Tag Archives: voting

Hobos, happiness and the Big Rock Candy Mountain

24 Aug


I used to think “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was a children’s song. It’s not. It’s a song by and about hobos that someone made into a children’s song.


Harry McClintock, a hobo known as Haywire Mac, was the first to record it in 1928. It depicts a hobo’s paradise. You don’t see many hobos today but they were common and plentiful during the Depression.


The Coen brothers used the song in the movie, “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” Recently, I watched the movie again on TV and gave a close listen to the lyrics of the song.


Harry-mcclintockIt describes a place where cops have wooden legs so hobos can out run them. The jails are made of tin so hobos can easily escape. On the Big Rock Candy Mountain, boxcars are always empty and lakes are filled with stew and whiskey. There are no short-handled shovels.


That’s the hobo’s idea of paradise.


After hearing the song, I though that if I were a hobo my paradise would have no cops and no jails. It would be a place where someone down on their luck could crawl out of their hole and make a good living; a place where even a hobo could be somebody.


What I failed to understand was that in my hobo paradise, a hobo would cease being a hobo. As I listened to the song again, it became clear that while hobos may want an easier life, they still want to be hobos.


Which raises the question: How true is this of other people and their lives?


Amidst our general hardship and discomfort, apart from our complaints and dissatisfaction with the small and the large, are we actually … happy?


As you think, consider this little story.


I once spent the Fourth of July at a country club. The fireworks were fantastic and the food was beyond good. There were hot dogs and hamburgers but also barbecued chicken and ribs, all you could eat. On a table the length of an interstate was an assortment of desserts.


In addition to bringing me, my host brought an African-American boy, about 12. He was from a Philadelphia neighborhood that was experiencing a rash of random shootings and killings. The little man was brought to the suburbs via a program designed to give poor children a break from the stresses of violence and poverty.

He was the only black person at the affair.


As I worked on my second helping of ribs, he sat with his head on the table, almost dozing off.


“Tell me,” I said. “Would you rather be here or home?”


He paused, apparently not wanting to seem ungrateful, then smiled and said, “Home.”


For him, happiness was the familiar, not the strange.


The familiar is comfortable and predictable. While I can’t document this, I have heard of a study showing that people, if given the chance to exchange all their problems and ills with the problems and ills of another person, would decline. If true, this is further evidence that no matter who we are, we like our lives.


Andy-Capp-Cartoon Pictures (1)It’s been said that England is defined by its class structure, and that people recognize and take pride in their station, be it high or low. They wear cloths and banners proclaiming their class – like the Jeff cap worn by the working-class cartoon character Andy Capp.


I don’t think we do that in America, but maybe I’m just blind to it. Either way, listening closely to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” has made me believe that America, for all its problems, is a land of contentment for both the haves and have-nots.


It’s so content that most don’t even vote.


While a peaceful populace has its advantages, it also has its dangers. Injustices are easily wrought upon the passive. Eventually, they create a destabilizing imbalance that will harm everyone – even their originators.


Income inequality is such an imbalance. In nations, stability and economic might are derived from a deep, viable, productive middle class, with a minimum of poverty and want. But when wealth is concentrated among the few, as has occurred in the U.S., the whole system is threatened because the many stop spending.


An alarm was sounded recently by Standard and Poor’s, the bond-rating company. It released a study showing that income inequality is responsible for a slowdown in the American economy. A headline on Fortune.com read:

More concentrated wealth means less spending than if money was spread to more people, according to a new report.


This realization, and others like it, is putting income inequality on the national agenda. Balance, to some degree, eventually will be restored. But it is because the elite acted, not the complacent.


I realize people get set in their ways; that they like routine and follow habits religiously. Still, there comes a point when routine is dispensed with in order to preserve dignity, honor and respect that were compromised by imbalance. At home, this happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Abroad, it happened in Gaza. The wise nation will avoid such flashpoints. More common is that they will act after the fact.


The better way, at least in the U.S., is self-action prior to the flashpoints.


We all need to get off the Big Rock Candy Mountain and take personal responsibility for our collective fate. Areas of concern are fairness, equal opportunity, equal treatment, social justice and civility. Legislation and tax policy must be designed for large segments of the population rather than small.


Key tools: Vocalization and voting.


Voting, real voting, is a powerful concept that has gone dormant in the U.S. We should try reviving it, just to keep the system fair and honest. Voting shows we are alive and paying attention.


There is nothing wrong with being happy and complacent. Complaisance, however, should never interfere with our ability to stop those who would chip away at our happiness.


Human rights, said Alexander Hamilton, are written “by the hand of the divinity itself.” They cannot, he said, “be erased or obscured by mortal power.”


By Lanny Morgnanesi


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The NRA Votes … do you?

21 May

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The bumper sticker said something like, “I’m the NRA and I vote.”

It was similar to messages from an assortment of special interest groups on both the left and right. It could have been Planned Parenthood or the American Association of Retired People or the teachers unions.

No mater what the group, the intention is to express political power. What is obvious but unstated is this: People who get off the couch to vote have influence because most people don’t vote.

Democracy, after all these years, has never quite caught on. We’re happy it’s there, like an exercise machine in the basement, but don’t mind that it has gathered substantial dust.

Our country started out more as an aristocracy than a democracy. The leaders, including George Washington, were land speculators who owned hundreds of thousands of acres on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains. As long as the British controlled things, that land was essentially worthless.

So the aristocrats started filling the heads of artisans and common workers with ideas of democracy and revolution. They actually gave them guns and taught them to kill the British. After proving victorious, the artisans and common workers still had the guns and still had ideas of democracy – even though they remained obligated to tip their hats when passing a gentleman.

But throughout the land they formed Democratic Societies, which were looked upon by the elite like the American Communist party was looked upon in the 1950s.

The Democratic Societies, run by armed individuals, were frightening.

Historian John Ferling, in “A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic,” says James Madison reacted by designing the Constitution to preserve liberty while making it extremely difficult to bring about substantial change.

Ultimately, in the long run, the group once referred to by Washington as the “grazing multitudes” settled back and continued grazing (if you don’t count the Civil War).

Now, for the most part, they don’t even vote.

Requiring photo IDs to vote, as is done now in my home state of Pennsylvania, will mean even fewer voters.

At times, winning high office seems more about collecting money than votes. Had Madison put that in the Constitution, the Democratic Societies might have taken up arms again.

We don’t need anybody to take up arms today. But like the NRA and Planned Parenthood, the AARP and the teachers unions, we really should vote. Democracy must be preserved before it truly withers away, or, like the exercise machine, someone puts it out in the trash.

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