Art is urgency: It pierces our awareness in a flash of brilliance, pulling us into an experience bigger than our selves, provoking a response. It is, perhaps, the activist’s most powerful messenger.
With a passion for reform, a corps of American photographers set out in 1935 to compose a message. Their photographs of the rural poor encapsulate the Depression, the accompanying ecological collapse, and the mass migration of families from the Great Plains to California. Through skillful composition and informed selection, they documented rapidly vanishing lives and devastated landscapes.
Dream the Electric Sleep, an independent rock trio combining the force of Soundgarden with the eclecticism of Peter Gabriel and Led Zeppelin, take us into the 20th century collapse to shake us into awareness: We have not solved the problem. Working with producer Nick Raskulinecz, Matt Page (guitar, vocals), Chris Tackett (bass), and Joey Waters (drums) passionately connect us with the people who lived through the desolation, urging us to act.
Inspired by the work of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers from 1935 to1944, the album amplifies their activist spirit, suggesting that their present is quickly becoming ours.
Page, the band’s lyricist, faced a significant challenge: translating photographs into melodic poetry, reaching outside those images to connect with the larger, violently moving picture around them. His scenes are striking and provocative: ghostly faces compel us to purge our self interest; a mortgage is foreclosed without an antidote for the pain; migrants roam the deserts like Jesus, fleeing the black wind that chokes the life out of them. Page writes with fluid minimalism, abstracting photographic fragments into elegant dreams and devastating nightmares. Each song stands strongly on its own, but together they weave a harrowing narrative of human-induced loss.
On my inaugural listen—headphones on, lights dim, notepad in hand—I found myself in a conversation with Page as a poet. I scribbled my own lyrics into the empty spaces, interacting as if in call-and-response. We spoke of heritage, of sustenance, of bounty; the tragedy of collapse; empathy; hubris; wished-for death; the intrusion of darkness; wondrous beauty and its impermanence; the sad carnival ride of fate; and the effervescence of fleeting hope.
Some things are inexpressible with words, and “Beneath the Dark Wide Sky” has two carefully sequenced instrumentals. The gentle admonition of “Flight,”—she gave you flight and sky/and everything that you adore/then you hit the floor—summons the menacing and torrential “We Who Blackout the Sun.” This instrumental track then leads us into two songs rich with death imagery, “Hanging by Time” and the sinister “Culling the Herd.”
The second instrumental, “The Last Psalm to Silence,” appears now, a respite from the storm. Ushered in by the chirping of crickets, it scans the calm landscape, memorializing the human lives that paid for the surreal silence.
The high contrast of the two instrumentals reminds us of those photographs: black and white, stark, disquieting. We are not done with the darkness in spite of the light. It’s a gritty balancing act from here to eternity.
The band, having composed the music collaboratively, takes us on a journey that is both desperate and bucolic. They present a vast range of moods, stretching out into peaceful spaces then bearing down on us with anxiety. And though topic is dark and the trip demanding, they never wring us out completely. Scattering moments of grace throughout the snarling darkness, they perform with exhilarating equilibrium.
Purposeful, urgent art must always court balance, delivering an unattractive message via an appealing messenger. When making the messenger photogenic, we risk losing the message itself.
This problem plagued the FSA photographers who inspired Dream the Electric Sleep. Working in support of Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, they hoped to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers who were further impoverished by the economic depression. In pursuit of their mandate, the photographers, and the agency itself, faced unique challenges in publicizing their work.
The program had many critics, some who considered it an indefensible waste of federal funds during times of austerity. Others viewed the program as an FDR propaganda machine. These charges, levied against the photographs, don’t erase the violent reality that surrounded them: Thousands lost their farms and homes and migrated westward, drifting among hastily-erected labor camps. Many became migrant farm laborers in California, some hired into factories. Most continued to struggle. Their lives, like those in a famous book by John Steinbeck, shunned the happy ending.
Contemporary public criticism of the photos’ subjects—dirty children, salacious women, people responsible for their own poverty—didn’t remove the truth of their displacement. Neither did technical critiques of the photos in artistic journals. The subjects in the photos, through the production of the program, had become only objects. Their very real and immediate plight had been obscured by spectacle and taste.
Dismissed as propaganda, blunted by critique, deflected by moralistic disdain, nullified by the mass culture industry, art can lose its urgency. The event that produced the artistic impulse is relegated to memory or irrelevance, and people move on, feeling they’ve been inoculated against future occurrences. But the impoverished are still struggling, the plains have never returned to their natural rhythm, and we find ourselves on the brink of collapse once again.
The beauty of art’s urgency is that it walks hand in hand with insurgency. Breaking through mass complacency and institutional denial, it finds another aperture, and accelerates into a torrent of light.
The door swings open as we pass the café. The A/C is turned up all the way, and we are embraced by a coolly seductive rush of air. We catch an irresistible cosmopolitan groove from the jukebox and can no longer stand out in the heat. We duck in, taking a table near the front window so we can watch life pass by.
The song has just started and we smile as we sing along, relishing the lush and sultry rhythm. The rise and fall of the string arrangement is mirrored in our entwined arms, and the serpentine staccato urges us to get closer. We look directly into each other’s eyes as the evocative story reaches into our romantic hearts.
We don’t miss a word, and as we reach the last repetition of the song’s key phrase, we spot the couple in the back booth.
“Me and Mrs. Jones…we got a thing goin’ on…”
Our eyes meet with theirs, and we instinctively lower our voices. As the song goes into fadeout, we turn to see the heat waves rising from the pavement outside.
Candid, proud, and disarming in its tone, “Me and Mrs. Jones” was a #1 Billboard hit for Billy Paul in 1972. It dominated that position on the Hot 100 and R&B Singles charts for the month of December. It has been recorded by numerous artists since, including Grammy-winner Michael Bublé and alt-country chanteuse Kelly Willis.
It’s an enduringly popular song, one people sing along with regardless of their moral inclinations to the contrary. It is sweet without saccharine, sweepingly romantic, and against all odds. Its unhesitant declaration of “we got a thing goin’ on” is both intimate and celebratory. Taken within its own context, it provides an alluring portrait of infidelity in a seemingly innocent setting.
Innocence is an ambiguous quality, it must be confessed. Billy takes the issue head-on, openly declaring that their rendezvous is wrong. But a thorough reading of the lyrics, projected against the setting, indicates that so little ‘wrong’ is really happening.
They meet “every day at the same café,” he says, illustrating their dedication to one another. But no matter how secluded their booth, it offers more limitations than the wedding rings they presumably wear. The most lurid behavior we can identify is “holding hands.” They do a lot of hoping, but hope is not a crime.
The song’s arrangement furnishes a setting of intimacy and comfort. The lilting melody immerses our confidence in a sea of sustained strings as we ease into the tuck-and-roll bassline. The high-hat chips away the precious evening hours while the sparse piano fills invite us to have one more cocktail. Economic lyrics help us imagine every nuance: the café’s fluttering awning, little wrought iron sidewalk tables, large casement windows, and an ever-playing jukebox inside.
By 6:30 PM, dusk is settling in. If the café is in a major metropolitan area, then the surrounding buildings have already cast their shadows inside the room. From the sidewalk, we can see the presence of diners, but we can’t make out their faces.
Inside, however, their faces are clearly seen by the daily staff. The bartender certainly knows them, and perhaps he calls them both “Jones.” The servers, the hostess, the manager, even the busboy, all recognize them. They’re the regulars; they’ve accrued certain privileges. The staff has taken them under their wing and guards their anonymity. Their table is ready and waiting every day at 6:30. Their favorite record is never removed from the jukebox. As Doris Day once sang, “Everybody loves a lover.”
Privileged status aside, “every day at the same café” indicates something very unpleasant: The lovers’ refuge doubles as a prison, enforcing some very significant restraint. In many songs of infidelity we are privy to intimate moments in close quarters, where the lovers consummate their relationship. For example, “In Some Room Above the Street,” a 1976 hit by Gary Stewart, takes us to a neon-lit hotel room, carefully chosen by the lovers to host their very passionate affair. In such a haven, they are free to express every aspect of their love. But with Mr. Paul and Mrs. Jones, there seems to be no such oasis. Dusk can only throw shade on their relationship, not draw a blind between them and the prying public.
We don’t know how long they spend at the café each evening. We don’t know if they’ve ever met elsewhere. We don’t know if they’ve had one single quiet, private moment—and in this the song presents them as relatively innocent. There’s not one mention of sexual involvement, no allusion, no innuendo, no euphemisms. The resulting effect is that it’s easy to find ourselves rooting for the couple. After all, they’re just holding hands. That seems safe enough. As long as it doesn’t get “Out of Hand,” the dangers of which Gary Stewart also sang about, in 1976.
We can deduce that their tryst takes place in a large city. In a small town, everyone would know of their rendezvous, including their spouses. As Hank Williams says in “You Win Again,” “The news is out all over town/that you’ve been seen out running around.” This is not the case in “Me and Mrs. Jones,” judging from Billy’s confident confession. In addition, the smooth R&B style of the song indicates a very urban love affair. This is no honky-tonk, and certainly not a roadhouse. It’s a cozy bistro in Philadelphia, full of international soul.
Honky-tonks and roadhouses have inspired numerous cheating songs, to be certain. And in many of them, the lovers are discovered. An extremely familiar example of this, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1973 song “Gimme Three Steps,” portrays the polar opposite of “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The cheating woman is discovered by her mate, and the other man must flee for his life. A similar situation occurs in the 1964 hit by Jay and the Americans, “Come a Little Bit Closer.” Not one to be outdone by any man in a café or honky-tonk, Doug Sahm recounted his personal barroom infidelities in multiple songs, such as “I Can’t Go Back to Austin” and the title-says-it-all “Cowboy Peyton Place.”
In a public place such as this one, we can expect them to be cautious. They don’t attract extra attention by dancing to their favorite song. Instead, they sit snugly and scheme elaborately–and this is the point which causes Billy’s anxiety. “We got to be extra careful,” he says, “that we don’t build our hopes too high.” For outside their Naugahyde love nest, there are other “obligations.”
These obligations certainly involve spouses, and perhaps children. Billy doesn’t say any more about their respective home lives, but his word choice—obligations—is very informative, telling us how they perceive their home lives. There’s no mention of appreciation or love for anyone at home. In fact, the word love is completely absent from this song, never making an appearance even in regard to their illicit relationship.
With unhappy—or perhaps unremarkable—experiences at home, Mr. Paul and Mrs. Jones have extra reason for caution. It would be easy for them to see each other as an exciting alternative to domestic doldrums. The runaway thrill of a forbidden romance leads directly to idyllic expectations. Perhaps the hopes they are fighting include the hope that they’ve really found the perfect thing. It’s definitely a “thing,” he proudly proclaims. But he doesn’t provide an adjective.
An important discovery was made in the 1950s: how to properly stock a jukebox. Music historian Charlie Gillett writes: “These records had to have either a beat heavy enough to cut through the raucous clamor of a bar or a message desolate enough to haunt late-night drinkers not yet ready to go home.” What this means is that our lovers, with their attachment to the jukebox, are subject to myriad aural hazards.
The jukebox, an anemic and impersonal substitute for live musicians, can nevertheless influence the activity and emotion of the venue. It can instantly silence the chatter, clear the room, or fill the dance floor. A cleverly stocked jukebox can help an establishment generate repeat business, as aficionados know exactly where to hear a favorite tune or to catch a certain vibe.
The jukebox’s command of a venue’s mood was illustrated in a 1972 episode of “Night Gallery,” in a segment titled, “The Tune in Dan’s Café.”
The tune in question was Jerry Wallace’s country hit from August of that year, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry.” Through the course of the episode, we learn of ill-fated lovers Roy and Red, and how the jukebox itself becomes obsessed with them. Soon, that record—acknowledged as their song—became the only one the jukebox would play. Holding all present and future café visitors in its maudlin grip, it offered its simple message through a few choice words: “Words like love and truth and goodness/Words like till death us do part…”
These words would surely sting our booth-bound lovers, broadcasting across the room the vows that Mrs. Jones and her paramour were potentially violating. The most poignant passage, however, would be the one that hints at their brief time together: “For the hours I’ve spent here with you/Are like words from a poet’s pen.”
In 1972, the R&B poets were prolific regarding illicit relationships. For example, in July, Luther Ingram hit the charts with “If Lovin’ You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to be Right).” Its declaration of love in spite of traditional morality was undercut by the overwhelming condemnation offered by friends and family. Coming out of Memphis, it was hardly a shot of Southern Comfort.
The previous month, Bobby Womack scored with “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” about a woman who needs more than her man is giving her. “Back Stabbers,” from the O’Jays in September, directed its paranoia at alleged friends who “sure look shady,” always “out to get your lady.” Its grim outlook was the product of the same Philly soul factory as “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Yet another Philadelphia International hit, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” depicted romantic unhappiness just in time for Thanksgiving.
A comparatively buoyant tune from October, the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around,” began its promise of constancy with very dire words: “This is our fork in the road/Love’s last episode/There’s nowhere to go, oh no.” Clearly, the jukebox could be a harsh mistress.
With so many rocks along the shore, we have to wonder where they moored their love boat. Perhaps their pier was Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” from earlier in 1972. We can only hope it wasn’t Chuck Berry’s October hit, “My Ding-a-Ling.”
“The Tune in Dan’s Café” presented a song as an echo of a tragic affair. Similarly, “Me and Mrs. Jones” contains a reflection back to an earlier unresolved experience.
As the song begins to close, Billy fights against the never-ending cycle of ”every day, at the same cafe.” He reaches deep into their shared past, to a time when they had a more free, unbounded affair. His ad lib during the song’s fadeout is a revelatory departure from the script.
And it’s obvious that he’s no longer talking to us. He’s pleading with her.
“I wanna meet and talk with you at the same place, the same café, the same time, and we gonna hold hands like we used to. We’re gonna talk it over. We know, they know, and you know, and I know that it was wrong…but I think it’s strong. We gotta let ‘em know now that we got a thing going on…”
In the scripted lyrics, he readily admits that their daily meeting is unacceptable by most standards. But in his ad lib, he seems to be singling out a significant and intense moment: “It was wrong,” he says.
His protestations indicate that she won’t revisit that time, no matter how strong their experience was. This is the first indication of a struggle in the midst of their romantic bliss: He wants to go legit, but she’ll not have it.
Does she ever honor his plea? Not within the four-and-a-half minute peek we have into their affair. Billy is stuck in limbo, evidenced by the skintight frustration of his voice as the song fades out.
Soon we hear the jukebox’s mechanism return this record to its slot. It seeks out the next selection, perhaps a classic from B. B. King, penned by Jessie Mae Robinson. It won’t make things easier for our couple.
“I want to meet you in the sunlight/Not in some secret rendezvous/Because I’m so tired of sneakin’ around with you.”
Two electric guitars recite a harmoniously staggered theme, shadowing a couple up a flight of stairs. They pause on every third step, perhaps restating their consent or to check if anyone is watching. At the 4-second mark, a phased rhythm guitar enters the scene, providing a shifting background at the threshold of the story. All the lovers need now is a quick musical hook, and it occurs at 10 seconds. The key is turned, the door is opened.
There’s a rest and they catch their breath. The man looks towards us and offers a plain-and-simple explanation: “There’s no place for us to hide in the neon world outside.”
The tone in his voice carries tenuous acceptance of ecstasy in the midst of conflicted reality. Knowing that their fantasy could end at any moment, they step inside and pull down the shade.
If we don’t already know the song’s subject, Gary Stewart’s voice—a wavering tremolo of intensity and madness—offers an unambiguous clue. Of course he’s slipping around with someone. He wouldn’t expend all that passion and hard-lived anxiety on something socially acceptable.
His next few lines are a declaration, a voicing of constancy: He and his lover will always meet here, above the day-to-day existence of the possibly more faithful people in the street. This declaration, like so many things in and around the song, bears multiple meanings. Does he believe they are not only above the street, but reproach, as well? That their unique situation somehow transcends judgment?
Presumably, the world doesn’t think so. And it’s due to the world’s lack of understanding and grace that they “wake before the break of day, then like the night [they] steal away.” We are expected to suspend belief for a moment: Did their spouses not miss them at home overnight?
Gary deflects our question, countering with a portrayal of a passionate, committed, against-the-odds relationship with more facets than we’d expect. These two lovers offer one another sweetness, trust, reliability, and a certain measure of security. They share concern for the welfare of others, an awareness that the world is bigger than themselves. They show a complete absence of jealousy and competition.
In fact, we are presented with only one real negative, and that would be the existence of spouses.
This is the point which triggers our judgment. Many of us will perhaps set aside all the positive attributes, and judge harshly based on the one negative. Some of us will pause to put ourselves into another’s shoes first. And a few of us will engage philosophically, practicing the “magnanimous mind” proposed by 13th-century Zen Master Dogen:
“Magnanimous Mind is like a mountain, stable and impartial. Exemplifying the ocean, it is tolerant and views everything from the broadest perspective. Having a Magnanimous Mind means being without prejudice and refusing to take sides.”
“In Some Room Above the Street” was a #15 hit for Gary Stewart in 1976. Infidelity was a subject with which he was very familiar, in life and as an artist. His previous hits included “Drinkin’ Thing,” in which he medicates his own betrayed state; “Out of Hand,” wherein he marvels at how he’s become trapped in an adulterous affair; and “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” which details another visit to the medicine cabinet.
Like many of Stewart’s songs, this one stands in the mist of social unacceptability. However, it brings no admission of guilt, no pleading for exoneration. It is much more sensitive than his previous hits, and possesses more dimensions than most songs of this genre. Our understanding is begged, along with our empathy.
Gary’s first words to us—“there’s no place for us to hide”—solicit more than our confidence. They stimulate our ability to relate: Haven’t we all needed to hide at some point in our lives? This shared experience suggests that their lives are as ordinary as ours, and that our lives are as complex as theirs. It’s a reach towards normalcy which challenges our biases.
We see this more vividly through contrast. Consider, for example, the very different timbre of “Dark End of the Street,” a cross-genre hit for multiple platinum artists. Drenched in guilt, the song presents an almost pathological desperation, generating fear and loathing at the end of Desolation Row.
Chips Moman, co-writer of “Dark End of the Street,” stated that he and Dan Penn wanted to write the “best cheating song…ever.” But in comparison with the dimensions of “In Some Room Above the Street,” their effort falls flat. What they provide is a repetitive, one-layered wallowing lament, easily summed up as “doom is coming if they find us sinners, so we have to meet at the dark end of the street because doom is coming if they find us sinners.” Moman’s and Penn’s characters exist in a miserable condition, reacting against social morality by hiding deeper and deeper, becoming more paranoid in the process. It all seems so obvious.
In contrast, the world of “In Some Room Above the Street” is a bright and well-lit one. Gary and his mistress don’t meet at the dark end of a street, but rather in the middle of a neon-light district. True, the street could be full of bars, strip joints, and used car dealers, but it could just as easily be populated with chain restaurants and first-run theaters, as family-friendly as Disney. City lights are ubiquitous. Glowing on the shade, they provide ambience without violating the sanctity of the upper room.
We are privileged a peek into the room because we are not blinded by lights of judgment. Squinting past them, we see an entirely different scene. We now see two people who love each other dearly and deeply, so committed that they are willing to risk everything. It’s a component of the best romances.
“It’s strange that love can come so sweet in some room above the street,” Gary sings. The neon blinks, the bed creaks, the shade rustles in the ceiling fan’s breeze, and it is all marvelous.
To be sure, those tightly-drawn shades are concealing something. For the lovers, they hide the outside world, one which won’t accept them because of their apparent disregard for vows. There could be other reasons for public rejection, such as race, social standing, or even sexuality—for there is no explicit mention of either partner’s gender.
But the shades also protect the world from some very unpleasant facts, hiding an activity that is more prevalent than society chooses to admit. Perhaps they are concealing not only an activity, but a specific person, for whom society wants to preserve a clean reputation. To reveal the hidden couple would be to challenge the status quo. Society doesn’t see what’s happening, because society doesn’t want to.
Those shades, be they linen, silk, or vinyl, have a big job to do. But an even bigger job is being levied upon those two pair of eyelids.
Closing of eyes is prominent in this song, coming in some very intimate moments, such as when each lover is with his or her spouse.
For his part, Gary proclaims that by closing his eyes he can get through all “the hours” he spends with his spouse. By escaping his real world, and making a virtual visit to this room, he is able to cope. But with what is he coping? We don’t know. In this minute glimpse into his domestic situation, Gary has likewise blocked our view and therefore preserved his escape route.
We don’t know what it’s like at home for his lover, either. There are no indications of domestic trouble in either household. No words are wasted by criticizing the homebound rivals. In fact, we see quite the opposite. Out of place though it might seem, we see respect.
For at some point, things are bound to get intimate between Gary’s lover and her spouse. Certainly her husband will want her tonight, or the next, or the next. Go ahead, let him have you, Gary urges. “Don’t hurt his pride…just close your eyes and think of me.”
But does this really work? And what kind of adulterers would carry with them such sensitivity to the feelings of others? This is where we have to completely set aside all previously held notions about who cheats and why, and listen to the story. There is no stereotype.
Whether Gary’s approach is effective or not we can’t say. A “close your eyes and think of me” method seems to assume that all sexual partners are equals, that intimacy is just biological sex, and any partner is a suitable physical stand-in.
But surely, some night, the betrayed husband will wonder why his wife is so distant. As Radney Foster observes in his song, “The Kiss,” betrayal can be evident in a simple and brief brush of intimacy. It is, in fact, almost impossible to hide. “The smell of his seduction makes it hard to breathe,” he declares.
On the other hand, if she musters up a good fantasy, he might wonder why she’s so energetic suddenly, as in the Texas Tornados’ hit, “Who Were You Thinkin’ Of?” “You didn’t want to quit when we was into it last night,” the singer marvels, noting that she “got more out of it than I put into it.” Was she thinking of someone else?
Perhaps the spouses at home have chosen to close their eyes, too.
In George Jones’ song, “The Window Up Above,” a husband witnesses intimate moments between his wife and another man in the street below. The reverse angle between this song and “In Some Room Above the Street” reminds us that windows are truly powerful devices, capable of controlling our comprehension and limiting—or expanding—our empathy.
Alfred Hitchcock used windows to superlative advantage in “Rear Window,” wherein convalescing Jimmy Stewart witnesses a murder that no one else even notices. The overlay of his own window against the windows of his neighbors leads him into obsession for his neighbors’ lives. This obsession leads others to discount his cry of murder.
Classic film noir is full of neon lights projected onto shades. Stories are revealed in fragments, resolving slowly over the course of the film. We cannot make premature conclusions about the characters, their motivations, or their guilt. No one is entirely innocent, and no one is irretrievably guilty. The frames upon frames, obscured by window shades, squinting eyes, and narrator prejudice, build complex intrigue. In some films, the final answer isn’t given. This is the case with “In Some Room Above the Street.” We get a few slices of life, but not the whole pie. Our view is through Gary’s eyes only, and he is inarguably biased.
One thing Gary does offer is his identifying with those outside the law. They are “like thieves and beggars” when they meet in that room.
It’s the only concession he makes that their affair is unacceptable. He offers no excuse. It is a fact, and he does not indicate that they wish for any other status.
And while outlaw status brings alienation, creative categorization provides romance and seduction. It’s one thing to be a common thug in the street. It’s quite another to be a mythic folk hero like Robin Hood or Jesse James. In their secure hideout above the street, Gary invokes a grand us-versus-them stance. Their love is epic, immune to standard judgment. No apologies are necessary.
To prolong their outsider status, it is crucial that they play the proper game when they are in the real world. They behave at home, they embrace propriety when at street level. They rush home before daylight, they keep up appearances. They have a pact to be real behind closed doors only.
Their mythic identification indicates yet another aspect of the room above the street. It is possible that their perfect love, in defiance of norms, has lead to a great disdain for life lived on ground level. They are above reproach because of the epic nature of their romance. Their love sings on more levels than we can comprehend.
The simple description of the world outside as ‘neon’ indicates the degree to which the modern world invades privacy. The darkening night doesn’t provide the anonymity that it once did; one has to work harder to steal. As we’ve already seen, these lovers knowingly meet in a well-lit part of town, regardless of how quickly they pull down those shades.
The advent of cell phones brings the expectation that anyone can be reached anywhere at anytime. In refusing to answer the call, we invite intrusive queries. To answer, however, invites even more unpleasant questions, as the ambience of the secret room is projected through the phone. To further complicate matters, phones with cameras make betrayal very easy. Security systems make surveillance routine, rather than the exception. Internet-based affairs might leave no physical trail, but all those bits and bytes can be tracked. However, lovers are more heroic than technology, and will always find a way to experience mythic romance which challenges our judgment.
In his real life, Gary Stewart was a continual challenge for anyone who wished to pass judgment. Throughout a life of drug busts, addictions, professional unreliability, and bizarre wildness, he remained married to his teenage sweetheart, Mary Lou, for 43 years. When she died, he chose not to live without her. His life was a ready-made koan in the flesh, challenging not only our judgmental tendencies but also those tendencies’ right to exist.
My brother and I sat on the front stoop, with impressively out-of-tune plastic guitars in our hands. With sibling harmony decades removed from the Louvins, we proudly proclaimed, in front of god and everybody, things we couldn’t possibly have understood.
I was six, he was nine. The song we sang was “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
People stopped to listen, remembers my brother. It could be that we were charismatic beyond our years, two prepubescent Elvises commanding the attention of all passersby. Or it could simply be that our audience was amused, just as I am now, by the dichotomy of life in a Bible-brandishing nation.
I was raised in a traditional, Christian, conservative home, firmly docked in the blue-collar mainstream. A scion of generations of preachers, I went to church three times a week. I was not sure what adultery was—except that it must be reserved for adults. Yet there I was, bellowing at the top of my lungs about a wife’s infidelity and the miserable night of judgment that she was enduring.
It’s fitting that such a contradiction was fostered by Hank Williams, a man whose personality was so complex that he had to establish an alter-ego just to manage it all.
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” paints a dire picture: An unfaithful woman finds herself tormented by her own heart, during a seemingly endless night. She can’t sleep, she can’t sit still, she can’t stop crying tears of remorse. Heartbroken by her own actions, she can only pace around her room, calling the name of the man she did wrong.
As for the man himself, all he can do is predict deepening despair for her. Tonight, she’s certainly tossing and turning, crying out for him; this will soon give way to cravings for his love, immersing her more deeply in the blues. That’s as happy as the ending gets.
There is one shared experience between them: “You’ll walk the floor the way I do,” he tells her. Possibly, they have different motivations for wearing out the linoleum: For her, it’s the pain of her guilt. For him, it’s the sting of being done wrong.
In the lyrics’ austere narrative, we get the sense that he’s content to let her heart torment her. He doesn’t relish condemning her, and her pending collapse doesn’t bring him any satisfaction. He’s simply telling her, almost clinically, what happens in these situations. There is a sense of knowing behind his words.
Her life crashing down in an eternal, sleepless, apocalyptic night might happen only in his imagination. His claim of “the time will come when you’ll be blue” is only a prediction. He could be dead wrong on that.
In truth, she might not have had one unrestful moment. But it’s obvious that he has.
A model of economic poetry, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” contains only 117 words. Fifty-eight of them are used in the two repetitions of the chorus. The song has only three words consisting of more than one syllable: cheatin’, away, and fallin’. Dr. Seuss could hardly make it easier to read.
If it didn’t focus on matters of the heart, we could be dismissive about its status as poetry. Yet it transcends its simplicity, for Williams, as all good poets, had a command of the words he knew. His literacy was no match for Shakespeare’s, but he was on equal footing when it came to understanding the soul.
Whether consciously or unaware, Williams frames his message in a non-durational, future tense. In so doing, he’s made the night seem perpetual. It’s not just tonight or tomorrow night. It’s a relentless lifetime of nights.
When the word day finally appears, it’s only as a marker of time. That day is far from cloudless and bluebird-filled. Rather, it brings another curse: She will pine and crave his love. Pining is leagues deeper than wanting, a significance that would be clear to Williams, with his roots in southern vernacular. She would yearn endlessly for something that was no longer attainable. He is clearly not taking her back.
In concert with his stark lyrics, Williams’ delivery is visceral, naked, and unpretentious, yet it is far from unadorned.
There is a harrowing quaver in his voice, borne not of uncertainty, but from hard-earned cataclysmic fear. He sings as if he’s just had the very literal Hell scared out of him by an Alabama fire-and-brimstone preacher, expounding the darker side of the gospel. He underscores his pronouncements by elaborating each line’s ultimate word, stretching out the vowels and lingering on the consonants m and n. These nasal constrictions provide the ubiquitous moan behind his blues.
As a vocal stylist, Williams has had many followers but few peers. His attention reaches deeper than a phrase or a word, expressing itself syllable by syllable. The elongated finish he applies to some words is matched by his halting delivery on others. This serves to create tension and imbalance, a clear portrait of his own suffering.
As music writer Cub Coda states, “Williams’ vocal is filled with regret and recrimination, coming from the bleakest of feelings, absolutely brimming over with despair.”
From his first utterance of the word make it’s obvious that he’s holding back his emotions. It matters little whether he’s filled with misery at his own state, or with pity for hers. There are plenty of heartaches and tears to go around, as indicated by his following the word weep with the phrase “cry and cry.” A less confident poet might edit such repetition. Williams self-assuredly resisted such editing, however. He knew that repeating the right word at the right time added incomparable impact. For example, to refer to a “Cold, Cold Heart” as a ‘very cold heart’ would leave it eviscerated.
From the opening liquid twang of Don Helms’ steel guitar, the Drifting Cowboys support every intonation of Williams’ voice. The song is resplendent with pathos.
Leonard Cohen is justifiably impressed, as he indicates by placing himself below Williams in the “Tower of Song:”
I said to Hank Williams, How lonely does it get
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song
Cohen’s portrayals of extra-marital entanglements are complex, such as in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” wherein he expresses thanks to his partner’s lover for taking the sorrow from her eyes. While Williams’ relationships were also comprised of many overlain triangles, his representation of them is positively Spartan.
Songs by Cohen, Dylan, and similar singing poets can demand a great degree of deciphering, but Williams’ art is direct enough to be understood by all. In visual terms, his songs are more like Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” and less like Pollack’s “Blue Poles #11.” We don’t have to stand mystified by a cubist’s alternate reality or by the angels of Chagall. It’s obvious what is being said. And in its way, void of veneer and obfuscation, Williams’ approach requires more of us, for we have to look unflinchingly at real life, acknowledging its potential for shame. His art embodies stark, stoned-in-the-gutter minimalism, a grimace in the glow of the tavern lights.
Likewise, he didn’t dull his pencil with metaphors. He kept it sharp and took deadly aim. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” contains a lone but wondrously efficient simile. As stark in its construction as is the remainder of the song, it compares her tears to the rain. With his relentless references to weeping and crying, by the time this simile appears we understand this is not the ordinary teardrops-as-raindrops comparison. We’re looking at a biblical deluge.
Like most folk art, this song is backed by a philosophical understanding. At its core, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” magnifies the heart as if it were the sum total of the person. It is a living, breathing conscience, standing in the center of the being, evaluating every misdeed, and mandating the appropriate punishment. But it’s not really that simple: With an Escher-like sleight of hand, the heart is also held responsible for the very desire to cheat. The heart is the instigator, snitch, prosecutor, and persecutor. It’s unrelenting. Just like those tears.
Aristotle considered it important that there be a certain distance between the work of art on the one hand and life on the other; we draw knowledge and consolation from tragedies only because they do not happen to us. It is important, however, that the observer be able to identify with the text across this distance. If this doesn’t happen, then we cannot empathize with the characters. In short, the play or song must be both distant and recognizable.
When a stylist such as Ray Charles or Beck Hansen records “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” it is evident that they are removed from the tragedy itself. They sing it as interpreters or commentators, but not as participants. As Williams’ alter-ego Luke the Drifter might term it, they are only describing a “Picture From Life’s Other Side.” Williams, however, lived on that other side every day of his life.
Legend has it that Williams wrote the song following a suggestion from Billie Jean Jones, his second wife, that he write something about how Audrey Mae Shepherd, Wife Number 1, cheated on him. He dictated the words to her as they drove around town. Audrey, however, maintained that Williams wrote it about the misery his own heart was giving him.
Their mutual infidelities are the stuff of daytime television, not to mention country songs. Hank wasn’t faithful on the road, nor was Audrey faithful in the town. Williams’ struggles with his unfaithful wife—and his own darker tendencies–inspired many of his songs. “The news is out all over town, that you’ve been seen out running around,” he sings in “You Win Again.”
Apart from cheating, domestic unrest was also prevalent. “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do,” “Why Should We Try Anymore,” “I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Livin’,” and “You’re Gonna Change or I’m Gonna Leave” stand in the core of his canon. The titles call to us like tabloid headlines.
Williams did have songs that reflected the euphoria of love, too, such as “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” in which he suggests they paint the town with their romantic fervor. “Comb your hair and paint and powder/You act proud and I’ll act prouder/You sing loud and I’ll sing louder/Tonight we’re settin’ the woods on fire.” But gleeful celebrations too often succumbed to the steamroller of reality: Williams and his partners were simply too dysfunctional to make it last.
Lucky for Williams, he had not only tailored suits and a fine Martin guitar, but a gift for putting his life into meter. He also had a shepherding manager and a recording contract. While he missed many live performances—either due to his physical absence or his inebriation—his truancy was offset by his reliability in the studio. He was jukebox gold, and his records sold by the millions.
Audrey, although she was a major factor in Williams’ success, hadn’t similar talents. The duets she recorded with Williams are models of a warring partnership. Country biographer Colin Escott writes: “Her duets with Hank were like an extension of their married life in that she fought him for dominance on every note.” Or as Williams himself said above: “you sing loud, and I’ll sing louder.” Loud was the only way she could sing, and that came through sacrificing pitch and control. She simply hadn’t the voice to carry her counter-propaganda.
Hank’s version of their story prevailed. And as if she needed it to get worse, soon major pop stars were crooning about her infidelities, and a movie loomed on the distant horizon.
Leo Tolstoy described art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. In a particularly creepy example of this, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was released shortly after Williams’ death on January 1, 1953.
Says Nathan Rabin, of the AV Club: “Williams’ passing adds immeasurably to the haunting, almost ghoulish nature of the song; it’s as if he’s accusingly pointing a bony finger from beyond the grave, getting in one last good kick in his longtime war of wills and words with Audrey.”
In this context, the characteristic moan in Williams’ voice is amplified by the chill of death. His lyrics are a harbinger of judgment to come, grounded in his own after-life torment, validating all the Fundamentalist warnings he’d known from childhood. His warnings from the grave are wholly compassionless. Apocalypse is a dish best served cold in a diner on the Lost Highway.
Cohen adds relish: “You’ll be hearing from me, baby, long after I’m gone/I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song.”
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” and its writer weren’t the first in any category. The marriage of cheating and country blues existed long before Hank Williams sharpened his first pencil, as in songs like the wildly successful “Frankie and Johnny,” a genre-hopping hit for Jimmie Rodgers in 1929.
A heavy influence on Williams, Rodgers had already fused hillbilly, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, and folk styles, and was a bona fide superstar. He wrote many of his best recordings, and was able to relate with the common people. He felt what they felt, thought what they thought, worked the railroads, and died young of tuberculosis. Through his recordings, he proved the commercial viability of country music.
Vernon Dalhart, who mastered opera, pop, and country, had already set a high-water mark for record sales. His 1924 rendition of “The Wreck of the Old 97” was the biggest selling non-holiday record during the first 70 years of recorded music. The Carter Family also preceded Williams with their singer/songwriter ethic, aided greatly by the nationwide reach of legendary border station XERF.
The difference with Williams was the depth of his darkness, and his ability to articulate it with more grit and guts than his predecessors. His was not a good-natured confession of “I’m a rounder,” but a rather curdling acknowledgment that “I’m a wretched sinner.” He laid his soul bare in a way that transcended his class and origin.
Another advantage Williams enjoyed was having a pop music veteran, Fred Rose, act as his publisher, manager, and producer. Through Rose and other A&R men like Jerry Wexler and Mitch Miller, Williams sold his songs to a large variety of pop singers.
Joni James, with Williams’ sanction, was the first pop artist to record the song. Eerily, she recorded it on the day of his death. Her version reached Number 2 on the Billboard pop chart in 1953. Frankie Laine soon followed suit, as have Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Glen Campbell, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Van Morrison, Don McLean, Beck Hansen, and anyone who’s ever stepped onstage in a disreputable—and therefore self-respecting—honky-tonk.
While Williams’ legend grew, someone had to collect the royalties. The terms of their divorce had already promised half of them to Audrey. She later secured, for $30,000, the right to use the title “Hank Williams’ Widow.” She also established herself as a behind-the-scenes force in the industry: music publisher, booking agent, label owner, talent agent, and touring all-star show woman. She even served as a consultant on the 1964 film of Williams’ life, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
Williams might have delivered the final word with no chance for a formal rebuttal, but Audrey held the option of laughing all the way to the bank.
Hank’s cumulative portrayals of Audrey suggest that she had never listened to a word he had said. She developed a reputation for out-of-control emotions and substance abuse, as if she hadn’t witnessed the slow death of her ex-husband. Forty-two years after Hank died, Audrey herself died—one day before the IRS was scheduled to repossess her home.
The global refugee problem defies succinct summary. The topic is fraught with myths, competing agendas, inflated numbers, political abdication, and more than its share of propaganda. Syrian refugees have taken the center spotlight today, but they are not at all the only ones who need a safe place to wait out violence at home.
Globally, we established a new high water mark in 2015—and it is nothing to celebrate: “an unprecedented 59.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 20 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.” Never before has the world held so many displaced persons.
And yet, U.S. immigration officials planned a month-long series of raids for May and June 2016, “to deport hundreds of Central American mothers and children found to have entered the country illegally,” reported Reuters. These raids are the most recent extension of hostility towards refugees which the US has exhibited for decades. But are refugees really here illegally?
Peace Meal Supper Club #17: Sanctuary is an attempt to penetrate the official slide show, to see beyond destructive nationalistic rhetoric, to reclaim identity and definition. The menu spans the globe, reaches across centuries, and ventures over borders between nations and species. It offers hope that we will reconcile competing inertia, that our natural urge towards compassion overtakes the myopic momentum of established force.
It’s a struggle of the most beautiful position against the most likely one.
As to the most beautiful position, humanity has compiled an admirable catalog of documentation regarding the treatment of refugees. Take, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It was borne of the horrific experiences leading to and during World War II, as hate and racism drew the developed nations into global war and sent millions fleeing for their lives.
As that conflict’s refugees sought safe haven, the United Nations shepherded the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which declared the rights of people who have been forced out of their homes and homelands by war or other threats. It upheld the duty of all nations to assist. This multilateral document was followed in 1967 by the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which further elaborated on the aid due anyone fleeing strife in their homelands. Signatories, which included the United States, bound themselves by international law to provide refuge to anyone fleeing violence at home.
These three modern statements reconnected us with practices in our shared past. Greece, Egypt, medieval England,  and the Jews of the Old Testament all took care to take care of the troubled stranger. Their compassion reached over all conflicts to help the innocent victims, declaring that the powerful do indeed have an obligation to the powerless. It’s a tradition that needs our attention and refocus.
Because purposeful practice of the most beautiful position has not been immune to xenophobic criticism.
Consider these words from Senator Pat McCarran: “I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States.”
McCarran spoke these words in 1953, in defense of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, of which he was co-sponsor. His rhetoric sounds shockingly contemporary.
President Truman attempted to veto this Act, saying, “Today, we are ‘protecting’ ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic…We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again.”
In the decades since Truman, our imperial projects have spawned conflicts across the globe. As the conflicts deepen, so does the magnitude of our moral conflict. Headline events such as World Wars I & II, the various wars in Iraq, our fight against the phantoms of Al Qaeda, and the never-ending aggression against Palestinians are not the only venues for our moral dilemma. These have actually distracted us from the direly pressing matters on our doorstep.
US involvement in Central America’s Northern Triangle began in 1901, with the pseudo-military operations of United Fruit Company. Since then, the relationship has only become more violent and complex. CIA-led and Eisenhower-backed political coups in the 1950s were harbingers of our present-day interference. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s the problems metastasized. The US played a heavy role in arming and financing civil war in El Salvador, which saw the creation of over a million displaced people. Many of them fled to the southern US border seeking asylum. Initially, to our great credit, we responded compassionately. The US Congress, during the final months of the Carter Administration, passed the Refugee Act of 1980.
This act “created The Federal Refugee Resettlement Program to provide for the effective resettlement of refugees and to assist them to achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible after arrival in the United States.” It incorporated concepts from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our intentions were good, although our actions should be examined.
“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
This definition holds no trace of immigrant opportunism. The current conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Burma, Yemen, Colombia, and other war-torn regions have produced 60 million refugees who fear for their lives. They are identifiable by any number of the above criteria. They are not “just peasants coming to the US for a welfare card and a Cadillac,” as Salvadorans were portrayed by officials during the Reagan Administration. However, if we blur the distinction between economic immigrants and political refugees, then we can dismiss our obligation to them. If we confuse other definitions—such as internal civil war vs. outside aggression or multi-national conflict—we can dismiss their problems as well: “Not my problem.”
This potential dismissal also has been addressed by another document in the canon. The Cartagena Declaration, issued by the Organization of American States in 1984, enlarges the concept of refugee to include “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” With great sagacity they illuminated our tendency towards slippery ethics.
In the best of cases, a nation will freely open its doors to refugees, like Germany, Sweden, Lebanon, and Turkey are doing for Syrians. But should a nation fail to be a good neighbor, private citizens and institutions defy their governments in deference to their own humanity.
Humanitarian action undertaken by individuals and churches was the wellspring of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. US-backed civil war in El Salvador displaced over a million Salvadorans; 30,000 of them actually fled the country seeking asylum. Refugee camps were set up to receive them in Tapachula, on Mexico’s southern border, but the war’s violence still found them. Therefore, many Salvadorans sought asylum in the US. Our government was not interested, however—in clear violation of the Declarations and Protocols the US had signed and ratified.
The Salvadorans did find sanctuary, though, through the work of private citizens.
“The network of religious congregations that became known as the Sanctuary Movement started with a Presbyterian church and a Quaker meeting in Tucson, Arizona. These two congregations began legal and humanitarian assistance to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in 1980…When, after two years, none of the refugees they assisted had been granted political asylum, Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson announced—on the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero—that his church would openly defy INS and become a ‘sanctuary’ for Central Americans. The Arizona congregations were soon joined by networks of religious congregations and activists in Northern California, South Texas, and Chicago.”
While in sanctuary, the Salvadoran refugees hoped for freedom from harassment due to ethnicity, faith, and gender. They hoped for—and often needed—access to medical facilities and legal channels. Mostly, they need a safe place to wait out the strife until they could return home. Today’s 60-million refugees need the same.
When we, the people, lead with our humanity, we are indeed good at providing sanctuary—just as we did in the 1940s when 40 million Europeans were displaced. We have performed admirably upon occasion in spite of our own internal wars: the Underground Railroad carried over 100,000 people to safety in the northern US and Canada, in defiance of federal law.
The Mariel Boatlift, which brought about 125,00 Cuban refugees into the US in 1980, makes an interesting contrast with the contemporaneous movement to grant sanctuary to Salvadorans. The Cuban refugees—fleeing economic collapse in Cuba, and arguably economic rather than political refugees–were welcomed with cash, social and medical services, programs to help them transition into American life, and educational accommodations.
Salvadoran refugees, however, were met with hostility. Utilizing the rhetoric of fear and hatred, US officials regarded the “brown hordes” as rapists, killers, drug dealers, terrorists, and of course, economic opportunists here to take Americans’ jobs. Some were stopped well before they got to the US, with complicit Mexican officials declaring that “the majority of illegals have a criminal record and only come to commit crimes.”
This prejudice, a variant of the strong anti-Latino bias which the US has held since the mid-1800s, resulted in disproportionate denial of safe haven to Salvadorans, as compared to other nationalities. The US was willing to save people from Castro’s communism, but not from high-quality American guns.
But with all the accusations levied against asylum-seekers and their sanctuary hosts, “no evidence connecting sanctuary with violent activities ever surfaced. Evidence that did come out pointed to just the opposite: that the US government was intimately connected with Salvadoran death squads.”
The US government was—and still is—involved at very intimate levels in the Northern Triangle. From war to death squads to maintaining kill lists and photo albums, the US was the prime driver for the growth of the refugee population and the reactionary movement to provide sanctuary. By 1983, civil war in El Salvador had killed 30,000 civilians and displaced one million. The US was pumping in a half billion dollars annually in military assistance. Civilians areas were frequently bombed, not only in El Salvador but in Guatemala, where tens of thousands had also been killed. Border camps in Mexico were routinely attacked by US-backed Guatemalan and Salvadoran troops, ostensibly to root out guerillas.
It’s a startling contrast: Refugees from Cuba were feted, fed, housed, and educated through rapidly formed government programs. Refugees from Central America were hunted, imprisoned, deported, and frequently assassinated. Why the different treatment?
The answer, as given by Robin Lorentzen in her book “Women in the Sanctuary Movement,” is simple: Acknowledging Central Americans as political refugees would expose the US’ role in creating them.
That role is indeed a deep one. “The administration of President Ronald Reagan, who came to power in January 1981, saw these civil wars as theaters in the Cold War. In both El Salvador and Guatemala, the United States intervened on the side of those governments, which were fighting Marxist-led popular movements. In Nicaragua, however, the United States supported the contra rebels against the socialist Sandinista government.”
Congress had previously imposed a ban on foreign assistance to governments that committed gross violations of human rights. Therefore the Reagan Administration publically denied all rights abuses—even though multiple human rights groups had already cataloged the violence. Efforts to silence the asylum-seekers focused on characterizing them as economic refugees, then rejecting their requests for asylum. “As a result, approval rates for Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum cases were under three percent in 1984. In the same year, the approval rate for Iranians was 60 percent, 40 percent for Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion, and 32 percent for Poles.”
“The Justice Department and INS actively discouraged Salvadorans and Guatemalans from applying for political asylum. Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrested near the Mexico-U.S. border were herded into crowded detention centers and pressured to agree to ‘voluntarily return’ to their countries of origin. Thousands were deported without ever having the opportunity to receive legal advice or be informed of the possibility of applying for refugee status. Considering the widely reported human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala, the treatment of these migrants constituted a violation of U.S. obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.”
It is not surprising, then, that concerned citizens along the border took the matter into their own hands. Quietly ignoring US immigration law and foreign policy, they took in refugees and at times aided their border-crossing, in the spirit of Thoreau: “They are lovers of law and order who uphold the law when the government breaks it.”
“At the Sanctuary Movement’s height in the mid 1980s, over 150 congregations openly defied the government, publicly sponsoring and supporting undocumented Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugee families. Another 1,000 local Christian and Jewish congregations, several major Protestant denominations, the Conservative and Reform Jewish associations, and several Catholic orders all endorsed the concept and practice of sanctuary. Sanctuary workers coordinated with activists in Mexico to smuggle Salvadorans and Guatemalans over the border and across the country. Assistance provided to refugees included bail and legal representation, as well as food, medical care, and employment.”
The early core of religiously-minded workers was soon joined by political activists in Chicago and other urban centers. They brought a political edge to the humanitarian efforts. It was no longer just a campaign to help a few families outlast the violence. It became a political storm within the US.
By granting venue to the refugees’ stories, the Sanctuary Movement fundamentally challenged our vision of ourselves—much like the American Civil War, our duplicitous dealings with First Nations, and our repeated failures with voting rights. They brought alignment between the Sanctuary Movement and larger civil rights movements. They challenged “not just one immigration law, but a whole pattern of exploitation.”
Those involved in the movement saw it as a fundamental question of human rights, as stated clearly in the UN’s declaration of 1948, the Convention of 1951, the 1967 Protocol, and other acclaimed elaborations.
“The defense of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans marked a new use of international human rights norms by U.S. activists. Citing the Nuremberg principles of personal accountability developed in the post-World War II Nazi tribunals, religious activists claimed a legal precedent to justify their violation of U.S. laws against alien smuggling. Other activists claimed that their actions were justified by the religious and moral principles of the 19th-century U.S. abolitionist movement, referring to their activities as a new Underground Railroad. Many U.S. religious leaders involved in the Sanctuary Movement had prior experience in the 1960s civil disobedience campaigns against racial segregation in the American South.”
Their very public platform made the movement appear “dangerous to the government”—a government which didn’t appreciate having its foreign policy questioned or its covert operations exposed. But the activists continued to press the questions: Since the US had ratified the Protocol of 1967, and given the progressive nature of the Refugee Act of 1980, shouldn’t we be providing safe haven for the Salvadorans and Guatemalans? Especially since we are funding and arming the combatants? And that of course should cause us to ask the ultimate question: Why are we at war in Central America?
These questions certainly had their consequences: “The Department of Justice responded by initiating criminal prosecutions against two activists in Texas in 1984, followed by a 71-count criminal conspiracy indictment against 16 U.S. and Mexican religious activists announced in Arizona in January 1985.”
Dragging key Sanctuary Movement participants into federal court was an act of silencing on the part of the US government. In that vein, US District Judge Earl Carroll barred the defense from mentioning the violent conditions in El Salvador. He knew that to allow such testimony would not only validate the refugees’ status according to international law, it would also expose the violent role the US played in creating the refugees in the first place. In spite of Carroll’s restrictions, activists were able to capitalize on the trial’s publicity, using it to indict the Reagan Administration for its wars in Central America and its treatment of the wars’ victims.
Middle-class American activists weren’t the only ones who had issued public indictments. In 1980, Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero publicly requested that the US cease military aid. A month later, he gave a sermon in which he called upon Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing civilians. He was murdered shortly thereafter, at the altar, by government-supported assassins.
We are even willing to pay for the silence in advance. We pay Mexico to intercept and incarcerate asylum-seekers so that we never have to hear their stories or see their faces. The ones who actually make it across our border are detained without legal hearing. Then we deport them in record numbers.
Are we in the right when we send them back to their home countries? We have agreed, on paper, to the following: “The most essential component of refugee status and of asylum is protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution.”
Refoulement—sending a person back to a country where they face a threat to their life or freedom—is overwhelmingly condemned on a global scale, and has been since 1951.
“No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”—from the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 33(1).
“No person referred to in Article 1, paragraph 1, shall be subjected to measures such as rejection at the frontier or, if he has already entered the territory in which he seeks asylum, expulsion or compulsory return to any State where he may be subjected to persecution.” — from the United Nations Declaration on Territorial Asylum, Article 3(1), unanimously adopted by the General Assembly in 1967.
“In no case may an alien be deported or returned to a country regardless of whether or not it is his country of origin, if in that country his right to life or personal freedom is in danger of being violated because of his race, nationality, religion, social status or political opinions.” — Article 22(8) of the American Human Rights Convention adopted by the Organization of American States in November 1969.
Non-refoulement has become such a widely accepted principle that even non-member states—those not part of the UN, OAS, OAU, or other global organizations—readily honor it. “Because of its wide acceptance at universal level, it is being increasingly considered in jurisprudence and in the work of jurists as a generally recognized principle of international law,” states the UN.
There is only one exception to the principle of non-refoulement. Article 33(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention states: “The benefit of the present provision may not however be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.”
It’s a loophole through which can slip the entire caboodle of US foreign policy. Our present behavior is an elaboration of the unspoken policy of the 1980s, when refugees were denied and deported on the basis of fabricated fear. If we are afraid of the refugees on our doorstep, we won’t let them in. If we don’t let them in, we can’t hear their stories. Their stories, of course, incriminate the US and its violent foreign affairs.
True to form, the present US Administration has relentlessly demonstrated its unwillingness to grant asylum. As for refugees that have made it across the border, we criminalize their presence.
We choose what we see, of course. And while we creatively interpret the image, others face the machine itself. For them, the struggle is not one of vision. It’s one of survival.
Sanctuary activists in the 1980s knew the fate of refugees subjected to refoulement. Those sent back to El Salvador faced even greater violence than that which they fled, as they were now considered traitors by both civil war factions. Former FBI informant Frank Varelli testified that he regularly provided Salvadoran national guardsmen the names of people sent back by the US. He also provided the names of American citizens who were travelling in El Salvador, maintained assassination lists, and even a photo album. Anyone denied sanctuary by the US, and subsequently returned to El Salvador, was forcibly trading potential peace for guaranteed violence.
Maybe, just maybe, War is a Racket, as opined by Major General Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated servicemen in US history. His opening lines are unadorned and inarguable: “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”
“The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.”
Butler was a leader of American forces in Central America in the early 1900s. He knew firsthand what he was talking about. He also traversed the path that lies before us now, leaving the most likely position—perpetual war and its ignored casualties—to arrive at the most beautiful position—complete cessation of aggression accompanied by greater expressions of our humanity.
The more beautiful option, interestingly enough, is also the most rational: as we cease hostilities—and therefore the production of refugees—we can better assist the diminishing number who require sanctuary. It’s a lighter burden for everyone. Or we can go the most likely route: create more refugees and reject their requests for asylum. The ultimate solution will indeed be complicated, but as we argue our philosophy, casualties pile up. Will we find that our moral consciences have settled to the bottom of the heap?
———————-  http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html  http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-deportation-exclusive-idUSKCN0Y32J1  https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/27/us-missteps-refugees-define-year  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctuary  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cities_of_Refuge#Origin_and_development  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_and_Nationality_Act_of_1952#cite_note-4  http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/resource/the-refugee-act http://www.unhcr.org/protect/PROTECTION/3b66c2aa10.pdf (will launch a PDF)  https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/  Miriam Davidson, Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement, (University of Arizona Press, 1988), 76-77; http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era  http://www.immigration.ca/en/quebecimmigration-topmenu/187-canada-immigration-news-articles/2015/september/1992-countries-for-syrian-refugees.html  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctuary_movement  http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/  Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 99.  Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 62.  Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 149-169.  Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 44-45  Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 141  Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 142  Davidson, Convictions of the Heart,76  Robin Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, (Temple University Press, 1991), 12.  http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era  http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era  http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era  Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 80.  http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era  Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, 24  http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era  Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, 24  http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era  http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era  Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, 10; http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era http://www.democracynow.org/2016/3/11/before_her_assassination_berta_caceres_singled  http://fair.org/home/suyapa-portillo-on-central-american-refugees-michael-ratner-on-alberto-gonzalez/  http://www.wola.org/commentary/3_myths_about_central_american_migration_to_the_us; http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/gonzalez-clinton-policy-latin-american-crime-story-article-1.2598456 http://www.democracynow.org/2016/3/11/before_her_assassination_berta_caceres_singled https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/04/20/we-pay-mexico-catch-refugees-kids-suffer https://www.ice.gov/doclib/about/offices/ero/pdf/2013-ice-immigration-removals.pdf (will launch a PDF)  UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Note on Non-Refoulement (Submitted by the High Commissioner), 23 August 1977, EC/SCP/2, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae68ccd10.html [accessed 18 June 2016]  UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Note on Non-Refoulement (Submitted by the High Commissioner), 23 August 1977, EC/SCP/2, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae68ccd10.html [accessed 18 June 2016]  Davidson, Convictions of the Heart,142  http://fas.org/man/smedley.htm  Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 80
When most of us bite into a chocolate bar, an ear of corn, or even a sun-warmed tomato fresh from our gardens, we appreciate the flavor of the food but rarely consider the millennia-old history that brought the taste and nourishment to our mouths. It would seem odd to us to consider Italian cuisine devoid of tomatoes or polenta, Irish stews without potatoes, Thai curry lacking peanuts or chiles, or French pastries sans chocolate or vanilla. Yet an astounding array of foods that we consider staples of worldwide cuisines originated in Central and South America, and were unknown to the rest of the world until European Conquistadors returned from the New World, bringing American species with them. This cross-continental exchange was coined the Columbian Exchange by history and geography professor Alfred W. Crosby Jr. in his 1972 book of the same name.
In October 2014, when we first debuted the Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest menu, our goal was to honor some of our beloved food plants that originated in the Americas and explore the process that brought them to tables worldwide. Revisiting this menu for an upcoming event reminded us just how big this topic is!
During our 2014 research, we realized that the seemingly modern phenomenon of globalization, which mixes economic and cultural benefits with extreme inequality and the exploitation of communities and ecosystems alike, extends back centuries. The global trade set in motion by Columbus’ contact with the Americas has been characterized by unequal exchange from the beginning. The extraction model through which European explorers and traders acquired and commodified a wide range of American species has expanded and become entrenched. Today, multinational corporations and powerful nations are the conquistadors wielding trade treaties to force less powerful communities to produce commodities for the world market. Those in power benefit from these arrangements, while those producing the crops for export often live in extreme poverty.
American Harvest was the fourth Peace Meal Supper Club theme, and it has been astounding to see how many other PMSC themes it intersects, ranging from Seed to Labor. The extraction model that the Europeans used in the New World appears in many of the topics we cover. For example, as we discussed with the Pollination menu, the European honeybee (an introduced species which displaces native pollinators) is trucked by the millions across the US to pollinate monocultures that bloom for only a few weeks a year.
We apply the same model to our treatment of the intricate ecosystem found in Dirt, sterilizing the soil and depleting it of nutrients through unsustainable farming practices, and then applying chemical fertilizers to grow crops artificially.
Our attitude towards Seed has especially strong connections to American Harvest; powerful governments and corporations have a strong habit, dating back the Columbian Exchange, of taking seeds and other genetic material from developing countries, commodifying and patenting them, and then selling them back to the communities that originally developed the seeds. The final price is steep, not only in terms of money.
The Fair Trade, Cacao, and Labor menus illustrated the impact of globalization and international trade agreements on the global south, the countries producing much of the food consumed by the global north. This marketplace dynamic is, according to farmer and author Will Bonsall, a form of erosion in which soil nutrients, water, and even the energy of labor leave the producing communities never to return home again. This breaks what was once a sustainable cycle. In general, much of the world’s food is produced by countries which also suffer from some of the highest levels of poverty, malnutrition, and ecosystem depletion. And to add insult to injury, the people who grow cacao beans in Ghana or Brazil have never tasted chocolate.
Peace Meal Supper Club: Mississippi demonstrated how far we will push the extraction model without concern for the environment or disempowered people. Whether in the form of higher levees or more complex trade agreements, consumerism and imperialism disregard the needs of the producers, inhabitants, and natural world in deference to the all-mighty dollar.
The interconnecting topics highlighted in Peace Meal Supper Club can be admittedly dark and overwhelming. And though many of the issues are more immediate, how can we possibly address the complex chain of events that began with the Columbian Exchange over 500 years ago?
We may not be able to change history, but there are steps we can take to change the future. The issues of social justice, environmental stewardship, food sovereignty, and others are deeply intertwined, but that means that many of the actions we take to change one aspect will ultimately affect other aspects as well. A common refrain of the Labor Movement stated “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The upside is that healing for one can be healing for all.
What can we do today? Plenty! Consider these ideas:
Tomatoes, originally descended from Mesoamerican plants with berry-sized fruits, are now grown on a massive scale in Florida’s sandy soil. The soil is sterilized and pumped full of fertilizing chemicals before each season, creating an entirely artificial growing environment. The farmworkers who tend and harvest the tomatoes—many of them undocumented immigrants from the same regions as the original tomato—are subject to a litany of mistreatment ranging from toxic pesticide exposure to physical and sexual abuse. Agricultural work is specifically exempt from many labor laws, and the few laws that are on the books do little to help systematically disempowered migrant workers.
Immokalee, Florida, is known as “America’s Tomato Capital,” but Chief Assistant US Attorney Douglas Molloy calls it “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy, who works on up to a dozen slavery cases at a time, further explains that “any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.” The combination of an artificial and chemical-laden environment and worker exploitation yields rock-hard, green tomatoes that are shipped to supermarkets across the country year-round after ripening through exposure to ethylene gas. These tomatoes fill our desire to have a red slice on our burgers or salads, but are notoriously tasteless.
So buy tomatoes grown locally and in season—or even better, grow your own! Avoid buying fresh tomatoes in the winter if at all possible. Can, dry, or freeze tomatoes in the summer that you can use throughout the year.
If you must buy fresh tomatoes out-of-season, choose organic brands certified by the Fair Food Program (FFP). This project of the hugely effective and internationally recognized Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker-run human rights organization based out of the Florida tomato fields, is a “unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions. The only third-party organization monitoring agricultural workers in the US, the FFP requires its participating farms to adhere to a higher standard of worker treatment, while participating buyers (ranging from Whole Foods to McDonalds) pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes. These pennies add up and significantly supplement worker incomes.
You can find a list of participating growers and buyers at the Fair Food Program website. Do be aware that most of these certified tomatoes are not organic, so workers—and the environment—are still exposed to chemicals in spite of protective measures. Lady Moon and Lipman Produce are certified as organic and FFP growers. Pacific Tomato Growers and Ag-Mart, while not fully organic, do sell some organic tomatoes.
Potatoes are a ubiquitous yet underappreciated vegetable native to the Andes. Today, we tend to think of potatoes as deep-fried junk food, and historically, Europeans long viewed them as only suitable for livestock and the poor.
Yet potatoes are high in vitamin C and multiple B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, fiber, and are a source of low-fat energy. The South American peoples who first domesticated the plant–and developed some 5,000 varieties–appreciated the potato as a nutritious and long-lasting staple. They have been essential to the diets of low-income people worldwide for centuries. According to NeBambi Lutaladio of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the potato is usually traded more locally than cereal crops and other global commodities, and for this reason it “helps vulnerable consumers ride out turmoil in world food markets.”
Pamela Anderson of Peru’s International Potato Center calls potatoes the “third most important food security crop in the world.”We should embrace potatoes as a healthy, cheap, and versatile food that can be grown locally in many regions and preserved easily through the winter months.Roasted, mashed, or used in diversedishesfromaround the world, the humble American potato is an excellent way to eat sustainably.
Grow a milpa! Ancient Mayans developed a holistic and interconnected polyculture farming system called a milpa, in which they planted diverse crops, including corn, beans, and squashes, together for mutual benefit. According to Tio Joel, a Mixtec farmer who still plants in the way of his ancestors, “In our milpa, plants carefully chosen over millennia complement and mutually assist one another to produce high yields of all the food and medicinal plants our communities need for our health and that of the soil and the Mother Earth…. The milpa is an agro-ecological wonder of biodiversity and plant ‘communal’ life. It is the product of communal societies of complementarity, mutual aid, and respect that are the social genius of our indigenous communities.”
Monocultures that require ever-increasing chemical inputs to grow much of the world’s food deplete the soil, starve wildlife, and poison the air and water. On the other hand, the complementary plants grown in a milpa regenerate the ecosystem and allow farming to continue on the same plot for thousands of years.
Buy Fair Trade goods and support food sovereignty. A disproportionate amount of the world’s food is grown in equatorial regions, often by farmers who are so deep in debt to the agricultural corporations that supply their seeds and fertilizers that they struggle to feed their own families. Most of these farmers do not own the land they farm, and have no power to choose what they farm or how much money they make. Forced labor, including child labor, is prevalent in industries such as cacao, the indigenous American plant that once served as a ritual beverage among the ancient Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec royalty–and is now eaten worldwide in the form of adulterated candy. Due to global politics and trade agreements set in motion by the Columbian Exchange, Central and South American communities where many of the world’s food plants originated have very little food security. They cannot control their own food supply.
We may be consumers of privilege, but we are also global citizens. It behooves us to treat the people who produce our food as we would treat our neighbors. We support positive systems of exchange when we buy certified fair trade products. The Food Empowerment Project, which “seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices,” maintains a rigorously researched list of fairly produced chocolate.
We should also support projects that champion food sovereignty, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”
And, finally, if you are fortunate enough to experience Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest, we encourage you to dig deeply into the menu.
 Will Bonsall, Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2015), 56.
 Explore these conditions interactively at the Global Food Insecurity website.
 This slogan has appeared in various forms. “An injury to one is the concern of all” was perhaps the first version, but the version quoted above was officially adopted by the United Workers of the World in 1905. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_labor_slogans)
Peace Meal Supper Club #16: Unbound celebrates the efforts of women worldwide who are working for the benefit of animals. Scientists, psychologists, educators, demonstrators, organizers–these dedicated individuals are helping erase the distinctions between us-and-them, between human and non-human, between kindness-for-one versus kindness-for-all. It is a big order to fill.
Patty Mark is an Australian activist and the founder of Animal Liberation Victoria. She is also credited with being the originator of “open rescues,” a form of direct action in which animals are removed from harmful and exploitative situations by activists who do not conceal either their actions or identities.
Lek Chailert is the founder of the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for elephants in Thailand. She is also the founder of Save Elephant Foundation, an organization dedicated to ”providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population through a multifaceted approach involving local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism operations.” There have been numerous documentary films made about Chailert’s work. In 2005, Time magazine named her “Asian Hero of the Year.”
Dr. Aysha Akhtaris a neurologist and public health specialist whose work explores and explains the connections that exist between human health and the wellbeing of animals. Her book, Animals and Public Health, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
Anita Krajnc is the co-founder of Toronto Pig Save. She has recently made international headlines for giving water to thirsty pigs on a slaughter truck during a Toronto Pig Save protest in the summer of 2015. She is facing criminal charges. Her trial date is set for August 2016.
To learn more about the project, and the four women being featured on this PMSC menu, please visit the Unbound Project. It is only fitting that Jo and Keri speak to you without my being an intermediary.
A rooster crows to mark out his territory and establish dominion. If Dr. John Romulus Brinkley had been a rooster, his flock would have included every North American from the Rio Grand River to the North Pole, and even a few Soviets. Fueled by Depression-era medical quackery and inspired engineering, his XER AM radio signal roared out of Ciudad Acuña, a Mexican town just across the border from Del Rio, Texas. Locals said that its signal rattled their bedsprings, turned on car headlights, and bled into telephone conversations. Non-locals, like radio station operators in Atlanta and Montreal, condemned it for interfering with their own signals.
Along with his own questionable cures–such as xenotransplantation of goat testicular cells into the genitals of presumed impotent men–Dr. Brinkley promoted his own political aspirations, fostered QVC-style infomercials, and helped propel the careers of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and other revered pioneers of American roots music. Brinkley’s story defies condensation, touching as it does upon medical charlatanry, male insecurity, cutting edge electronic engineering, innovative advertising, landmark Supreme Court decisions, federal communications legislation, popular culture, international treaties, the birth of mass-media evangelism, and the KGB, who listened in to his signal to brush up on their English.
His story is far too wow-inducing to leave at that. I encourage you to read this highly-entertaining account here. (Another informative article is here. A film is in the works here.)
XER (and its successor XERA) operated from 1932 to 1939, existing in the shadow zone of the US-Mexico border. Dr. Brinkley, having pioneered AM radio in 1920s Kansas, built XER’s transmitter with the expressed purpose of circumventing US broadcast regulations. Mexico was eager to help him, for they also wished to get around gringo airwave limitations. They had sought a cooperative division of the airwaves across North America, hoping to broadcast to refugees of the Mexican Revolution and other immigrants scattered throughout the US. The US, however, made such peaceful coexistence difficult. In came Brinkley with a team of distinguished engineers ready to outdo themselves, and together they built the most powerful radio transmitter ever to exist upon the planet. This rooster crowed with half a million watts. Some say a full million.
The massive signal lobbed across the continent not only underground hillbilly and blues recordings but the call of mystics, faith-healers, and purveyors of autographed photos of Jesus Christ. It was full-service garage-sale America, and it made the good doctor a millionaire several times over. On the less surreal plane of terra firma, it was a grand exercise in dominion. There was a lot at stake along the border.
Behind the inventive ego of Dr. Brinkley lies the long and complicated history of Mexican-US relations, still working its way into an infinitely tangled knot. The questionable breakaway of Texas from Mexico in 1936 left an unofficially delineated border and an unsanctioned treaty. The annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 was followed by US military trespass into Mexico. At the end of the resulting war, Mexico ceded over half of its territory to the United States, currently known as California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. By 1848, the dream of American Manifest Destiny was realized: the United States had extended its dominion to the Pacific Ocean.
The decades between the cession of Mexican lands and the advent of Dr. Brinkley were not peaceful ones. Mexico and other Latin American countries were in frequent political turmoil, some of it due to internal forces, some to external forces. The US intervened heavily, sometimes under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine or under cover of the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted his Good Neighbor foreign policy in an attempt to improve pan-American relations. His goal wasn’t entirely altruistic: he believed that adopting a more friendly demeanor towards Latin America would result in more economic opportunity, which is, after all, the impetus behind all American activity. After decades of US aggression, it is hard to imagine anyone taking his crow seriously.
Superficialities, however, came out of the woodwork. Radio was alive with the sounds of happy neighbors, as hosts played records from Latin American artists, linguists explained Spanish to English-only listeners, and dignitaries presented travel adventures. Concerts, films, and other cultural exchanges illustrated that to be pan-American-minded was to be a good American.
However, Mexicans living in the US were not included in the neighborly programs. In fact, public opinion was further turned against them. Dolores Inés Casillas, Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes, “American-sponsored [radio] programming peddled themes of hemispheric unity, despite the prevailing nativist attitudes, separating domestic and international agendas. American listeners developed imaginary friendships with Mexicans over there, whereas Mexican communities living here were depicted as unruly neighbors.” Anti-Mexican sentiment was nothing new, having been fomented as propaganda before the Mexican-American War. Heavily racialized speeches filled Congress and the newspapers, with calls for “white destiny” to be fulfilled.
Behind the glittery veneer of Rooseveltian neighborliness, the US issued constant requests to Mexico for laborers. Those who came were outfitted with short hoes and short paychecks. The Mexican “immigration problem” received frequent play in the press. We might have changed our lyrics, but our song remained the same.
One song captures the moment well: “South of the border/Down Mexico way/That’s where I fell in love/When stars above/Came out to play,” begins a popular song from 1939, sung first by XERA veteran Gene Autry. The song’s superficial story is a romantic one: an American cowboy ventures into Mexico and has a one-night stand with a Mexican woman: “it was Fiesta, and love had its day,” he explains somewhat cavalierly. She asks about meeting again mañana, and he agrees. But alas, he has lied, knowing that he will return to the States instead. Some time later, he drifts south to find her praying at an altar, mission bells resounding overhead. There is sufficient ambiguity to wonder if she is in a convent or at her own wedding. Either way, he leaves again without saying “buenos dias.” The tale is one-sided, of course. She isn’t given a voice.
Though long-canonized as an American Standard, it isn’t really a romantic ballad at all. It is a glamorized account of American conquest in Mexico. It is the sound of the filibuster: in the 1800s, several American adventurers obligated themselves to overthrowing Latin American governments and establishing themselves as dictators. The term has since been used to describe a parliamentary procedure wherein a speaker will not yield the floor to a dissenting opinion. The song South of the Border, like the Congressional filibuster, is the sound of Anglo-American dominance.
Sound-as-dominion is an obsession of the online publication Sounding Out!, a highly academic and dynamic venue for scholars, artists, and readers “interested in the cultural politics of sound and listening.” In a currently ongoing series, they are reviewing a project from the 1960s and 70s, wherein a team of recordists set out to capture what Canada sounded like.
Writer Mitchell Akiyama explains that “a ‘soundmark’ is roughly analogous to a landmark: it’s a sound that is supposedly instantly recognizable to members of a community, an irreplaceable acoustic feature of a particular place.” He quotes a member of the original project’s team: “It takes time for a sound to take on rich, symbolic character—a lifetime perhaps, or even centuries. This is why soundmarks should not be tampered with carelessly. Change the soundmarks of a culture and you erase its history and mythology. Myths take many forms. Sounds have a mythology, too. Without a mythology, a culture dies.”
Tampering happens at all levels of our society, from government chambers to the most common workplaces–such as restaurant kitchens. Routinely staffed by Mexican immigrants, they are filled with the sound of Spanish. It is the soundmark of a kitchen.
When I was employed at a prominent raw food cafe and school in Ft. Bragg, CA, management sent down the decree: no more Spanish was to be spoken in the kitchen. My Mexican colleagues and I noted that the decree did not prohibit singing in Spanish. A request for the peeler or the blender or even a toothpick instantly became a song. We soon tired of our own mischief, but the point was made: the soundmark will remain, regardless of biased mandates.
Subversive behavior aside, a soundmark has a purpose. It is the sound of “home,” and is invaluable to a culture that has become scattered across the continent. Casillas states, “Spanish-language broadcasts along the West Coast have long provided nationalist sustenance for a Mexican-dominant listenership that is yearning for an audible, familiar semblance of ‘home.'” Experiencing physical and emotional displacement is common among immigrants. To hear one’s language is to find a stabilizing touchstone. Home is not just a fixed, physical place, but “a mobile symbolic habitat, a performative way of life and of doing things in which one makes one’s home while in movement.”
In every kitchen I’ve entered, I have listened for the sounds of Spanish-language radio. Its existence is an indicator of the health of the kitchen. It speaks of community, strength, family, solidarity, and progress. It also speaks volumes about management.
But not all see it as a positive. To some, all that Spanish-speaking provokes suspicion and fear, and fuels a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and violence.
Writes Jennifer Stoever, Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out!, regarding Arizona’s anti-immigration SB-1070: “Because unspoken, racialized norms about sound exist and circulate through American culture via the listening ear, members of dominant groups may use sound with impunity to forge ‘reasonable suspicion’ about the citizenship status of anyone who sounds different from them (and who creates, consumes, and appreciates sounds differently from them). Certainly the sound of Spanish is at the top of this list.”
In other words, “You don’t sound American. You got any papers?”
Silencing non-English language has been an American pastime over the past 100 years or so. German-language materials were forbidden during the World War I; bilingual education has been banned in various states; Native American children have been enrolled in English-only boarding schools to remove them from their language; and the radio waves have been routinely and bureaucratically cleared of all polyglot tendencies.
But what does America actually sound like? White residents of Arizona? Polyrhythmic multilingual Manhattan? Kentucky bluegrass played on an African instrument? The United States is the second-largest Spanish speaking country in the world. Whatever America actually sounds like, it is not monolingual by any means.
Our fixation on English-only society is sometimes passive and selective, rather than violent or legislative. Once again Mitchell Akiyama, regarding the recording of the “what Canada sounds like” project: “It should also go without saying that the soundmarks they so prized were deeply entangled with a silencing of Canada’s indigenous population; of a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another.”
There is a response to all this suppression: the suppressed step over the line and build the most powerful radio in the world. Dr. John R. Brinkley was on the outs with US authorities when he built the first border blaster. By agreement with the Mexican government, one quarter of his programming was in Spanish. Mexico found a way to reach its dispersed people.
Today, Spanish-language radio continues its public mission in spite of the changes in dominant listening methods. Writes Casillas in a Sounding Out! essay: “The very public nature of Spanish-language radio listening represents a communal, classed, and brown form of listening that differs markedly from ‘white collar’ modes of listening, which offers more solitary practices, promoted by commuting in private cars and listening to personal satellite radios, iPods, or Internet broadcasts.
“For instance, one can routinely overhear loud Spanish-language broadcasts from the back kitchens of restaurants (regardless of the ethnic cuisine); outside bustling construction sites and Home Depot storefronts as day laborers await work; or from small radio sets balanced heroically on hotel housekeeping carts. On-air salutations heard throughout the day on Spanish-language radio are vocal nods to worksites as radio hosts greet washeros (car wash personnel), mecánicos (mechanics), fruteros and tamaleras (fruit and tamale street vendors), and those, presumably farmworkers, toiling under the sun.”
“Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment,” she continues, “becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.”
Spanish-language programming did exist in the US prior to XERA’s reign of power. In the 1920s, English-language stations sold their most undesirable timeslots to Spanish producers such as Pedro J. Gonzalez, whose early-morning shows greeted campesinos as they prepared to go to the fields. When local and national regulations threatened to silence them, they partook of Dr. Brinkley’s miracle cure for FCC interference and moved across the border. As Brinkley and Roosevelt were furthering their empires, Mexicans–here and in Mexico–were trying to learn how to live in them.
But they were not seeking economic or political advantage, as were the good doctor and the president’s foreign policy mavens. The operators of Spanish-language radio were doing then what they are still doing now: broadcasting “home” to their wandering compadres, working to unify, educate, and inform them. Helping them learn to live as immigrants in a country that is far too hostile towards its neighbors, yet mysteriously filled with sonorous Spanish place-names: California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado; San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, San Antonio.
Just as Spanish-language border radio shot over US resistance, community radio lay below the mainstream. The first bilingual non-commercial radio station in the US, KBBF-FM (Santa Rose, CA), went on the air in 1973. Its mission was clear: “To create a strong multilingual voice that empowers and engages the community to achieve social justice through education, celebration of culture and local and international news coverage.” Born amidst the Chicano Movement, its purpose is relevant to all, regardless of origin, language, or heritage. It is a very American mission.
As Casillas relates, KBBF and its fellow bilingual stations have resumed the practice of those 1920s Spanish-language radio pioneers, providing much needed information and influence, promoting literacy, sobriety, and good citizenship. And as commercial Spanish-language radio has grown–by 1995, it dominated Los Angeles, San Antonio, Miami, and New York–it too has continued the tradition. National call-in shows help listeners navigate the complicated US citizenship process, give advice regarding medical and legal rights, offer ESL assistance, help with H-2A compliance, and provide drivers’ education. The focus is on improvement and the preservation of cultural identity–far more beneficial than the consumption-driven message of Dr. Brinkley.
Immigrants are indeed navigating a tsunami of US consumer-based identity. They are not alone in this, for our northern neighbor struggles with the pervasive US personality. “The history of the Canadian airwaves is profoundly mired in struggles to promote, produce, and foster content that might keep the national identity from being completely subsumed under the sprawl and heft of the American culture industry.”
The American culture industry is not, however, in danger of being subsumed under anyone. Its only risk is self-induced: it might one day be eliminated by its own noise, much like Londoners. De nobis fabula narrabitur.
Speaking of noise, I need to clarify my statements about roosters. It is true that they mark their domain by crowing. But they also crow to communicate with other roosters, to check in and see that all is well. Roosters are perfectly capable of sharing space, as they do at VINE Sanctuary in Vermont. Even those trained to fight to the death can learn to live in peace.
The cuisine of the US-Mexico borderlands is a bold, multi-lingual synthesis of methods, foods, and attitudes from native North America, old Spain, and the westward push of the US. The border is not its boundary; rather, the border is its central, invisible highway. This menu reflects shared heritage, coexistence, and the beauty of intercultural understanding: a peaceful contrast to all the aggressive crowing. The dessert highlights our northern border: the longest undefended border in the world.
Course 1: Tortilla Soup
Course 2: Mini Chile Rellenos ~ Bed of Caesar
Course 3: Enchiladas ~ Red Sauce ~ Rajas con Crema ~ Frijoles Refritos
Course 4: Canadian Butter Tart
 Jennifer Lynn Stoever, “The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?,” Sounding Out!, August 19, 2010, accessed September 22, 2015, http://soundstudiesblog.com/2010/08/19/the-noise-of-sb-1070/.
 Phillip M. Carter, “Why this bilingual education ban should have repealed long ago,” CNN, March 4, 2014, accessed September 22, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/04/opinion/carter-bilingual-education/; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-only_movement
 Stephen Burgen, “US now has more Spanish speakers than Spain – only Mexico has more,” The Guardian, June 29, 2015, accessed September 22, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/29/us-second-biggest-spanish-speaking-country?CMP=share_btn_tw
 Mitchell Akiyama, “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition,” Sounding Out!, August 20, 2015, accessed September 22, 2015, http://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/08/20/unsettling-the-world-soundscape-project-soundscapes-of-canada-and-the-politics-of-self-recognition/.
 Dolores Inés Casillas, “Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-Language Radio,” Sounding Out!, July 20, 2015, accessed September 22, 2015, http://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/07/20/listening-loudly-to-spanish-language-radio/.
Peace Meal Supper Club #14 is offered as a woefully small but deeply respectful expression of gratitude to the unconquerable Worker.
We speak often of the American Labor Movement as that which brought us the weekend and the eight-hour workday. This attribution is correct, although these benefits were not granted all in one sweep of corporate largesse. These present-day taken-for-granteds in no way represent the magnitude of what Workers have gifted us. Nor do they indicate the fierceness of the fight.
Reading about Labor’s struggle from the late 1800s and up to 1937 is like reading propaganda–even the non-biased accounts read as sensational. Charges of conspiracy and insurrection were leveled against Workers as they sought fair wages and safe conditions. Federal militia and citizen’s armies were sent in to quell alleged anarchist rebellions, atheists were thrown out of court, and our nation was on the brink of destruction due to socialist machinations, it would seem.
Ironically, it has been The Establishment–that amorphous mix of corporation, judiciary, law enforcement, press, and legislators–that has invoked the voice of propaganda. From the earliest struggles, Workers have been classified as insurrectionists, anarchists, socialists, communists, atheists, and terrorists. While some indeed have been–just as among any group of the citizenry we can find a spectrum of “-ists”–these labels have been used to justify violent suppression of even the most basic demands.
Hysteria aside, Labor has been a powerful progressive force, a cornerstone of social justice, the factory floor whereupon the betterment of society was wrought. Labor has never been one to move backwards. It has been pushing society forward since the 1600s.
The first known legal case in the United States (Commonwealth v. Pullis) involving a strike to raise wages occurred in Philadelphia in1806. The court’s decision was that striking workers were conspiring illegally, a conclusion significantly colored by English common law. A few decades later, in the 1842 case Commonwealth v. Hunt, the Massachusetts Supreme Court determined that labor combinations–unions–were not inherently illegal, provided their activities were legal. The significant ‘gray area’ in this decision led to inconsistent application through the following decades, and provided ample reason for employers to press the state of intervention in employee disputes. “Interfering with private enterprise” became synonymous with “threatening to overthrow the government of the United States.” Workers were not seeking livable wages; they were anarchists determined to destroy the established order. It doesn’t take much effort, then, to bring in the military. Which is what happened repeatedly during the 60-year period from 1870 to 1940.
John Siney, who attempted to organize coal miners in Pennsylvania in the 1870s, was arrested under charges of conspiracy. During his trial, he challenged the court: “We have been called agitators, we have been called demagogues, because we have counseled our members to try and secure better wages and harmonious settlements. Is it wrong to teach men to seek a higher moral standard? Is it wrong to advance our financial interests? If so, let those who operate our mines and mills abandon the various enterprises to with they are engaged in the pursuit of wealth.”
Those who operated the mines, mills, railroads, and factories were formidable foes: Carnegie, Gould, Pullman, Vanderbilt, Ford, Morgan. Driven by a fierce creed of capitalism, they amassed unprecedented fortunes as they built massive industrial empires. They were not ones to make humanitarian concessions to the workforce. In fact, they were quite contrary to the idea. They frequently made unannounced, drastic cuts in wages without regard to the livability of those wages. In some of the industries, mining for example, risk of injury or death was present daily. Worker safety was not among employers’ considerations across most industries, as is vividly portrayed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, 1911.
Labor historian Sidney Lens writes in The Labor Wars, “‘Under the natural order of things,’ said Herbert Spencer, ‘society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members’ in order to leave room for the competent ones entitled to reward. Gould and Vanderbilt…operated on the simple thesis that the capitalists, by their proven superiority, were entitled to rule; the workers, by their proven ineptness, obligated to accept their judgments.”
Such strong class-based bias, projecting an unflinching assumption of Worker subservience, supposes that the Worker is less worthy due to inherent personal, possibly genetic, qualities. This thoroughly reprehensible idea has been the impetus behind uncountable institutional crimes, from American slavery to British and American eugenics and rampant worldwide genocide in this century. America has focused such prejudice upon wave after wave of immigrants, from Jews to Irish to Italians to Mexicans, not to mention women of all origin, all of whom have successively comprised major portions of our workforce. It seems that once we concede constitutional rights to Workers, we chip away at them via other biases.
The rights we’re according Workers are the rights to which any human is worthy. Freedom of speech, the right to assemble, the right to peaceably demonstrate, the right to fair wages and equal treatment in the eyes of the law, the abolishment of child labor–these form the very core of the Labor Movement’s values, and therefore place it in the domain of basic social justice. Workers have shed blood for more than just pay and weekends.
For example, one of the most colorfully radical unions, the Industrial Workers of the World, waged a highly successful series of free speech campaigns between 1909 and 1917. The Spokane campaign in 1909–which you can read about here–exemplifies peaceful civil disobedience, the ability of a dedicated few to secure rights for all, and the tendency of the establishment to suppress speech deemed anti-religious or unpatriotic. As one demonstrator was arrested and pulled off the soapbox, another one would take his or her place–and they did this relentlessly. The jails were filled many times over, hundreds of speakers were beaten by police, fines were levied, unconstitutional and biased ordinances were passed, and still the Wobblies–as IWW members were called–continued their campaign. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an indefatigable feminist and future co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, even chained herself to a lamppost
so she could prolong her speech. One demonstrator, when accosted by police, stated that he was merely “reading the Declaration of Independence.” The two-year campaign was successful, with the city restoring civil liberties and investigating the employers that were the subjects of the Wobblies’ speeches.
The violation of speech rights was joined by the curtailing of the right to assemble, notably during the steel strikes in Pennsylvania that began in 1919. Permits to assemble were required, the requests for which were subsequently ignored for months. Meetings that were held in spite of permits were disrupted by the use of police force. Private meetings were also invaded by the authorities, with new laws requiring that meetings be conducted only in English. In another strike, one among textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Workers avoided arrest by choreographing their movements on the sidewalks and in retail shops, making their presence known but not being indictable for assembling ‘unlawfully.’ The IWW, ever creative in its circumvention of unconstitutional mandates, devised a “thousand mile picket line” by boarding trains and moving among the railcars to prevent transport of strikebreakers.
The right to picket is considered a natural part of the right of assembly, yet picketers have long been subject to violent attack and shutdown by the authorities, extending to today’s demonstrations on behalf of other causes. One of the most horrific cases of violence against picketers was the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which Chicago policemen fired into a line of picketers as they made their way to the gates of Republic Steel. A Paramount News photographer caught the incident on film. Paramount refused to show the film publicly, for fear of inciting a riot. Watching it today, the scene seems all too familiar: peaceful citizens hoping to have their voices heard are brutalized by an over-eager paramilitary police force, which in this case was armed by the corporation.
Through over 200 years of labor strife in the US, the Establishment has routinely engaged in surveillance, infiltration, provocation, collusion, unconstitutional legislation, jaundiced judiciary, and racial fear-mongering. Federal troops and National Guardsmen have been utilized to ‘resolve’ problems between Workers and employers. Industrialists have been allowed to establish their own private militias. States have willingly performed executions. Rather than mediate settlements, state and federal governments have chosen to defend corporate interests. Corporate personhood was born in 1819, and came of age in 1888. Its position of primacy in our culture today is almost unassailable.
Workers, meanwhile, though far from faultless, have fought on behalf of constitutional rights for the less privileged. Among Labor’s champions we find leaders of other socially progressive efforts, ranging from women’s suffrage to racial equality. Workers have pooled their funds to provide for other Workers on strike; paid bail and legal funds; and financed burial and memorials for the casualties. During the particularly intense 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, the IWW arranged foster homes for the children of strikers. This was considered an outlandish, media-grabbing gesture, but the children had been undernourished from birth, with a 50% mortality rate common among in the town. By providing better temporary conditions for the children, the union enabled the striking families to focus on the strike at hand and provided much needed medical care for the children. The Workers won a resounding victory in the form of increased wages, shorter hours, overtime pay, and other benefits.
The ability of Workers to conduct themselves peacefully during strikes–admittedly a long time coming–was exemplified during the Lawrence Textile demonstrations. Peaceful striking scaled another peak during the Sitdown Strike at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, in 1936. The strikers did not leave the plant to picket outside. Instead, they remained peacefully inside for forty-four days. This kept the plant occupied and unable to take on strikebreakers. It also shielded the strikers from aggression. They established their own civil structure, had stringent regulations against substances and violent behavior, took care not to damage GM property or equipment, and kept the plant clean and sanitary. Food was allowed in by the authorities, and the heat was kept on. One attempt to take the plant by force was rebuffed, and ultimately the strikers were rewarded for their efforts. The strike has since served as a model of non-destructive civil disobedience and was a forerunner of ‘sit-in’ and ‘occupy’ techniques used decades later. It also presents an unusual restraint of force: Michigan Governor Frank Murphy had National Guardsmen at his disposal. He chose to use them to protect the strikers.
Murphy understood the very core of the Labor Movement, expressed very well by Washington Post editorialist E. J. Dionne: “The union movement has always been attached to a set of values — solidarity being the most important, the sense that each should look out for the interests of all. This promoted other commitments: to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room.”
The relationship between government and Workers reached a more peaceful stasis when the National Labor Relations Act was signed in to law in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt. It marked a major victory for Labor, as it legitimized unions, Workers’ rights to bargain collectively for better conditions, and to strike when necessary. While far from complete–it excepted agricultural laborers, for example–it was a major milestone in moderating the relationship between employee and employer.
Not surprisingly it was hotly contested as unconstitutional, and numerous bills were introduced to limit its reach during the first 10 years of its existence. The now-standard cries of “socialism” and “threat to freedom” were levied against it, but it has stood. It was a sign of progressive change.
“In the course of every attempt to establish or develop free government, a struggle between Special Privilege and Equal Rights is inevitable. Our great industrial organizations [are] in control of politics, government, and natural resources. They manage conventions, make platforms, dictate legislation. They rule through the very men elected to represent them. The battle is just on. It is young yet. It will be the longest and hardest ever fought for Democracy. In other lands, the people have lost. Here we shall win. It is a glorious privilege to live in this time, and have a free hand in this fight for government by the people.”
That was in 1909, and by 1938 and the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act, democracy had indeed made progress. So where are we today? Have we truly garnered the victory he sought?
Among the larger industries, unionization has resolved the primary issues. Unions have perhaps become a bit complacent, charges which were leveled at the AFL in the early 1900s. Other unions have fallen due to factionalism or have simply become obsolete. Some, like the United Farm Workers, survive only to celebrate their own history.
Along our border with Mexico, factories known as maquiladoras provide cheap labor for American goods. Working conditions are poor, living conditions substandard, and wages extremely low.
The American capitalist model has been exported worldwide. Wherever it goes, it takes with it a very old mindset. A major stockholder of American Woolen, around the time of the 1912 strike mentioned above, told prominent liberal minister Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Any man who pays more for labor than the lowest sum he can get men for is robbing the stockholders. If he can secure men for $6 and pays more, he is stealing from the company.”
Over at the Pressed Steel Car Plant in 1909, company president Frank Hoffstot’s opinion was that “when all’s said and done” wages are fixed by “supply and demand. The same as everything else. We buy labor in the cheapest market.”
And when things get tense, and workers rebel against low wages and substandard conditions, there is one sure-fire remedy. US Attorney General Richard Olney‘s prescription for curing the Pullman Strike in 1894 was to apply “force which is overwhelming and prevents any attempt at resistance.” It should be no surprise that Olney was a major railroad stockholder. Have a Coke and a smile.
It is hard to study the Labor Movement and not view Capitalism as the fortress of cowards, who call upon the government to save them from the clutches of their underlings. Capitalism has continuously fought to curtail the constitutional rights of citizens, has infiltrated and provoked violence rather than deal fairly with those upon whose labor their empires rest, and has shown not one degree of conscience.
There is a ray of hope, however. In the words of Ayn Rand: “The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve ‘the common good.’ It is true that capitalism does—if that catch-phrase has any meaning—but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.” So this will all be cleaned up in short order.
I am guilty of criminal neglect for not mentioning Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Walter Reuther, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, and other stalwarts of Labor. The history I have given is unforgivably brief, and does not do justice to the innumerable deaths and injuries brought upon Workers by the forces of industry and government.
Please consider reading about the following events, or watching the brief videos.
It’s a well-documented fact that is rarely discussed: Hubris and Irony can’t keep their hands off each other.
In 1899, drought hit the lower Mississippi valley keenly, affecting cotton, sugar cane, and potato crops. Drinking water was scarce. Rice farmers were desperately pumping water over the levees in order to save their rice crops. It was the third drought in the decade, being preceded by those in 1896 and 1893. Less than 200 years prior, the area had been a wetlands, free of levees, pumps, and desperate farmers.
The 1893 drought had been preceded by floods. Historian Christopher Morris considers this a sure sign that the region had become unstable, the result of systematic yet chaotic attempts at environmental transformation through the use of physical barriers. Instability has been a Mississippi River trademark for almost 300 years now.
“From almost the moment in the early 18th century when the French started to build New Orleans, settlers built levees, and in so doing, entered into a complex geoclimactic relationship with about 41 percent of the United States,” states Alexis C. Madrigal, a contributing editor for The Atlantic.
The first levees were put into place by the French planters, in a model perfected by Joseph Villars Dubreuil in 1725 and constructed by his massive slave labor force. It proved so effective that his neighbors took him to court. By modifying the river’s flow around his plantation, he flooded others. In some cases, he had inadvertently reversed the flow of water through his neighbors’ mills, rendering them inoperable. The Louisiana Superior Court ruled that a larger levee be built, with no openings for mills. As Morris succinctly states in The Big Muddy, “The solution to flooding caused by leveeing and draining was more leveeing and draining.” Hubris whistles. Irony whistles back.
Behind the levees lay the philosophy that man can control nature, no matter the scale. The Europeans that came to the Americas did not intend to live on the land as it would have them. They intended to have the land as they wanted it. Continues Morris: “Levees reconfigured the human relationship with the environment, by separating land and water so as to enhance human control over both. Water touched land when people permitted it to do so, for example, when it flowed through man-made ditches and sluices, sawmills and irrigating fields…[Levees] transformed the river from a ‘destructive’ power into a force for ‘improving’ the land…human power triumphing over nature’s power.”
When Hernando de Soto first visited the Mississippi River Valley in 1541, he observed one of the planet’s largest natural wetlands, extending over 35,000 square miles, with a watershed stretching from modern-day Montana to western New York. The French, following 130 years after de Soto, considered it unlivable in spite of the natives that were living there. They set about creating dry places to live and farm, inspired by the efforts of Dubreuil.
America has transformed the French experiments at containment into a grand-scale display of power over the environment. The 3500-mile system of levees within the Mississippi River basin rival the Great Wall of China in accumulative length, reaching across 40% of the continental United States. In addition, 27 dams are situated between the river’s origin in north central Minnesota and St. Louis, Missouri. Other containment systems occur along the remainder of the river’s journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
Though championed for the benefits they provide humans, levees and other water containment systems are not benign fixtures on the landscape. They bring very serious side effects. As authors Friese, Kraft, and Nabhan write in Chasing Chiles, “A long, convoluted chain of events is causing the rising waters in the Mississippi delta. Human activities have interrupted the cyclical rejuvenation of the delta lands, from the construction of dikes and dams on the Mississippi River itself to the creation of other canals, channels, and diversions, which are the main drivers causing the subsidence of the delta and its islands in the bayous. As these lands disappear, there is a subsequent loss of coastal wetlands, and open water replaces marshy vegetation.”
Naturalists, agroecologists, foodies, and culture freaks often decry the uncountable losses in such a scenario. But for the powers that be, these impacts are often measured in terms of economic gains. That’s because economy has always been the yardstick.
We cannot overestimate the economic force behind the locks, dams, levees, and canals that escort the river to its delta. In that delta lie three major shipping ports, which are absolutely critical for the US economy. The Port of New Orleans is the fifth largest port in the United States based on cargo volume. The Port of South Louisiana, also located in the New Orleans area, is the world’s busiest in terms of bulk tonnage. Taken in combination, the two ports comprise the world’s fourth largest port system in terms of volume handled. And of course, there is oil.
The ports were a long time in the making, but economy was always their impetus. LaSalle’s claiming of the Mississippi River on behalf of France in 1682 allowed for a massive trade network to be developed, reaching from the Gulf Coast to Montreal. The fledgling French settlements in Louisiana were an extension of economic desperation back home, as the French government fought its way through the monumental debts accumulated by the recently-deceased Louis XIV. Under the direction of Scottish financier and compulsive gambler John Law, the French hoped to reconcile debt through the sale of shares in the French Mississippi Company, the products of which originated in the American colonies. The Mississippi mania that infected Paris in 1719 is legendary, as commoners and nobles alike literally fought in the streets to obtain shares of the French Mississippi Company. It all came crashing down in 1720, threatening complete ruin to the French state.
As the Duke of Orleans cleaned up matters at home, inertia had its way with Louisiana. To support the demand for product and profit–in the form of rice, indigo, sugar, or eventually cotton–French settlers exiled more of the great river, cleared and dried more land, deforested greater acreage, and applied a larger number of forced laborers. Between 1719 and 1731, the company established by John Law brought an estimated 6000 slaves from Africa. The company attempted to relocate French debtors to Louisiana. It succeeded in bringing in German debtors. Their settlements along the Mississippi became known as The German Coast, home to the largest slave rebellion in United States history.
The French Mississippi Company scheme, though short-lived, had very long-term effects. For one, it reoriented the trade axis of French America. Illinois shifted its subordination away from Montreal and towards the port town New Orleans. Established in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville on behalf of the French Mississippi Company, New Orleans was intended to be the economic capital of France’s American empire. The Mississippi River became the highway of imperialism. Like the river, all goods began flowing towards the Gulf.
The flow was profound. Cypress forests were felled to build the new city, and to make barrels for shipping the territory’s bounty. Along with timber, rice, beef, indigo, tobacco, sugar, and cotton traveled down the river. All of this necessitated more clearing of forests, more draining of swamps. The landscape was transformed from New Orleans to Illinois and beyond.
The Louisiana Territory changed hands a few times between the mid-1700s and 1803, finally settling in US hands after negotiations between Jefferson and Napoleon. With US ownership came a boom in cotton production and slave labor. By 1860, the slave population in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi was approaching 1 million.
Meanwhile, levees continued to grow in number and height. Referring to the Duke of Orleans’ role in the French Mississippi Company’s stock scheme, journalist Charles Mackay stated that “the regent…thought that a system which had produced such good effects could never be carried to excess.”Professor Pangloss could not have said it better, even if he had seen all those levees.
Among those good effects immune to excess were massive fish kills due to toxic indigo runoff as early as 1800; comprehensive deforestation in some areas by 1900; domination of invasive plant species on land by 1800; infestation of invasive water species by 1880. In addition, all before 1900, there was increased flooding due to deforestation in the watershed regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio; coastal erosion at advanced rates; the need for protection of endangered animal species; and a collapse in natural prey-predator relationships at all levels of wild life.
By the early 1800s, the soil was depleted “past all redemption,” according to noted agriculturist Solon Robinson. By 1920, chemical fertilizers were necessary throughout the delta. Since 1920, the large Sparta Aquifer, at the joining of Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, has dropped over 360 feet. Spectacular fish kills happened throughout the early 1960s, with 5 million dead between 1964 and 1965.
This historical perspective is necessary for us to understand that the problems we face today are not new. That is to say, they are not a fad, nor a trend that will pass. They are endemic to the economic and political system we espouse. As I presented in past Peace Meal Supper Clubs, most notably “Seed,” our system requires the constant production and sale of goods, on a scale that is excessive and destructive. This in turn requires complex industrial systems that do not serve the people, but instead funnel all resources to a nation’s bottom line. As for the people themselves, they are also considered resources to be managed for the good of the Gross Domestic Product.
To be clear, life was certainly not without its troubles prior to settlement by Europeans. But what de Soto found was a mix of peoples whose lives were fashioned around the activities of the river. When the river flooded, native people moved to higher ground until it receded. They consumed its proceeds and supported its replenishment. They subsisted on agricultural crops, fishing, and hunting, as we would expect. The caprice of the river provided inconvenience but not disaster.
The dynamic life of the Mississippi river system, pre-conquest, ensured constant replenishing of the soil with sediment drawn from the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes regions, and the western slope of the Appalachians. Cataclysmic flooding was infrequent. The vast Mississippi Alluvial Plain held some of the world’s richest agricultural soil.
The river’s delta is the result of 7000 years of coastal sediment deposition. Through a series of shifts in the river’s course–known as deltaic cycles–these
deposits built up the complex coastline of Louisiana. They worked in concert and in contest with the forces of oceanic erosion. However, three hundred years of levee-building upriver have increasingly deprived the delta of the sediment portion of this equation. The decrease is drastic: before 1900, the river carried an estimated 400 million metric tons of sediment per year to the delta. By the year 2000, it was carrying only 145 million metric tons per year. That’s a reduction of 64%. As a consequence, the Louisiana coast is eroding at the rate of one football field every 30 minutes. Erosion of the delta was a major contributor to the catastrophe known as Katrina.
But erosion is not the only problem we’ve unfairly blamed on the river itself. Flooding has become chronic, with major floods occurring in 1825, 1844, 1849, 1858, 1927, 1937, 1973, 1983, 1993, 2011, and 2014. Systemic breakdowns have occurred in the greatest of the floods, those in 1927, 1937, 1973, and 1993. Not surprisingly, these floods rival one another for their destruction, death toll, and costliness. Each flood has summoned greater technical solutions and increased the involvement of the Federal government. Since the Flood Control Act of 1928, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been given the prime responsibility for flood control along the Mississippi River. The Corps’ official motto is “Let Us Try.” Each time they try, they succeed in increasing the risk of greater disaster.
During the August 2005 arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the Corps’s flood protection system failed catastrophically, with levee breaches in over 50 locations. The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal, another Corps undertaking, provided an expressway for the hurricane, funneling it directly into the city. It was one of the deadliest hurricanes in US history, largely due to one of the worst civil engineering failures in US history.
The US Army Corps of Engineers have received a torrent of criticism for their approach for managing the Mississippi River and its outlet. An enlightening and somewhat startling indictment appears in the August 2007 issue of Time Magazine. Michael Grunwald’s indignation in his article “The Threatening Storm” should be our own.
In response to Katrina’s destruction, the Corps has responded as we might anticipate. The solution is not to gradually undo our repression of the river and gently wend our way, as much as is possible, to a naturally functioning system. The solution-in-progress is to build more containment, in a project that has been dubbed The Great Wall of Louisiana. Irony sizes up all those hunky points of failure and licks her lips.
But counter to irony there are other all-too-unsurprising stories running alongside the damned Mississippi River. Being such a major thoroughfare throughout the life of America, it has served as a mirror of our nation’s progress. As industrial agriculture has spread across the US Midwest, it has also delivered a payload of toxic runoff into the Mississippi River system. This in turn has created a massive and growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Flowing concurrently with environmental degradation is the continued deterioration of racial justice. The lower Mississippi valley has seen institutionalized enslavement of Africans transform into the Black Codes of the post-Civil War South. Land granted to Freedmen under Congressional mandate was returned to Southern whites through President Andrew Johnson’s amnesty programs. Black Americans were routinely forced into labor on levee projects throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. Institutionalized disenfranchisement has led to widespread urban marginalization, which factored into the racially-charged aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The past is often a harbinger of the future. One thousand years prior to Hernando de Soto’s Mississippi River forays, a highly advanced society flourished at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers. The Cahokia peoples established a trade network that reached from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, employed sophisticated agricultural techniques, built lasting monuments, and controlled the manufacture and distribution of technologically-advanced tools. Central to their settlement was an imposing mound, rising to 100 feet and covering 15 acres of ground. From its summit, their kings would arrange for the weather to favor their agricultural fields.
The Cahokians also had a strong urge towards deforestation and exploitation of resources. The collapse of their society in the 14th century has been credited to unsustainable agricultural practices, over-hunting of the surrounding regions, and floods resulting from the landscape that they had rendered bare–and over which their kings had claimed control.
“Given Cahokia’s engineering expertise,” writes Charles C. Mann in 1491, “solutions were within reach: terracing hillsides, diking rivers, even moving Cahokia. Like all too many dictators, Cahokia’s rulers focused on maintaining their hold over the people, paying little attention to external reality.”
The beauty of hubris is its built-in irony: it will eventually deprive itself of the stage upon which to strut its stuff.
Our tightly integrated political and economic system resembles the Old River Control Structure, a floodgate system built in 1963 near the border of Mississippi state and Louisiana. Its purpose is to keep the Mississippi River in its current course, even though it wishes to jump over into the Atchafalaya Basin. The river has changed course many times; this is part of a river’s natural behavior. However, for the sake of economy the Mississippi is being held into place by order of the US Congress. The Army Corps of Engineers enforce these orders. However, there are weaknesses in the Old River Control Structure which almost brought it to a collapse during the 1973 flood. Our monolithic establishment also has weak points, and by working in those gaps, perhaps we can influence change or undermine repressive structures.
First, any effort we can make to eliminate our personal consumerist impulses will help. We have been bred, as Americans, to want more, get more, constantly work for more. Our desires require resources, and by decreasing our desires we can reduce industrial encroachment into our few remaining natural areas.
We can support, at the grassroots level, more natural forms of agriculture. We can withhold our support for industrial agriculture. Please visit the Organic Consumers Association online at www.organicconsumers.org.
We can work to establish food equality throughout our land of plenty. Please visit the Food Empowerment Project at www.foodispower.org.
We must create alternate economies which operate independently of industrialized institutions. Please visit YES! Magazine’s website to learn more, or read this article from Mother Earth News.
We can work to correct the long-standing social injustice which is a chief characteristic of our nation. Concurrent with the history of the Mississippi River is the development of southern slave culture, marginalization of freedmen during Reconstruction, the use of forced African American labor on late 19th-century levee projects, further disenfranchisement due to natural disasters such as flooding, and the deadly insult of Hurricane Katrina. This happens within us each as individuals, and is demonstrated in our every action, private or public. Quite simply, we must fight oppression. And continue to fight oppression. Then we should fight some more.
Our energy is needed on each issue, for they are woven together in a massive watershed. Our good actions lead to a healthy functioning social system, and support greater fertility for other good actions.
Further Reading, Heavily Recommended:
John McPhee, “Atchafalaya,” New Yorker, February 23, 1987
 Christopher Morris, Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina (Oxford University Press, 2012), 169-170.
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