Monday, December 31, 2012 3:11 PM
This article originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
are about to take this house over, okay?” shouted Reneka Wheeler, speaking
slowly and emphasizing each word as she stood in front of a vacant house in
southwest Atlanta two weeks ago. It wasn’t really a question; the home had
already been cleaned up and secured, and the only thing left to do was turn the
key. It was a small, pastel-pink bungalow in the middle of the Pittsburgh
neighborhood in Atlanta,
the type of community where more plywood boards than children’s faces peek out
from first-floor windows.
small crowd gathered in front of Wheeler cheered in affirmation. The woman —
flanked by her partner, Michelene Meusa — bounded up the front steps and
entered her new home with a quick jangling of her wrist. Their children, Johla
and Dillon, soon followed. Dillon exposed a buck-teeth smile and Johla’s pink
hair beads tossed from side to side. The last six months hadn’t been easy for
the two children; since July, the family had been shuffling from shelter to
shelter, where Dillon and Johla often found that other adults didn’t approve of
their mothers’ relationship.
M&T Bank — a commercial bank
headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y. — claimed to own the house, an
allegation it would soon enforce. But, for the moment, Meusa and Wheeler had
enacted a new vision and definition of housing rights — not by petition or
proposal but by altering the reality on the ground.
going to change the way we do business,” declared Doug Dean, a former state
representative from Pittsburgh,
Ga., on the women’s new front
lawn. “Whether you agree with how we’re doing it, the fact of the matter is
that freedom is not free. We must take back our community.”
December 6, the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Homes movement, Meusa and
Wheeler were only two among thousands of people who gathered for coordinated
direct actions focused on the human right to housing. Building on a year filled
with eviction blockades, house takeovers, bank protest and singing auction
blockades, the anniversary of Occupy Homes demonstrated that the groups were
still committed to risking arrest to keep people sheltered. Yet, even more
significantly, the day’s events demonstrated a crystallization of the
movement’s central message: that decent and dignified housing should be a human
right in the United States.
Alma Ponce and supportive community members from various Occupy groups rallied
inside and outside Ponce’s
home, which was scheduled for eviction on December 6. In Minneapolis,
John Vinje, a veteran who had been evicted from his family’s home by U.S. Bank
and Freddie Mac earlier this year, worked with Occupy Homes MN
to take over a bank-owned home on the south side of the city. In St. Louis, a
handful of housing advocates temporarily occupied a Wells Fargo branch and
began auctioning off the contents of the bank — including the Christmas tree,
paintings and computers, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho! Corporate greed has got to
go!” Other actions occurred in Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Mendham, N.J., and cities
actions appear to be snowballing. In Atlanta,
Occupy our Homes took over a second house on December 8. In Minneapolis, the group opened up another
house on December 23 in an action led by Carrie Martinez, who refused to
celebrate Christmas with her partner and 12-year-old son in the car where
they’d been living since their eviction in October.
the first Occupy Homes day of action on December 6, 2011, the events
demonstrated a high level of coordination and communication among housing
groups in various cities — this time drawing on the language and tactics that
had been successful throughout the past year.
the small crowd marched to Meusa and Wheeler’s new home, for instance, people
chanted, “Empty houses and houseless people — match them up!” This was a
refrain that echoes the rallying cry commonly used by J.R. Fleming, chairman of
Anti-Eviction Campaign. (His wording is to match “homeless people with
peopleless houses.”) Later, after much of the fanfare had died down, Johla and
Dillon began planting flowers and vegetables in the front yard, an action that
is reminiscent of when Monique White, a mother in Minneapolis, planted a massive garden in the
weeks before her scheduled eviction to demonstrate that she was not leaving.
(U.S. Bank caved and canceled the foreclosure.)
in Woodland, activists covered Alma Ponce’s lawn
with tents — an allusion to the fall 2011 occupations that has also been used
in eviction blockades in Alabama and Georgia over
the last year. Ponce’s
home had been the site of successful eviction blockades in May and, given the
heavy activist presence on December 6, the sheriff refused to show up.
important shift evident on the anniversary is that Occupy Homes groups have
started rallying more and more behind a rights-based framework to explain why
they are pursuing direct action.
is a human right, not for the banks to hold hostage,” Michelene Meusa said a
few days after the action, when, at M&T Bank’s request, the Atlanta Police
Department arrested her and three others for criminal trespassing. When she
refused to leave, she made an explicit comparison between her civil
disobedience and the actions of the civil rights movement.
shift towards a human-rights framing of the housing movement and away from
following the Occupy movement’s focus on economic unfairness — i.e., “Banks got
bailed out, we got sold out” — is significant. The human rights framework is
often more powerful in movements led by people of color, drawing strength, as
Meusa did, from the civil rights era and cutting through the class divisions
that plague housing in a way that movements focused only on mortgage loan
get explosively excited about organizing to protect their rights,” said Anthony
Newby, one of the organizers with Occupy
Homes MN. A year ago,
Newby and the Minneapolis
campaign were more focused on organizing for principal reductions and holding banks
accountable while setting aside more confrontational actions like outright home
liberations for a later date. Yet, as John Vinje’s home liberation in south
Minneapolis on December 6 showed, the group had transformed over the course of
the year into one that is willing to challenge the logic of class-based housing
discrimination: a logic that denies that access to decent housing is, in fact,
a right to be protected rather than a privilege to be bought — on credit, of
she waited for the sheriff inside her home in Woodland, Alma Ponce expressed a similar
commitment to the rights-based framework. Explaining that the rest of her
family doesn’t speak English, she said, “They’re very scared and I know I’ve
been — what is that word? — taken advantage because I am Latina, and they think I’m not going to be
able to defend myself.” Switching to Spanish, she later added, “We Latinos have
to come out and defend our rights. Because we do have rights here in California, and if we
unite, we can keep moving forward.”
the continued onslaught of foreclosures across the United States, the question
remains: How much will these movements have to scale up to make structural
changes, rather than just individual changes?
organizing during the Great Depression provides some instructive parallels. The
economic devastation since 2008 has been quite similar to what the nation
experienced throughout that period. In 1933, for example, banks foreclosed on
an average of 1,000 homes every day. In 2010, the rate of displacement was
comparable: The average number of foreclosures was more than 2,500 homes a day,
and the population has increased two-and-a-half fold.
scale of housing organizing during the early 1930s, however, dwarfs what we
have seen so far today. Crowds of hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of
people, mobilized to stop evictions in New York,
other urban centers, mostly under the direction of the Communist Party. As in
much of current housing organizing, women were often on the front lines. Masses
of these women filled the streets as others climbed to the roofs and poured
buckets of water on the police below. Women beat back the police officers’
horses by sticking them with long hat pins or pouring marbles into the streets.
If the police were successful in moving the family’s furniture out to the curb,
the crowd simply broke down the door and moved the family’s belongings back
inside after the police had left.
were times that landlords were saying, ‘You can’t evict anymore in the Bronx. These people control the streets,’” says Mark
Naison, a professor at Fordham
University and one of the
nation’s leading researchers about housing organizing during the Depression.
communities also formed anti-foreclosure organizations, combining the fight for
housing with the fight for fair wages, especially in the sharecropping South.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers came together to form anti-eviction and
tenants-rights groups like the Farm Holiday Association in the Midwest, the
Alabama Sharecroppers Union in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the
Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which stretched from Tennessee to Texas. The
groups descended on farm auctions en masse to intimidate investors and speculators
and then bet on the property with absurdly low prices — a penny, a dollar —
until the property was returned to the owner. They also banded together to do
eviction defense, which, in rural areas, was simple and classically Southern.
was people with rifles standing there and defending the house,” said Naison.
encampment protests called Hoovervilles spread across the country, entirely
built, governed and populated by the displaced. Accounts of the mutual aid and
self-governance in these encampments testify to the similarities between
Hoovervilles and the Occupy encampments in 2011. The only difference, perhaps,
is the former’s longevity; one of the largest Hoovervilles, located in Seattle, stood for 10
years, housed more than 1,000 residents at its peak and held its own elections
for the community’s mayor.
movement achieved substantial legislative gains. Housing policy became a major
part of the New Deal, culminating in the National Housing Act of 1934, which
established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to provide affordable
loans to spur homeownership, and the Housing Act of 1937, which established
public housing authorities across the country.
the era’s housing activists like Catherine Bauer were involved in the drafting of
this new legislation, the laws were far from full victories. The FHA, in
particular, was a highly conservative and often racist lending agency whose
main objective was reigniting housing construction rather than helping
individual homeowners — a mission that led to massive and ongoing federal
handouts to industry. Still, the establishment of public housing systemically
changed the landscape and ideology around housing in the United States
and was “one of the most successful federal programs in the 20th century,”
according to Damaris Reyes, the executive director of the public housing
advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side.
this measure, the Occupy Homes network and aligned housing movements still have
light-years to go — a reality that many organizers acknowledge. Yet the
conditions have changed since 1930s, suggesting that what we need are not
massive federal construction and lending programs, but rather a shift in the
way housing rights are perceived and enacted in the U.S. Rather than coping
with the scarcity of the 1930s, the United States now confronts vast,
unprecedented wealth and gaping economic inequality — a condition that is
perhaps best illustrated by the fact that there are upwards of a dozen empty
and unused houses for every homeless person in the nation.
more than enough wealth and roofs to provide safe and dignified homes for the
country’s population, the challenge today is to demonstrate that this situation
of desperate need coexisting with wasted excess is not one we need to accept.
Doing so requires the protests of people like Reneka Wheeler, Michelene Meusa,
John Vinje, Alma Ponce and Carrie Martinez who are willing to defy the law — on
camera and unafraid. And it will take these actions happening again and again.
As John Vinje in Minneapolis explained, “If the police come and decide that
they’re going to kick us out, we’ll make our stand up to the point where if we
have no option but to retreat, we’ll just go and find another one. And take it
over. And hopefully we’ll wear them down to the point that they’ll quit trying
to come and kick us out.”
resilience is just what the Occupy Homes network showed on December 23, with
the city’s second home takeover led by Carrie Martinez. And, while questions of
strategy and ability to scale remain, Martinez
reminds us that the purpose is always to enact the human right to housing — one
family at a time.
happens, we’re just grateful not to be living out of our car and to have
somewhere warm to spend our holidays,” Martinez
Mark R. Brown/mrbrownphoto.com.
Friday, November 30, 2012 4:09 PM
This post originally appeared at Shareable.net.
Rural electricity and telephone
co-ops are one of the great sharing success stories in American history—largely due to coordination by the federal government. In 1934, only 11% of
farmers had electricity compared to 90% in Europe.
Private electric companies refused to serve many rural customers or price
gouged them when they did. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was
formed in 1935 to fix the problem by providing technical assistance and loans
to electric cooperatives. Less than 20 years later, practically all farms had
power due largely to electric co-ops.
The REA was such a success that
the same strategy was used in the 40s to make telephone service available in
all rural areas. The Rural Telephone Administration matched the success of the
REA. To this day, 1.2 million rural residents are members of a telephone co-op.
The US government's success in boosting
rural economies through cooperative development is a largely forgotten story
that couldn't be more relevant today. For instance, in creating jobs.
Member owned cooperatives are a proven
economic development strategy the world over, and were recognized as such
by the United Nations which declared 2012 The International Year of the Cooperative. The democratic
ownership and management of cooperatives creates stable enterprises and jobs. Yet,
none of the $20 billion in loan programs available to rural cooperatives are
available to urban ones. This is despite the fact that 80 percent of Americans
now live in cities, with some of the highest poverty rates in the country.
Last year, when cooperative
groups were visiting Congressional offices on the Hill in support of USDA
programs, Congressman Chaka Fattah, who represents an urban district in Philadelphia, asked why co-ops in urban America didn’t
have similar support. A year later, a bill developed by Fattah and cooperative
National Cooperative Development Act—aims to bring technical assistance,
revolving loans, and startup capital to co-ops in cities across America,
recognizing that co-ops are a vital and long-term economic development model.
3677 would set up an organization based out of the Housing and Urban
Development Administration and administered by a separate non-profit to
implement the kinds of support needed specifically by co-ops. The bill would
also set up a revolving loan fund for loans for machinery, buildings, and the
other startup costs. Currently with 13 cosponsors, the bill will be
reintroduced in 2013 in the new session by Congressman Fattah, with more
bipartisan support, according to his office.
“The fact that cooperatives are
seeing a resurgence in urban areas shows the strength, diversity, and staying
power of the movement. I really believe that cooperatives are an excellent
means for economic development and community enrichment,” said Congressman
Fattah, whose family shops at the Weaver’s Way grocery co-op in Northwest Philadelphia and sees the co-op model as a
solution to urban food deserts, amongst other problems.
Compared to the rest of the
federal budget, the program is tiny—$25 million in HUD support over five
years. But it's a start, and would be official recognition that co-ops are still
an excellent way to create strong local economies and local jobs in the era of
A lot of the grants would be re-granted
through the cooperative development centers that work as hubs, knitting
together state-wide networks.
One critical thing that the
Rural Utilities Service (part of the US Department of Agriculture's rural
development area) does is direct co-ops through the maze of low-interest
loans and grants not specifically directed at co-ops, but for which co-ops
are eligible: programs to fund telemedicine, biorefineries, programs
specifically for people of color and women, grants for high energy costs, and a
lot more. Those programs totaled $21 billion last year for rural America,
capital that in cities is often very hard to come by but does exist in other
nooks and crannies of the federal budget.
“A really big problem for
growing cooperatives is that they often have difficulty expanding their
operations because they cannot raise sufficient capital. Either because they
can’t raise the funds from their existing members or they may not be able to
get loans from organizations that don’t quite understand the cooperative
business model,” said Congressman Fattah.
“A second key problem is lack of
knowledge… Many new cooperatives are filled with people who have the energy and
enthusiasm to start the cooperative and get it moving, but they may not have
the specialized knowledge that is needed to ensure that the co-op continues
operations long after that initial burst of enthusiasm runs out.”
Peter Frank is the Advocacy
Cooperation Works, the national network of co-op development centers. He is
working on the national campaign for HR 3677, getting cooperators in various
states to spend some of their times making visits to elected officials and
getting to know their Congressperson.
Frank is also in year five of
organizing a food co-op in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. He and a group of organizers
have put together a community membership of 270 people, and are aiming for 750
members by the time their business opens. The idea is indeed catching on in Philadelphia, with its
tight-knit neighborhoods and participatory culture: there are currently seven
food co-ops starting up in various neighborhoods.
“When you set up a co-op, you’re
not just setting up a business, you are setting up a democratic organization to
run that business,” said Frank. Accounting is
different. Membership is new. The bylaws are different. You don't dazzle a
couple of investors - you build support from the community, member by member,
worker-owner by worker-owner.
Looking at the success of co-ops
in rural America,
you can see a pattern of latticework: members of one supplies-purchasing co-op
are often members of another co-op to take their produce to market—a mutually
reinforcing system of deepening relationships and community resiliency. In the
recent economic downturn and this summer's drought, the number of cooperatives
had shrunk while co-op employment went up; the USDA speculated that a number of
co-ops chose to merge rather than close.
It's very similar to the 50-year
experience of the largest system of cooperatives in the world, Mondragon—256 interlinked
companies with over 83,000 employees, operating in Spain under the slogan
"Humanity at Work." In the recent documentary Shift Change, Mondragon emerges as successful precisely
because humanistic business principles are simply better for the community,
longer-lasting, and more able to withstand the winds of economic change.
As American cities turn to
alternative models of finance and ownership in the blindingly obvious breakdown
of our free-market, private enterprise system, co-ops do seem to be emerging.
Telephone co-ops plunged ahead for 20 years before the federal government got
Hopefully, this time, it won't
take so long. The forward-thinking New York City Council this year funded
Brooklyn's Center for Family Life to train two community organizations in co-op development
(they've already help start 6 co-ops so far, all with a focus on immigrant
communities.) But federal funding dwarfs what cities need, especially cash-strapped
cities whose populations are paying fewer local taxes.
Compared to the default method
of economic development—which usually involves giving tax breaks to lure an
out-of-town corporation—local co-ops may be one of the best ways to bring
quality jobs back to America.
Want to start a co-op? See Mira
Luna's article on Howto Start a Worker Coop.
Image by the USDA,
licensed under Creative
Thursday, October 11, 2012 12:25 PM
This article originally appeared at Chronicle.com.
Woody Guthrie has been having a blowout of a 100th birthday party,
and it's lasted all year long. Forty-five years after his death in 1967, you
can suddenly hear him everywhere.
Tribute concerts have been held around America and in Europe, many with conferences
attached, and the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in his Oklahoma hometown this summer swelled to
extra-large proportions for the centennial. Smithsonian Folkways has released a
lavishly documented box set, Woody at 100, that couples well-known compositions with rare
and unreleased performances. On October 14th, all will culminate in a Kennedy
Center Celebration Concert with an honor roll of musicians.
A handful of fine books have also been
timed to appear this year—including a "song biography," This Land Is Your Land:
Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song, by Robert
Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, and a biography cum memoir, Woody's Road,
by Guthrie's younger sister, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, and the Oklahoma historian
and folklorist Guy Logsdon. Guthrie's archives, long housed in Mt.
Kisco, N.Y., are being shifted
amid great fanfare to Tulsa,
Okla. There was even an
announcement by the historian and television personality Douglas
Brinkley and the polymathic performer Johnny Depp of a deal to publish the
recently located manuscript of Guthrie's previously unknown 1947 Dust Bowl
But after the confetti flutters to the
ground and the crowd disperses, exactly what will remain?
The instability of Guthrie's renown
owes something to his leftist politics, but that's only part of the story. Some
of it surely has to do with how he lived his life. He was a nonstop creator,
but never an entrepreneur. As a result, lots of his work went unnoticed until
he was "rediscovered" after he stopped performing—and despite recent
excavations, there's still a rich trove in the archive, including thousands of
song lyrics that he never recorded. Nor should we overlook the nature of
Guthrie's art itself: The accessibility of his writing masks its depth.
But it still remains to explain why it
has taken so long for Guthrie to get his due—not least from scholars. The man
was quite simply a titan in his field. In less than two decades of public life,
Guthrie created a vast body of work that continues to influence artists and
listeners. His subject matter—immigration, unemployment, bank foreclosures,
climate disasters—could not be more topical. Almost every American knows at
least a song or two by Woody Guthrie, so why don't they know more about the
The disjointed nature of Guthrie's artistic life, in which fame
followed him like a long-delayed echo, is the first place to search for
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in the
small town of Okemah, Okla., a few months before his namesake was
elected president in 1912. Guthrie's family never knew stability. His father's
work waned more often than it waxed, and Guthrie's mother, Nora, showed signs
early in her son's life of the Huntington's disease that eventually killed
her—and later him.
The Guthries were plagued by fire.
Woody's beloved older sister, Clara, died in 1919 of burns suffered in a
kitchen accident, and the family home burned down in 1927 as a result of a fire
that Nora Guthrie may have started. She was eventually institutionalized.
Guthrie's father, Charley Edward, permanently disabled by burns, moved to the
farming town of Pampa, Tex.
Guthrie later joined his father in Texas, and there he
found his musical vocation. He learned the guitar and started to perform. He
also married for the first time at age 21, and quickly became a father himself.
But beginning a lifelong pattern of restlessness, he soon drifted to Los Angeles, alone.
Guthrie's stay in Depression-era Southern California politicized him. New Deal reforms
were slow to reach the coast, as powerful agribusiness interests fought hard
for control of a poor and itinerant labor supply. That labor force included the
"Okies" who had fled the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl in
search of any sort of work. Appalled by the inequality he saw, Guthrie began to
write songs about it:
California is a Garden of Eden,
a paradise to live in or to see,
But believe it
or not, you won't find it so hot
If you ain't
got the do-re-mi.
He became a popular Los Angeles radio host in the late 1930s, and
honed a persona that was part Okie, part homespun storyteller, and part singing
activist. But Guthrie soon abandoned his radio gig and moved on—first back to
Texas in a failed attempt at family life, and then to New York City in 1940,
the year he wrote "This Land Is Your Land." In New York, Guthrie found a welcome among the
city's left-wing intelligentsia and began to make a living performing at
rallies, union halls, and other political gatherings.
He cut a record, Dust Bowl Ballads, for
RCA in 1940. It turned out to be the only record he would make for a major
label, and it was modestly received. He also recorded at the Library of
Congress at the invitation of the folk archivist Alan Lomax that year, though
those recordings weren't released until 1964.
Even in such congenial artistic
surroundings, Guthrie could not stay put for long. He bounced back and forth
from coast to coast in the early 1940s, sometimes with his new friend Pete
Seeger, a Harvard dropout who sensed the genius of this guitar-wielding knight
errant who was writing and singing on behalf of the poor, the disenfranchised,
the workers: people who needed a voice.
Guthrie—and also Seeger—was a Communist
sympathizer at this time, but Guthrie probably didn't join the party. When
asked about his politics, he had a one-liner at the ready: "I ain't a
Communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life." You could
say he was never an official joiner—or perhaps that he could never belong to a
group that would exclude anyone. In response to a question about his religion
toward the end of his life, he quipped: "All or none."
Guthrie was turning out words at an
astonishing rate during these years. "You rarely see a cross-out,"
Barry Ollman, owner of the largest collection of Guthrie's writings outside of
the singer's official archive, told me at this past summer's WoodyFest in
Okemah. "He knew what he wanted to say." In the spring of 1941, for
example, Guthrie took a 30-day songwriting job with the Bonneville Power
Administration, a New Deal project in the Pacific
Northwest. His assignment was to write songs about the dams that
were being built along the Columbia River. He
wrote 26 songs that month, including "Roll on, Columbia,"
now the official state folk song of Washington.
None of those songs gained any sort of
wide acclaim at the time. "This Land Is Your Land," for example, has
had a career arc as eccentric as its author's. Guthrie didn't record his lyrics
to the song until 1944, four years after he wrote them, and probably sang it on
the radio for the first time in 1945, the same year that the words were first
published. His recording wasn't released until 1952, when it appeared on a
children's record and was barely noticed. Not until the late 1950s did the song
Guthrie paid little attention to the
financial workings of the music business. He acted not so much out of
principle—he was glad to make money—but because he was perpetually on the move,
creatively as well as personally. In that respect, he was a true folksinger,
happy to just share his songs with folks. In a 1999 essay, Seeger recalled that
his friend's view of copyright was not exactly exclusive, and ran something
like this: "Anyone caught singing one of these songs ... will be a good
friend of mine, because that's why I wrote 'em."
The 1940s were the most stable period
in Guthrie's life, and his most creative. His autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory,
was published in 1943 to wide notice. Not only was he celebrated as the newest
man of letters of the Popular Front, a loose collection of leftist groups, but
he was also lauded by mainstream critics. The book received about 150 reviews; The New York Times
described him as "a poet" who was "on fire inside." Guthrie
recorded scores of songs for Moses Asch's small, privately owned label during
the 40s, but Asch released very few at the time, and they had no commercial
impact. Most of the recordings did not appear until the early 1960s—but they
eventually became a cornerstone of Guthrie's legacy.
Outside of a stint in the Merchant
Marine during World War II, Guthrie remained based in New York City for the rest of the decade, now
with his second wife, Marjorie, and a second set of children. That second
family included his son Arlo, who would become a famous musician in his own
right, and daughter Nora, her father's future archivist.
By the early 1950s Guthrie was
displaying the erratic behavior that eventually led to his own diagnosis with
Huntington's disease in 1952. Acquired from his mother (and passed on to two of
his eight children), Huntington's
usually presents in midlife. Like Lou Gehrig's disease, it is incurable. Unlike
Gehrig's disease, which leaves the mind intact as it destroys the body, Huntington's
destroys brain cells and causes cognitive changes (which led to a misdiagnosis
of insanity for Guthrie's mother), even as it erodes muscle control. It's a
long, bad death.
Always impulsive, Guthrie became
mercurial and quarrelsome. He divorced again, returned to California, remarried. He repaired to New York after his third
marriage ended and was taken in and cared for by Marjorie for the rest of his
life. Intermittently, and then continuously, confined, he lingered at various
hospitals for more than a decade before he died. In the process, he became, in
the words of his biographer Ed Cray, "a vague, almost legendary
He had always been well known among folk musicians, with Pete
Seeger in the lead. As a member of The Weavers, Seeger helped make Guthrie's
"So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" into a hit, and his thousands
of performances of "This Land Is Your Land" did much to fix the song
in national and international memory.
The publisher Howard (Howie) S. Richmond also did unsung but crucial work to keep
Guthrie's music in public view during the 1950s. At a time when Seeger and
other performers were being blacklisted for their Communist associations, Richmond touted Guthrie's
songs when Guthrie no longer could. Richmond
sold many to publishers of songbooks, especially those assembled for
children—thus allowing Guthrie's words to elude the blacklist. "This Land
Is Your Land" Richmond
gave away free.
A New York concert in 1956, organized as a
benefit for Guthrie's family, first brought the singer out of the shadows to
stand alongside his songs. The show put wind in the sails of the folk revival,
and Guthrie became a hero to a new generation folkies that included Phil Ochs,
Joan Baez, and most famously, Bob Dylan. Ochs and Dylan wrote memorable songs
about their idol ("Bound for Glory" and "Song to Woody").
Guthrie's recordings from the 1940s now began to appear, with extensive liner
notes. So did tribute collections of others singing his songs.
Performing at this year's WoodyFest,
the singer-songwriter Larry Long described Guthrie's life as a "creative
explosion that subdivided into thousands of subatomic particles that turned
into little Woodys." The efforts of those "little Woodys"—or
Woody's children, as they're more often described—enabled Woody Guthrie to
finally take his public place in the music he had helped to grow.
But Guthrie also remained a divisive
figure. David Amram, who has written a suite of "Symphonic Variations of a
Song by Woody Guthrie," suggested that Guthrie "was marginalized by
people who wanted to put a political slant on him." He became a lightening
rod for true believers right and left. "He was either a hero against the
enemy, or he was the enemy," said Amram. "That's understandable in a
boxing match, but not for a poet. Great artists are on everybody's side."
Nevertheless, Guthrie's personal
politics made him an easy adversary. The American Legion blocked an attempt to
honor him in his hometown in 1967 on the grounds that he was a Communist. Guy
Logsdon recalled at the folkfest that, in 1982, Gov. George Nigh of Oklahoma
forbade the mention of Guthrie's name at the celebration of Oklahoma
at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington,
D.C. (Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and
others helped organize an alternative "Tribute to Woody Guthrie."
Guthrie has also received surprisingly little scholarly attention.
There have been two good biographies—Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie, in 1980, and Ed
Man, 2004. (There's also a new short biography, Woody Guthrie: Writing
America's Songs, by Ronald Cohen, an emeritus professor at Indiana
University Northwest. And last year brought us the U.K.-based literary critic
Will Kaufman's Woody
Guthrie, American Radical.) But given Guthrie's immense stature and
influence, there is much less scholarship on his work than one might expect.
His radical politics would presumably not discourage academics, many of whom
lean left themselves. Why the diffidence?
Read the rest at Chronicle.com.
a professor of English at Fordham
University, is general
editor of The Cambridge History of the American Novel (2011).
Friday, October 28, 2011 10:58 AM
Considering the maddening details behind our nation’s current socio-economic struggles, it’s natural for many to ask: Where is the art to help us deal with our troubles?
In this second installment of the “This Art Is Your Art” series, we’ll look at what role popular music had played in helping people survive tough times in the past, and what role it is playing in the struggles of today.
It was bound to happen. After nearly four years of prolonged economic struggle
, lingering joblessness, an ever-increasing income gap, declining household wealth with an incongruent gain in corporate wealth, and a resulting explosion of mass frustration, people were bound to start asking: Where is the music that speaks to my problems? “Every successful movement has a soundtrack,”
New York Times
recently quoted former Rage Against the Machine member Tom Morello telling reporters during a rally at the Occupy Wall Street Protest. Others concurred with Morello. NPR’s Ann Powers had run a similar story two weeks earlier. 24-year-old college student Martían Hughes told the Times: “I have not heard a single song that sums up what we are trying to do here,” and a clever wag joked on Twitter: “
Really torn by the Occupy Wall Street movement because I agree with the message but I fucking hate drum circles.”
These concerns raise questions. First, has there actually been, during past struggles, music that
spurred on mass protests movements or that soothed and inspired struggling masses of Americans
? And, if so, is it reasonable for people to insist that such a soundtrack emerge for a protest movement that is so young it has yet to even decide what it is protesting exactly? And, perhaps most importantly, if we need music to raise us out of the muck, what is it about drum circles that fail to satisfy this desire?
Today, we can look back from our safe remove at past eras of suffering and despair—the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, or the sustained economic troubles of the 1970s—to examine the role music may have played in helping society deal with times of systemic troubles, how it may have given solace to the suffering or provided inspiration, and how it may even have helped affect change. And we can take heart in the fact that conditions today are the same as they ever were, and also completely different.
The Music of the 1930s: Daydreams and Defiance
The Great Depression struck the country with the suddenness of a howitzer shell. After a decade of brisk economic growth, bustling consumerism, and a resulting speculative bubble in Wall Street, the Black Tuesday stock market crash of October 29, 1929, ushered in a quick economic decline that would culminate in 1933 with a 25 percent unemployment rate (from a near-0 percent rate in 1929), a 37 percent drop in gross domestic product (from its high in 1929), and a debilitating deflationary spiral. Millions of displaced workers stood in bread lines. Families struggled with widespread anxiety and despair. Local union workers fought harassment by union-busting companies. Displaced and bankrupt workers were forced into itinerancy. And through it all an ineffectual government remained uncertain about the best course to take to solve the nation’s troubles.
At the time of the Wall Street crash, jazz was the ascendant style of music, and through the 1930s jazz vocalists such as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Rudy Vallee, Ted Lewis, Dick Powell, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, Kate Smith, Billie Holliday, and Ethel Waters would provide a soundtrack for the Depression. As with most eras of American popular music, the radio air waves of the 1930s were filled with fluff—songs of unrequited or jilted love, songs hoping for a chance at love, and songs celebrating the acquisition of love. But there was also, as early as 1930, an undercurrent in the time's popular music suggesting that life had changed. In January, 1930, “Why Was I Born?",
from the Jerome Kern musical Sweet Adeline, captured a sense of the year’s uncertainty in its lyrics:
Why was I born?
Why am I livin’?
What do I get?
What am I givin’?
Why do I want for things
dare not hope for?
What can I hope for?
I wish I knew.
The song that many consider to be the anthem of the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, followed in the same vein. Written in 1931 and recorded by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby in 1932, the song recounts the heartache and frustration of a narrator who, just a few years before, had helped build railroads and skyscrapers, and had marched alongside his victorious countrymen in 1918. That the song struck a nerve with thousands of displaced American workers was evident in the fact that both Crosby’s and Vallee’s recordings reached the top of the hit charts that year.
Beyond the music of the popular airwaves, a resurgent “folk” music in the 1930s—created by figures like Jim Garland, Woody Guthie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly—further explored the injustices faced by millions of ordinary citizens whose lives had been disrupted by the Depression. Songs like Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World No More” told stories about migrant workers, families reduced to poverty, and people forced to live in hovels and worker camps. Florence Reece’s 1931 song “Which Side Are You On?” channeled the anger and frustration of Kentucky miners facing union-busting activities during a labor strike. And Jim Garland’s 1933 song, “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister (All I Want),” spun the sentiments of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” into even more defiance.
We worked to build this country, Mister,
While you enjoyed a life of ease.
You’ve stolen all that we built, Mister,
Now our children starve and freeze.
So, I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.
Not all Great Depression music was as despairing. A certain American optimism filled the radio air waves alongside these other, more dour songs. In February, a song appeared in a movie called Chasing Rainbows
that would become another great anthem of the Great Depression. Though written in reference to the end of World War I, “Happy Days Are Here Again”
struck such a catchy, joyous message of hope that it inspired many Americans too look beyond their current troubles to when times would one day improve. The song’s sentiment was so popular it appeared in more than twenty movies during the Depression’s height (1930-1933), and then in nearly twenty more as the downturn lingered through the rest of the decade. Other songs based on this forget-your-troubles-be-happy model were common throughout the Depression: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” from the 1930 Broadway musical Lew Leslie's International Revue;“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” performed by Rudy Vallee in 1931; “
Help Yourself to Happiness,” from the Ziegfield Follies of 1931, “Looking at the Bright Side” performed by Gracie Field in 1932, and so on. One such song became so popular it helped make the film it appeared in—the Busby Berkeley choreographed spectacle Gold Diggers of 1933—the biggest box office hit of that year. “We’re in the Money,” written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, epitomized the cheering quality of much music of the Depression, even as it added a thumbed-nose to the whole idea of Depression in the final line of the chorus.
We’re in the money, we’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong.
Both aspects of Depression music—the indignation and defiance in songs like “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and the roll-up-your-sleeves optimism in songs like “We’re in the Money”—spoke volumes about the values of the times. While people suffered, faced hopeless job markets, and had their families torn apart, this was still an age when the idea “American know-how” had currency. Many of us have heard stories about how our grandparents and great grandparents survived the Great Depression through a collective sense of determination, pluck, and thriftiness. My own grandmother used to keep a drawer full of old, used tinfoil—even well into the 1980s—because “you just never know when you’ll need it.” Franklin Roosevelt, a Democratic presidential candidate who broke a 12-year Republican hold on the office in 1932, won election that year by emphasizing American’s natural perseverance and ingenuity, and stressing how much we have relied on each other to get by. In his inaugural address—the famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech—Roosevelt spoke words that might have come from the mouth of a folk singer of the era:
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline…. With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.
The 1970s: Songs of Anger and Songs of Pain
Considering the similar trajectory of the 1970s recession to the turmoil of the 1930s, it’s no surprise that the music of the later era followed a similar pattern to the music of the Depression. As with the Great Depression, the lingering recession of the 1970s came after a long period of economic expansion. Both downturns lingered for a decade or so after the initial recessions had technically ended, and both were precipitated by a single event. (In the 1970s, the event was the 1973 oil crisis that followed the OPEC oil embargo on the United States that began on October 17, 1973.) Therefore, it did not take long for American ears in the 1970s to turn to music that spoke to the pain of era. In November, 1973, Stevie Wonder released his single, “Living for the City.” While not as sharp a commentary as songs he would write a few years later, this composition strung together a blunt series of images depicting the nature of American city life. Meanwhile, that same week on the opposite end of the musical spectrum, country-western star Waylon Jennings released his depiction of a laid-off factory worker, “If We Make It Through December.” The similar sense of empathy that these two very different artists feel for the downtrodden reveals the universality of artistic concern in a troubled time.
Plenty more popular music depicted the troubles of the times as the nation struggled after 1973 with joblessness, inflation, and stagnant economic growth. J. Geil’s Band’s “Detroit Breakdown,” Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century,” Hudson Ford’s “Burn Baby Burn,” Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Winter in America” and spoken-word album “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Don McLean’s “Homeless Brother," 10-CC’s “Wall Street Shuffle,” and the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” all appeared in 1974. Note: While some have adapted this last song as an ode to American acquisitiveness, a glance at the song’s lyrics make clear the O’Jays’ original intentions:
For the love of money
People will lie, Lord, they will cheat
For the love of money
People don’t care who they hurt or beat …
I know money is the root of all evil
Do funny things to some people
Give me a nickel, brother can you spare a dime
Money can drive some people out of their minds
In 1975, gritty looks at the times included “Hard Times” and “Never Say You Can’t Survive” by Curtis Mayfield, “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers, and “Rich Get Richer” by the O’Jays. In 1976, Stevie Wonder filled an entire album—Songs in the Key of Life—with songs that reflected his increasing dismay and bitterness at the way the country was being run. The album included the stark and angry “Have a Talk with God,” “Village Ghetto Land,” and his tour de force “I Wish."
By 1977 and 1978, the times were so frustrating that artistic anger led to the rise of a new, underground musical genre. These so-called “punk” bands played spare, loud, and angry songs about
the frustrations of the working class—the class from which most of the performers came—and of the hypocrisy and control exhibited by the rich and powerful
. Among the punk acts that appeared between 1974 and 1977 were the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, t
he Sex Pistols, the Boomtown Rats, the Undertones, the Buzzcocks, the Damned, the Clash, the Suicide Commandos, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Crime, the Nuns, the Tupperwares, VOM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, the Slits, the Subversives, and the Runaways. “
All the power’s in the hands of people rich enough to buy it,” screamed the Clash angrily in its 1977 song “White Riot,” “while we walk the street too chicken to even try it.”
As this new, energetic underground flourished on the indignation and anger of the times, similar sentiments filtered into even the most mainstream of music between 1976 and 1979. Songs like Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Angry Young Man” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Factory” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” more tunefully expressed the frustration felt by young people with few options for success in their lives. Even the biggest band in the world at the time, the hyper-successful Rolling Stones, who had little real reason to be upset in 1978, couldn’t keep the frustrations of the time from creeping into their feel-good brand of rock ’n’ roll. Their song “Shattered” spoke of the rising crime rates, the “money grabbers,” and the maggots overrunning New York City. “You got rats on the West Side,” Mick Jagger moaned, “bed bugs Uptown. What a mess, this town’s in tatters. I’ve been shattered.”
And you know once Mick Jagger is feeling frustrated, then it’s a safe bet that the masses are dealing with some pretty serious troubles.
Today: Music of Distraction
The breadth and depth of the anger and the haunting depictions of pain that was commonly written into the music of the 1930s and 1970s—as well as the popularity of such songs among the angry and frustrated masses—might lead one to expect a similar occurrence today. Thus, the questions raised today by Tom Morello and Ann Powers
are completely valid, especially when considering the breadth and depth of musical response to bad times in the past. While mainstream pop charts of today are, as in times of past, filled with songs of frivolous distraction and the obsessive pursuit of (or pining after the loss of) love/sex, what’s different now is that, unlike in the past, there has been little sign of the troubles of these times in the charts of musical hits. (Just to cite one example, in the Billboard list of the top 100 hits for 2010
there was only one song—Jay-Z’s somewhat gentle depiction his life on the streets of New York, “Empire State of Mind” (#21)—that includes any sort of social content, and no song that examines the anger or frustration of the times.) If pop music is to be believed today, no one seems to care to hear their own life frustrations reflected back at them in their music. (If pop music is to be believed, in 2010 Americans spent its spare time clubbing, cruising, and “doing it big all over the globe.”) In pop music today, no one seems to have any interest in venting their worries and frustrations or in being uplifted beyond the troubles of the current times.
There may be several reasons for this social disconnect in mainstream pop music. In an age when the lilting spiritual-cum-protest song “Kumbaya” is deemed an embarrassing national joke, we may have come to consider ourselves too savvy, too cynical, too clever by half to have our emotions and feelings depicted and manipulated by something so banal as a song. Indeed, several musical acts, in several different musical genres, go so far as to suggest that the protest song is dead. This includes the heavy metal band Foundation, who released their song “No One Writes Protest Songs Anymore” in 2011; the modern folk-rock group GioSafari, who produced an entire album called Protest Songs (Are Dead) in 2011; and, finally, and most famously, there’s Hugh Laurie’s send up of the protest song, “Protest Song.” This song
appeared on national TV just as the country began tipping into the economic abyss in 2008. As Laurie sings it, the answers to the country’s lingering problems—“poor keep gettin’ hungry, and the rich keep gettin’ fat,” etc.—are easy: “All we gotta do,” he sings, before mumbling an incoherent (nonexistent) answer.
So we may have—despite the wishes of Morello (wishes that, actually, may be self-motivated; see more on this below) and Powers—moved as a culture beyond the protest song. It’s possible that we live in a time when our values have turned so inward into personal introspection and self-regard that we find it impossible to gather together and sing about a common cause. Or else protest music may simply be too embarrassing a relic of the past, of a time when such well-meaning sentiment actually meant something. Today is a different age, we prefer to think, when problems are so complex, so difficult to solve that they’re not even worth bringing up in polite society. Considering all of these attitudes, it makes sense that the music that has thus far dominated the Occupy movement—the ever-present drum circle—is essentially an act of solipsism, in which a person with a loud percussive instrument expresses himself loudly without regard to whether or not anyone really wants to listen to the racket. And this may be the one object-lesson of today’s protests: Most of us, no matter our sympathies one way or another, can agree on one thing. We hate the music of the Occupy movement.
There may also be another, somewhat related reason that protest songs today simply don’t have the sticking power of the past. We may not only be prone to dismiss such music as out of touch with the times, but, as Live Aid founder Midge Ure suggests, we may also be living in a culture that makes it impossible to hear such music. “The protest song isn’t quite as relevant right now,” Ure said at a recent conference on politics in the digital age. “The world certainly has enough turmoil going on in it for people to write about. I just think maybe the vehicle to hear those songs has changed, or broken, or disappeared.” As Casey Rae-Hunter of the Future of Music Coalition recently pointed out in an NPR story, ours is a “fractured culture,” sliced up in so many different ways that we lack much common cultural ground now. In an age when people carry in their pockets devices that hold upwards of 10,000 songs of their own choosing, when satellite and internet radios offer access to hundreds and thousands of radio stations of every particular bent, when Spotify allows you to tap into the music collections of your entire network of friends, when we have, in a word, unlimited amounts of choice about which music to consume, it makes sense that songs of complex or troubled sentiment might be lost in the mix.
Still, the fracturing of our culture is not necessarily a completely bad thing, as Rae-Hunter explains, because it gives a “plethora of folks who otherwise would’ve had no shot of getting on commercial radio” a change to be heard. And, as it happens, this dynamic is analogous to the changing nature of protest that has become apparent in the Occupy movement itself. Today, the traditional trappings of protest—rallies, speeches, song circles—seem less important than the constant stream of chatter that is made possible through social media. “In the 1960s music was the social media of the day,” said Ralph F. Young, a professor of history at Temple University, in a recent Time magazine story. “Today protesters have Facebook and Twitter to disseminate their message.” And in an age of flattened discourse—made possible by universal access to the Twitter stream—music ends up being far less of a player in the debate than in the past.
In the end, apparently, it may no longer really matter whether or not artists are writing meaningful music about the times. Which is unfortunate in a way, because
in fact there are plenty of songs of protest and complaint to be found if you’re willing to look beyond your own iPod’s playlists. The New York Times story, of course, lists a few—by Ry Cooder, Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, and Aloe Blacc. But the list could be much more expansive, including a wide range of genres and takes, including: “Survival of a People” by Gabriel’s Grandzjuk, “Sounds Like Life to Me” by Darryl Worley, “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” by John Wesley Harding, “Ponzi” by the Felice Brothers, “Shutting Detroit Down” by John Rich, and entire albums by Robb Johnson (Some Recent Protest Songs) and the Nightwatchman, a.k.a. Tom Morello—no wonder he wants us to reconsider the protest song (World Wide Rebel Songs).
And then there’s my own personal current favorite song about the times, one that I would gladly share with anyone who comes within reach of my own ear buds: Jeremy Messersmith’s recent composition “Blue Sky (Corporations Are People My Friend).” In this simple, tuneful song Messersmith finds an accessible, endearing way to put his musical thumb right on the deep, raging, universal vein of frustration that is nagging at the so-called “99 percent.”
We don’t have money
We don’t have guns
Off shore accounts
Or mutual funds
But from the suburbs to trailer parks
We’ve got each other, and that’s a start.
While Messersmith’s song may not change the world, in this age of iTunes and Spotify, and it may not find its way onto the Billboard charts, by sharing his take on the times through this song I can honestly say he’s changed my life just a little bit. And that’s a start.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
Read more of the “This Art Is Your Art” series.
Lead image by David Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Additional image by Jessica Warren is licensed courtesy of Getty Images. © 2011 Jessica Warren. © 2011 Getty Images. All rights reserved.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011 11:43 AM
This post originally appeared at
As intense protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street continue to grow, it is worth asking: Why now? The answer is not obvious. After all, severe income and wealth inequality have long plagued the United States. In fact, it could reasonably be claimed that this form of inequality is part of the design of the American founding -- indeed, an integral part of it.
Income inequality has worsened over the past several years and is at its highest level since the Great Depression. This is not, however, a new trend. Income inequality has been growing at rapid rates for three decades. As journalist Tim Noah describedthe process:
“During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth -- the ‘seven fat years’ and the ‘long boom.’ Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80%of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1%. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20%. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads.”
The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated the trend, but not radically: the top 1% of earners in America have been feeding ever more greedily at the trough for decades.
In addition, substantial wealth inequality is so embedded in American political culture that, standing alone, it would not be sufficient to trigger citizen rage of the type we are finally witnessing. The American Founders were clear that they viewed inequality in wealth, power, and prestige as not merely inevitable, but desirable and, for some, even divinely ordained. Jefferson praised “the natural aristocracy” as “the most precious gift of nature” for the “government of society.” John Adams concurred: “It already appears, that there must be in every society of men superiors and inferiors, because God has laid in the… course of nature the foundation of the distinction.”
Not only have the overwhelming majority of Americans long acquiesced to vast income and wealth disparities, but some of those most oppressed by these outcomes have cheered it loudly. Americans have been inculcated not only to accept, but to revere those who are the greatest beneficiaries of this inequality.
In the 1980s, this paradox -- whereby even those most trampled upon come to cheer those responsible for their state -- became more firmly entrenched. That’s because it found a folksy, friendly face, Ronald Reagan, adept at feeding the populace a slew of Orwellian clichés that induced them to defend the interests of the wealthiest. “A rising tide,” as President Reagan put it, “lifts all boats.” The sum of his wisdom being: it is in your interest when the rich get richer.
Implicit in this framework was the claim that inequality was justified and legitimate. The core propagandistic premise was that the rich were rich because they deserved to be. They innovated in industry, invented technologies, discovered cures, created jobs, took risks, and boldly found ways to improve our lives. In other words, they deserved to be enriched. Indeed, it was in our common interest to allow them to fly as high as possible because that would increase their motivation to produce more, bestowing on us ever greater life-improving gifts.
We should not, so the thinking went, begrudge the multimillionaire living behind his 15-foot walls for his success; we should admire him. Corporate bosses deserved not our resentment but our gratitude. It was in our own interest not to demand more in taxes from the wealthiest but less, as their enhanced wealth -- their pocket change -- would trickle down in various ways to all of us.
This is the mentality that enabled massive growth in income and wealth inequality over the past several decades without much at all in the way of citizen protest. And yet something has indeed changed. It’s not that Americans suddenly woke up one day and decided that substantial income and wealth inequality are themselves unfair or intolerable. What changed was the perception of how that wealth was gotten and so of the ensuing inequality as legitimate.
Many Americans who once accepted or even cheered such inequality now see the gains of the richest as ill-gotten, as undeserved, as cheating. Most of all, the legal system that once served as the legitimizing anchor for outcome inequality, the rule of law -- that most basic of American ideals, that a common set of rules are equally applied to all -- has now become irrevocably corrupted and is seen as such.
While the Founders accepted outcome inequality, they emphasized -- over and over -- that its legitimacy hinged on subjecting everyone to the law’s mandates on an equal basis. Jefferson wrote that the essence of America would be that “the poorest laborer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionaire, and generally on a more favored one whenever their rights seem to jar.” Benjamin Franklin warned that creating a privileged legal class would produce “total separation of affections, interests, political obligations, and all manner of connections” between rulers and those they ruled. Tom Paine repeatedly railed against “counterfeit nobles,” those whose superior status was grounded not in merit but in unearned legal privilege.
After all, one of their principal grievances against the British King was his power to exempt his cronies from legal obligations. Almost every Founder repeatedly warned that a failure to apply the law equally to the politically powerful and the rich would ensure a warped and unjust society. In many ways, that was their definition of tyranny.
Americans understand this implicitly. If you watch a competition among sprinters, you can accept that whoever crosses the finish line first is the superior runner. But only if all the competitors are bound by the same rules: everyone begins at the same starting line, is penalized for invading the lane of another runner, is barred from making physical contact or using performance-enhancing substances, and so on.
If some of the runners start ahead of others and have relationships with the judges that enable them to receive dispensation for violating the rules as they wish, then viewers understand that the outcome can no longer be considered legitimate. Once the process is seen as not only unfair but utterly corrupted, once it’s obvious that a common set of rules no longer binds all the competitors, the winner will be resented, not heralded.
That catches the mood of America in 2011. It may not explain the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it helps explain why it has spread like wildfire and why so many Americans seem instantly to accept and support it. As was not true in recent decades, the American relationship with wealth inequality is in a state of rapid transformation.
It is now clearly understood that, rather than apply the law equally to all, Wall Street tycoons have engaged in egregious criminality -- acts which destroyed the economic security of millions of people around the world -- without experiencing the slightest legal repercussions. Giant financial institutions were caught red-handedengaging in massive, systematic fraud to foreclose on people’s homes and the reaction of the political class, led by the Obama administration, was to shield them from meaningful consequences. Rather than submit on an equal basis to the rules, through an oligarchical, democracy-subverting control of the political process, they now control the process of writing those rules and how they are applied.
Today, it is glaringly obvious to a wide range of Americans that the wealth of the top 1% is the byproduct not of risk-taking entrepreneurship, but of corrupted control of our legal and political systems. Thanks to this control, they can write laws that have no purpose than to abolish the few limits that still constrain them, as happened during the Wall Street deregulation orgy of the 1990s. They can retroactively immunize themselves for crimes they deliberately committed for profit, as happened when the 2008 Congress shielded the nation’s telecom giants for their role in Bush’s domestic warrantless eavesdropping program.
It is equally obvious that they are using that power not to lift the boats of ordinary Americans but to sink them. In short, Americans are now well aware of what the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Illinois’s Dick Durbin, blurted out in 2009 about the body in which he serves: the banks “frankly own the place.”
If you were to assess the state of the union in 2011, you might sum it up this way: rather than being subjected to the rule of law, the nation’s most powerful oligarchs control the law and are so exempt from it; and increasing numbers of Americans understand that and are outraged. At exactly the same time that the nation’s elites enjoy legal immunity even for egregious crimes, ordinary Americans are being subjected to the world's largest and one of its harshest penal states, under which they are unable to secure competent legal counsel and are harshly punished with lengthy prison terms for even trivial infractions.
In lieu of the rule of law -- the equal application of rules to everyone -- what we have now is a two-tiered justice system in which the powerful are immunized while the powerless are punished with increasing mercilessness. As a guarantor of outcomes, the law has, by now, been so completely perverted that it is an incomparably potent weapon for entrenching inequality further, controlling the powerless, and ensuring corrupted outcomes.
The tide that was supposed to lift all ships has, in fact, left startling numbers of Americans underwater. In the process, we lost any sense that a common set of rules applies to everyone, and so there is no longer a legitimizing anchor for the vast income and wealth inequalities that plague the nation.
That is what has changed, and a growing recognition of what it means is fueling rising citizen anger and protest. The inequality under which so many suffer is not only vast, but illegitimate, rooted as it is in lawlessness and corruption. Obscuring that fact has long been the linchpin for inducing Americans to accept vast and growing inequalities. That fact is now too glaring to obscure any longer.
Glenn Greenwald is a former constitutional and civil rights litigator and a current contributing writer at Salon.com. He is the author of two New York Times bestselling books on the Bush administration's executive power and foreign policy abuses. His just-released book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful(Metropolitan Books), is a scathing indictment of America's two-tiered system of justice. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.
Copyright 2011 Glenn Greenwald
Image by david_shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 14, 2011 12:22 PM
In a buck-stops-here, brass-tacks era of hard economic choices, there will always be some who ask the inevitable question: What is the purpose of art? As it turns out, there are nearly as many answers to this question as there are artists. To Picasso, the purpose of art was “washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Josef Albers thought art was for visualizing “the human attitude towards life, towards the world,” while Jean Anouilh thought art was meant “to give life a shape.” Even ancient Aristotle, when he wasn’t inventing logic, had an opinion on the matter. “The aim of art,” he said, “is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
Despite this divergence of opinion, you’ll note that these answers agree on one thing. Art is definitively worth something. It's not an idle pursuit meant “to waste time,” or “to fill empty space.” Art is about being engaged in the world, about grappling with what needs to be grappled with.
And in fact, despite the grim view of policy makers, when times are tough people tend particularly to seek art out. During
past national moments of crisis—the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, and the prolonged 1970s R
a wide number of artists addressed the challenges of their times through their music, visual art, films, plays, and literature, and
people soaked their art up.
Consider the song
“This Land Is Your Land,” for a moment. Written by Woody Guthrie at the tail end of the Great Depression, just a year or so before the United States entered into World War II, it was meant as a response to the Irving Berlin’s blandly patriotic song, “God Bless America.” Though Berlin wrote his song in 1918, in 1938 he revised it for the singer Kate Smith to use on her weekly radio show. Guthrie grew tired of hearing Smith sing the song, which he considered insipid and out-of-touch, so he wrote a more realistic, if sweeping, portrait of the country that also encapsulated the feelings of people who had been shut out from the good life during the Great Depression. The genius of “This Land Is Your Land,” perhaps, was that the Depression-inspired protest in the song’s central lyric (“This land is made for you and me”) was subtle, voiced not as a complaint or call to arms but as a positive (yet still socialistic) sentiment of equality and belonging. At the time of the song’s composition, Guthrie was experiencing minor success in his career. He sang on and off in those years for radio shows in Los Angeles and New York, and he performed around the country at small venues. As the country reveled in its victory over fascism after 1945, folk singers like Guthrie faded from the collective consciousness along with their music. But Guthrie and “This Land Is Your Land” would rightly come back in favor. In the late 1950s, city kids began revisiting and reinterpreting the folk music of the earlier age, and Guthrie was a key figure in this revival. “This Land Is Your Land” would become Guthrie's signature song in these years, and over time it would come to occupy a central position in the American musical canon. (This is evident in the fact that the Library of Congress chose to include the song as one of the first 50 recordings to be preserved in the National Recording Registry alongside recordings of Gershwin playing “Rhapsody in Blue,” Bessie Smith singing “Downhearted Blues,” Elvis Presley’s “Sun Records sessions,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.)
If you look at the long view, art’s strength
and perhaps its highest purpose
is its ability to lift humans above their temporary troubles. When Guthrie sang of his people standing in lines at the relief office, “some grumblin’ and some wonderin’,” he was not fretting over his own petty concerns and struggles, he was making a universal and beautiful statement about the human condition. This is why it’s natural
as the maddening details behind our nation’s current socio-economic struggles are revealed daily
for us to wonder today: Where is the art to help us cope with our troubles? Where is the contemporary music to ease our aching souls? Where are the movies and plays and books to help us examine and understand the human condition? Where is the visual art that lifts us with visions of a better world?
In this space over the next few months, I will explore these particular questions about the arts of today
first popular music; then theatrical and literary forms like films, plays, radio and TV shows, and books; and finally visual art
—by examining the fraying and neglected artistic infrastructure of our fraying and neglected nation for any sign of a clear artistic response to our current “Great Recession.” Also, to determine the state of our national psyche today relative to past times of struggle I will compare and contrast the art being made today to that during the Great Depression of the 1930s and during the 1970s Recession (ca. 1973-1979).
If you have suggestions for any contemporary music, movies, books, plays, or visual art works you think should be included in this discussion, please send them along. (After all, we’re talking about art that was made for you and me.) Ultimately, the hope is that we can, together, discover the most artful and creative ways of understanding and rising above this mess we're in currently.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
The photograph used above is a work for hire created prior to 1968 by a staff photographer at
New York World-Telegram & Sun
It is part of a collection donated to the Library of Congress. Per the deed of gift, New York World-Telegram & Sun dedicated to the public all rights it held for the photographs in this collection upon its donation to the Library. Thus, there are no known restrictions on the usage of this photograph.
Friday, December 19, 2008 3:39 PM
Numerous journalists are joining the ranks of the unemployed. Can the federal government help put them back to work?
In an essay for the New Republic and an interview with On the Media, Mark Pinsky suggests that it can—by reviving the Federal Writers' Project, an initiative established in 1935 under the Works Progress Administration.
Jerrold Hirsch, who wrote a book about the Depression-era project, told On the Media that it enlisted out-of-work writers, journalists, librarians, and others “[t]o rediscover America, to give us a new and broader knowledge of the very country we lived in and not to see it in narrow, exclusive terms of just the dominant culture.” They recorded music, conducted oral histories, collected slave narratives, and worked on creating thorough guides to each state.
Pinsky’s vision for the project's 21st-century sibling isn’t quite as extensive—he described it to OTM’s Brooke Gladstone as the “Federal Writers’ Project Light.” He told her the program would give small grants for “research projects, mostly interviews, that would be approved and put out by community colleges and universities,” and would document important aspects of American life like “the modern immigrant experience” and “the transition to a green economy.” The public benefit, he writes in TNR, would be documentation for the ages of “those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media.”
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