It was a road trip! Not in the raucous style of Jack Kerouac ("On the Road") or Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters ("Electric Kool Aid Acid Test") or Neal Cassady, the legendary driver on both trips. This trip, by comparison, was tame, even dull. The only pills were for high blood pressure, my drink of choice was water and Pepsi, and marijuana is not on my menu.
Beginning in Chicago, I drove to the Twin Cities, then on to Fargo, North Dakota. From there I steered down the east side of North and South Dakota in my orange-red rental car at a 80-mile-an-hour clip (75 mph is the speed limit), landing myself in Des Moines - all in the space of 36 hours and three meetings to boot.
The next morning I zoomed off to Davenport, Iowa and then on to Michigan - Detroit and Grand Rapids - and back to Chicago, where I grabbed a plane for New York City. The End!
In the course of this trip, I met wonderful people - teachers, office workers, writers, real estate agents, academics, retirees, young people, union activists and leaders, political candidates, old and new mothers, fathers and grandparents, students of all ages and sizes, people of different races and nationalities, a radical clergyman bedecked in very formal cloth who gave a wicked good homily - it was America in the heartland. Next time I will kiss a baby!
So what did this blue-eyed, gray-haired son (paraphrasing Bob Dylan) observe?
Observation: Motel 6 is good value, the price of gas isn't outrageous, cruise control makes driving long distances easier, snoozes in rest stops are delicious ... and stimulus dollars are at work repairing highways in every state I drove in. My biggest complaint is that the Obama administration doesn't publicize this fact - no big (or even modest-sized) signs bringing this to a driver's attention, thus making the stimulus monies invisible - something that the "Party of No" and its amplifiers take advantage of. Sometimes you have to toot your own horn - and loudly!
Observation: Driving down the eastern side of the Dakotas impressed on my eye the beauty of this land - as Woody Guthrie says: "Our land." No matter what the changes in the topography (plains grass to farmland) this swath of the country is as pleasing and glorious to the eye as the magnificent mountains and coasts. I'm sure some of you "sipping lattes" in "New York and Berkeley" will disagree, but as the late and inimitable Peoples World writer Fred Gaboury would say, "You have a right to be wrong."
The big sky, the heavenly sunsets, the fields bathed in green and gold, the solitary farmhouse, the empty, straight and seemingly endless farm roads, the flat land and the rolling hills - all this filled me with awe for the web of life of which we are only a link, despite our pretentions.
The high grass of the plains (first nature) is rare now, replaced by the huge, rectangular tracts of farmland (second, third, fourth ... nature) on which grow corn, sugar beets, wheat, and much more. Moreover, because of the rise of huge agribusinesses and the use of machinery that would comfortably fit on a Star Wars set, it is easy to forget that successive peoples, beginning with Native Indians (who were displaced by superior military power and forced onto reservations) lived, worked and transformed (sometimes for better, other times for worse) the ecology, land, politics, economics and culture of this geographic space that we call the Great Plains. On this land and in the commodities that originate here enormous amounts of past and present sweated labor are embedded. Which makes me think that by any measure of justice, the land, its bountiful gifts and its way of life belong to the people of the Great Plains rather than to the predatory and profit-maximizing corporations that systematically degrade and destroy the heartland's two sources of wealth - nature and labor. In the headquarters of Monsanto or Tyson Foods, no one talks about the Plains as Mother Earth, as the first peoples did.
Observation: The trip would have been lonely, but I had some companions: my imagination which was on roaming, music - a lot of country, which as Ray Charles says, tells interesting stories if you listen closely, and a heavy dose of right-wing radio talk. Oops, I'm forgetting ESPN which featured incessant commentary on Brett Favre's decision to retire - something I will believe when I see it.
But back to talk radio, where I heard the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and lesser lights - ugh! Talk about a scary bunch! To say that they are a fascist-like, slimy gang is not far from the truth. I like to think that their message is too shrill and extreme to resonate broadly. But, even assuming that is so, this gang still represents a present danger and could easily become a much bigger danger down the road. In their sights are, no surprise, President Obama (Ingraham was outraged that he wore sandals on one occasion), the Democratic (or as they say, the Democrat) Party, the alleged ethical indiscretions of Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel, immigration (draconian measures against the undocumented), the deficit (eliminate the "welfare state"), and tax cuts, especially for the wealthy (their answer for nearly everything).
All of them weave the fall congressional elections into their harangues. The possibility of the Republicans regaining control of the House makes their mouths water.
Just imagine, they say, how much more effective Republicans will be, not only in wrecking every initiative of the administration, but also in positioning the GOP to defeat the president's reelection bid and to take over both houses of Congress in 2012.
Even with a minority in the House and Senate, their record of obstruction is the pride of Wall Street, Big Oil, the military-industrial complex, and right-wing moneybags. Only recently the passage of a $26 billion bill to help state and local governments make Medicaid payments and avoid laying off 140,000 teachers came at a high price - some would say too high. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was only able to break a Republican filibuster by promising offsets largely through - if you can believe it - $12 billion in cuts to food stamps.
You heard right - food stamp cuts taken from poor working people who are already living at best on the edge, fighting to survive in a very hostile economic environment.
If they can do this as a congressional minority imagine what they will do if they have a majority. Everything will be blocked, while at the same time they will heap blame on the president for the economic crisis.
This possibility has the right-wing mouthpieces of hate and pain acting like crazed tigers as their prey comes into sight.
Observation: The highlight of my excursion, hands down. was the marriage of two beautiful women in Iowa. I left the ceremony thinking how outrageous it is that something so natural and beautiful could still be illegal in many other states. The whole notion that heterosexual marriage, families and sex is superior to homosexual marriage, families and sex is simply ludicrous. As far as I'm concerned, it is an anachronism, best left as a relic of the 20th century. Joy, intimacy, deeply felt desires, and marital unions are private matters that society should respect and support.
There is much more I could comment on, for example, how much I like Subway's 12-inch veggie with no lettuce (poor quality) and lots of hot peppers (spicy is good), but enough is enough. Happy Trails!
By the way, if you want to make a donation to carry on the spirit of my road trip, do it here - or put it in the mail to the People's World, 235 W. 23 St, New York NY 10011.