Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Pete Seeger: 'My Name is Liza Kalvelage'

I've spent a lot of the last two days listening to "A Link in the Chain," a two-CD collection of Pete Seeger songs. It's an amazing collection, sometimes hilarious, sometimes inspiring, sometimes innocent fun, and often challenging.

One of the songs that's been haunting me is "My Name is Liza Kavelage." The song -- and it's really more of a singsong delivery, rather than a song proper -- is a true first-person account of a woman who grew up in Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States after the war.

Here in the United States, she was repeatedly asked, "Where were you when the Nazis were doing all those horrible things? Why didn't you stop them?" She found that saying, "I was only a child, no more than a teenager" wasn't enough; her questioners wanted to know where her parents had been.

And so, Kavelage was burdened with national guilt, a phenomenon that is unfamiliar to many Americans. She came to realize that there was no explanation for her parents' presumed silence, nor for anyone else's, and in 1966, she decided that once in her life was enough to bear the guilt of a nation's silence in the face of its government's actions.

She and three other housewives went to a factory that was manufacturing napalm bombs for use in the Vietnam War, and protested. More than protested, actually; they got in the way of the workers, and ended up being arrested.

To that point, peace protesters largely had been teenagers and hippies. The arrest of four housewives changed the picture dramatically, and made them an instant media sensation.

In the statement that become the basis for Seeger's song, Kavelage essentially said, "I want my children to have an answer when they are asked what their mother did when she saw her government committing an injustice." She made the news again six years ago, when she protested the Iraq War, despite her age. (She was 80 at the time.)

It makes me think, mostly because it makes me uncomfortable.

My parents were both born in 1940, which means they grew up during McCarthyism and saw the 1960s in all its glory and shame. Mom and Dad have never really talked about duck-and-cover drills, loyalty oaths, Freedom Riders, draft dodgers, nor any of the other hallmarks of two very interesting decades.

Perhaps I shouldn't make rash presumptions about what they did in the 1960s, but the truth is, I don't know what they were doing while the Civil Rights was transforming America, nor how they felt about U.S. intervention in Vietnam. (Since my father was stationed in Panama after college because of his ROTC commitment, I would speculate that they at least tacitly supported it.)

But I don't know. My mother has said previously that she had heard of neither Seeger nor the song "We Shall Overcome," which I have to admit doesn't bode well for their social consciousness during the 1960s. Where were my folks when a lot of their peers were trying to make the world a better place? I don't know. (I am certain that they weren't involved with the destructive outlets of the 1960s, though.)

More to the point, though, what will my children be able to say 20 or 30 years from now, when their children ask them where I was while the United States was torturing prisoners, holding people without a trial, denying gays the right to marry, and kicking people out of their homes when the economy had gone sour while bailing out the businesses and people who had made it go sour?

What will they say when asked where I was when anti-immigrant sentiment surged, and we saw the bitter flower "English only" begin to bloom, or when Muslims and Arabs were viewed with suspicion as likely terrorists?

Where was I?

Guilty as charged.

I like Seeger's music quite a lot. It is simple and easy on the ear, but its folksy sound should never be mistaken for easy listening. In his music I hear the ironic voice of God speaking prophetically about the state of our country, our attitudes and our values. I look at the life I have lived so far, and find that the world has changed me more than I have changed it, and find that it changes me more every year. As revelations go, this is not a pleasant one.

I am running for re-election to the school board this year. I have determined that when I give my speech, I will give it in both English and Spanish, without the aid of a translator, even if I make a fool of myself. I don't think it's necessary to speak English to be a good American, and I hope that even if I mangle their language in the process, our Hispanic parents will understand that I want to connect with them where they have the home advantage.

I am fishing for a suitable way to be heard concerning the other issues mentioned. Particularly in matters of economic injustice, like the rescue of multibillion-dollar businesses and their CEOs while homeowners are left to eat the rotten fruit  of a predatory economy, I believe we can no longer play by the rules that we inherited. There are deeper truths set down to guide us, and we must find them.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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