I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Take On The Tea Party
Ninety-five years ago last week, the government of Utah murdered Joe Hill, lining him up and shooting him for a murder he might or might not have committed.
Hill was a labor activist and song writer, an immigrant with a checkered past, a fighter willing to dedicate his life to a cause – the kind of man the American left does not produce anymore, or if it does, the kind of man the American left ignores.
This is important with the rise of the passionate Tea Party and with the lack of a counterweight to the organized American right, with a president who wants to get things done, but seems to need to be led by the people, not to lead them.
Hill was born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, which happens to be my wife’s hometown. His birthplace there is a museum, with a twisted tortured statue outside. I visited the house years ago on a frigid February day, wracked with the flu on a failed travel book tryout. The museum was closed, so I did not read then about the hard knock misery of 19th century Sweden, the kind of poverty that drove a quarter of the country to the United States.
But a Swedish February day was not a bad time to go – it helped me understand in a more visceral way why a man like Hill would wander into the American desert, fleeing all the darkness and illness that still drop like a veil over the country in the winter … with the world class safety net still decades away.
Hill did not fare much better in the states – a migrant laborer wandering from New York to Cleveland to San Francisco – finding his way into the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), finding his voice as a songwriter, finding his place in the violent battles against corporate armies and government guns.
These labor battles are the Westerns that rarely get made, or even acknowledged (There was a 1971 film about Hill that won the Jury Prize at Cannes). Big business won that battle for the soul of the West, crushing the working man and keeping the land and the mines open for exploitation, cementing a myth of self-reliance, not community, that echoes today in the odd alliance of the white working class with billionaire corporate titans.
Sure, labor won enough battles so that we have Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. This is not a fight that finished in 1915, 1932 or 1964, though. Americans do not have their basic needs covered, from health care to parental leave to education, and all the opportunity in the world cannot cover those gaping wounds.
And they will not be healed by Obama, certainly not Obama left alone, both without mainstream support or pressure, the votes that got him elected heartfelt but apparently not committed.
I think this is a function of the internet and YouTube – Obama’s was an election of moments – a few minutes of a video here, a click of a donation there.
On this I agree wholeheartedly with Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, who wrote recently that “the revolution will not be tweeted,” and examined the value of strong social ties versus weak (read internet) ones.
Now I’ve read a lot of rebuttals of his argument, but I don’t buy them. A Tea Party meeting is going to produce more cohesion. A good union local is going bond men and women like family. There is simply no way that YouTube can match this.
Not that I’m pushing unions or lamenting their downfall. We need something new with the same spirit, a movement energized and fresh.
Joe Hill was of a different era. No is going to lead wildcat strikes in the desert or change the consumerist, corporate structure of American society with a folk song. We’ve all invested too much in our shiny stuff for that to change (Though kudos to Jonathan Tasini for a call to the streets in the Huffington Post).
But his passion does call out through the decades – as do the echoes of the gunshots that felled him. Those guns are still loaded and pointed at us.
At a subway stop in Stockholm, there is an inscription attributed to Hill – though it is almost a direct quote from a 1911 poem adopted by striking textile Massachusetts workers in 1912 – etched into the stone floor: “Give me not only bread but also roses.”
The irony is that in Sweden Hill’s vision won the day – more or less. The welfare state has, more or less, created a competitive capitalist country that also looks after its own.
In the U.S., we might still have bread and roses, but the bread is bitter, and the roses are wilting.
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