And the great owners ignored the three cries of history…

January 2, 2016

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


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