Connectedness: why Pete was right and Maggie was wrong

UnknownA couple of events have set my mind going this week about the connectedness of things. The first was the death of singer, songwriter, banjo-player, activist and all-around outstanding human, Pete Seeger. My dad’s family were acquainted with him through the New York folk scene and through certain political affiliations for which Pete famously found himself on the wrong side of Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. So growing up listening to his records, part of me felt like I was listening to the voice of an uncle.

For me, his death feels like the loss of a direct connection to so many ideals that were and still may be good about America: acceptance, tolerance, peace, local action, community, and genuine interest in other people, whether they be friends or strangers. It is not true that these ideals are dead or dying, but certainly they seem to be less dominant in our media, in our conversations and in our ways of going about life than their opposites: suspicion, ignorance, environmental irresponsibility and looking after number one. And it’s not just America. Here too. Love her or hate her, very many people in Britain (yes, even in Scotland though a lot of idealists would deny it) have wholesale swallowed Thatcher’s message that there is no such thing as society. She was, is, and will always be wrong on that one.

The other thing that got me thinking about all of this was a seminar I attended yesterday about the most effective social policies to improve public health. It was given by John Frank, the respected Canadian professor of public health, currently working at Edinburgh University. Slide after slide of statistics and research from across Europe and North America demonstrating the connections between social inequality, poverty and isolation and poor physical and/or mental health. Facts, not hypotheses. Dry stuff, you may think. But as he spoke, it occurred to me: this is the scientific evidence to prove that Pete Seeger was right and Maggie the Milksnatcher was wrong. A folk song translated into social policy: look after children, help your neighbours, spread the wealth, accept that we do have entitlements (to a home, to warmth, to food, to education, to healthcare, to the protection of law, to freedom of thought and speech) before we have obligations, and we are all better off.

So I’m thinking about how all of these things are connected: how we treat each other, how we relate to other people and to our communities and our environment, and how we feel in body and mind. And I’m thinking how glad I am that old Pete outlived old Maggie, and that his view of the world will outlive hers. It has to.


A prayer for America

Newtown, Connecticut, December 14 2012. Another terribly ill and angry person with an armoury of guns. Another day in America. Even from the relative safety of the other side of the Atlantic, I am still all too capable of imagining a man spraying bullets into my daughter’s primary one class, killing every single child and their beautiful young teacher. An old high school friend wrote on Facebook about her fear that it could be her children’s school next. It could be any school in America. As a mother, that kind of fear doesn’t bear thinking about.As an American, albeit one who has been outside looking in for eighteen years and a bit, I do think about it. Like most Americans, I wonder why these shootings happen with such frequency. I wonder why a country which prides itself so intensely on its democratic freedoms and the rights it guarantees its citizens, and which holds up its dreams and ethics like beacons for the rest of the world to aspire to, tolerates these horrific events.  I wonder how we can finance seemingly endless wars to combat extremism elsewhere in the world but foster it so unquestioningly within our own communities.

The almost total lack of gun control is the most obvious part of the problem; I have no problem nailing my colours to that mast. No citizen should be able to walk into a store and buy weapons designed for war. Designed for, to use a scary little euphemism, ‘clearance work’. How can anyone feel safe or free knowing that their neighbours are in possession of such things? I despair for my American friends who understand this, and also for those who don’t.

But I also think guns are symptoms of a bigger and thornier issue: power. There is something in the American cultural discourse which is obsessed with power: horsepower, buying power, media power, electronic power, firepower. The trouble is, in the most powerful nation on earth, there are an awful lot of powerless people. Six and seven year old children, yes, but the powerless also include people with mental health problems and long term health conditions, who don’t receive decent care because it doesn’t exist or because they have no insurance to pay for it. The powerless include people who are unemployed or on very low incomes, caught in the poverty trap. The powerless include soldiers who have been chewed up and spat out by war and left alone to piece themselves back together. The powerless include those who, due to the circumstances of birth or bad luck, will only ever be able to look on and wish they had what others have.

That kind of inequality is the real killer, and is even more entrenched and pervasive in America than guns and those who use them. Those with power care very little for those without. Too many people in power don’t listen to cries for help. So some of those who feel a lot more powerless than they actually are lose faith in democratic means of effecting change and begin to arm themselves. The gun lobby preys on this loss of faith; in the name of American freedom, it inspires people to prepare for the breakdown of American democracy.

So many people have offered prayers for those who died in Newtown and all the other places where mass shootings have occurred. It is a genuine expression of solidarity and of sympathy. But I wonder- and by this I mean no insult to my friends who are believers- if whether this turn to prayer also a search for power. Maybe people pray because they feel they have no other meaningful power to change things for the better.

The solutions to these problems lie down here on earth. One day they might be found in rational discussion and genuine commitment to understanding people who scare us or whose views our different from ours. They might be found in giving a genuine helping hand to people who are ill and angry and disillusioned. They might be found in accepting that the Founding Fathers were not thinking of semi-automatic handguns when they wrote the Second Amendment. They might be found in sharing out the power a little bit more. They might also be found in stepping outside the entrenched debates and the nets of power, and trying to look at things from a broader perspective.

So after Newtown, I will offer only a single prayer for America. It’s to no god in particular, and it’s not even in my own words. It was written by Robert Burns, the Scottish poet who understood a lot more than I do about power:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!