On Solidarity: My May Day Address to Mesa College

Today I’ve been asked to speak to you about solidarity.  For those who don’t know the meaning of the term, it refers to the support within a group, carrying with it the basic premise of “we’re all in this together.”  It is perhaps the most quintessentially American of ideas, as reflected in the first national motto adopted by the 13 colonies in 1782, “e plurbis unum”–the one out of many.

In our nation’s history, it has been solidarity that has helped us prosper, and by contrast, it is either when we have lost that notion of solidarity, or have chosen not to extend it to others, out of fear, prejudice, or a general lack of empathy, that we have created our greatest conflicts, sufferings, cruelties–from slavery and sexism, to racism and exploitation.

We have only risen above these self-made obstacles through the embrace of empathy, and so it is, if we as a society of many aspire to be prosperous, not simply in economic terms, but in terms of community and general well-being, we continue to do so, for this is what can make America great.

But to speak of solidarity in such general and abstract terms is too easy. True enough, it is easy among friends and those with whom we readily and easily identify that solidarity is found.  But the fact of the matter is that in a nation of many which, at its best, necessarily allows for and cultivates diversity, it becomes all too easy in hard times to find differences rather than seek commonalities, to harbor resentments rather than seek opportunities, and embrace fear and anxiety over camaraderie.

Today I’m going to take you on a trip and you might be surprised where it starts, but I hope you’ll be happy where it ends.  Two years ago, when my mother passed, I returned to her home of Deer Lodge, Montana, a town of perhaps 2000 people which has quite frankly, seen better days.  Over half a century ago, the community was thriving, in part due to the Butte Mine once known as the “Richest Hill on Earth.”  This, along with a local strong farming and ranching industry made up of independent farmers, and a timber industry further West, meant strong revenues. The Deer Lodge area was itself the home of Montana’s institutions, from its state mental and alcoholism hospitals, to the state prison itself. It was at the state alcoholism hospital that my mother found sobriety, which ultimately saved her life, free of charge. Five years later she returned to the hospital as a counselor and brought thousands to sobriety, saving their lives, and their families. Along with the miners, all of these workers, my mother included, had good union jobs, and were paid living wages with benefits.  Deer Lodge itself, while a small town, boasted many restaurants, several dry goods stores, furniture stores, auto dealerships, etc.

Now, the auto dealership and most of the restaurants are gone, what clothing stores there are now are thrift shops.  As younger people have left the area, Deer Lodge’s main street is blessed with several struggling antique shops whose stock is from the estate states of the older folks who’ve passed on.  The people who’ve stayed on are a hardy people of sorts, committed to a community that grew and nurtured them in better times.  As I was there, clearing my mother’s estate, I actually got asked, by one of the antique store owners, if I had thought of staying on.  I didn’t, but even if I had, the opportunities are not there.

In the early 1980’s Butte’s mines played out, so some degree of economic collapse was inevitable, but this didn’t explain away cuts by the Reagan administration to federal farm programs which put out one out of six farmers in Montana out of business, most of them independents, while larger corporate entities moved in.  It also didn’t explain why, in spite of increased revenues from coal and oil extraction, that monies for Montana’s institutions were cut, leading to the closure of both the state mental and alcoholism hospitals, with patients deferred to underfunded community outpatient programs, or private vendors where patients would now increasingly be forced to pay out of pocket.  It also doesn’t explain how, when Montana built a new prison again in Deer Lodge and even took in prisoners from out of state, that its prison guards, who risk their lives daily, would be paid the lowest wage of any prison guards in the US–a wage which barely sustains even a single guard, let alone one with a family.

Clearly, at the level the federal and state government, there has been this loss of empathy, but where did that come from?

Now this may surprise you, but part of it came from us.

Consider that over the last 30 years, while much of rural and industrial America’s economy foundered, the economies of the coasts prospered. Consider, that as we grew more sensitive to the culture differences around us, we allowed, if not encouraged the media, to characterize the people in these declining communities as anachronistic at best, or racist Neanderthals at worst, and simply chose to see their communities’ demise as inevitable.  By contrast, they were fed a media-driven image of us as decadent, self-indulgent, permissive, sanctimonious, and ultimately alien to their existence.

Consider a Montana Prison guard I talked to, who spoke to me of her day-to-day economic struggles.  In spite of her struggles, and her clear sense that she was being exploited, her main anger was directed at the ACLU for the defending the right of a Satan worshipper to have a cross removed from the prison chapel.  The issues of faith and religious freedom aside, to me, it seemed clear that what had happened is that in the midst of all this suffering, the issue with the cross was a kind of final indignity, and one far easier to respond to than the evil really facing her.  To fight for better wages in a struggling community against the mighty and abstract power of the state was something that seemed a bridge too far. Couple this with a media in which she exists only as caricature, if at all, and you’ll know why she, as did the majority of rural working class Montanans, voted for a man who promised a wall.

I tell you this because, for whatever you may think, if you want a society that embraces solidarity, it’s not about what you make others do–it’s what you do yourself.  You need to find the solidarity with those who you do not see and do not and hear before you can expect them to find solidarity with you.

Now you’re not in Montana, you’re in San Diego, and so perhaps before you take that trip, you might want to start with embracing solidarity at home.  Look around you and think of your community.

As a teacher, this is what I need to consider: The student who works two or three jobs, sometimes the night before class, often at companies that could afford to pay him or her better.  I need to think about the mother in my class whose son, having Asperberger’s syndrome, has had an episode at school which means she suddenly needs to leave. I need to also think about student who has left Mexico, having lost his/her father to a drug war fueled by the American demand.  And when I see how they struggle, I think of how these students, as workers, need better wages, and as parents, how they need more special ed. programs, and how as immigrants coming from dangers I cannot imagine, need understanding. What success can I have as a teacher if I, not  having enough appreciation of their struggles with an assignment, call them out for being lazy, undisciplined, or unfocused? How dare I.

As students, you should consider the people Ive mentioned to you are your classmates, or that some of what I’ve mentioned applies to you.  You should also consider that perhaps that custodian, lab tech, or librarian you see or encounter are often being asked to take on greater work duties as other employees leave and their positions are not rehired. It may explain the unclean corner, the sometimes terseness even when they try to do their best, and not without economic struggles of their own.  You should also consider that your teacher is more than likely an adjunct, and in many cases they rush from job to job on pay so low that nationwide one on four are on some kind of government assistance.  They might not be so quick with papers, so available for conferences, but they endeavor to do their best, and hope that when their children go to community college, as my son will next year, they won’t become overwhelmed with balancing work and school.

As community members, we should all consider that the struggles we face are not overcome by the embrace of policies which serve only to enrich those who already have great wealth at the expense of all workers, or the cutting of programs that help children learn and parents to gain the skills necessary to support them, or the targeting and exclusion of people based on fear.  To embrace such policies is to accept that the common state of society is to be one of alienation and anxiety.

The better way is to see the common interest in a life not driven by desperation and resentment, but by security and opportunity.  It is harkening to a solidarity that has been in the past, can become a solidarity of the present, and remain a solidarity forever.

Start now, start now, rise up and change the equation.

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