In the world of psychology and literature, stream of consciousness is a technique used to convey the flowing and perhaps even rambling way that our minds connect thoughts and past experiences. The same technique can be applied to the world of history. As this blogger has expressed on numerous occasions, the events of today can be seen as reflections of past events. In effect, it is a stream of history. For those who are unaware of past events, the echoes or rhymes are not discernible – leaving such people bereft of the instructive possibilities of the past. For those who are aware of past events, the possible connections between events can be diffuse and sometimes surprising. This month’s History Rhyme will attempt to take you into this blogger’s mind the see how the current change of power in the United States Senate can be tied to the songs of an (unfortunately) obscure poet/singer from the 1970s, whose topics and observations are still very relevant to today.
We begin our journey with a February 2, 2015 article by Lauren Fox in the National Journal entitled “This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year.” A regular reader of this blog may have noticed that I live in the state of Iowa and have commented about Iowa political figures from time-to-time (e.g. “The First of Many,” “The Right Thing To Do” & “The Will of the People”). So, the fact that my senior senator is now the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee naturally caught my attention. Despite the optimistic title, the article notes that Senator Charles “Chuck” Grassley is not in line with the current ideas of his party in regards to criminal sentencing laws. The Republican Party is moving away from its stronger “tough on crime” views. Despite the fact that American prisons are bursting with people serving long sentences for minor drug crimes (up to 42% of the federal prison population) and who are disproportionately black males, Grassley still is a strong adherent to the traditional Republican view that a touch stance on crime is needed and stated in May 2014 that “current mandatory minimum sentences play a vital role in reducing crime.”
The story of my senator opposing reduction on mandatory sentences started the river of thoughts flowing in my mind which led me to remember how in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were strongly advocating a “war on drugs” from which many of the sentencing guidelines mentioned above spawned. As I do often when a topic makes a link to a memory, I went online to see if my mind remembered things correctly or whether I might have (to quote Roger Clemens) “mis-remembered” what happened. My search led me to an earlier “war” by an American president about which I had previously known very little – Richard Nixon’s “war on crime.” Considering what we now know of Nixon and his tendency to skirt the rules (to put it mildly), this interest in crime seems ironic since he was later pardoned for all crimes by President Gerald Ford on September 8, 1974. However, in the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, crime was a very important issue that helped him become president and for the Republican party to emerge triumphant in that multitudinous era.
Examining the policies and speeches of President Nixon on the issues of crime and his later pardon, drew my mind to a spoken introduction to a 1975 song entitled “We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis)” by the poet/singer Gil Scott-Heron.i In this song, Scott-Heron expresses his disgust for the way that Nixon was pardoned while many poor, black men were going to prison for minor offenses with no hope of pardon when he says: “We beg your pardon America. Somebody said ‘brother-man gonna break a window, gonna steal a hubcap, gonna smoke a joint, brother man gonna go to jail.’ The man who tried to steal America is not in jail. Get caught with a nickel bag brother-man, get caught with a nickel bag, sister-lady on your way to get your hair fixed. You’ll do Big Ben, and Big Ben is time. But the man who tried to fix America will not do time.”
The connection of the pardon of Nixon and the song by Gil Scott-Heron leads us to the final stop on the journey through my thoughts. It is with an effort to help more people to become familiar with more of Scott-Heron’s songs (most in collaboration with flutist Brian Jackson). He has been somewhat forgotten as time as passed and I think that is a loss for those who want their music to have some social relevance. His songs covered a wide variety of topics that are remarkably relevant to today. Besides “We Beg Your Pardon,” songs like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Winter In America,” and “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” deal with racial problems. Topics like materialism, illegal immigration, and substance abuse are covered in the songs “Madison Avenue,” “Alien (Hold On To Your Dream), ” and “The Bottle.” The only major way his songs diverge from the activist perspective of today (which I confess still has me puzzled) is that he was strongly opposed to nuclear power while more and more in the modern environmental movement seem to have come to terms with the problems of nuclear power. Examples of songs expressing his views on the topic are “Shut ‘Um Down” and his excellent telling of the time in 1966 when “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Unfortunately, Scott-Heron was eventually a victim of substance abuse too and it shortened his career and, in 2011, his life. Hopefully after reading this month’s blog, you too might help him to be remembered and appreciated by future Americans who are looking for music with a meaning.