Give ‘Em Hell, Bernie Sanders

Give ‘Em Hell, Bernie Sanders

The above article about Bernie Sanders is by Matt Taibbi.  I think there are some great questions posed in it about the state of our democracy.  

Kurt Vonnegut In Honor of Labor Day


Yesterday I mentioned that I had been reading the Kurt Vonnegut collection If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?  I thought that the following speech, when he received the Carl Sandburg Award in 2001, would be the perfect thing to post for Labor Day.  In the book this speech is called Don’t Despair If You Never Went to College.  

We are America’s Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people.  Whenever I swim in the ocean I feel as though I am swimming in chicken soup.  

I thank you for this honor, although it is a reminder that I am not nearly the passionate and effective artists Carl Sandburg was.  And we are surely grateful for his fog which came in on little cat feet.  But tonight seems an apt occasion as well for celebrating what he and other American socialists did during the first half of the past century, with art, with eloquence, with organizing skills, to elevate the self-respect, the dignity, and political acumen of American wage earners, of our working class.  

That wage earners, without social position or higher education or wealth, are of inferior intellect is surely belied by the fact that two of the most splendid writers and speakers on the deepest subjects in American history were self-taught workmen.  I speak of course, of Carl Sandburg of Illinois, and Abraham Lincoln, of Kentucky, then Indiana, and finally Illinois.  Both, may I say, were continental, freshwater people like ourselves.  

Hooray for our team!

I know upper-class graduates of Yale University who can’t talk or write worth a nickel.  

Socialism is no more an evil word than Christianity.  Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition.  Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal, and should not starve.  

Adolf Hitler, incidentally, was a two-fer.  He named his party the National Socialists, the Nazis.  Hitler also had crosses painted on his tanks and airplanes.  The swastika wasn’t a pagan symbol, as so many people believe.  It was a working person’s Christian cross, made of axes, of tools.  

About Stalin’s shuttered churches, and those in China today:  Such suppression of religion was supposedly justified by Karl Marx’s statement that “Religion is the opium of the people.”  Marx said that back in 1844, when opium and opium derivatives were the only effective pain killers anyone could take.  Marx himself had taken them.  He was grateful for the temporary relief they had given him.  He was simply noticing, and surely not condemning, the fact that religion could also be comforting to those in economic or social distress.  It was a casual truism, not a dictum.  

When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn’t even freed our slaves yet.  Whom do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then?  Karl Marx or the United States of America?

Stalin was happy to take Marx’s truism as a decree, and Chinese tyrants as well, since it seemingly empowered them to put preachers out of business who might speak ill of them or their goals.  

The statement has also entitled many in the country to say that socialists are anti-religion, are anti-God, and therefor absolutely loathsome.  

I never met Carl Sandburg, and I wish I had.  I would have been tongue-tied in the presence of such a national treasure.  I did get to know one socialist of his generation, who was Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis.  After graduating from Harvard, he went to work as a coal miner, urging his working-class brothers to organize, in order to get better pay and safer working conditions.  He also led protesters at the execution of the anarchists Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts in 1927.  Another of our freshwater ancestors was Eugene Victor Debs, of Terre Haute, Indiana.  A former locomotive fireman, Eugene Debs ran for president of the United States four times, the fourth time in 1920, when he was in prison.  He said, “As long as there is a lower class, I’m in it.  As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there’s a soul in prison, I am not free.”  Some platform.  

A paraphrase of the Beatitudes.  

And again:  hooray for our team.  

And our own beloved Carl Sandburg had this to say about the fire-belching evangelist Billy Sunday:

You come along – tearing your shirt – yelling about Jesus. I want to know what the hell you know about Jesus.  

Jesus had a way of talking soft, and everybody except a few bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem liked to have Jesus around because he never made any fake passes, and he helped the sick and gave people hope.  

You come along calling us all damn fools – so fierce the froth of your own spit slobbers over your lips – always blabbering we’re all going to hell straight off and you know all about it.  

I’ve read Jesus’s words.  I know what he said.  You don’t throw any scare into me.  I’ve got your number.  I know how much you know about Jesus.  

You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to fix it up all right with them by giving them mansions in the skies after they’re dead and the worms have eaten ’em.  

You tell $6-a-week department store girls all they need is Jesus.  You take a steel trust wop, dead without having lived, gray and shrunken at forty years of age, and you tell him to look at Jesus on the cross and he’ll be all right.  

You tell poor people they don’t need any more money on pay day, and even if it’s fierce to be out of a job, Jesus’ll fix that all right, all right – all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.  

Jesus played it different.  The bankers and the corporation lawyers of Jerusalem got their murderers to go after Jesus because Jesus wouldn’t play their game.  

I don’t want a lot of gab from a bunk shooter in my religion.  

Hooray for our team.  

And I now take advantage of your hospitality by declaring myself a child of the Chicago Renaissance,  powerfully humanized not only by Carl Sandburg, but by Edgar Lee Masters and Jane Addams and Louis Sullivan and Lake Michigan, and on and on.  

I propose a toast to an individual who wasn’t an artist or working stiff of any description.  She wasn’t even  human being.  Ladies and gentlemen of Chicago, I give you Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.  

Sherlock Holmes and the Communist Threat

Over the last week I watched the excellent BBC show Sherlock.  It’s a modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson.  Finishing the show, season three is not yet available on Netflix, I was left wanting more.  I was able to get almost the entire collection of the original Sherlock Holmes stories on Amazon for a mere 99 cents.  Last night I began with the first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet.  I was amazed at how entertaining the writing was for something published in 1887.  I don’t know quite what I expected, but I guess I thought the writing would be slightly more antiquated.

At the same time as this I am also finishing up Tim Weiner’s Enemies: A History of the FBI.  Hoover, during the 30’s, did what he could to help destroy the labor movement in this country.  He used fear, intimidation, and red baiting to prosecute many people who were communists or socialists even if they had done nothing illegal.  The FBI would often present trumped up evidence and coach witnesses to put those that were trying to organize behind bars or at least out of business.  Socialists and communists were often deemed to have been influenced by foreign powers.

One can look all throughout our history to see how the terms socialism and communism have been used to induce fear in the general public.  One can look at the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950’s for a prime example.  However, if you see how the right often demonizes Obama as a socialist now, which he clearly is not, you will see that this practice has never entirely gone away.

While I am reading A Study in Scarlet there is a clue left at the first crime scene where the word rache is written in blood.  Although one of the inspectors thinks that someone was trying to write Rachel without finishing Sherlock Holmes quickly makes a correction that the word means revenge in German.  The next day in the different papers many of them point out that this crime was probably the work of a foreign socialist member or group because of the foreign word.  Holmes finds the papers to be quite comical in how off they are as to who committed the crime.

What I’m trying to get at is using the word communist or socialist to cause fear in the general public is one of the oldest tricks in the book.  Any talking head or politician that uses theses terms should immediately be viewed with suspicion.  They are most likely trying to avoid any real debate and are trying to muddy the waters with a tired old attack.  Shame on anyone that falls for it.

The Road to Socialism

The word socialism doesn’t really mean anything anymore.  It’s kind of like the term rock n roll.  It’s been used by so many people in so many different ways that it could and does mean a whole host of things.  Because of this it lacks any specific meaning.  Most of the time socialism in this country is used by the right wing to conjure up images of the boogey man.  The number one definition in Webster’s Dictionary about socialism is: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.  This doesn’t help us very much I’m afraid.   It only touches upon the many ways in which socialism has been used throughout the years.

If you want to know where I stand, I am a fan of the kind of democratic socialism that they have in many European countries.  I think the free market is the best and most dynamic creator of wealth and innovation.  However, I think the free market is not good at tackling certain things like health care, the environment, and the common good when it comes to things like infrastructure and public spaces.  We already do have sort of a hybrid system in this country.  Things like Social Security and Medicaid are socialist programs, but I think that we need to go further to the left, while still leaving room for the free market to play a large part.

One of the best arguments for socialism, and critiques of those who don’t understand how to sell it to people, is the second half of George Orwell’s book The Road to Wigan Pier.  Although Orwell has been claimed by many on the right wing because of his warnings of Big Brother, Orwell actually argued for socialism.  However he was highly critical of the left, not because he disagreed with what they were trying to achieve, but the way in which they were trying to achieve it.

I find one of his arguments particularly interesting.  He claims that many of the left do themselves no favors in attacking people’s tribal and religious affiliations.  He claims that when people are poor and down and out they cling to these things that create their identity, because it’s all that they have.  If you want to move the white blue collar worker, who in this country often votes Republican, towards a fairer more socialist form of government, you should not make attacks of their culture part of your argument.  I’m not claiming that he is right, though I do see some validity to his argument.  I just think it is an interesting place to start a debate.

The first half of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier deals with the plight of the working poor in England.  He is mostly dealing with the miners, but he does touch upon others as well.  If you are interested in social justice, moving towards a fairer economic system, and the history of workers and politics in general, I highly recommend this book.

I don’t think that through my writing here that I have defined socialism in any definitive terms.  At this point it’s a word that has been dragged through the mud and has evaporated into the ether.  But I do believe in economic social justice.  We need to take care of the less fortunate in our society and give them a place at the table.  I’ll get behind any term that accomplishes that.