Although the vast majority of responses to the March for California's Future have been positive, there have been a few folks who were less than sanguine about our 48-day march to Sacramento. One day last week as we marched by a farm in the middle of the vast Central Valley, a stocky man in a tractor stopped as we passed by and asked us why were marching.
"Against education cuts," I started in.
"They already get too much money," he interrupted.
I tried again with, "Actually, public education has been cut by over $18 billion over the last two years."
And he stopped me with, "Where do they get all the money for those fancy buses--the government? Is that where the money comes from? "
I tried to smile and said, "Yes, it comes from the government, but..."
"I think they should swat the kids!" he blurted out angrily. "And why do we feed the kids? Why do we have to pay for that? The parents should feed them. We should swat the kids! Swat 'em!"
I looked him in the eye and told him to have a nice day and continued on, but his story stuck with me because, in a way, that's what we're doing in California -- swatting the kids with cuts to education, cuts to health care and by closing the doors of opportunity for poor children as more and more of them are born into poverty.
I thought of the scene in the Grapes of Wrath where the tenant farmer comes out to confront another guy on a tractor who is just about to roll over his house. The farmer levels his gun at the driver, who tells him it's not his fault, that he is just working for his boss who answers to the bank in town who answers to other folks back east who answer to a system that is out of everyone's control.
The monster is not a man but a system that makes it nearly impossible for ordinary folks to know "who to shoot," as the farmer puts it. So we aim down (at the poor or the weak or the children) because we can't comprehend how to grapple with our faceless masters, those who have greatly benefited while most of us have suffered during this economic crisis -- the corporations who get tax breaks while we keep paying, the rich people who never seem to pay even when their economic behavior verges on the criminal.
This is the miracle of the Tea Party movement that has harnessed the same sort of populist anger that back in the '30s helped create the CIO and the New Deal. Today, the folks with the pitchforks are pushing in the other direction, however, hollering for policies that will benefit those who are most responsible for the economic crisis -- budget cuts, more tax cuts, less government, less regulation and weakened unions.
It's the anti-New Deal era in many ways, and in the Golden State we are pink slipping teachers, cutting aid to the most-needy, and downsizing our expectations for the future in the service of the notion that if we just shrink government, somehow the economy will work better for all of us. It's a perverse irony, but, for some, a new social Darwinism is the God's truth.
On the other hand, there was the woman who stopped us along the road to tell us she'd seen us on TV and supported our fight for education. She declared herself "very conservative," an Obama hater who wanted the government out of her Medicare, and a critic of immigration who taught migrant workers for over a decade. She gave us $15 for our march and told us it was time to take back California for working folks like her. We thanked her and went on our way. Ideologically incoherent as it was, it was better than "swat the kids." There's a long road ahead of us but we'll get there. We have to -- for the kids.