts.
It was The Jungle all over again! Principle headline included, the lengthy report starts like this:
Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.
It was almost midnight in Grand Rapids, Mich., but inside the factory everything was bright. A conveyor belt carried bags of Cheerios past a cluster of young workers. One was 15-year-old Carolina Yoc, who came to the United States on her own last year to live with a relative she had never met.
About every 10 seconds, she stuffed a sealed plastic bag of cereal into a passing yellow carton. It could be dangerous work, with fast-moving pulleys and gears that had torn off fingers and ripped open a woman’s scalp.
The factory was full of underage workers like Carolina, who had crossed the Southern border by themselves and were now spending late hours bent over hazardous machinery, in violation of child labor laws. At nearby plants, other children were tending giant ovens to make Chewy and Nature Valley granola bars and packing bags of Lucky Charms and Cheetos—all of them working for the processing giant Hearthside Food Solutions, which would ship these products around the country.
“Sometimes I get tired and feel sick,” Carolina said after a shift in November. Her stomach often hurt, and she was unsure if that was because of the lack of sleep, the stress from the incessant roar of the machines, or the worries she had for herself and her family in Guatemala. “But I’m getting used to it.”
"These workers are part of a new economy of exploitation," the Times report says at that point. As noted, the grueling work described in this lengthy report is being done "in violation of child labor laws."
Different people will react to this report in different ways. That said, the report continues as shown:
These workers are part of a new economy of exploitation. Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country, a New York Times investigation found. This shadow work force extends across industries in every state, flouting child labor laws that have been in place for nearly a century. Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.
Largely from Central America, the children are driven by economic desperation that was worsened by the pandemic. This labor force has been slowly growing for almost a decade, but it has exploded since 2021, while the systems meant to protect children have broken down.
"Twelve-year-old roofers" in several states—and the list goes on from there!
From there, the report goes into prodigious detail about an array of such children and teens. We read The Jungle long ago, and now we've read it again.
The report goes on and on and on, then on and on some more. After we'd read the entire report, we scrolled back up to the top of the page to see who the writers were.
We assumed it must have taken a large team of reporters to assemble such a voluminous "New York Times investigation." Headline included once again, we were surprised by what we saw when we scrolled back to the top of the page:
Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.
By Hannah Dreier and Photographs By Kirsten Luce
Hannah traveled to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota and Virginia for this story and spoke to more than 100 migrant child workers in 20 states.
In its byline, the voluminous report was credited to one (1) lone reporter! She had traveled to seven states in the course of researching this topic. She had spoken to migrant child workers in twenty different states.
Who the heck is Hannah Dreier? You're asking an excellent question!
For starters, she's fourteen years out of college (Wesleyan, class of 2008). Back in 2019, after winning a Pulitzer Prize at ProPublica, she described her journalistic method to a campus audience:
“My approach has been to try to focus on telling concrete personal stories and trying to just pile enough detail that people can decide for themselves what they think is happening and how they feel about it.”
Dreier wants to let people decide what they think about the situations she reports. She tries to tell "concrete personal stories," and she tries to pile a whole lot of detail on.
In yesterday's report, Dreier told a long list of concrete personal stories. She offered a wealth of detail about the current plight of many underage migrant children.
You rarely see a piece of journalism like the one which appeared in yesterday's Times. As of yesterday afternoon, we'd already seen it cited on Fox, with an anti-Biden cast to the discussion. We can't help wondering if the cable stars of our own blue tribe will stop flogging their favorite topic:
Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Jail!
for long enough to let them comment on Dreier's report.
Almost surely, different people will have different reactions to Dreier's report. If our own tribe discusses this topic at all, we hope our tribunes will avoid adopting the kind of framework which dominated a different high-profile item in yesterday's New York Times.
We refer to Maureen Dowd's column, a column about congressional apparent nutcase Marjorie Taylor Greene. We'll review that column tomorrow. In our view, it tended to display one desperate type of novelization which now afflicts our blue tribe.
We read The Jungle in an American literature class, but it famously chronicled an ugly part of our frequently brutal American history.
According to the leading authority, Sinclair's book led to reforms in the meat packing industry. Yesterday, Dreier's astounding report in the Times offered an echo of Sinclair's work.
Will her report affect anything at all? The chances may not be good.
Earlier in the weekend, we'd been fascinated by the headline which topped a short piece at The Atlantic.
The headline asked a very good question. That question went like this:
How Should We Teach the Story of Our Country?
Our frequently brutal American history can be taught, and understood, a thousand different ways. At present, we're engaged in a great tribal war about the contents of one Advanced Placement course.
As the soundbites have flown around, we've seen little serious discussion of that larger topic:
How should we teach our American history? How should we understand that history, just within our own heads?
We're inclined to throw our tribal soundbites around, but we rarely get to that larger question. In the course of our rambles this week, we'll try to get to the larger question that one lonely headline asked.
History typically comes with a framework. How should our history be taught?
Tomorrow: Prisoners of script