The Quotable Eugene Victor Debs

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.

A great refusal of the cult of personality by someone who could have exploited it.

You might recall that Debs ran for President of the United States 5 times, the fifth from jail.  This is from his statement to the Court upon being convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions…

Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means…

Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison…

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men…

It Bears Repeating

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. […] Is there no other way the world may live?”

-Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The Chance for Peace,” speech, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Apr. 16, 1953.

Heroes and Villains: Brian Wilson, Donald Trump

I just watched the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors for Brian Wilson. For reasons that are easy to guess — his life story, his genius, his music — I am sobbing.  For other things, too: for him, for us; in gratitude, in fear.

A decade later, neither the country nor the world look anything like they did even in the nadir of the Bush administration. 

Honoring Brian, Art Garfunkel said: “I love rock and roll.  It’s just so joyous and life affirming.  And this is a great moment for me to honor my colleague, a fountainhead of that joy, Brian Wilson. To me, rock and roll is our great American invention.  And the fact that you, Brian, are one of its architects makes me proud of who we are as a country.”  Garfunkel talked about Brian’s “California roots, which to me, always represented the kindness and sweetness of America.”  He called Brian Wilson “rock music’s gentlest revolutionary.”

A few days ago, I read a brilliant piece by writer Gerald Weaver about Donald Trump and the failure of language.

Our innocence, our sweetness, the basic goodness of the premise for this country is the promise of a nation held together not by blood or iron but by consensus on revolutionary claims about the dignity of all people.

I’m not stupid.  I know we have never actually lived up to those ideals.  For centuries, we have systemically disenfranchised our own people.  For decades, we have instigated proxy wars.  For decades, we have have encouraged every kind of inequality.

But we’ve also held onto hope.  We’ve also given a damn about what America is supposed to be and mean. 

Condemning the tear gassing of assylum-seaking migrants at the southern border this week, Beto O’Rourke said, “It should tell us something about her home country that a mother is willing to travel 2,000 miles with her 4-month-old son to come here. It should tell us something about our country that we only respond to this desperate need once she is at our border. So far, in this administration, that response has included taking kids from their parents, locking them up in cages, and now tear gassing them at the border.”

Now the news that Donald Trump is authorizing lethal force.

I think I was four when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault.  He opened something else on Fox News’ The Five (I do not watch it). 

“This tear gas choked me. We treat these people — these economic refugees — as if they’re zombies from ‘The Walking Dead.’ We arrested 42 people; eight of them were women with children. We have to deal with this problem humanely and with compassion. These are not invaders. Stop using these military analogies. This is absolutely painful to watch…We are a nation of immigrants. These are desperate people. They walked 2,000 miles. Why? Because they want to rape your daughter or steal your lunch? No. Because they want a job! . . . We suspend our humanity when it comes to this issue. And I fear that it is because they look different than the mainstream.”

Of course Greg Gutfeld cut him off when he pointed out that economic refugees are in many cases fleeing situations our own policies have helped create.  Of course Jesse Waters, Fox’s Chief of Smarm, looked exasperated.

Of course, tonight, I’m crying over Art Garfunkel and Brian Wilson and America.







Poem: The Birds

There’s nothing to say now to Eugene Victor Debs or William Jennings Bryan.  No spring under iron wheels and no thaw in the concrete borders of compassion.  No dispersing from the lock-step forms of ill-formed fear, fear of self, of other, fear of washing rain, revealing living oneness, fear of drowning in it.  There’s no green in our window-boxes, no stray cats in alleys and nothing left to feed them. Only fat birds always eating and the statues of our past, the ideal likeness of forgotten shapes and forms, fat birds always eating, bleaching white our skin-toned stories.

When Clark Kent Quit the Daily Planet

“I was taught to believe you could use words to change the course of rivers — that even the darkest secrets would fall under the harsh light of the sun…But facts have been replaced by opinions. Information has been replaced by entertainment. Reporters have become stenographers. I can’t be the only one who’s sick of what passes for the news today.”

Clark Kent, 2012

Scott Lobdell wrote this characterization of America’s most famous reporter, published in the final weeks of the 2012 election.  Superman was speaking here as a progressive; this is not a right-wing screed about fake news.

The point holds though, perhaps now more than ever.  The White House would like to bar reporters who ask questions it doesn’t like, and refuses to condemn the killing of dissident journalists overseas. 

When nothing is true, not even our most basic social mores, I suppose all news can convincingly be cast as fake by people with a vested interest in doing so. 

Part of this is on us.  We have tolerated decades of spin, of being lied to repeatedly by people in power.  Long before Trump, we’d bemoan the truth that all leaders lie, even as we kept electing them.  We’ve been in co-dependent political relationships for the length of the media age.  

Remember when some people thought blogging would save us? Or social media? 

It turns out democracy only works if we participate beyond the bare minimum.  If you’re too busy, too tired, too overworked, too impoverished to be more involved, consider whether the systems that govern your life have made that less or more true.  Then vote accordingly.  That’s a start.