Thirty years ago, Gil Scott-Heron, a black poet and songwriter, wrote the song “Winter in America.” He sang:
”Democracy is ragtime on the corner/ hoping for some rain/ And I see the robins perched in barren treetops/ watching last ditch racists marching across the floor/?Just like the Peace Sign that vanished in our dreams/ never had a chance to grow, And now it’s Winter, Winter in America/ And all of the healers have been killed or betrayed. But the people know it’s Winter, (Lord knows it’s) Winter in America, and ain’t nobody fighting, ’cause/Nobody knows what to save.”
In 1974, it must have seemed like winter in America. Nixon had won a second term in a landslide, the idealism of the sixties was dead, the leaders of the sixties were dead, assassinated and disappeared.
The past week has found me listening to Gil Scott-Heron (along with Eminem’s brilliant new song, “Mosh”), feeling a dark foreboding of things to come. We’re back in the seventies, embroiled in a war with no end in sight and in an economy that will only get worse, as oil prices skyrocket. More American today believe in the Virgin Birth than in evolution. We are a society that by all accounts seems to be regressing; America may yet prove to be a new Rome.
It’s winter now, and I finally feel the sadness that my parents must have felt during the eighties, during the last conservative backlash. The past couple of years, we built coalitions based on hope and tolerance, based on our idealization of what America ought to be like. But we’ve failed. People are dying across the world, and we are not helping them. People are losing out here at home, and we are not helping them. Instead, we sit idly by as corporations take over family businesses, as religious fanatics impose their vision of the world upon those who disagree with them.
This past week has found me lost in a sort of madness, searching for Election Day conspiracy theories on the Internet. I’ve become privy to every incident of voter fraud and suppression that occurred last Tuesday. I’ve sent emails to congressmen and made telephone calls to cable news networks. I look to the results on the Florida Election Board website and notice that over two hundred thousand more people voted on election day than signed in to vote. Did the Republicans cheat? Did they steal the election? Probably not. In my desperation, my need to prove that somehow people didn’t vote for this monster, much less provide him with a mandate, I’ve tried to regain my faith in the American people. I’d like to think folks in the “heartland” would rather have health care than to ban gay marriage, but it seems as though I’m wrong. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from this election, it’s this: Americans really do hate gay people.
The depression one feels because of geopolitical events is a strange one. I’m not particularly scared of a draft, even though I think it’s likely. Nor am I particularly concerned about an economic downturn, even though I think that’s likely as well. Most devastating to me is what has happened to the America I thought I’d always known.
I finally understand that the pastoral America I’ve taught myself to love – a liberal America, an America of erudite farmers and minor league baseball teams and strong trade unions and people who understand the goodness of tolerance – does not exist. Perhaps I mistakenly mythologized people like Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams), and Atticus Finch, people who stood up and fought for what they believed in because it was right. Maybe that’s precisely the problem: we who are right – and we liberals are not right because we’re arrogant, we’re right because we’re right – have always been in the minority. The majority of this country has never been fair or tolerant; it has always been a struggle to make this country a better place. Perhaps my ideal America never existed.
But I think it did exist, and I think it still exists. Underneath the intolerance that frequently bubbles to the surface, there is something inherently wonderful about this country. I love and continue to identify with the fierce Americanism of the early American Communist Party, of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, of prematurely anti-fascist folk singers who sang ballads of unions and of peaceful class struggle. I believe in the liberal traditions of the WPA and the CCC, of National Public Radio and of a well-informed and well-educated population.
On Election Day, I canvassed a working-class town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. When we stopped for pizza, the owner wore an “I make food, not war” t-shirt; he spoke to us of the need to kick the “liar” out of the White House. Across the street was an old faded record store, playing some Motown and Bruce Springsteen as a man in a wheelchair (whom I took, for some self-serving reason, to be a vet) waved a Kerry-Edwards’ signs in front of traffic. Cars honked and people cheered as they drove by. That town, for me, embodied the America that I can still believe in.
Republicans I know seem to do a very good job at compartmentalizing their support of George W. Bush. They agree with the Bush tax cuts, but they don’t agree with his stance on abortion. They agree with his stance on abortion, but they don’t agree with his Iraq policy. Some agree with all of the above but they abhor his gay-baiting.
Meanwhile, our nation’s labor laws have devolved to the point at which almost all workplace safety mechanisms are voluntary. Workers can lose their limbs in slaughterhouses and be forced back on the job the following week – without receiving any compensation. Pollution controls have been dramatically scaled back, and corporations control an enormous amount of legislation. Karl Rove just announced that George Bush would seek an amendment banning gay marriage, and that such an amendment is crucial for a “decent society.” Supreme Court vacancies may very well be filled with justices who oppose Roe v. Wade and who will implement their own “activist” agenda from the bench.
Maybe it’s better, in the long run, that George Bush won reelection. Republicans will not be able to pin our failure in Iraq on John Kerry. They can create their “ownership society,” and we can watch as the “owners” become fewer and richer. Republicans can pretend this country has gotten over its racial problems, but when there are riots again, they will not be able to pretend any longer. At the moment, we are in an abyss; this country has given in to its most base impulses, but we will recover.
In his new song “Mosh,” Eminem raps: “the stars and stripes/have been swiped/ washed out and wiped/ and replaced with his own face.” We need to take back the stars and the stripes. It’s winter in America. Eventually, spring has to come.