July-August 2010

Apparently she knows as little about the conservative mantle she is presumed to have inherited as she does about the history of the country she so mightily wishes to lead. After all, it was only the unfair bias of the liberal media that exposed her problematic relationship with fact-based thinking the first time around.

Let us then acquaint her with some of the real history of Stanislaus, home of the Cal State University that just played host to her early campaign effort to win the west.

Along with entry points Needles, Barstow and other towns along old Hwy 66, and Bakersfield, Tulare, Fresno and other cities going north along old Hwy 99, it was one of the destinations of the Dust Bowl refugees, heroic survivors of America's greatest natural calamity, and labor activists in the mold of Preacher Casy, the most eloquent voice in the most radical novel of the modern era-Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath-many of whose descendants have evolved into entrenched Republican conservatives of the San Joaquin Valley-the target audience for those now willing to pay their standard bearer anything she asks for to hear her diatribes against the same big government that Ma Joad and her family depended on to protect them from the California growers who did everything they could to exploit and oppress them.

For their parents were the illegal immigrants of their time-turned back at the border by a well-armed militia who told the migrant workers in Woody Guthrie's classic Dust Bowl ballad, "If you ain't got the do, re, mi, friend, if you ain't got the do, re, mi, well you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee."

Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange turned them into heroes, these dust bowl refugees from the big bankers of the Midwest who repossessed their farms and put them out on Highway 66 with all of their belongings in an old jalopy sure to break down before they reached California.

And like the illegal immigrants who now come from Mexico, these migrant workers from the Midwest kept on coming, dodging the highway patrol, hired gun thugs and vigilantes from the San Joaquin Valley's big farms. This was what Woody Guthrie referred to as the Promised Land: "the bright green valley with a river running through-there was work for every single hand, they thought, there was work for every single hand."

Only when they got there, it turned out not to be so; so Woody wrote about that too:

Ramblin' round your city

Ramblin' round your town

there's a hungry mouth for every peach

as I go ramblin' round.

The children and grandchildren of these oppressed refugees, who believed Preacher Casy when he said,

Everybody might be just one big soul

Well it looks that a'way to me

So wherever you look in the day or night

That's where I'm a gonna be, Ma

That's where I'm a gonna be;

Wherever little children are hungry and cry

Wherever people ain't free

Wherever men are fighting for their rights

That's where I'm a gonna be, Ma

That's where I'm a gonna be.

-are now singing a different song-condemning the very people in whom they should recognize their own kinfolk-just as Cesar Chavez's biographer did when she entitled her book after one of Woody's songs: A Mighty Hard Road.

Sarah Palin tells them what they want to hear-that their road to salvation is to now scapegoat others less fortunate, just as native Californians once scapegoated their newly arrived parents and grandparents.

Shame on them-for betraying the good soul of Ma Joad, who refused to bow to the hatred surrounding her, who always had enough food for her neighbor's children, even as she had to scrape together enough food for her own. Ma Joad, and her brave son Tom, not to mention the Christ-like Preacher Casy, would no longer recognize their descendants-the heirs of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, of Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads, and of Lange's most moving photograph, Migrant Mother.

If they could talk to them, I wonder what they might say; perhaps something like the following: You applaud Sarah Palin for her support of the new Arizona law that gives the state the right to ask suspected illegal immigrants for their papers, and even your former running mate's assertion that they should not have the barest minimum of legal rights requiring the police to tell them of their right to remain silent. What fools and bandits you make of us, children-don't you remember how many times we were stopped by the police, and herded into detention centers for the mere fact of being who we were-out of work from another state and looking for a job, any kind of job we could find to help support you. And now you want us to act like vigilantes towards another dispossessed group? We won't hear of it!

You applaud Sarah Palin when she opposes any new taxes as a big government rip off and any social programs for the woefully inadequate safety net as "a waste of taxpayers' money;" don't you remember who took care of us and gave us time to get back on our feet? The government camp at Weedpatch, where your grandmother Rose of Sharon was able to have her baby; and you want us to vote to end aid to families with dependent children? We won't hear of it!

You applaud Sarah Palin when she rallies the base by condemning the teaching of evolution in public schools; don't you remember how desperately we tried to get you into public schools, and how much we wanted you to be able to learn science and math so you wouldn't have to pick fruit for a living like we did? We won't hear of it!

You find her ignorance charming, her nativism inspiring, and her parochialism downright thrilling; well, it may surprise you to learn that the man who wrote those wonderful stories about us was considered a dangerous radical in his time, and counted among his closest friends a dedicated biologist who inspired one of his best books; above all he stood up for the poor, the downtrodden and exploited, and supported every government effort to help us. He was, in short, what Sarah Palin now condemns as a bleeding heart liberal, and you want us to condemn it too. Well we won't hear of it!

You come from a long line of radicals, and your grandpa would roll over in his grave if he could hear the errant nonsense you are now spouting as gospel.

They called our greatest troubadour, Woody Guthrie, a communist-and Woody replied, "Well, I ain't necessarily a communist, but I have been in the red my whole life." They asked him for his religion, and Woody replied, "All." When they asked him to be more specific, he replied, "All or none." And when he wrote This Land Is Your Land, he didn't leave anyone out-he meant it.

You want to give Sarah Palin $75,000 to feed your prejudices, which are only borne out of your fears. Don't you remember that our greatest president said, "The only thing we have to fear is-fear itself"? And that he passed the biggest government social program in history? It was called the New Deal, and because of it we got Social Security, and a guaranteed minimum wage, and unemployment insurance. We fought and died for those programs, we defeated fascism for those programs, and you want us to give it back?

Don't you remember that our second greatest president said, "We shall overcome!" and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964? And now when you're not enthralled by Sarah Palin you're enthralled by Rand Paul, a member of the lunatic fringe who questions whether that was a good idea? And don't you remember that this president also gave us Medicare? And now you criticize our current president's attempt to expand health coverage so even the poor can have some? Didn't we teach you anything?

We didn't have to pay $75,000 to hear members of the lunatic fringe-we could hear them on the radio for free-nativists like Father Coughlin and America Firsters like Charles Lindbergh. We got a bellyful of that kind of hokum, believe us, children-and we knew nonsense when we heard it.

Woody Guthrie put it as simply as possible when he heard it: You say "America first, but you mean America next."

You want to see a woman with real guts and determination and courage to face the future head on? Don't look to Sarah Palin. And you want to see a man with real wisdom and compassion and the courage of his convictions? Don't look to Rand Paul. Look to your own symbols of resilience and grace in the face of adversity-look to Ma Joad, and Tom Joad and Preacher Casy. Look to that desperate woman clinging to her children without losing her humanity in Dorothea Lange's photograph. We knew that woman, and Sarah Palin couldn't hold a candle to her.

And look to the songs of Woody Guthrie, who stood up not only for us, your own flesh and blood, but for the Mexican workers too, in his song Deportees, where he said,

Some of us are illegal

and others not wanted

Our work contract's out and we have to move on

Six hundred miles to that Mexican border

They chase us like rustlers, like outlaws, like thieves

...Is this the best way we can raise our good orchards?

Is this the best way we can grow our good crops?

To die and be scattered or rot on the top soil

And be known by no names except deportees?

These were artists of real vision, who saw the common thread in humanity, not what divides us, but what unites us-not what keeps us apart, but what against all odds should hold us together. You want to hold onto something-hold onto that. You didn't grow up on Division Street, and you don't need to defend it now. We raised you better than that.

Remember what your Ma once said? We're the people, Tom; that's what makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an' they die an' their kids ain't no good, an' they die out. But we keep a-comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out. They can't lick us. And we'll go on forever, Tom... 'cause... we're the people.

You want populism, don't look to rogue politicians, so-called mavericks who preen themselves by appealing to the lowest common denominator, the fear-mongers, war-mongers and yes, hate-mongers among us who liken themselves to pit bulls; look to those who, like the Okies of Steinbeck's and Guthrie's and Lange's generation, believed in the power of government to reach down and help the least among us, for as a very wise man once said, that is how as a society we shall be judged.

Even Ronald Reagan accepted that, for as Sarah Palin would know if she had read even one biography of him, before he became a Republican, he was a New Deal Democrat. Eureka!

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com He has a Ph.D. in modern literature


All Columns by Ross Altman