A half a century after the initial publication of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's masterwork, we're plagued by a class of folks Rand would have called moochers or looters, depending on their particular mode of moral failure. Whatever good there was to be had in Rand's writing has been twisted beyond recognition in the philosophical support of their deceit and thievery. The perpetual question in Rand's novel, Who is John Galt? has become a line delivered in a mocking tone.

   I look at our hopelessly corrupt, bankrupt financial system, our warming, drying, flooding world, our soaring unemployment, and it's clear; we're all Okies now.

   The media can prattle on about the rich 'going Galt', a reference to the builders of Rand's book and their exit from a hopeless corrupt, socialist world to a hidden valley of perfect capitalism, but I think a new question is going to take primacy:

  Who is Tom Joad?

    John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the tale of the Joad family's flight from Oklahoma and the dust bowl of the 1930s was published in 1939. The novel won a Pulitzer, a later Nobel for literature, and just a year after publication it was made into a movie by director John Ford.

   The protagonist of the novel, Tom Joad, arrives home from prison just as the Joad family is gathering themselves for a desperate run to California. The land they sharecrop is blowing away due to drought and poor management. The advent of the gasoline powered tractor has made it possible for one man to work the land of a dozen, the environmental catastrophe of the dust bowl coupled with the banking crash permits such an accumulation in the hands of but a few to occur, and a million discarded farmers drifted west, looking for a way to live.

 Joad had served a four year prison term for murder, but today we'd call it manslaughter. He was knifed in a fight at a dance and caved the other fellow's head in with a shovel. Tom's potentially violent nature comes out in a couple of episodes where he harms those harassing his family or other Okies. He does finally kill again near the end of the story at the same time that Jim Casy, a former minister who traveled with the family from Oklahoma is also slain. Enlarging upon the theme of self defense, this second killing and Casy's death are due to the injustice being heaped upon the migrant workers, who've begun to unionize in order to resist.

  The Joad family is extended – three generations, eleven members, and one of the Joad children has a spouse. Jim Casy joins them at the beginning of their adventure and they later team up with a couple from Kansas who are also headed west. The theme of collective action in the face of life challenges and injustice is strong through the whole story. The difference between life then and the hyper-individualism of today is stark; there are many homes now which have a single resident, while this decaying shack held my mother and her eight siblings during those years. The outhouse sits off to the right about twenty yards from the back door.

   So who Tom Joad, anyway? A lot of people who might never have read Steinbeck got introduced to him by Bruce Springsteen during his 1995 through 1997 Ghost of Tom Joad tour. The all acoustic one man show was a tremendous departure from Bruce and the E. Street Band. My diary title stems from the nickname fans bestowed on this tour; Springsteen had to pause frequently and 'encourage' his normally rowdy fans to provide the silence in which this performance was meant to occur.

From a suggestion in comments - there don't seem to be any videos of these performances with good quality audio. You might want to save this for while you're reading comments - the lyrics are below.

First sung fourteen years ago, Springsteen's lyrics could have been ripped from the headlines in California yesterday.

Men walkin' 'long the railroad tracks
Goin' someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin' round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin' in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin' in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
But where it's headed everybody knows
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Waitin' on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said "Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me."

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad

 I sometimes wonder what strange planet spawned our media, but maybe I'm the one from off-world. I'm one of the oldest members of generation X, but thanks to life's little quirks instead of baby boomer parents mine were depression babies; my dad was old enough to remember seeing the Grapes of Wrath movie in the theater. He was born in a clap board sided log cabin a few miles down the river from that little farm house where my mom lived, and the first experience of the outside world he and my uncles had were visits to places like Guadalcanal, Kasserine Pass, and Normandy.

 I've had a softer life than my parents' generation by far, but even so the reports of 'trouble' I see are often completely nonsensical. A couple in Omaha can't afford to keep their daughter's horse riding lessons going and they're having to skip lattes? My heart bleeds for them. The stories of people being so stressed they have to lay off the gardener and the maid ... but they never talk to the folks who actually got laid off? I'm sorry, but what freakin' planet is that transmission from?

  We're going to be, as a nation, going back to our roots. Back to what Thoreau had to say about economics. Back to the drive that lead us to victory in two world wars. Back to the perseverance in the face of all odds that carried my grandparents' generation through the Great Depression.

  And at some point someone is going to have to rip off Springsteen's line and beat our lamestream media about the head and shoulders with it. Barack Obama, our duly elected president, has begun this process, but I think it's really up to us acting in a collective fashion to carry the fight right to them, ripping away their market share and undoing the harm they've done. I see far better reporting and research on this site than I ever do in the mainstream outlets. We need to not only stay on this path but turn up the intensity – newspapers are dying due to financial turmoil and well run blogs are one means to fill the gap. And the survivors, such as they may be, can give that poor Galt fellow a rest, and Jesus too while they're at it. Both of those men would have little good to say about the conduct of our badly corrupted fourth estate.

 Who is Tom Joad?  He is many things, but I think if he were around today he'd probably be writing a little here and there about his motivations and actions. And he wouldn't be afraid to say "Shut the fuck up!" to some assrocket, say Ed Henry for example.

Originally posted to Stranded Wind on Thu Mar 26, 2009 at 07:49 PM PDT.

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