Sunday, February 26, 2012

A defense of Guthrie’s last two verses: a letter from Robert Shetterly

I am grateful to Tink for the pointed criticism and lively discussion about Woody Guthrie's "This land is your land, this land is my land" in which I will post soon on further letters from him and Ward Churchill. See here and here. Robert Shetterly wrote a good letter in defense of Guthrie’s words, nonetheless, noting the aptness of the criticism.

"Dear Alan,

I think both you & Tink miss the point of Guthrie's song. What he was getting at was the message of the last two verses where he questions his own premise: One bright sunny morning/ In the shadow of the steeple/ By the relief office I saw my people./ As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering IF/ this land was made for you & me. The IF was the whole point.

That IF does not in any way soften the blow to native people, but it does show that Guthrie's sentiment was not glorification of a land that was not his. He was more interested in the hypocrisies of democratic propaganda & the distribution of wealth.

In the final verse he questions the rights of private property --- not too far from there to native rights.

All the best,
Robert Shetterly"

(Robert Shetterly was in the Harvard strike of 1969, and is an anti-war and anti-racist activist and a painter).

"Dear Robert,

You rightly emphasize the anti-capitalist character of the last two verses, and in a certain way, “not too far,” their link to the once commonly held and now stolen property of indigenous Americans. When I use the word democratic, I differ from how Tink uses it. He says democratic capitalist – what is basically an oxymoron. I mean radical democrat and to refer to a radical democracy whose force is from below, not to an oligarchy with parliamentary forms – as I characterize it in an Aristotelian idiom, in Democratic Individuality or Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? – or a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie as Marx or Lenin might put it. Even parliamentary democracy is a good today (and in the past) in that one can sometimes, rarely, vote for an oligarchic candidate like FDR who does, if there are strikes and movements from below, sometimes concede. The New Deal mandated unemployment insurance (fought for by councils of employed and unemployed workers led by Communists), social security, industrial unions, and the like. Even Obama is not bad compared to the increasingly crazed alternatives (no contraception?!, 0% tax on the wealthy, aggression against Iran, no public schools, no unions, etc.).

That Guthrie sympathizes with radical change also does not take the sting, for the most oppressed, out of the line about “your land and my land” excluding the indigenous (it does seem in this respect like a “settler proletariat” or a more extended but “settler democracy.”), though the question, as you rightly say, could point further. The basic issue is whether that is an inadvertently racist error with serious public consequences (as in the movement Guthrie was part of – one much better on fighting racism toward blacks and Chicanoes and making that a central issue…) and the aim should be to correct the harms, make a new movement decently and consistently anti-racist and democratize it, or whether the error is, for the song and a movement, uncorrectable.

OccupyDenver has, to a considerable extent, come to support the efforts against the Keystone XL (and Northern Gateway Pipelines) of AIM – see here, here and here; this is a very positive thing, morally and politically speaking, and one that might be generalized in Occupy…Any democratic movement which strives (from any position among the oppressed) to break down divisions will do so slowly and with sometimes painful effort. Young blacks and Chicanos caught up in the prison-industrial complex or with the army, also need to be engaged with and, hopefully, many of them will ultimately (the sooner, the better) take the lead in any serious democratic movement (some already do). But Occupy has a long way to go on this matter.

Still, a large democratic movement from below which discusses and makes it a point to allow and listen to many voices (“mic check”) terrifies the elite. One recent teach in of Occupy at the University of Denver spent quite a lot of time with sentiments, common in the corporate press, once it could no longer ignore Occupy, that Occupy doesn’t have “demands.” Occupy shifted the public atmosphere in the country to the very inequality that is central to the rapaciousness of the 1% that control the two parties (Gore Vidal once quipped aptly that America is the only one party system with two right-wings…). Even Obama, a comparatively decent fellow who aspired to be and is the head of the Empire and drifted very far away from what made his candidacy attractive to many, has now taken up, very modestly, the views of Occupy…

Romney is an odious cipher for many reasons, but that he is but the creature of his money – and uses it “charitably” as a bigot against gays and lesbians (the Mormon church’s support of Proposition 8) is as clear as his imperial willingness (totally self-destructive for humanity and even the American elite) to aggress against Iran and support the crushing of the Palestinians.

So life is with Occupy and the indigenous and environmental movements against the Pipelines and with the Boycott and Divestment movement and Jewish Voice for Peace against the oppression of Palestinians and with those who demonstrate against aggression in Iran - all those who hear the spirit of Guthrie’s words, including the ones about the unity of Americans and mexicanos (the deportees) against the one per cent. (Guthrie has many songs; Dan Nicolai gave me a cd of Guthrie's powerful songs about the elite execution - murder - of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian-American artisan anarchists in Boston, a great cause of the 1920s).

The long democratic discussions of Occupy need to move toward a common understanding and action on these matters. For another aspect of the needed campaign among another people whose land was stolen, see my comments on the barbaric elite in Arizona here and a recent letter by Rodolfo Acuna below. We need to fight to save education and comparatively public schooling, the stairway out of poverty that Acuna names, and also how to build a serious democratic movement from below (to lift all up together, to leave no one behind). At the moment, it is really, as Phil Ochs put it, “Arizona [I am speaking of the authoritarian imperial racists who run it], find yourself another country to be part of.”

All the best,

words and music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

Chorus (2x)

©1956 (renewed 1984), 1958 (renewed 1986) and 1970 TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc.

Thursday, February 23, 2012 9:53 AM
The End of the Stairway
The Abandonment of the Barrio
Rodolfo F. Acuña

Throughout the history of Mexican Americans, education has been considered the stairway to the middle-class. Education meant security and basics such as health insurance. This heaven meant better jobs and a small house or two for old age.

As with the European immigrant, the stairway was built in stages. Those with limited education could often get union jobs. After a generation or two in factories, Mexican Americans accumulated sufficient capital to keep their children in school, and a few sent them to college.

To build the stairway, workers and their families fought for compulsory education, they petitioned school boards, and led walkouts protesting de jure and de facto school segregation.

Mutalistas, el Congreso Mexicanista, Alianza Hispano-Americano, La Liga Protectora Latina, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), led campaigns for better schools. George I. Sánchez was a giant in advocating for this stairway.

However, it was not the 1960s that Chicano youth forced major breakthroughs. The Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) walkouts, the East LA School Walkouts, and small walkouts throughout the southwest and elsewhere had similar themes -- better education, more college prep classes, more Mexican American teachers, and the teaching of Mexican American Studies.

As a result Mexican Americans went to college in greater numbers. In 1968 there were about 100 Latino PhDs – a decade later they were an identifiable mass. In the intervening years at Cal State Northridge the Latino student population exploded from about 50 in 1969 to some 11,000 today.

Despite the gains the Latino dropout rate remains at about 60 percent; most barrio schools still offer a limited number of college prep classes. A larger portion of Latino students are being recruited and admitted from parochial, magnet and schools on the fringes of the barrio. Few males are enrolling. In some universities the ratio of Latino female/male is 65/35.

Like the nation’s roads, the Mexican American stairway to the middle-class heaven has fallen into disrepair. There are potholes everywhere. Outreach and special programs have become expendable and are under attack. The excuse is the budget.

Many Latino students could only afford college through financial assistance. However, early on financial aid was diluted by expanding the eligibility for assistance while shrinking funding.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the rising tuition. Without financial aid and loans, the bridge is beginning to tumble. At the California State Universities tuition will rise to $10,000 a year, which will put education out of the reach of students from barrio schools.

Putting this in perspective, I paid about $10 a year at Los Angeles State in the late 1950s; in 1969 fees amounted to about $50 a semester.

American corporations simply refuse to pay for the cost of social production. The baby boom generation that benefited from free education, the GI Bill, low interest housing, low gas and food prices, selfishly do not want to pay for the education of the young.

Mexico graduates more engineering students than the United States. Among sixteen 16 First World nations, the United State ranks number 13th in affordability.

At the beginning of the last century, Mexican workers were excluded from unions and relied on self-help organizations. This became more difficult as the nation became highly urbanized.

The Americans consider themselves a generous people, and certain Americans are. However, this generosity does not extend to the poor. A few will give to the homeless on Christmas and feel somewhat less guilty, as long as it does not interfere with their Christmas meal. They give through organizations that qualify them for tax exemptions.

Historically Latinos have had a small middle-class. They are generous to family members. However, there is not a tradition of contributing to philanthropic organizations. Selected immigrant groups send money back to their communities, such as the Clubes Unidos Zacatecanos that remit billions of dollars annually to Zacatecas.

Latinos usually give through their churches. But, philanthropy is seen as foreign to most Latinos, especially Mexican Americans. They are concentrated in the working class. At the turn of this century, 25.8 percent of Mexican-born immigrants lived in poverty, over double the rate for natives.

According to one report, “[c]urrently, 53 percent of Latino households make charitable contributions to charities as opposed to 72 percent of all U.S. households.” It could be argued that comparisons are not fair. Poverty plays a role, as does the tax code where the middle-class get write offs. The reason Mexicans give for not contributing more is that they are not asked.

Let’s face it; we all owe our careers to the stairway. Without that stairway we would not have a middle-class to broker our gains in population into political and economic power. National Latino and Hispanic organizations cater to the middle class.

Keeping the stairway somewhat operable will be the greatest challenge for Latinos. Let us not be naïve and believe that everything will return to as it was in 1970 or 80. Tuition will continue to spiral. In California, fifty percent of the professors’ salaries and operational costs are derived from student tuition.

Surely administrators are to blame for the inflation with university presidents earning in excess of $300,000 annually with perks. The bureaucracies in the university makes navigating them near impossible, and professor salaries at the top are near $100,000 annually and more.

I will not argue that professor salaries are not justified, just that they are part of the problem. I ask myself, would most teacher unions oppose plans to begin alternative institutions that did not include teacher contracts?

After long deliberation I have come to the conclusion that whether teacher unions or others like it or not, we have to find our own solutions. The maintenance of the stairway should be our first priority.

Presently Latino education is not very high on the priority list of progressives in this country. Perhaps they have seen too many movies on the Alamo.

I am under attack for a statement that I made in the early 1990s when educational access was again being limited. I said that we would not allow ourselves to be pushed into the intellectual ovens of ignorance and lack of opportunity. Education is a basic right, and we who are active with youth know the consequences of not being able to read.

The stairway represents the only hope for many.

In the near future we will be making a call for Latinos and others to come to a meeting to explore the possibility of starting a non-profit university that would keep the costs under $1,000 a year.

It is criminal how many for profit schools have sprung up in the past decade. Full-time students at for-profit schools paid an average of $30,900 annually in the 2007-2008 academic year. This was almost double the $15,600 average paid at public universities. The average cost of attending a private nonprofit college was $26,600.

If the government can allow such outlandish costs to be handed down to students then it can sanction real non-profit universities. The truth be told, universities and colleges have become as predatory as the loan sharks and Wall Street.

We will outline a plan which we will telecast throughout the nation in an effort to get retired teachers and professors to put together a non-profit institution. This is imperative because public education today is being privatized. Even at the California State Universities which were once called the “people’s college” there are for profit entities where students can get an alternative education – at a cost.

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