Friday, January 16, 2009

This Land is Our Land: Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King Jr, and Poverty

As I write this, I am conscious that yesterday was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's birthday and that Monday is the national holiday honoring that birthday. As my first post of the year was concerned closely with race, and the editorials and blog posts on that topic have already begun, I am instead going to speak about another issue about which Dr. King felt very strongly: poverty.

Indirectly, of course, poverty is a racial issue. A great percentage of minority Americans are in poverty than white Americans. However, with the working class decimated by outsourcing in the name of 'free' trade and by feral deregulation of business combined with federal policies that have favored agribusiness over the traditional American family farm, poverty affects many white Americans as well. The current economic crisis only makes that worse, as the people who suffer the most when things get tight are the people who already have the rubber band stretched near the breaking point.

Last night, while idly checking news before I went to bed, I came upon 'Eight Commonly Misinterpreted Songs' in Yahoo's news links. The last song on the list was 'This Land is Your Land', by Woody Guthrie. While the author of the piece is correct in pointing out that the song is not an expression of mindless, jingoistic patriotism, she misinterprets her attempt to correct the public's misinterpretation when she claims 'This song is often grouped with “God Bless America” as patriotic tunes, but Guthrie had the opposite intention.' The song was intended to be, and is, intensely patriotic.

There is a biting irony in Guthrie's criticism of the belief that property rights trumped individual rights and that the government existed to protect the wealthy from the poor, yes. Certainly the song is bitterly critical of those who hoard what they possess jealously and assume those less fortunate than themselves to be criminals and wastrels. The song was written during the Great Depression, at a time when many 'haves' became 'have nots' and those who did not were determined to avoid that fate at any cost to the greater good of society. Many of the conservatives of the day believed, as they do now, that government exists to protect property rights and that any government defense of the rights of the 'have nots' violates the rights of the 'haves.'

'This Land is Your Land' is a ringing left wing endorsement of the rights of the 'have nots' and of the fact that all Americans have a share in America. It is a revolutionary call for the 'have nots' to consider where their own interests lie and use what power they have together, for their own protection and improvement. It is a reminder that we are all Americans and that we can do something to change our circumstances if we remember that this is our country too. We have the right to vote and the right to organize and we can use both. Citizen for citizen, vote for vote, there are more of us than there are of them. We choose to squander our power or act against our own best interests, but we do have the power to change course.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered that same message to America in a different context. He proved, by his life, ministry, and activism, that Americans could make a difference in America. He was an affirmation of the better angels of our nature, despite flaws and foibles. He had a dream and he believed that this was his land too, and he could work to make his dream come true and inspire others to do the same.

We have that power now. We have a new President and a new Congress. We can lobby them for meaningful change on a plethora of issues relating to poverty and individual rights at a time when economic necessity weighs in favor of that change. The government needs to actively work to bring economic opportunity to rural America and inner city America while actively protecting poor Americans from the more predatory side of American business. This is not impossible, and it grows the tax base which pays our government's bills. 'Spreading the wealth around', as highly criticized as it is by those who have wealth as it is, is ultimately good for everyone. Even the wealthy benefit, as people who could not afford to buy cars and homes find themselves able to do so without predatory mortgage practices and risky mortgage securities. We need to invest in productivity, not debt and price indexes.

Healthcare is one place to start. Common sense, firmly enforced regulation of the capital market is another. Special prosecutors to investigate the credit industry might restore a great deal of faith in the government, and in the long run faith in the government will go a long way to rebuild faith in the economy. All of these goals, however, require effort. Not only from our elected officials, but also from their constituents to push them to do so.

I am a working class (currently unemployed) white man in a Southern state. I voted for President-elect Barack Obama in the general election because I understand that my interests have more in common with a black family in the inner city or the Mexican-American family that owns my favorite restaurant, up the street, than with investment bankers, auto manufacturers, or oil barons. I write this blog in an effort to express that understanding to as many people as possible, especially other people like me. However, ultimately, whether you are an oil baron or a waitress, what is good for me is good for you too. If my circumstances are bettered, I can afford to buy gas and to eat out. That betters their circumstances. There is logic in liberalism. We can make America the place it claims to be if we put in the work.

After all, this land is our land.

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