Friday, November 26, 2004

Heart in the Heartland 

We got together Wednesday night. It was a good gathering, I guess. We ate and drank and sang songs (poorly but loudly) and talked. Told ‘em on phone and email, bring anyone who is shocked and angry and sad about the election and about the direction America is headed, for a pre-Thanksgiving get-together. If you want to bring food or drink and a musical instrument, fine.

Called and emailed 50 or 60, ended up 26 people attending. I don’t know how it will go in the future—who does?— and all we have is a vague promise to get together over the winter holidays and try to make it to a party meeting, but at least we talked. Thing is, all of us already do at least some or most of the things we talked about doing, and most everyone felt that it wasn’t doing much good. Met a banjo player who knew all the Phil Ochs songs. Anyway, what sticks in my ruined mind is this guy who I’d met before but hadn’t seen in a year or so, a Native rabblerouser who’d been active in trying to get the border towns around the big rez to take some action to help the homeless drunks last I met him, saying like so as we were getting ready to pack it up (I didn’t take notes)

It took me five years just to get that one little city to agree that it might be, just might be, their responsibility to help. Another two years after that before they kicked in money and an old building to help open the shelter. I had to be a pain in the ass. Still have to be. And I still have to hear that “personal responsibility” crap all the time. They want these poor bastards to just stop doing what they’re doing, and if these guys die of exposure, oh well, it was their choice. They couldn’t see a human suffering, they just saw another Indian drunk. They didn’t say it that way, of course. Sweet talk about freedom and how government handouts just make people weak, words without heart is what they put out. It’s the same all over. There’s no heart, people are beat down. So, it’s good to be with people, especially white people, who have, y’know, some heart …”

And, it was after all an eclectic group—community and tribal college students, drinkers and non-drinkers, animal rights activists, do-gooders, and livestock owners and hunters. Locals and folks who stayed around over Thanksgiving and had nowhere better to go.

And we didn’t argue much. There was “heart.” I’m beginning to think that’s what’s needed. No matter how ineffective our efforts seem, in the end the drops add up and wear away the rock.

So, of course, yesterday I wrapped myself in a blanket, ate leftover barbecue and corn, and read Homeland by Dale Maharidge in front of the fire. And I think maybe that’s what he was documenting, too. A nation ruled increasingly by fear and nationalism and marked by a lack of heart. The line that stuck with me was how the middle of America had been written off economically, was suffering, and yet was the most intensely nationalistic area of all. And the reason? Fear. Too few standing up and putting their hearts up front. And yet, so many… I haven’t spent much time in a real city in 20 years, but I recall it the same way… nobody knows anybody else, really… nobody reaching out. And yet, so many anonymous folks trying, like Oscar Zeta Acosta’s “cockroach people,” invisible when the lights come on, but always there… for those of you who haven’t read Maharidge:

…Maharidge sees nativism and racism as fundamentally anti-democratic, the curdled byproducts of a failed economic system and the betrayal of working-class people whatever their color or creed.

Maharidge finds historical precedents in post-World War I Weimar Germany for what he found as he traveled post-9/11 America “harvesting” stories of reaction and rage. Germany’s political and economic fall from power and the accompanying nationalism fed Hitler’s rise to power. Maharidge sees in today’s America the awful possibilities of a similar angry nationalism. “Many Americans long for a nation that is powerful—at least in economic terms. Americans may not be lugging bushel baskets of money to buy bread, but they are trying to live on Wal-Mart wages paying Silicon Valley-level prices for mortgages and rents in the hinterlands. These Americans want back the America they remember.” Conservative talk radio, Maharidge writes, is “a virtual beer hall” where right-wing thugs like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly whip up their listeners with inflammatory racist and anti-immigrant—not to mention homophobic and sexist—blather.

…Who will get to define patriotism and democracy in post-9/11 America? Will it be, as Maharidge describes them, the “thousand mini-Ashcrofts scattered around the country—0n school boards, in newspaper publishers’ offices, among some college administrators, on local police departments”—or will it be the Katie Sierras? Homeland poses this fundamental question. It is one that all of us who are committed to social and economic justice must ultimately answer. Whose Homeland Is This? -- In These Times

We are the 49ers. And it’s up to us to use our hearts and minds to bring over at least a big chunk of the 51ers. Locally. Person by person. Huge national movements are fine, but it comes down to that.

It’s snowing like hell. Good weather for checking on the livestock, then wrapping up and reading another book. Then, Monday, back on the road for the last time this year... and talking to one person at a time. If I'm scarce around corrente, that's why. Or the power's out again. Arrrghhh, Peace and justice, y'all.

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