Books, Culture, Musings, Politics

The Grapes Of Wrath

Forever has to end sometime and it (not forever but the book) had sat on my floor forever. My fingers would from time to time flick through its pages, eyes scanning the words, heart quickening at the one-sure-day prospect of starting this new book. I do this often to all the unread books on my weary floor or at least to the ones that I can reach easy. Today I finally came round to reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”; its turn had come; the bell had tolled; its number had come up. Ah, but first the painful thirty pages of Introduction. Who writes these long pro-prologues?

I always read Introductions because from experience they add context that’s more often than not inestimable. For Steinbeck’s book I was moved by the background accounts of dust bowl 1930s California; starving migrants on the quest for a home, to “eat what they raise, use what they produce … and share in the works of their hands and their heads.” The feudal landlords who ran California would hear none of this. Despite the Federal Government’s efforts to provide humane living conditions for the migrants, conservatives in Congress worked to wreck the Government’s plan by slashing the budget (sound familiar?). It’s a sure bet these conservatives were all church-going christians. Helping the poor is just not the American way.

“There are about five thousand families starving to death …, not just hungry but actually starving. The government is trying to feed them and get medical attention to them with the fascist group of utilities and banks and huge growers sabotaging the thing all along the line.” – from a letter Steinbeck wrote to his agent, Elizabeth Otis.

I’m reminded of the famous Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius; social reformers in Rome almost a century before the great Julius, that dictator for life who has come to define the Roman epoch. The famous brothers planned land reforms to tackle the plight of the peasants who worked the lands of the rich landowners. Not surprisingly these plans were stoutly opposed. In the end both brothers were assassinated by their political opponents and by vested interests. But the thread they unravelled wound its infernal way down the ages until Augustus wound the last metre around the throat of the established order and snuffed out the Republic. After that, the vested interests (that is, those who hadn’t been killed off) adjusted to the new regime of Empire and the poor continued being destitute. Jesus said we will always have the poor (Mark 14:7) and he was damn right. But does he have to be right forever and ever?

After Steinbeck’s book came out the conservative Right went into overdrive. They called the book “communist”, “immoral”, “warped”, “a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.” And there’s the tactic of calling a hated work “an embodiment of Marxist Soviet propaganda.” [Admittedly, this coming in the shadow of Stalin’s show trials must have been particularly damning]. Even in a democracy standing up to entrenched power is often a dangerous adventure.

PS The edition I have is the Penguin one introduced by Robert DeMott

Culture, Musings, Politics

Trayvon Martin

Distressing is not even the word. In a society where people are sent to prison just for possession of a weed, a man can shoot another man on the mere basis of feeling threatened and be declared innocent. I do not believe any of the six-woman jury would have thought this a fair acquittal if it had been their own child who had been murdered under the same circumstances. And I do not believe it would have ended this way if the skin colours of the accused and victim had been reversed. And while my beliefs are neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things these kinds of blatant miscarriages of justice poison society – especially if you’re black. Any white male can put a bullet in your head and claim he felt threatened with you being around. What next now? Straight men who object to their rumps being looked at shooting gay men? Extreme projection but it seems in America, anything goes.

PS. Talking about the idiocy of the laws in America especially regarding marijuana did you know the average sentence for murder is said to be 6 years but in several American states you can get life for a marijuana offence? Read on here and here. I don’t smoke the stuff myself but these sentences are irrational and one suspects the by-product of the extreme positions Americans seem to take on almost everything.

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Musings, Politics

The Iron Lady’s Not (Re)Turning

It’s been said that only psychopaths can be leaders. Now that The Iron Lady is dead many are gambolling on her grave singing: “The witch is dead, ding dong, the witch is dead”. I hated some of her politics but she did revitalize Britain at a time when the country was going to seed. She was a tough girl and you had to be to get to where she did. This is her comment in 1969: “No woman in my time will be prime minister or foreign secretary.”

Ten years later she was Prime Minister. Funny how times change or in her words: “It’s a funny old world.” What a perfect illustration of how our tendency as humans to extrapolate and project current conditions is seriously defective. Who would have thought that a negro would be Preseident of the United States less than fifty years post Martin Luther King proclaiming that he had a dream? Who could have thought it would take only five years from the death of Emily Dickinson in 1913 to women being given the vote in Britain? And how long ago was homosexuality a crime in the West and now we are talking gay marriage? Quoting MLK again: “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice”. Perhaps the moral here is not to give up on a worthwhile venture even when the probability of achieveing it looks like zero from where one is standing. Amen.

There was a toughness to Baroness Thatcher (otherwise she wouldn’t have earned the moniker The Iron Lady). One quote signified this perfectly:

“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”

Indeed the one memorable time she turned was when she introduced a divisive tax (the poll tax) that set off riots on the streets and also the chain of events that eventually led to men in dark suits knocking on her door. She met their demand that she step down after unconvincinly winning a vote of confidence with a characteristically defiant “I fight on, I fight to win. She resigned the next day. Her quest was over.

Anyway back to psychopaths …. there was also a mean streak to Thatcher. Two quotes epitomise her schizophrenia:

“I don’t mind how much my ministers talk, as long as they do what I say.” (1980)
“It was treachery with a smile on its face. Perhaps that was the worst thing of all.” (1993 after she was gone).

What did she expect after treating people like fodder?

BTW: all Thatcher quotes above from the BBC website


Musings, Politics

Justice In Britain We Like

[The judges] continued: “The fact that [Abu Qatada] is considered to be dangerous is not relevant to the application of [human rights] principles”.

I agree. No question, the man is a dangerous bigot. But if he had been a (white) Briton held in Somalia or Jordan or Iran and tried there with confessions obtained under torture, Britain would be the first to howl about human rights laws at the Security Council. We can’t sign up to Principles and then choose when to apply them (when it suits us) and when to ignore them (when it suits us). That’s called hypocrisy and begets no respect. Maybe we could before WWII but times have changed. The Home Secretary should try some other means instead of continuing to waste taxpayer money.