Each generation of Americans is faced with its own challenges–some of them external and some of their own making. We currently live in a time in which the efficacy of the democratic experiment is once again being challenged from many quarters. Great power and money, as it has always done, using ignorance and fear as its handmaidens, is doing its best to undermine it. Russia, ruled by a new type of oligarch, again threatens the peace in Europe and, by extension, the world, and along with it the legitimacy of representative democracy; using the forms of democracy to mock the legitimacy of its institutions through show plebiscites and instigated “grassroots” rebellion in independent countries.
Whenever I feel overwhelmed by these challenges I am reminded of those faced by earlier generations; that of my grandparents and parents, who faced the Great Depression, the power of the industrialists here at home, and the existential threat from the expansionist ambitions of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany abroad. Back then the choice offered to many of the nations of the world was between extremes: either fascism or communism. Back then, the democratic experiment was said to have shown its weaknesses; the economic depression and the internal squabbles by factions having rendered it impotent. New ideologies were needed, those that would sweep away the old civilization and with it the Enlightenment ideals. Each of these ideologies, opposed to one another, claimed to either be the great simplifier of history or the inevitable result of history.
When we look at the past we often make the mistake in believing that what happened had to have happened, but that is not the case. If you rewind the tape of history and spool it out again the chances of coming out with exactly the same result are exceedingly small. Contingency and probability within a deterministic universe allow for a number of outcomes. So it was not inevitable that those generations would overcome their challenges at home or defeat both Japan and Germany, ushering in both a bi-polar geopolitical world and one in which the nations of the earth could engage one another peacefully. That they would make a world in which the democratic ideal would thrive and new democracies be born, consisting of a period of unprecedented societal affluence widely distributed among the citizens of the growing democracies, and social advancement that tore down the barriers imposed by racial, religious, and other forms of bigotry. It took action by the people through the institutions created of, by and for them. It required knowledge, wisdom, and action.
Carl Sandburg, who was of that generation, felt compelled to write about his time in the midst of the Great Depression in the only way he knew how, and that was through poetry. Sandburg is mostly remembered today for his history of Lincoln, for which he received several Pulitzer Prize awards. But his influence went far beyond those works, which he set aside to write this poem.
The poem he penned is The People, Yes. It is a long form poem, but one that tells its story in simple, humane terms, about a people who are discouraged by events but who, in the end, pull together and fight to prevail. It contains the ingredient found in the best poetry–humor and irony. Rather than a polemic or the rah-rah of the cheerleader, it is a realistic assessment of the everyday hopes and aspirations that has inspired people since the beginning of civilization. It is a conversation, almost Socratic in nature. Rather than a mere historical document, it speaks to us today, as in the excerpt below.
Have you seen men handed refusals
till they began to laugh
at the notion of ever landing a job again–
Muttering with the laugh,
“It’s driving me nuts and the family too,”
Mumbling of hoodoos and jinx,
fear of defeat creeping in their vitals–
Have you never seen this?
or do you kid yourself
with the fond soothing syrup of four words
“Some folks won’t work”??
Of course some folks won’t work–
they are sick or wornout or lazy
or misled with the big idea
the idle poor should imitate the idle rich.
Have you seen women and kids
step out and hustle for the family
some in night life on the streets
some fighting other women and kids
for the leavings of fruit and vegetable markets
or searching alleys and garbage dumps for scraps?
Have you seen them with savings gone
furniture and keepsakes pawned
and the pawntickets blown away in cold winds?
by one letdown and another ending
in what you might call slums–
To be named perhaps in case reports
and tabulated and classified
among those who have crossed over
from the employables into the unemployables?
What is the saga of the employables?
what are the breaks they get?
What are the dramas of personal fate
spilled over from industrial transitions?
what punishments handed bottom people
who have wronged no man’s house
or things or person?Stocks are property, yes.
Bonds are property, yes.
Machines, land, buildings, are property, yes.
A job is property,
no, nix, nah nah.
The rights of property are guarded
by ten thousand laws and fortresses.
The right of a man to live by his work–
what is this right?
and why does it clamor?
and who can hush it
so it will stay hushed?
and why does it speak
and though put down speak again
with strengths out of the earth?