“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long way from home.“
The homeland I mourn is the world I once thought I knew. It was far from a perfect world, by any measure, but its ideals seemed intact. There was set of shared expectations of fairness, some measure of equality, the vision of a more just and peaceful world freed from poverty, oppression and war.
Today that world is as much of a memory as my boyhood home. Something has died. The American dream is rising in Egypt, in Tunisia, and across the Arab world, but it is on the ropes here in America. The cry for democracy, basic human rights, and an end to Mubarak’s self-serving economy has its echo in Madison, Wis., where workers have stood tall for the right of collective bargaining. But not tall enough to stop the turning back of the clock. Nor are they bold enough to strike, as unions would have in my youth.
All across America the hard-earned gains of the labor movement are being painted as evil, yet not a single person on Wall Street has gone to jail for the fraudulent, greedy schemes that brought the American economy to its knees in September-October, 2008. Not one. The idea of democratic rule — the rule of ordinary, hard-working people — has been high-jacked by a ruling class that has no shame while it takes home most of the cookies. It pays little or no taxes, cries foul about spending, raids the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for its wars, blames the deficit on liberal social programs, and leaves the crumbs from its budget-cutting for the rest of us to fight over.
The Soviet Union was feared
My generation’s formative years during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations had us ducking under our school desks in preparation for a nuclear bomb that was sure to drop on my little town outside of Philadelphia. The U.S.S.R. was the enemy and was out to get us. “Getting us” would mean, we thought, an end to democracy, an end to freedom.
Never did it occur to us that the end of democracy and freedom would come from what President Dwight Eisenhower later warned of: the American military-industrial complex that would usurp the people’s right to rule themselves. Never would it have occurred to us that a U.S. Supreme Court would rule that corporations are “persons” when it comes to the electoral process — people just like us free to spend the money none of the rest of us “persons” has to buy an election.
Sunday mornings after church I remember turning on the religious show that featured Oral Roberts ranting and raving and waving and “healing” his bizarre church in Oklahoma City — thinking that this must be some kind of joke. What was bizarre then has become mainstream today. Michele Bachmann, whose law degree comes from Oral Roberts University Bible-based O.W. Coburn School of Law (now defunct) and Sarah Palin, whose church makes Oral Roberts look temperate, would have been laughed off the stage when I was a kid. Today they own the stage, and their Annie Oakley, winner-take-all politics and economics set the agenda — not only in Minnesota and Alaska, but in Wisconsin and in Washington, D.C. Patriotism has become a white fundamentalist Christian packing a semi-automatic on the lookout for the same people Sen. Joseph McCarthy hunted down in the early ’50s.
I remember Joe McCarthy. I didn’t like him then. I don’t like him now. And I don’t like those who imitate him wearing lipstick on their beauty-queen faces and have the gall to call the president of the United States “un-American.” We no longer need a House Un-American Activities Committee to conduct our witch hunts. The verdicts are rendered ad hoc by demagogic politicians with law degrees from a law school founded by Oral Roberts that lasted only seven years before closing its doors.
Americans want ‘real’ people as leaders
Who needs Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan or Notre Dame? We want our elected leaders to be “real” people untainted by elitist educations. And we want them to tell us that “taxes” — the word that once upon a time stood for my share of personal responsibility for America’s infrastructures, values, financial security and national defense — are greedy government conspiracies to rob our us of what is rightfully ours.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long way from home,” sang the African-American slaves picking cotton out in the fields. Some who sang the songs were children who had been separated from their mothers and families as prize chattel on the slave blocks. Others sang it mourning their African homeland. Sometimes “home” stood for heavenly release from the terror of the plantation. The mournful tones from the cotton fields echoed off the walls of the plantation owners’ mansions. The owners considered their work force part of their plantation American Way of Life, while the enslaved workers sang of a different homeland right under their masters’ noses.
I have not been stolen away. But the sense of grief, anger and sadness could not be more real. My mother has died. My country has been stolen. “Come, my brother, come my sister, a long way from home.”
The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, and moderator of First Tuesday Dialogues: “examining critical public issues locally and globally.”