Saturday, August 18, 2007

Germans, Mexicans, Artists and the Struggle for America’s Soul

In Denison, Iowa: Searching For the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwestern Town, Dale Maharidge describes how, over the past 15 years, Mexican immigration to Iowa has led to the small town of Denison (population 7,000) changing until its population is now somewhere between 30 and 50 percent Latino. Denison is where a boxcar with eleven would-be Mexican immigrants suffocated inside was discovered in 2002.

Maharidge lived in Denison for a year. He depicts a town in which immigration has led to both integration and embrace on the one hand, and discrimination and occasional violence on the other.

Maharidge contrasts the experience of the Mexicans with those of the Germans in Denison during World War I. English-only laws were passed in Iowa to prevent German from being spoken and German-language newspapers were attacked. The citizens of Denison were forced to buy war bonds and to sign loyalty oaths. The threat of the “German menace” was on many, perhaps most, lips.

Much can be learned about today’s situation in America’s heartland by comparing it to World War I and anti-German hysteria. In 1918, the elite in Denison was British and the working class was largely German. Luis Bravo, one of the leaders of Denison’s Mexican community, describes the very different situation today:

“In Los Angeles, all the people doing lawns, yard work, they are Latino. Here you see the whites doing the garden work. You work with the white people. You make the same wages. You live in the same kind of houses. You have two different colors in the same position.”

“…at best, wages would forever be substandard,” Maharidge writes. “Plant employees live a hand-to-mouth existence. A sense of this can be found in the statistics from Denison’s elementary school: 65.2% of the 743 students got reduced-price or free lunches under the federal program for low income families. A majority of these kids were white.” [emphasis added]

In 1918, the Germans and the non-Germans were not equal. They could not unite. Today in Iowa a large section of Latinos and whites are now equal. They can unite.

In 1918, although the government certainly did its part to instigate hatred and violence against Germans, the attacks were carried out by a section of the mass of people. This is not the case today. In the community, it is the government (mainly various arms of Homeland Security) which attack the immigrants. The ordinary citizen is not part of this. Yet the ordinary citizen is being attacked in so many other ways by the same government. This is another objective basis for unity.

Dale Maharidge describes Tom Hogan, the sheriff of Crawford County (Denison is the county seat). Hogan says: “They weren’t coming here. But they ended up here. As I stared into that grain car that day, I thought, there are no borders…we are all the same.”

“It’s real easy to be a racist,” Hogan continued. “They’re racist out of fear. It’s a fear of jobs. They see Hispanics competing with them. They’re not unfounded fears. But they don’t look at the real threat. They don’t see corporate greed being the reason.”

Maharidge writes: “All this sounded very left wing to a New York and California ear. But I learned Tom is conservative in many ways. He wasn’t talking this way as a liberal. Tom is deeply religious, a member of Zion Lutheran Church, and he came to these conclusions based on his abiding Christian beliefs.”

The vast majority of Americans consider themselves to be Christian. Thus Tom Hogan, even though he may sound strange talking that way as a cop, is actually very typical. There are millions of Tom Hogans in America who don’t make their way into books, millions of Tom Hogans who, as individuals, are drowned out by the massive noise of the highly organized, enemy-financed right wing of the church.

While Hogan emphasized the very real racism that is present in Denison, Maharidge’s book actually paints a different picture, one in which the racism is countered by growing acceptance, sometimes even love. It can be as simple as seventeen employees of the Hy-Vee Supermarket signing up for Spanish lessons. Or the way the entire town polarized when Luis Bravo was denied a city construction contract for which he was the low bidder. This led to a bitter struggle in which, ultimately, Bravo got the contract.

While the Mexicans in Denison were often criticized for not wanting to learn the language, the reality was that many of them, after working overtime shifts in the horrors of a meatpacking plant, went to take English language classes at night. Their (unpaid) teacher, Georgia Hoffer, said: “I like this class so much. Thank you—one thousand thank yous. It is an honor to help you, to work teaching you English. I am so glad you are in the United States. It is an honor to help you, to work teaching you English. You are our future—the future of Denison, Iowa.”

In Los Angeles, it’s impossible not to see the ongoing wave of immigration but, on a personal level, you can still pretty much ignore it if you want to. Not so in the small towns of America, where the growth of the Mexican “diaspora” is, one way or another, directly a part of everyone’s life. It is generating a visible fork in the road, hurling us toward a crisis of morality. Are you with the immigrants or against them? Do you love them or hate them? Are you Christian or not? Are you human or not?

Today the government and the media continue to use the boogeyman of the “other,” the “foreigner,” to divide us, as happened when the Germans were the “other” in 1918. It is up to the millions of artists in America to realize what great potential for unity lies in the current moment and to use their words, sounds, and pictures to make it happen.

--Lee Ballinger

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bruce Springsteen's Magic, Due October 2

I generally come close to putting my hands over my ears before a Springsteen album is released because I want to experience the album as this complete statement, in a fresh way, when it's released. And I'm sure I will try not to read too much about it before I hear it this time too. But, it's funny, I wrote the longest thing I wrote about the Seeger Sessions right after I heard the first song. This time, I feel compelled to write a blog based on the title.

I think the way Bruce uses titles is gutsy--and it's almost always the thing that divides people right off the bat, naming elephants in the living room, promising something bold to live up to and suggesting that we approach everything from an angle very few others are likely to take. It's both why some people recognize he's raising the stakes and why some dismiss everything he does as some kind of cheese. Most creative folks play it too safe and say almost nothing in the process.

It's why titles flummox me in general. For instance, my novel, Night Bird, has a diminutive title, one of many I chose from that also seemed fairly small. There's some good reasons for that--it's a short book for starters. But it is, explicitly, a book about magic, a theme dealt with directly over and over again, and it never would have occured to me to simply stick that in the foreground. I mean, it's not about "magicians" and it's not typical fantasy, but it's about a little group of Okies--secretaries and strippers and corporate axmen, security guards and teachers, all dying for second chances, romance and redemption; little girls surviving that context with dreams and imagination; folks who use "magic" to exploit the other characters' dreams and folks who use "magic" to strengthen others around them and build something new.

I'm not seriously thinking about taking Bruce's title, but it might have worked. It certainly gets me thinking in a fresh way about the focus of what I have done and why I have these issues. I find myself thinking about how much of what I do I get from Bruce's music in particular. It's that underexplored thread that I keep coming back to and that connects his early boardwalk mystique to that sense of opened boundaries with The Rising and what came after, as well as that dream of "The Promised Land" or that plea to "Dream, Baby, Dream" that have closed recent tours.

I think it's something of what makes a lot of fans take sides on the early 90s releases of Human Touch and Lucky Town, too. HT traded a lot in the ineffable, the magical, turning to soul, pop and rock bravado to do that, while Lucky Town stuck closer to Bruce's more seemingly "serious" realism. Still, there's nothing simple about that--considering it's a Lucky Town song he used to perform with arms outstretched as a great black bird (I had some kind of epiphany writing this when I realized that was my night bird).

The picture being sent out with the press reminds me of Houdini, that seems more than right. Talk about a walking contradiction. A man who became something of a folk hero (actually Chaplin size huge, I think) keeping a paradox on the table--he celebrated human potential by doing the impossible and insisting it was a trick. He became a walking metaphor of human potential, particularly for liberation, during the Depression. My sense of that is that it worked so well for Houdini because he was genuinely reconciling what appealed to him and inspired him with what angered him and what he saw exploiting others. Bruce recognizes and calls attention to the foot in both of those worlds that defines the artist and the artist's relationship to his audience. How dare he put that on the table? How could Bruce Springsteen not?

It's where the real keys to the mystery of how we get there from here lie. It has something to do with recognizing the value of that power we can't define and harnassing that energy--or if not harnassing it, working with it--to get to what, right now, seems impossible. On various tours I've found myself turning to metaphors like seances and rain dances, conjuring and, most of all, lock picking (back to Harry), to describe what I see him doing on stage. It's all about working at the limits of what's known to reach a vision of what's possible.

It's the task before all creative people, right now more than ever.