Friday, April 15, 2011

Sometimes I'm Glad Certain Students Sleep in Class

According to the Manchester Union Leader, former Republican Senator Rick Santorum apparently fell asleep in some of his literature classes.  Fortunately, a current student did not.
Santorum by and large stayed on message but was tripped up a bit when a student asked him if he knew that the choice of his slogan, "Fighting to make America America again," was borrowed from the "pro-union poem by the gay poet Langston Hughes."
"No I had nothing to do with that," Santorum said. "I didn't know that. And the folks who worked on that slogan for me didn't inform me that it came from that, if it in fact came from that."
The student, whose name was not immediately available, was referring to the poem "Let America Be America Again." When asked a short time later what the campaign slogan meant to him, Santorum said, "well, I'm not too sure that's my campaign slogan, I think it's on a web site."
It was also printed on the campaign literature handed out before the speech.
A cursory reading of a few stanzas show that an uber capitalist like Santorum might not want people reading the poem and thinking about its theme and images.
. . . .

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!
. . . .
Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!. . . .
At a time when Republican governors are trying limit bargaining rights and the top 1% control as much wealth as the bottom 50% lines like "shot down when we strike" or "who live like leeches on the people's lives" don't really toe to the Republican line. I know some on the Right want to take back America, but I'm not sure they want to take it back in the way Hughes meant.

Of course it's not the first time that a Republican heard poetic lines or patriotic sentiment and missed the underlying irony.  Ronald Reagan tried to use Bruce Springsteen and "Born in the USA!" as part of the 1984 campaign.  The song's lyrics don't fit what Reagan wanted to say.

Of course, it may have been the speech writer who didn't know what CNN reminded us of in a 2004 article.
But look deeper, and there was another dimension to "Born in the U.S.A." The song was the ferocious cry of an unemployed Vietnam veteran.
"Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I'm 10 years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go," Springsteen sang in a working-class howl.
In 1984, Reagan was able to get away with confusing the public, although the Boss was not amused.
"I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in," he later told Rolling Stone. "But what's happening, I think, is that that need -- which is a good thing -- is getting manipulated and exploited. You see in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, 'It's morning in America,' and you say, 'Well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh.' "
This time around, Santorum got caught much earlier misappropriating art for his own ends.  Let's hope that he and others who want to "take America back" learn a bit from Hughes's wisdom.

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