Deja vu

January 10, 2016

I am the one percentAs I continue reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath I continue to be startled by the parallels to the present moment in the United States. With just slight alterations —a word here and there, a phrase— Steinbeck’s narrative could be easily be inserted in a paragraph in an article in any current media venue today, without missing a beat.

Steinbeck was writing of the great migration west of 1930s dustbowl farmers during the period of the great depression and the economic disparities that drove some to starvation while others prospered. What he portrays is a society starkly divided between rich and poor which is not unlike that in which we live where most wealth floats to the top 1% while the rest spiral down more deeply into poverty, non-living wages and homelessness. Then as now it was all about jobs. The conditions causing joblessness may not have been the same then as now but the motivation of elites like the Koch brothers, big bankers, corporate and hedge fund managers, etc. to drive wages down stems from the same profound greed. And the method used to drive wages down was, then as now, to pit the poor against the poor *(or, in 2016, to pit the diminishing middle class against the poorer). This is now done on both a national and global scale, of course, pitting foreign workers against domestic workers through trade pacts such as NAFTA and the current TPP, but the method portrayed by Steinbeck is precisely the same:

“And the migrants streamed in on the highways,” Steinbeck wrote, “When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it—fought with a low wage. If that fella’ll work for thirty cents, I’ll work for twenty-five…If he’ll take twenty-five, I’ll do it for twenty…No, me, I’m hungry. I’ll work for fifteen. I’ll work for food. Me, I’ll work for a little piece of meat.”

It was like that, and still is. At a time when the stock market remains high and corporate profits soar into the millions and billions while wages remain stagnant, or fall, it’s as if we’re caught in an echo of past events, a cruel déjà vu engineered by politicians and lobbyists (especially of one party) and owners of private interests fattening themselves on the misery and angst of others.

Steinbeck again:

“And this was good, for wages went down and prices stayed up. The great owners were glad and they sent out more handbills (read: pushed more trade agreements) to bring more people in. And wages went down and prices stayed up. And pretty soon now we’ll have serfs again.”

And then as now there was consolidation —acquisitions and mergers to get an even bigger piece of the pie:

“And…the great owners and the companies invented a new method (they) bought a cannery. And … cut the price of fruit below the cost of raising it. And as cannery owner he paid himself a low price for the fruit and kept the price of canned goods up and took his profit. And the little farmers who owned no canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks, and the companies who also owned the canneries. As time went on, there were fewer farms. The little farmers moved into town for a while and exhausted their credit, exhausted their friends, their relatives (and fell into homelessness). And the roads were crowded with men ravenous for work, murderous for work.”

And, as if predicting the anger that elevates bigots and egomaniacs like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to the position of saviors, Steinbeck goes on to give us our current circumstances as a sequel of America Past:

And for the companies and the banks it worked: “The fields (profits) were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads, Steinbeck wrote. “Their granaries (portfolios) were full (while) the children of the poor grew up rachitic, and the pustules of pellagra swelled on their sides. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger (or extreme inequity) and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, (for lobbyists, for media companies)… On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.”

And that anger, coupled with ignorance and hate, is not only splitting apart one of our two major political parties, but may well split apart the nation and turn us in a direction starkly away from the ideals set down in our constitution as demagogues, like lice, prospered.


*Parenthetical remarks, mine.


You whom I could not save,
Listen to me

Can we agree Kevlar
Backpacks shouldn’t be needed

for children walking to school? 
Those same children

also shouldn’t require a suit
of armor when standing

on their front lawns, or snipers
to watch their backs

as they eat at McDonalds.
They shouldn’t have to stop

to consider the speed
of a bullet or how it might

reshape their bodies. But
one winter, back in Detroit,

I had one student
who opened a door and died.

It was the front
door to his house, but

it could have been any door,
and the bullet could have written

any name. The shooter
was thirteen years old

and was aiming
at someone else. But

a bullet doesn’t care
about “aim,” it doesn’t

distinguish between
the innocent and the innocent,

and how was the bullet
supposed to know this

child would open the door
at the exact wrong moment

because his friend
was outside and screaming

for help. Did I say
I had “one” student who

opened a door and died? 
That’s wrong.

There were many. 
The classroom of grief

had far more seats
than the classroom for math

though every student
in the classroom for math

could count the names
of the dead.

A kid opens a door. The bullet
couldn’t possibly know,

nor could the gun, because
“guns don’t kill people,” they don’t

have minds to decide
such things, they don’t choose

or have a conscience,
and when a man doesn’t

have a conscience, we call him
a psychopath. This is how

we know what type of assault rifle
a man can be,

and how we discover
the hell that thrums inside

each of them. Today,
there’s another

shooting with dead
kids everywhere. It was a school,

a movie theater, a parking lot.
The world

is full of doors.
And you, whom I cannot save,

you may open a door

and enter a meadow, or a eulogy.
And if the latter, you will be

mourned, then buried
in rhetoric.

There will be
monuments of legislation,

little flowers made
from red tape.

What should we do? we’ll ask
again. The earth will close

like a door above you. 
What should we do?

And that click you hear?
That’s just our voices,

the deadbolt of discourse
sliding into place.
by Matthew Olzmann
originally published January 5, 2016,
by the Academy of American Poets

dust bowl

This falls under the category: The more things change the more they stay the same.

We’re in a situation where the rich are in the process of taking over complete governance of the United States. The US has always been a place where money talks, but these days (as Dylan has so eloquently said) it doesn’t talk, it swears. And it speaks through every orifice in the state’s body: through its Congress, its Supreme Court, its President, its media, its financial sector and even many of its churches —you name it, where power resides, it’s all about money in the USA.

John Steinbeck Wrote his great novel, The Grapes of Wrath, in the late 1930’s and although it tells a tale of the effects of the great depression on farmers of the dust bowl at that time it may well have presaged our time as well. The income disparity which led to the Great Depression is being reprised today as corporations merge, as media giants speak more and more with one voice (that of the money-changers), as the middle class shrinks, as the poor fall further and further behind and as homelessness grows. We are repeating the conditions Steinbeck wrote of.

I’m reading The Grapes of Wrath and last night marked the margins of the following passages. See if you don’t agree that besides being a great writer, Steinbeck may have been a prophet.

The Joad family, having fled the Oklahoma dust bowl to find work in California has found that thousands of tenant farmers have done the same and that work is scarce there too. They found this upon rolling into makeshift camps of those poor thousands and are considering their circumstances.

Casey, a former preacher traveling with the Joads, in a conversation with Tom Joad, says (I’m going to forego much of Steinbeck’s use of dialect, and am paraphrasing slightly):

“(I) listen all the time…listen to people talking…and soon I hear the way folks are feeling. And they’re beating their wings like a bird in an attic. Gonna bust their wings on a dusty window trying to get out. There’s an army of us without a harness. Folks hungry for side-meat …and they ain’t fed. And when they’d get so hungry they couldn’t stand it no more they’d ask me to pray for them…and I thought that would cut it. I used to rip off a prayer and think troubles would stick to the prayer like flies on flypaper…but it don’t work no more.

“Tom Said, ‘Prayer never brought no side meat, takes a shoat (small pig) to bring in pork.’

“ ‘Yeah,’ said Casey, ‘and Almighty God never raised no wages. These folks want to live decent and bring up their kids decent.’

Earlier Steinbeck had laid out the scenario in California in which the Joads and other migrants found themselves:

“Talkin’ in the camps, and the deputies, fat-assed men with guns slung on fat hips swaggering through the camps: Got to keep ‘em in line or Christ only knows what they’d do! If they ever get together there ain’t nothing that’ll stop ‘em. What if they won’t scare? What if some day an army of them marches on the land as the Lombards did in Italy, As the Germans did on Gaul and the Turks did on Byzantium? They were land-hungry, ill armed hordes too, and the legions could not stop them. How can you frighten a man whose hunger is in his own belly and in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him—he has known a fear beyond any other.

“Three hundred thousand in California and more coming… And the great owners who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

“The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression.”

Now put that into present context and change “land” to “wealth”, checkout the consolidation of corporation and news media, consider the Republican Party’s widespread voter-suppression strategies and its manipulation of the religious and you may bring Steinbeck’s observations to the present moment with all of its implications.

Jim Culleny