Monday, May 16, 2011

Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"

"Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'—I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build—why, I'll be there."—Tom Joad

Today, I watched John Ford's adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Only a few minutes in, I could see why the film is frequently in the top fifteen of a wide number of "greatest films" lists. Yet the beauty of the film aside, what struck me was the degree to which I found myself resonating with many of the not-so-subtle political and social critiques leveled by both film and novel alike. It's probably my synthesizing mind—which finds things from disparate sources and weave them together into a more cogent whole—that makes me aware of some of the most important ones, critiques that are no less apropos today than they were in 1939/40.

Set in the 1930's, in the middle of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl (thus earning the decade the title, "The Dirty Thirties"), the main characters, the Joad family, suffer greatly from financial need, and are forced to move from Oklahoma to California to look for work. That work, purported to be well-paying and plentiful, ends up being scarce with measly pay. Farmers needing help harvesting their crops simply use the plight of many impoverished families to their advantage, exploiting the cheap labor and hunger of thousands. Thus, the film (and Steinbeck's original work) level some significant challenges to American society, challenges that still face us (though in different forms) today.

For one, Grapes emphasizes heavily the relationship between ownership of the land and humaneness.  Repeatedly, the film (and if I remember right, the novel) stresses how unjust it is that one person could own a million fallow acres while thousands can't get enough to eat. Earlier in the film, it's made clear that the poor tenant farmers work the land primarily as a way to survive, to feed their families, not to turn a profit. Currently, while land use in the US doesn't attract much media attention—I'll save my comments on the media for another time—the fact of the matter is that our willingness to let other people do the farm work simply allows corporations and the wealthy to keep us at a distance from that most precious of resources, our food, and allows them to manipulate the costs and production. The result is that the US, one of the top two exporters of food in the world, is now rife with so-called "food deserts," where a majority of the food for an area must be imported from outside the region. It also results in food corporations having a vested interest (namely, profit) in the public's willingness to consume foods that such corporations can produce most cheaply and sell most expensively. Almost all such food is, in a word, toxic.

Corporate greed, corruption, and the brokenness of the system also earn some bruises. In a particularly striking scene, a spokesman for a company boots a poor family off of the land, saying it's no longer profitable for the landowner—a company far removed from the land itself—to lease it to this family of sharecroppers. The head of the household then asks, "Who can I shoot?" The spokesman says that the farmer can't him, because he's only a messenger of the company. He can't shoot the president of the company, because he's only doing what the bank tells him. He can't shoot the bank manager, because he's only doing what corporate boards "back East" are telling him to do. The farmer then realizes the depth of his family's plight: justice won't be done, but neither can the thirst for vengeance be sated. Again, the connection to our contemporary world is all too clear. When the financial meltdown led us into a deep recession from which, at least for most Americans, we haven't really started to recover, people wanted answers, and they wanted to know who they could blame. At the end of the day, the best answer we had was to blame "the rich," those nameless, faceless people who populate corporate boards, who serve as VPs of the companies that almost went belly up (but for our intervention). And what did we do to them as a means of vengeance, if not justice? We gave them more of our money.

Fortunately, Steinbeck didn't drink of that draught so many Americans today bathe in, i.e., the notion that if we work hard enough, we too can be rich. At the very least, such a mythical notion didn't infiltrate Grapes. No, I think his vision of the American dream had nothing to do with the best toys or the biggest house, or even a bigger house or car; it had to do with having one's own land, growing one's own food, and building one's own home. It was for each person and family to have a fair shake, to live freely, and to enjoy the simple life. Our obsession with the fabulously wealthy and all their perks and prestige has blinded us, simply because we allow ourselves to believe that we can have all that (and more) if we get a lucky break or two. If we're honest, though, many more of us will share the experiences of the Joad family, forced (if even for a short while) to scrap for our very existence. At least, that's what most people in the rest of the world would attest to. In Steinbeck's vision (as I understand it), we wouldn't put up with how the wealthy have abused the rest of us, and we would recapture a notion of the good life not as one of wealth, but of a life filled with peace and freedom.

So, you might ask, how does this post fit in with my other thoughts? What's the connection? A lot of my thoughts about leaving Christianity were sparked by my willingness to think about freedom as one of the highest goods of human life. When I allowed myself, even for a moment, to think about being freed from all constraints on my life and thought, I found myself able to question Christianity truly for the first time. Plus, the ways that corporations try to force us to think one way or another mimics the way religion attempt to homogenize human thought, and teaches people not to think for themselves. 

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