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  • This was a great piece, but if The Shame of the Cities speaks to our times, Cohen missed the message as much as anyone. Stffens wrote that book in 1904; by the time he wrote his autobiography in the 30s he had decided all his muckraking and investigative reporting had accomplished nothing whatsoever, and that the problem was not only people of good will who took no action (“Misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people”) but that most “decent” people actively oppose any reform that might actually have a chance of changing anything. He uses Christ as an example; a radical truly trying to bring justice who was killed by the decent, sensible people of his time.

    He basically came to believe that the interests of the state and the interests of big business were absolutely opposed, and that you could either follow the Soviet model of smashing the business interests altogether, or the fascist model of merging with them. He held some very naive beliefs about the possiblity of revolution, and a weird late-thirties Utopian belief that a coming Leisure Era would accomplish a redistribution of wealth in the United States, but apart from a general softening of his thinking as he got older, he found no answers to solving the corruption problem. He believed quite firmly that investigative journalism, public exposure, and the action of democracy were not only ineffective in fighting corruption, but complicit in supporting it — because it’s not only business people who act only in their own self-interest, but everyone.

    So Cohen is holding up a prescription that its own author completely disavowed less than a quarter-century after writing it.

    April 12, 2004

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