Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Trashing the American Dream... a dream at a time

Three Iowa farm boys about the time of the First World War.
(From left to right, the future superintendent of a large school district, a farm dog named, "Cap'n", the future Chief Operating Officer of Illinois Bell Telephone and my dad, "the babe" who went on to run a large chain of sporting goods stores and about twenty rug mills).
David Seaton's News Links
I read the following yesterday:

Here’s a staggering statistic: According to the Education Trust, the U.S. is the only industrialized country in which young people are less likely than their parents to graduate from high school. Bob Herbert - New York Times
I showed the paragraph to my German wife and she said, "that's the classic way of perpetuating a class structure in a traditional society." That, perpetuating a class structure, is, of course, precisely what the United State is not supposed to be about.

What is it supposed to be about?

Let me tell you a story.

With Obama's primary win there and the legalization of gay marriage a number of people may have been surprised to learn that Iowa is a "progressive" state.

It goes a lot farther back.

During the Civil War, a company of Iowa soldiers were captured by the Confederates. With the captured Iowans standing in formation, the rebel officer in charge ordered all the Iowans who knew how to read and write to take a step forward. The entire company took a step forward and the Confederates guarding them nearly panicked and shot them down, thinking that the Iowans were attacking them, because in a group of southern soldiers of that period, only perhaps ten out of a hundred would have stepped forward.

Iowa always has had good public schools. In a state of family farms and small businesses, education has always been seen as essential to prosperity and freedom.

An example from my family lore.

When my grandparents got married, they didn't have enough money saved to buy a farm, so my grandfather got a job running the dynamo at a gold mine in the jungles of Northern California named "The Sunny South".

As soon as they were married, my grandfather and his petite bride headed west. My two uncles were born in the mining camp. When my eldest uncle tried to find the mine in the 1950s, he and a local guide spent two weeks tramping around the dense temperate jungle of Placer County California using military maps and could find no more than some old wooden sluices hanging high in the trees.

Having made very good money for several years and with nowhere to spend it, my grandparents had saved up enough to buy a good farm. So with two baby boys in tow they went back to Iowa and bought the farm where my dad was born a few years later.

Happy ending? Not exactly.

For most Americans the great depression began in 1929, but for American farmers it had been going on for a long time. On my grandfather's farm there was a literal cornucopia of food: pork chops, bacon, corn on the cob, potatoes, tomatoes and gallons of strawberries drenched in fresh cream... but no cash money. My grandfather was lucky enough to stay out of debt, a dreamed of Christmas present for a little farm boy in those days might be a jackknife... with only one broken blade.

My father and my uncles went to a "little red schoolhouse", where they learned to memorize and recite speeches from Shakespeare and poems by Longfellow, to spell correctly and to do arithmetic. Later they went to the town high school and even learned Latin, a dead language, whose possibilities cannot be fully savored until you have heard it pronounced with an Iowa twang.

On graduating from high school they attended university at Iowa State in Ames.

This was all free.

Without going on and on, sufficient to say that my eldest uncle after graduating in electrical engineering was able to go on to be first, the financial vice president of Illinois Bell Telephone (when that was the only telephone company there was) and finally retire as the Chief Operating Officer of "Mother Bell". He also found time to be the president of Cook County Boy Scouts, (he was an Eagle Scout) and to found a small college.

If he had been born in Alabama, he probably would have ended up running a filling station and "speaking in tongues".

This, for me, is what America was supposed to be about.

How did America get where it is today? Spending half the taxes it collects on the military, fighting useless wars, while class divisions are hardening due to lack of education and health care.

During the primary campaign, Hillary Clinton made an interesting point when she said that Martin Luther King needed LBJ to change the face of America. What I don't remember her pointing out was that LBJ needed Martin Luther King just as much as King needed him.

LBJ was probably the only genuine social democrat to ever sit in the White House, but without the charisma of MLK and his struggle, Johnson could never have gotten wide enough support to pass his civil rights legislation, which he passed knowing that it would cost the Democrats the "solid South". We are talking about two men, King and Johnson, that had big, brass, balls. This is how change takes place, better believe it.

Many seem to think that voting for Barack Obama was "one stop shopping", Johnson and King rolled into one. That dog wont hunt.

Just for argument's sake, let us imagine that president Obama is as committed to helping the disadvantaged in America as Johnson was and willing to take the risks to do it that Johnson was: this requires a good imagination when talking about a "pragmatic centrist", but let's take it as given.

OK, so where is Obama's "Martin Luther King" to hold his feet to the fire, to build the public support in the street?

Without effective activism outside the party system, nothing is going to happen and stories like my uncle's will soon be like the tales of Daniel Boone or Johnny Appleseed. DS


stefano said...

I love the way your voice is grounded in your personal experience as an expatriate and your family background in Iowa. The picture and caption totally captivated me. Thank you for sharing your experience.

Debra said...

Having grown up in Iowa,it was especially painful to watch my fellow Iowans being duped at the caucus by the Chicago Machine. Living in(and currently just outside)Chicago has proved eye opening to the dirty world of politics. And its all dirty here.

Funny, no matter where you travel it seems Iowans manage to connect.