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Changes

NEW JERSEY - Last week, Newsweek magazine, the venerable news weekly that had been informing and entertaining readers for 79 years, ended its print edition. My inestimably precious colleague Lucia Guimaraes has (as usual) said everything meaningful there is to say about the causes of Newsweek's extinction. What I would like to talk about are the social consequences of the magazine's disappearance. The end of Newsweek is just one more step toward the end of a place in society for humble people who were able to make a life for themselves and their families by performing modest tasks.

Lee Siegel,

06 de janeiro de 2013 | 01h00

Many years ago, when I first came to New York, I remember meeting a woman at a party whom I'll call Diana Moretti. She was in her thirties and dreamed of becoming a novelist. She lived alone and spent long days working at her first novel. What made it possible for her to slave away at her unremunerative dream was that she worked as a proofreader for Time magazine. She made a modest salary, lived in a modest place, and led a modest life. Years later, I saw that she finally publisher her novel. It was a modest book and it met with modest success. But she fulfilled her dream.

There had been hundreds of Diana Morettis at Newsweek through the years. They proofread, copyedited, shephereded copy into production. They worked as researchers or messengers, bringing copy from editor to editor, from floor to floor. They edited letters, or small departments of the magazine called "Periscope" or "My Turn." They made just enough money to live on, but the magazine gave them health benefits, protected their jobs, and gave them a place in life and a sense of accomplishment and dignity.

Over the past 20 years, that place in society for humble people has all but vanished. When President Reagan dropped the top marginal tax rate by over 30 percent in the 1980s, he created an overheated economy, driven more by investment than by production. That economy, in turn, created the expectation of not just comfortable profits but greater and greater wealth. To achieve such exponentially accelerated growth every quarter, magazines like Newsweek-and its owner for most of its existence, the Washington Post Company-had to streamline themselves and cut costs. To do that, they got rid of some positions entirely, like researching, proofreading, copyediting and editing the smaller sections. Then they hired young people right out of college who were still being supported by their parents and whom the magazine could pay almost nothing, and who were willing to work without health benefits. The modest jobs, in which a humble person could make a life, disappeared.

It wasn't just magazines that succumbed to this dynamic. Across society, it became harder and harder to make a living as a salesman, or a middle manager, or a mechanic or a tradesman. More wealth in the upper reaches of society meant that cities could shift from consisting mostly of affordable rental apartments to exorbitantly priced co-ops and condominiums. Prices soared to meet the more powerful gravitational pull of stratospheric incomes. The middle class, unable to work or live, left the cities.

A strange thing began to happen. In the cities, where culture is created, you had to look harder and harder to find images of humble people doing modest work in novels, plays and films. Instead you got novels, plays and films in which middle-class people were exposed as hypocrites, as greedy, self-deluded fools. They were replaced by celebrities, or by people trying to become celebrities, or by the new wealthy class of young internet entrepreneurs. These were the culture's new obsession. The "My Turn" section in Newsweek, always written by an ordinary person usually from farflung parts of the country, away from the big cities, now came to be written by one famous person or another. The very idea that professional or financial success could be modest, that personal fullfilment consisted of anything less than fame or great wealth, became generally repellent. People began to hate themselves for finding solace and contentment in the smaller niches of life.

The paradox is that the secret contempt for humble people performing modest tasks in life is the creation of liberal culture, yet it finds its political expression in the conservative protection of the super-rich at the expense of everyone else, especially the middle class. Neither liberals or conservatives have a place for the Diana Morettis of the world.

Norman Mailer once said that a novelist should never create characters who occupy a more humble station in life than the novelist does. It would be disingenuous for me to say that living a humble life and performing a modest task would be enough for me. Between the vain and ambitious and the humble and modest there exists a gulf wider perhaps than between any other two social groups. The exploration of that gulf and its repercussions throughout social life would require a thick book. But the world's very existence depends on the decent motion of humble people. And in the end, life humbles us all, and makes us grateful to be performing even the most modest task. When we become indifferent to the humble and the modest, we grow blind to our common human fate. I hope Diana Moretti is hard at work somewhere on her second novel.

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