We enter the theater and find it’s become a hall of mirrors, highly polished and meticulously disorienting. As we take our seats, we can’t tell the real from the carefully projected.
The lights go down and a softly strummed arpeggio summons the spotlight. Our man steps forward, surrounded by the reflections he is curating. As he speaks, we are still not sure which panel to watch. We are reflected along with him, as if the audience is also part of the performance.
“Early in the evening, she goes out,” he begins. Acoustic guitar, double bass, lilting piano, and the always-seductive brushed snare accompany his words, conjuring cocktails and a lightly wafting cloud of smoke. Our perception becomes elegantly clouded.
His next few lines not only increase our interest but elicit our doubts. She’s gone to see a friend, he readily pretends. “I’m not supposed to know,” he says candidly, indicating that he knows all too well.
Walter Hyatt’s “Blind Love Blues,” with its shifting identities and altered perceptions, resembles Ruggero Leoncavallo’s celebrated 1892 opera, Pagliacci. Leoncavallo’s play-within-a-play involves multiple levels of infidelity, confused identities, and clouds of suspicion. In the opera’s prologue, we are informed that the show is about real people. But with each actor performing multiple roles, we have to carefully watch for the reality.
In the opera’s second and final act, lead character Canio, dressed as a fool in the grand tradition, storms the stage attempting to identify his wife’s lover. In “Blind Love Blues,” however, our leading man plays it closer to Leonard Cohen, whose resignation in “Famous Blue Raincoat” is almost unbearable. Acceptance tempered with grace lies at the heart of Walter Hyatt’s song, and within this respectable context he paces the mirrored hall in the costume of a fool—but certainly a sophisticated and self-aware one. As we listen to his concise story, we must discern his true identity. The song is deceptively simple on the surface but seductively complex once we discern the angle of the mirrors.
Carefully placed, mirrors show us only what we want to see. Simultaneously, they block out things we do not wish to see. That is perhaps their greatest purpose.
In his second stanza, Walter tell us that though his partner has strayed, “faith is hard to lose.” As if to bolster his statement, he tells us that she still comes home. He doesn’t indicate how frequently she does so, nor how long she stays. But this small gesture, however fleeting, counterbalances all of her other actions and is all the proof he needs.
Walter uses the word ‘faith’ where others might have used the word ‘trust.’ There is wondrous subtlety in this word choice, one which takes the song into much deeper territory. Trust is easily broken, often by one act of transgression. It is almost impossible to rebuild, since each of the transgressor’s subsequent actions can prompt suspicion. But faith is another matter. It does not depend upon the actions of another person, but upon our belief in who the other person is. It cannot be destroyed from the outside, but only from within ourselves. Destroying one’s own faith takes willingness and a fervent commitment. Walter isn’t ready for that yet.
Put another way, trust is tangible: the evidence, positive or negative, is all around. Faith is transcendent: the evidence is never to be seen.
Invoking faith, Walter sets up his camp in the holy land, where Jehovah refused to give up on Israel, in spite of so much infidelity, and where Israel refused to give up on Jehovah, even after 40 years of manipulation in the desert. Like true believers who will never give up on Jesus’ imminent return, Walter will never give up on his beloved. No amount of advice or persuading from others will matter. Some things you believe until you’re ready not to believe.
Religious faith provides present comfort leveraged against future hope and a grand purpose. Those who employ religion are willing to ignore its inconsistencies; this is simply the price of admission. Latent bigotry, endemic xenophobia, and extreme provincialism can be reflected, deflected, or completely obscured. God can harmonize all these dissonant strains. It is said that God created man in his image; and in this song, perhaps Walter sees God in his own reflection.
In his use of words like “faith” and “believe,” he clearly makes his love for his spouse into religious practice. By doing so, he has immunized it against our judgment.
The Christian apostle Paul stated, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Verging on self-sacrifice, perhaps love can also be considered co-dependent. Walter seems to play into this with a declaration in the fourth stanza: “I know I love her more than someone else.”
This condition, of loving her more than he loves someone else, can easily paint him as a victim. His attachment is so great that it overrides good sense and reason, making him vulnerable to whatever acts she might commit. He couldn’t possible love anyone else this much, and surely she loves him the same way. With love comes great sacrifice, so he’ll cinch up his belt of truth and shield himself with faith.
For him to seek vengeance or retribution would be self-serving. For him to keep track of her transgressions would be to love her less. His selflessness leads to sacrifice, which in turn leads to heroism—or is that a savior complex?
For there is a beautiful ambiguity in his “more than someone else” declaration, and in a song that trades heavily in subtlety, this line’s leverage is almost imperceptible. It sneaks by the listener and delivers one meaning, leaving the other to register later. Which is the mirrored image, and which is the real?
For he could be proclaiming that he loves her more than any other man could possibly love her, and in this we have an entirely different situation. His love is grand, powerful, and able to outlast the love of any other suitor. Now he truly is Jehovah to her Israel, and is confident that, when she realizes the impotency of the neighboring gods, she’ll gladly come back to his altar. Once there, she’ll realize the truth as he proclaims it: “I love her better than she loves herself.”
The bottom line is still the same: he endures in order to be her hero. He drives it home with one more nail: “I can stand the pain,” he says. “I just can’t stand to lose.”
Has his devotion just run into the weeds of narcissism? Is he in the play only to garner applause for his own performance? Has he created an alternate reality for the sole purpose of winning? If so, she is no longer a straying partner, but a game piece, demonstrating daily the grandeur of his love.
No matter how bad she gets, he can always supply more love than is humanly possible. He aims to win. The ruse is up, we’ve identified our man.
Our man’s stoic stability stands in sharp contrast to the fretting of Tony Villanueva, writer and singer of “Lover’s Lie,” a 1997 song by the Derailers. Tony’s anxiety is well out front, goading his denial.
“I have every right to ask questions,” he says, “but I’m not one to pry.” When faced with a situation like Walter’s, Tony is torn between wanting to know and wanting to stay in the dark. We get the sense that his world is about to collapse, whichever option he chooses. Walter, however, remains cool and collected.
Gary Stewart provides another contrast in his 1974 hit, “Drinkin’ Thing.” Filled with suspicion regarding his partner, he won’t ask her where she’s been. It’s not his reluctance to pry, but rather his fear that she will “probably tell the truth.” Walter clearly knows the truth, so asking would be redundant, not to say rude, and her answers would make very little difference. The beauty of not asking is not having to manage all the messy, capricious details. You only have to manage not asking.
Sketched with economic candor, “Blind Love Blues” leaves a lot unsaid. Walter’s taken great care to exonerate his beloved. He’s attributed her infidelities to his own mistakes, as he says in the second stanza: “I see the part I’ve played.” But he provides no details about what he has done. He won’t dish any dirt on her, either. He prefers to carefully adjust the mirrors to reflect her guilt upon himself, and leave it at that.
His reticence is a noble departure from a tradition in which the unfaithful are soundly lambasted. Dave Davies, in the Kinks’ song “Creeping Jean,” expresses utter contempt and disgust with his faithless lover’s “dirty friends and underwear.” He declares that she is, in fact, “a disease.” In Jason and the Scorchers’ incendiary “White Lies,” Jason Ringenberg’s voice is roiled by repulsion at the evening activities of his own friend-visiting Jezebel. Not content to defame only one cheating female, Robert Johnson, in “From Four Till Late,” unkindly generalizes that a “woman is like a dresser, some man always ramblin’ through its drawers.” Walter, ever the gentleman, will not speak ill of those not present.
As for his own mistakes, the easiest conclusion for us to make is the one Walter leads us to: his infidelities provoked hers. She has the right to get even; revenge is a tradition as old as infidelity itself. In the very noncryptic “While You’re Cheating on Me,” the Louvin Brothers sing, “For when you were faithful to me I cheated on you.” They are patient to wait out their tit-for-tat comeuppance, but don’t leave it up to fate entirely. While she’s out cheating, they’re home praying.
Walter’s slight admission of guilt does nothing to tarnish his god-like love, for even Jehovah repented now and then. In the absence of any contrary details, we know only that he is a long-suffering, possibly redeemed spouse of an unfaithful woman. To avoid our harsh judgments of her and to reduce our incredulity of his patience, he’s shrouded the whole affair in supernatural love. And as if divine love were not enough, Walter also invokes the world’s colloquial wisdom. “Wise men say that love is blind.” Or perhaps it’s a reflection of what we wish to see.
Risking narcissism to absolve the guilt of another might not be the answer for everyone. Back at the opera, Canio, in his clown-go-to-meeting clothes, rampages the boards trying to suss his wife’s paramour. In a startling confusion of life and art, he breaks character and murders his wife onstage. The last line of the performance declares that the comedy is over, for in fact, the denouement is quite tragic.
Walter, however, declares the tragedy over. He pursues a resolution more apropos classical comedy, one in which the hero’s state improves over the course of the play. He has provided his own deus ex machina, and now stands alone as the reflection of cumulative infidelities, the noble and heroic effect of purposefully hidden causes. And certainly no one’s fool.
”That stranger, as the ghost that shadows every discourse, is the disturbing interrogation, the estrangement, that potentially exists within us all. It is a presence that persists, that cannot be effaced, that draws me out of myself towards another. It is the insistence of the other face that charges my obligation to that ‘strangeness that cannot be suppressed, which means that it is my obligation that cannot be effaced’.”—From Migrancy, Culture, Identity, by Iain Chambers.
What if that ghost, that stranger, looks back at us from a photograph? Does their insistence lose its urgency? Are we still drawn towards them, or do we turn away from the interrogation their presence demands?
With a passion for reform, a corps of American photographers set out in 1935 to frame the insistent faces of America’s rural poor. Their photographs have come to encapsulate the Depression for many of us, as well as the accompanying ecological collapse and the subsequent displacement of thousands of families. Through skillful composition and informed selection, they documented rapidly vanishing lives and devastated landscapes.
Working in support of Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, the photographers of the Farm Security Administration—including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein—hoped to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers who were further impoverished by the economic depression. Their cameras served as tools to “visualize social facts, to show the truth of what was happening,” unobscured by politics or fantasy.
Their photos of tenant farmers, migrant agricultural workers, families, and children were printed in popular magazines, artistic journals, and news periodicals, as well as displayed in NY galleries. Public response ranged from criticism of the photos’ subjects—dirty children, salacious women, people responsible for their own poverty—to technical assessment of the photographers’ skill sets and aperture choices. The actual people, still struggling to cope with devastation, ceased to exist, having become only objects in the public’s eyes. Their very real and immediate plight had been obscured by spectacle and taste.
Nascent mass culture magazines such as LOOK fostered a “stance of surveillance” on the part of the viewer, sandwiching the displaced sharecropper between a Zulu wedding pictorial and a spread of Myrna Loy in a flower-filled bathtub. “Within LOOK’s editorial vision, however, there is no cognitive dissonance here. The ‘savage,’ the sharecropper, and the sexy starlet all merit equal representation and treatment.”
As Cara A. Finnegan notes in her book, Picturing Poverty, the FSA photographers faced a challenge in presenting the poor to the unpoor. “It is important to note the paradox of documentary: It purports to offer ‘real’ and ‘natural’ views of the world but is able to do so only through the framing and construction of those views.” Even the most carefully constructed view can succumb to objectification.
Far from being the ‘other,’ the ‘stranger,’ or an unfortunate alternate ‘us,’ the poor had to live through the economic and environmental collapse in the most resourceful and resilient way they could manage. Programs created under the FDR administration helped considerably, but not entirely. Those programs, established to manage a temporary situation—such as the somewhat handily defined Great Depression—did not provide a permanent solution to poverty.
The poor remained well after the economic recovery brought by World War II, so President Lyndon Johnson envisioned another war. In his State of the Union Address of January 8, 1964, he pronounced:
“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”
“Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it,” he continued. His far-reaching program focused on “a fast-growing, full employment economy; an all-out ‘assault’ on discrimination; investments in education, job training, and health care; and locally organized programs of community action, planned with what would only later be added as a legislative mandate for ‘maximum feasible participation’ of the poor.”
Regardless of how the program performed in relieving poverty, it did not at all cure or prevent it. Neither did it cure nor prevent the objectification of the poor themselves. Through the aperture of institutional analysis, the poor have become data objects, their faces exchanged for acronyms and categories, devoid of environmental context.
As University of California, Santa Barbara, Professor Alice O’Connor explains in Poverty Knowledge, “the technical jargon of recent decades has taken poverty knowledge to a level of abstraction and exclusivity that it had not known before. It is a language laced with acronyms that themselves speak of particular data sets, policies, and analytic techniques…in which individuals are the units of analysis and markets the principal arbiters of human exchange.”
O’Connor writes about the enduring tension of federal policy, in which some view poverty as a cultural pathology, while others view it as the product of social and political barriers. Welfare reform under President Bill Clinton in 1996 treated the presumed pathology, seeking to change the behavior of the impoverished, rather than addressing systemic problems of low-wage work, rising income inequality, or political disenfranchisement.
O’Connor presents poverty research as “an inescapably political act: It is an exercise of power, in this instance of an educated elite to categorize, stigmatize, but above all to neutralize the poor and disadvantaged through analysis that obscures the political nature of social and economic inequality.”
Whether a voyeuristic act or a political one, viewing poverty holds the poor up for our evaluation. They become the ‘others’ in the FSA photographs, whose hygiene and morals were freely questioned. In reality, however, they are the ‘strangers’ who cannot be effaced.
The photos of the FSA were clearly composed to create drama and remind us of our social responsibility. But something is lost in the careful framing and cropping. We don’t see the full-color gone-with-the-wind landscape. Neither do we see the churning, whirling, overwhelming political economy that created the collapse. It’s ambient and unquestioned, and somewhat impossible to picture.
It’s also the substrate upon which social experimentation, including industrial agriculture and poverty analysis, occurs. It comes with a heavy social cost: dispossession.
“The growth of capitalism necessarily entails the destruction of modes of production based on the personal labor of independent producers.” The effects are far-reaching, disrupting social stability at all levels.
Our political economic system runs on accumulation by dispossession, and it plows like a tsunami into all sectors of life: “These include the exacerbation of regional inequalities, generation of income inequalities at the farm level, increased scales of operation, specialization of production, displacement of labor, accelerating mechanization, depressed product prices, changing tenure patterns, rising land prices, expanding markets for commercial inputs, agrichemical dependence, genetic erosion, pest-vulnerable monocultures, and environmental deterioration.”
The quote above, from Jack Ralph Kloppenburg’s excellent book, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, deals directly with the commodification of plant material, but it rings true across all landscapes, rural, urban, and suburban. Our economic model is as pervasive and manipulative as Muzak at the mall.
This manipulative relationship does not show in the photos, nor in the poverty data analysis of the LBJ administration. But it does show in the widescreen version, where we see systemic problems that silence any arguments towards pathology of the poor.
Consider the viscerally vanishing landscape of the 1920s. It didn’t descend out of the blue onto flawed families of the plains. It was a devastated outcome just as they were.
Let’s widen our focus for a moment, and take a panoramic shot.
Industrial agriculture hit the plains in about 1873, in the wake of the economic panic that hit the US and Europe. Railroad companies, which had benefited from extensive speculative investments, suddenly ceased expansion projects. Among those companies was Northern Pacific, who found themselves at the end of the line in the Red River Valley, along the border Minnesota shares with North Dakota. There, they waited out the financial crisis by experimenting with large-scale agriculture, primarily in wheat. They hoped their experiment would prove attractive to Germans and Swedes—in whose countries the company had established recruiting offices.
Their experiment worked, and the era of corporate farms was born. Great Northern Railroad soon followed suit, as did others.
These farms required seasonal labor as opposed to year-round work. They also required significant irrigation and soil enrichment with minerals collected off the farm. Smaller farms were crowded out, with the effects being felt even in New England. In short, these corporate experiments supplanted the older model of self-sufficient family enterprises (i.e., not much money to be made) with an industrial operation full of dependencies (i.e., lots of money to be made).
Projected into the 20th century, the social effects have been considerable. In 1977, University of California-Berkeley plant physiologist Boysie E. Day addressed the American Society of Agronomy, and accepted the role of industrial agriculture in the social re-designing of America: “The agronomist has brought about the conversion of a rural agricultural society to an urban one. Each advance has sent a wave of displaced farm workers to seek a new life in the city and a flood of change throughout society.”
This development was accompanied by a tightening bond between land-grant universities, government agencies, and private corporations, which Kloppenburg relates in great detail in First the Seed. This collusion was largely invisible to the public and remains so, but it drives most of the current agenda at revered agricultural institutions such as Cornell University.
The corporate farming model did not invent soil depletion. It did, however, greatly accelerate it.
Yale professor Steven Stoll, in his book Larding the Lean Earth, recounts the crisis that hit the United States within decades of the Revolution: its soils were completely exhausted by 1820. This depletion of farmlands among the original thirteen colonies was a major impetus for western expansion. Rather than improve the lands they already owned, many farmers hungered for the fertile fields of the Midwest, the west, and beyond. Some farmers and agriculturists fought this trend, pushing instead for responsible rejuvenation of the soil. The expansionist urge of the country favored westward movement.
Those who traveled westward took with them their unsustainable practices, as Stoll recounts. Their arrival in the Midwest and Great Plains coincided with another, and older, environmental shift: In 1725, French planters along the Mississippi River installed the first levee system. Doing so initiated a “complex geoclimactic relationship with about 41 percent of the United States,” states Alexis C. Madrigal, a contributing editor for The Atlantic. Thirty-five thousand square miles of wetlands began drying out. By the time the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived, the land was dry enough for wheat—and for persistent cycles of droughts and floods.
Lying within that progressively-drying Mississippi rivershed were Kansas and Oklahoma. Decades before the Farm Security Administration photographers documented the 1935 Dust Bowl, the first one—and many more–had already occurred.
Clarence Petrowsky, in his frequently cited Ph.D. Dissertation, “Kansas Agriculture Before 1900,” details the turbulence of the latter 1800s in the region. A land boom, lasting from 1875 to 1887, brought thousands of settlers into Kansas. They brought with them the same methods they had used in the Eastern US—those methods that had already worn out the soils in the Original 13. Kansas had far less rain, averaging 24” annually versus 32” in Pennsylvania. An unusual wet period, from 1882 to 1886, skewed peoples’ perception of the region, and they planted accordingly.
Drought arrived in 1893, and lasted for five years. It coincided with a world-wide depression (called The Great Depression, interestingly enough, until 1929). Those years saw multiple population upheavals, as farms could no longer support the families who worked them, which left a surplus of abandoned but cultivated land. Over the state, farm production was down, as were farm receipts. Relief was being paid to farmers throughout the state, with counties also buying seed for the farmers.  Meanwhile, bad advice flowed like sand in an hourglass: “break up the prairie, plow the soil deep to make a reservoir” advised Kansas’ Agricultural Secretary Martin Mohler, in order to reverse the drought.
Not everyone could stay to witness the fantastic filling of those reservoirs. Many fled to Oklahoma, when the “unassigned lands” opened up for Anglo settlement in 1889. They brought their tried-and-true methods with them. Writing in 1938, USDA Assistant Soil Conservationist Angus McDonald tells a familiar story. Some highlights include:
“To the farmers of the Plains, wind erosion has been a serious problem for 50 years.”
“Here also, erosion was experienced as soon as cultivation was introduced. Within 40 years of its settlement, the Territory had become one of the most critically eroded sections in the country. Probably nowhere in the world has so much destruction occurred in so short a period of time.”
“The advice of farsighted individuals that much of the land was unsuited to cultivation was ignored… the inertia of tradition militated against such a revolution.”
“In 1894 the sandstorms began again and recurred during several successive years. Reports for the years 1893, 1894, and 1895 are numerous. The sandstorms usually began in March or April and lasted for several days. Often they continued intermittently during the summer and into the fall. An April dust storm of 1895, accompanied by a 40- to 50-mile wind, evidently covered several counties. Clouds of dust obscured the sun and it was impossible to see halfway across the street.”
“By the beginning of the century it was felt by some farmers that breaking the sod was a mistake.”
The trend toward migrant and tenant labor also continued. McDonald reports that, “The whole area, however, is characterized by a progressive increase in tenancy.” The drastic shift in just two counties—Kingfisher and Logan—is alarming. In 1890, almost 100% of farms were cultivated by the owners. In 1900, only 67% and 59% respectively. By 1910, only 61% and 55% of owners were the cultivators of their own farms. This means that 40 to 45 percent of those working the land had no ties and no security.
Blowing in the wind across those distressed farms is our political economy: “The agricultural system of the time in actuality placed a premium on soil destruction and a penalty on soil conservation. A program of soil conservation was not compatible with the greatest profits that could be derived from the land in a short period. The renter had, in many instances, mortgaged his crop and was forced to plant those cash crops that would pay the mortgage,” writes McDonald.
The tenants, the migrants, who were created by the capitalistic urges of an industrializing agricultural system—these are the faces that we see in those FSA photos. Creative cropping, artistically, socially, and philosophically, eliminates capitalism from our view. We see only the folly of the plowman and the dirty, torn clothing of his dispossessed workers.
So where is the pathological problem, if indeed it exists?
The Dust Bowl, Depression, and mass displacement of the 1930s were not sudden aberrations. There were plenty of precedents, along with ample warning. Yet the poor—whether they be tenant farmers, migrant agricultural workers, miners, railroad laborers, or textile workers—continually take the brunt. Could it be that the system in which they live and labor is the pathological one?
As Alice O’Connor states in a recent column, “The problem of poverty cannot be resolved without addressing the deeper inequities of race, class, gender, geography, and power—a lesson overshadowed by the myth of a ‘culture of poverty’ that gripped policy elites in the 1960s and continues to thread through popular and academic discourse to this day.”
Unfortunately, however, “contemporary poverty knowledge does not define itself as an inquiry into the political economy and culture of late twentieth-century capitalism.” Don’t implicate the system, just analyze the data. Objectification of the poor happens in safe and sterile isolation. To do anything else would be un-American.
Referencing Susan Sontag, Cara A. Finnegan says in her introduction to Picturing Poverty: “The FSA photographs functioned to ‘help people take possession of space in which they are insecure.’ And the images served as a tool for power.”
Images of dispossessed workers, urban poor, and displaced refugees help us to fight that tendency spoken of by Alice O’Connor, to push against the stigmatization and neutralization of the poor. They help us to see the true political nature of social and economic inequality.
In looking past the composition and cropping of the images, we might see despair, but we can also see hope. In a recent Democracy Now! interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, educational pioneer and critical theorist Henry Giroux expressed a spirited anticipation:
“We see young people all over the country mobilizing around different issues, in which they’re doing something that I haven’t seen for a long time. And that is, they’re linking these issues together. You can’t talk about police violence without talking about the militarization of society in general. You can’t talk about the assault on public education unless you talk about the way in which capitalism defunds all public goods. You can’t talk about the prison system without talking about widespread racism. You can’t do that. They’re making those connections.
“But they’re doing something more: They’re linking up with other groups. If you’re going to talk about Flint, if you’re going to talk about, it seems to me, Ferguson, you have to talk about Palestine. If you’re going to talk about repression in the United States, you’ve got to figure out how these modes of repression have become global.”
Giroux’s words, prompting us to widen our frame of vision so that we see beyond the cropped image, provide an energetic response to the call of Iain Chambers, which is worthy of repeating.
”That stranger, as the ghost that shadows every discourse, is the disturbing interrogation, the estrangement, that potentially exists within us all. It is a presence that persists, that cannot be effaced, that draws me out of myself towards another. It is the insistence of the other face that charges my obligation to that ‘strangeness that cannot be suppressed, which means that it is my obligation that cannot be effaced’.”
So we have a lot of work to do.
(This essay accompanies Peace Meal Supper Club #18: Aperture. To read more about this event, please click here. Also, read about the album that inspired this event by clicking here.)
 Cara A. Finnegan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Smithsonian Books, 2003), xiv.
 I’m summarizing a lot of the information presented in Finnegan’s absorbing work. Consider giving it a read.
 Lyndon B. Johnson: “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union.,” January 8, 1964. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=26787.
 Alice O’Connor, “The War on Poverty at Fifty,” Institute for Public Accuracy, January 7, 2014, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.accuracy.org/the-war-on-poverty-at-fifty/
 Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History (Princeton University Press, 2001), 15.
 Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr., First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 2nd Edition (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 38.
 Summarized in modern Cliff Notes form at the friendly neighborhood Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primitive_accumulation_of_capital#David_Harvey.27s_theory_of_accumulation_by_dispossession
 Alexis C. Madrigal, “What We’ve Done to the Mississippi River: An Explainer,” The Atlantic, May 19, 2011, accessed July 22, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/what-weve-done-to-the-mississippi-river-an-explainer/239058/
 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.
 Clarence Leo Petrowsky, “Kansas Agriculture Before 1900” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1968), 202.
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.
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
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.
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/.