(I'm republishing segments of my Okie Rebels With A Cause series as we approach the midterm elections. This post describes the progressive politics of Oklahoma's native son Will Rogers.)
Okie Rebels With A Cause, Part Three
Just as it attacks the moral legacy of Woody Guthrie, the huge Oklahoma right-wing propaganda ministry attempts to distort the work and life of another great state populist, Will Rogers, who was born in 1879 near the small town of Oologah.
The Will Rogers of the Oklahoma right wing is a mere caricature, a cartoon cowboy with a twirling rope and a penchant for somewhat silly and untrue aphorisms, such as “I never met a man I didn’t like.” (Yeah, right.)
To set the record straight, even a casual reading of Roger’s written work will show he was a pacifist, in favor of strict gun control, open-minded about the early communist experiment in Russia, open minded about socialism, and in favor of wealth redistribution to those less fortunate in our culture.
Rogers, a Cherokee Indian, was highly critical of government policies that hurt those people mired in poverty during the Great Depression, and his power as a writer, humorist, and entertainer came from the millions of ordinary Americans who could relate to his progressive, populist message. This is what makes him important and lasting, not cowboy movies or rope tricks. His contribution to the distinct Oklahoma mythology and history of morality and justice is immeasurable.
The enduring mythology of Will Rogers, of course, is an ongoing discourse for his academic biographers and other writers who find in him the epitome of the American Dream. But those same Oklahoma right-wing radicals who vilify Woody Guthrie are conspicuously quiet when it comes to Rogers and his open-mindedness about communism. Some are adamant almost to the point of absurdity that Rogers was not a leftist. The late Reba Neighbor Collins, a former curator of the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, once criticized a writer for going too far “when he calls Rogers a leftist populist and says he promoted redistribution of wealth” and “…nowhere did he advocate we copy the Russian revolution” (The Daily Oklahoman, April 23, 2000)
But let’s look at the record. In a 1931 newspaper article, for example, Rogers writes about a recent visit his friend Bernard Shaw made to Russia and how Shaw came back impressed. Rogers ends his article with a simple acknowledgement that American should pay attention to Russia’s recently announced five-year plan to improve economic conditions.
Here’s Rogers own words: “Ten men in our Country could buy the world, and ten million can’t buy enough to eat. So the salvation of all might come out of these Cuckoo Russians. If it does, it will have paid for itself whether the whole five-year plan works or not. So we ain’t going to get nowhere cussing ‘em. We better watch ‘em, and they got anything good, why cop onto it, and maybe we can feed everybody.”
(The references to Rogers’ writing in this blog come from The Writing of Will Rogers: The Daily Telegrams, Series III-IV, 1925-1935, or from the book Will Rogers Speaks, edited by Bryan and Frances Sterling.)
In the same year, Roger writes, “So they can have all the theories and plans they want but till you get rid of something and put people back to work, you ain’t going to be able to fix it. You can call it co-lition, Republican, Democrat, or Bolsheviki [emphasis mine]. But folks got to work.”
In 1931 articles, Roger writes, “Half our people are starving and the other half standing around roulette wheel. If Russia succeeds it will be because they have no stock market.” He also gave sympathetic treatment to an American farm official who visited Russia and found there a “great people” whose ideal is “always America.” In another 1931 article, Roger writes, “Every day brings a new scheme in the papers for relief. The Russians have got a five-year plan. Maybe it’s terrible but they got one. We been two years just trying to get a plan.”
An earlier 1929 newspaper column summarizes Roger’s views of capitalism and may well explain his sympathy and interest for the then-communist experiment, which eventually failed. This, again, undermines Collin’s generic and reductionist view of him.
Shortly after the stock market crash, Roger wrote:
“Sure must be a great consolation to the poor people who lost their stock in the late crash to know that it has fallen in the hands of Mr. Rockefeller, who will take care of it and see it has a good home and never be allowed to wander around unprotected again. There is one rule that works in every calamity. Be it pestilence, war, or famine, the rich get richer and poor get poorer.”
Can you imagine even The New York Times publishing such a statement today on its opinion pages? I do not think so.
The historical perspective is important here. Both Rogers and Guthrie (as I wrote before) were open-minded about communism and socialism because (1) the so-called Russian experiment was ongoing at the time and international opinion was still out on the issue, and (2) people were starving to death in America and the country’s rich people were sitting idly by and allowing them to die. Rogers took a moral position about this issue. Those people who define themselves as Oklahomans should be enormously proud that he took such a public moral position.
In other columns during the time period of the depression and before his tragic death in 1935, Rogers calls on Republican politicians to be “deloused,” writes about a mother who killed her seven children because she could not feed them, pointed out that “every millionaire we have has offered a speech instead of keeping still and offering a job,” and heavily praised a band of 500 “country people” who protested outside a small store in the south demanding food.
More columns point out starvation in Arkansas as “the worst need I ever saw,” remind his readers that starvation continues in the deep south despite a minor rise in the stock market, and criticize the super wealthy American elitists: “All these big-moneyed people, they are just like the underworld—they all know each other and kinder work together.”
Rogers' sympathy for ordinary citizens is a common theme throughout his writings. Today, with the nation’s frightening switch to a right-wing, anti-people, anti-rural, quasi-fascist conservative politics, Rogers' work would have never been so broadly published. The Daily Oklahoman, for example, has not allow real progressive opinions on their editorial pages for decades. Can you imagine The Oklahoman today publishing a writer who wrote things like, “There is not one unemployed man in the country that hasn’t contributed to the wealth of every millionaire in American. Every one of us that has anything, got it by the aid of these very people"?
And here is Rogers on gun control: “The automatic pistol, it’s all right to have invented it, but it should have never been allowed outside the army, and then only in war time.”
Would The Oklahoman or The Tulsa World publish that now? What about the state’s conservative television stations, especially the Oklahoma City Fox-affiliate, owned by the arch-conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation? Would they air Rogers take on the issue of war: “I am a peace man. I haven’t got any use for wars and there is no more humor in ‘em than there is reason for ‘em," and, “When you get into trouble 5,00 miles from home, you’ve got to have been looking for it"?
Here is more from Rogers on war:
“Somebody is always telling us in the paper how to prevent war. There is only one way in the world to prevent war and that is for every nation to tend to its own business. Trace any war and you will find some nation was trying to tell some other nation how to run their business. All these nations are interfering with some other nation’s personal affairs but with an eye to business. Why don’t we let the rest of the world act like it wants to.”
The above citations are just a tiny portion of what we can call the real Will Rogers, the leftist Oklahoma populist who spoke out for ordinary citizens during a terrible period in the country’s history.
Yet this real Will Rogers is a quite different than the caricature presented publicly by the right-wing today in Oklahoma.
The website for the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, for example, is underwritten by Southwestern Bell. The website focuses on Rogers most innocuous aphorisms and sayings, pushing visitors to acknowledge his cornball humor at the expense of his political message.
In a 1970s interview with professor Rosa Dubar-Ortiz, an elderly Oklahoma who lived through the depression, explains it this way, "…in Oklahoma they like to pretend the dust bowl never happened and that The Grapes of Wrath never got written or made into a movie. At least the powers-that-be-there, the sort of social set. Poverty is considered the shame of who are poor” (Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, 1977.)
I have been to the Will Rogers Museum a couple of times in Claremore, which is a nice place. But there is not a single exhibit which focuses specifically and exclusively on Rogers’ populist outcry during the depression, or at least I could not find it. Yet, during the depression, Rogers traveled extensively in the Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas region raising money for starving families. In addition, he consistently reminded his newspaper readership about the hunger problems in the country. What he wrote would be clearly labeled by the right-wing as “class warfare” today. But he saved a lot of lives.
The Oklahoma right continues to celebrate a homogenized, non-political version of Rogers. For example, a recent Oklahoma governor, the radical right-winger Frank Keating, published a short children’s book about Rogers during his last term in office. The book is filled with banal generalities and is primarily a picture book featuring the drawings of a local artist. Ultimately, through its reductionism and distortions, it is a book of lies.
Keating, considered by some to be a corrupt and ineffective governor, was once forced to pay back $200,000 given to him by a wealthy benefactor who was trying to buy his influence. Rogers, who liked to pick on his home state’s governors, would have had a field day with Keating’s bizarre public excuses for taking the money.
And it brings up this interesting question: Would the man who constantly criticized John D. Rockefeller and the wealthy elite in the country, a man who favored gun control, who was an avowed pacifist, have approved of a corrupt, right-wing wealthy politician distorting his personal legacy for political capital and influence even if he really did never meet a man he didn’t like?
I have traveled far and wide in the state. I know a lot of Oklahomans consider themselves Republicans these days, but I also know Oklahomans in places like Hinton, Weatherford, Tulsa, Guymon, Madill, and Tishomingo (I have been to every one of these towns), would not allow children to starve to death if they could do something about it. Rogers expressed the genuine morality of Oklahomans then and now. In generations to come, Rogers’ Oklahoma moral message will be remembered and celebrated. His work will live on long after the Republicans have dismantled Social Security, forced more and more children to live in poverty, and allowed credit card companies, Wall Street bankers, and oil company executives to steal our hard-earned salaries.
Will Rogers, like Woody Guthrie, is yet another great American moralist of the twentieth-century. His progressive and populist message helped change things for the better in this country as the filthy rich, as they always do, turned away from the suffering of their fellow Americans during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The conservative, Republican filthy-rich elitists did not care about ordinary Oklahomans during Roger’s day, and they do not care about us now. Delivered in the slow drawls and self-deprecations of the Oklahoma dialect, Rogers’ populist morality was distinctly rational, family-oriented, and religious.
Oklahomans like to talk about an “Oklahoma spirit.” This spirit is embodied in Rogers’ moral message, not in some television commercial about how wonderful the oil and gas industry is to the state. The oil companies will be here until the last drop of oil is sucked from Oklahoma’s red dirt, and then they will leave and never return. In the larger picture, their historical significance in the state will be a small blip, a footnote in some larger narrative about the nation’s energy concerns.
Will Rogers’ words and moral vision, however, will echo forever in American history.
Orwig Deserves Your Vote
Dana Orwig, a Democrat, deserves to be elected in her legislative race in House District 87. She will bring to state government a pro-education, pro-jobs stance that will help Oklahoma prosper.
Her opponent, Republican incumbent Trebor Worthen, has been a strong supporter of wacko state Rep. Randy Terrill (R-Moore), the ideological driven neo-conservative who places politics above the state’s interests. Essentially, Worthen is part of the immoral neocon crowd which has wreaked havoc in this country by trampling on people’s rights and privacy and taking the country into a botched and lost war on lies and distortions.
On her website, Orwig writes, “It is essential for Oklahoma to continue to build on the recent improvements that we have made in our education system. We must pay competitive salaries and continually refine our teacher training programs in order to have the highest quality professional educators available.”
Orwig is also a strong supporter of small business. While Worthen and the neocon cabal cater to the big corporations like Chesapeake Energy, Orwig recognizes Oklahoma’s economic strength rests with small business.
She writes, “In addition to attracting new jobs to Oklahoma, we need to hold on to the jobs we have by finding ways to help small businesses stay competitive and supporting the companies that are already here. Improved access to health care, a strong public education system, and maintaining our infrastructure will make our state a more desirable location for business.”
Orwig is an ordained Episcopal deacon and has worked in public and private education. Her husband is a physician at Oklahoma Veteran’s Affairs Hospital. House District 87 is in northwest Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma and the rest of the nation need to move past the mess created by so-called conservatives who have brought this country a lost war, hateful partisan politics, and corporate welfare. Orwig deserves your vote.
Has Istook Given Up?
You have to wonder if gubernatorial candidate Ernest Istook has given up. While his opponent, popular Governor Brad Henry has been running powerful television advertisements for weeks, Istook’s campaign has remained quiet. So far, Henry has outspent and outsmarted Istook. It’s been a rout. Polls show Henry far ahead of Istook.
Is Istook even in the state these days or is he off helping Utah get public transportation money?
Istook and his supporters obviously miscalculated the political landscape. When Istook decided to run, the Republicans still had some credibility left among their base and Oklahoma was a huge pro-Bush state. Polls show support for Bush has dropped off in Oklahoma, and people everywhere are fed up with the Republican-led Congress. Istook, of course, is still a part of that Congress.
Given the circumstances, you might think Istook would simply put up a good fight against Henry and then move into the lobbying business to continue to bilk taxpayers. So where’s the fight? Maybe it’s really that bad, and the GOP knows it.
Vote For Askins
There are a multitude of reasons to vote for Jari Askins for lieutenant governor. She’s a bright, moderate Democrat with much experience in public government.
But now add this reason: The Daily Oklahoman, as expected, has endorsed her opponent, Todd Hiett, a neo-conservative who led the Republican House majority last legislative session. The endorsement means the rich Oklahoma oligarchy—from the Gaylord family to the rich oil executives at Chesapeake, Devon, and Kerr McGee—will own Hiett.
Askins, on the other hand, will work for small business owners and regular middle-class people.
(As the midterm elections near, I'm republishing segments of my Okie Rebels With A Cause series. Don't forget Friday, October 13 is the last day to register to vote for the November election.)
Okie Rebels With A Cause, Part Two
Oklahoma has a bittersweet relationship with the legend of famous songwriter Woody Guthrie, who was born in Okemah on July 14, 1912. For some Oklahomans, primarily the state right-wing power elitists, Guthrie's reputation has always been tainted by his affiliation with the American Communist Party before World War II.
A New York Times article, published in 1972, just five years after Guthrie'ss death, points out that many Okemah, Oklahoma residents were against any public and civic recognition of Guthrie because they remember him as a left-winger who betrayed the conservatism of rural, east-central Oklahoma . . . (Aynes Drummon Jr., The New York Times, December 14, 1972).
Oklahoma's largest newspaper, The Daily Oklahoman, operated by the ultra-conservative and super wealthy Gaylord family, has also consistently dismissed Guthrie as a communist and radical. Just a few years ago, reports circulated in the state that the powerful Gaylord family refused to allow a Smithsonian Woody Guthrie exhibit to come to Oklahoma (David Averill, The Tulsa World, January 31, 1999).
But those Okemah residents and the state's rich and powerful who want to reduce the legacy of Woody Guthrie are intellectually dishonest about the message of Guthrie's music. In essence, these reductions are right-wing drivel and propaganda because they do not take into consideration what Guthrie actually wrote and the historical milieu in which he lived. This right-wing disinformation about Guthrie is ultimately the same immorality he fought against all his life.
Here are the facts. Woody Guthrie wrote a column for the leading communist newspaper in this country during the 1930s, though he actually never joined the party. In his writing and songs, he consistently called for equality among all people, and he spoke out for the downtrodden and poor and against the moneyed interests in the country. Guthrie did not care if he was labeled a communist primarily because capitalism had left him broke and miserable like millions of other people in this country during the long and destructive financial depression of the 1930s. (Rest assured, the filthy rich owners of The Daily Oklahoman never went hungry during this time period.)
One verse of Guthrie's most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land" explains it all:
One Sunday morning
In the shadows of the steeple
By the relief office
I seen my people
As they stood hungry
I stood there whistling this
This land was made for you and me
Subtle and simplistic as these lines may be, they argue succinctly for a moral vision for the country as they point out the hypocrisy and immorality of a right-wing religious movement, an ugly, national burden then and today.
(Today, I say with complete confidence, the last line of the above lyrics--"This land was made for you and me"--echoes again in Oklahoma and the Great Plains. You can hear it everywhere. Are you listening?)
Guthrie's lyrics in songs such as "Dust Bowl Refugees" and "The Ballad of Tom Joad" drew attention to the plight of millions of Americans whose lives were changed forever by the depression and dust storms that rolled into the Great Plains during the 1930s.
Yes we ramble and we roam
And the highway, that's our home
It's a never ending highway
For a Dust Bowl refugee (Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Refugees")
Another famous Guthrie song, "Going Down the Road" depicted a defiant Okie looking for work:
I'm looking for a job
With honest pay
And I ain't gonna
Be treated this a way;
In addition, Guthrie'ss lyrics celebrated the growing union movement in this country. In songs such as "Union Feeling" and "Union Maid," Guthrie offers unionism as an almost utopian vision of reality.
I can see my union like the sun, like the sun
I can see my union shining like the sun
Yes, it draws us all together,
Melts us into one
It's my good old union feeling in my soul" ("Union Feeling")
p>In the song, "I Don't Like The Way This World's A-Treating Me, Guthrie criticizes the United States government in direct terms and speaks out against censorship:
I don't like the way this FBI's treating me
I don't like the way the spies are treating me
I just don't like the way these guys are treating me, poor me
It's the lockup if I speak my mind about it
In his autobiography, Bound For Glory, Guthrie humanizes the Okies who were evicted from their homes in the 1930s and who then headed west to California only to be greeted with contempt, hatred, and even violence by filthy rich, greedy landowners.
"You've seen a million like this already. Maybe you saw them on the crowded side of your big city; the back side, that's jammed and packed, the hard section to drive through. Maybe you wondered where so many of them come from, how they eat, stay alive, what good they do, what makes them live like this. Ain't much difference between you and them. If you was to walk out into this big tangled jungle camp and stand there with the other two thousand, somebody would just walk up and shake hands with you and ask you, What kind of work do you do, pardner?" (Bound For Glory, p. 249).
Listen to his music. Read his book and articles. You will find that, historically, Woody Guthrie is one of this country's great, twentieth-century moralists. A staunch patriot as well, Guthrie his particular American populist views with the politics of his time, and, of course, this included the growing communist and socialist movements in the country before World War II, which at the time blended perfectly with rural Christianity to form a distinctly American-style moral center. It is this moral center that is responsible for national programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Guthrie believed fiercely in the mythology and big idea of America. He is the quintessential American man.
Yet he wrote his songs and newspaper columns during a particular historical period, which was pre-Cold War. International opinion was still out on communism. During the 1930s, for example, millions of Americans, including Will Rogers, looked to the "communist experiment" in Russia as something that might give American government officials new ideas to help those whose lives were being systematically destroyed by the feudalistic and quasi-fascist policies of Republican President Herbert Hoover. Before Hoover became president, thousands of Oklahomans considered themselves socialists. In 1917, for example, the socialist candidate for governor in Oklahoma received twenty-one percent of the vote (Dunbar-Ortiz, Red Dirt: Okie, 1977.). Facts such as these are conveniently ignored by the powerful right-wing in Oklahoma.
Woody Guthrie, then, was a product of his time, a part of a growing populist movement, which was always religious and family centered, that tried to help the most unfortunate in our society. Hunger allows little political choice for those starving to death. Guthrie knew that, and he sang about it, and he tried to find ways to help people.
So before the Cold War, before the Stalin atrocities were made public, before the failure of corrupt communist systems worldwide, millions of hungry and broke Americans looked to communism and socialism as possible answers to this very simple question: How can I get my next meal? Again, this is the type of information the Oklahoma right-wing neglects to mention when it argues against Woody Guthrie and his standing in Oklahoma and American history.
Twenty-three years ago, a University of Oklahoma professor put it this way: "The man was at least lyrically a musical genius . . . he was the foremost publicist of the Depression era. His influence on American music has been enormous. Yet we [Oklahoma] don't mention him [in our textbooks] because of a couple of people in Tulsa claimed he was a communist" (Bonnie Speer, The Daily Oklahoman, November 14, 1982).
Still, even given this, it remains baffling that the Oklahoma power structure would not somehow embrace the legend of a man who some claim invented the American song ballad, who wrote more than 1,000 songs, many of which were not political at all, who wrote widely read newspaper columns and a quirky yet brilliant autobiography. The legend of Woody Guthrie, who also lived in Oklahoma City, could be a major tourist draw if nothing else. (Yet state leaders consistently bemoan the lack of economic opportunities in Oklahoma.) Even in the last few years, Guthrie has continued to be attacked by conservative writers in the state. They label him a "Stalinist communist," a gross distortion. The website of the Oklahoma Constitution, a radical, right-wing group in the state, once commended its editor for helping "forces in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah who did not wish to honor such a Radical as a hero" (Oklahoma Constitution website, January, 2003).
Conservative groups continue to promote a self-loathing among Oklahomans by denying the state's residents access to their heroic and true history and identity. It was Guthrie's Oklahoma roots and ideas that made him a moral compass for this country. It was not the political ideology of some Oklahoma oil company or big city newspaper that prevented starving children from dying along Route 66 during the great migration west. It was the moral messag of Woody Guthrie that brought the country to its senses. The people who own big corporations could care less about ordinary Oklahomans then and now, and any Oklahoman who thinks differently is either a conservative political hack or a rube in desperate need of a traveling carnival.
In the south, conservatives tolerate and even promote racist ideology as part of cultural history. Because it did not become a state until 1907, Oklahoma does not shoulder the racist burden of institutionalized slavery like the deep south, though the state's history is filled with ugly incidents of racism, such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. But the right-wing conservatives do try to make the state's real history of Guthrie, Will Rogers, John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrathseem repugnant and vile when, in fact, this history is heroic, just and an embodiment of everything that is great about our country and state. Thus, the right-wing now celebrates racism and slavery as "southern heritage" or "southern pride" or "states' rights, just as it presents all the populist movements in the early twentieth-century in Oklahoma and the Great Plains as "communist" and "socialist." This right-wing distortion of American history is intellectually dishonest and immoral. It is time for progressives to take a stand against these lies.
(Oh yeah, here is an example of Woody's take on the race issue in his song, "Death Row&":
"If you're white you've got some chance to beat this death row
If you're white you might get loosed from off this death row
But a man that's partly black, partly dark, chocolate brown
He ain't got an earthly chance to beat this death row")
Ultimately, it is difficult to calculate the effect this right-wing, anti-Guthrie propaganda has had on the Oklahoma psyche. It is part of a larger picture, true. Certainly, a people whose history is shamed and denigrated, as it has been by right-wing zealots for decades upon decades, will always feel self-deprecation and self-loathing. People pass this self-loathing on through the generations.
Now it has come time to stop the lies that create self-loathing Okies, and by "Okies" I mean the millions of people who live in Oklahoma and the Great Plains.
Woody Guthrie's art and life make him an American icon and a specific Oklahoma treasure. His legacy has withstood decades of right-wing lies and hate because he was a true American moralist in the tradition of classic writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, and Ralph Ellison, another Oklahoma native. His influence and ideas will live on forever as the lies of the right-wing extremists wither and die on the vine.
Oklahoma's power structure has begun some tentative and long overdue recognition of Guthrie. Just recently, a new oil painting of Guthrie was hung at the Oklahoma Capitol, for example.
But the most positive sign that the state is reconsidering and reconfiguring its populist history is symbolized by the annual Woody Guthrie Festival held in Okemah each July. The festival gains in artistic and political significance as the years go on. The state's conservatives (and maybe all the country's right-wing zealots) must be scared as hell now that people are starting to pull together again under Guthrie's historical and lasting moral influence.
Here's what Woody once wrote about his hometown:
"Okemah was one of the singiest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns."
That's real Oklahoma history, not the right-wing's homogenized, celebratory history of filthy rich oil company executives and immoral newspaper owners. Woody Guthriemakes makes me proud to be from Oklahoma, not Kerr-McGee.