(Managing Editor’s note: Paul Buhle is one of the foremost historians of American radicalism and the American Left. He has also edited 12 comic art books including Yiddishkeit and is the editor of the comic project at www.BernieSandersComics.com. This week we will be running a series of blog posts by Buhle on Tikkun Daily about Bernie Sanders, comics, and the 2016 presidential election. With each post we will also be publishing comic art from he and other artists involved in the www.BernieSandersComics.com project. Today’s comic is from Buhle and Gary Dumm. Tikkun does not, and cannot, endorse or oppose candidates or political parties. We have published a variety of perspectives about the 2016 election and are actively seeking articles, comics, and other publishable work in support of any and all candidates for the U.S. presidency and from any political party. The views expressed in the posts and comics are the author’s and/or artist’s alone.)
Debs, FDR, and Martin Luther King, Jr: these three, far more than any others, excited idealistic expectations of progress-minded Jewish Americans in the twentieth century. Norman Thomas could be added for that moment, of his Socialist Party campaign in the 1932 presidential election, when it looked like he would get a million votes and perhaps save a Depression-wracked nation. Roosevelt got most of the would-be socialistic votes instead, and with the Second New Deal, three years later, fostered the famous witticism on the three worlds of American Jews: Diese Velt (this world), Yene Velt (the next world) and …Roosevelt!
But for those old enough to remember, the memories of Debs remained. An ancient old-timer, recalling his most vivid memory growing up in the blue-collar Jewish neighborhood of the 1920s, told me he could still see in his mind’s eye, in 1980, the day Debs’ death was announced in the papers. “People were crying on the streets.” The next year, in Fontana, California, at a Slovenian old folks home, I interviewed a 98-year-old woman who was a former union organizer of hat makers. She was now in a bed, hardly moving, and mostly senile, but there was a memory that kept returning, in the repeated phrase, “GENE DEBS HELD MY BABY!” She grabbed my arm as she said this: the experience of a lifetime.
Indeed. In photos of crowds with Debs speaking, young parents typically held up their children so they could, later in life, remember that shining moment. This last summer, when a crowd of 10,000 in Madison, Wisconsin, broke the virtual press boycott on covering Bernie Sanders as more than a fringe candidate, I was stunned to see the same phenomenon. I’ve seen it again in photos of street events with Bernie making an appearance. A friend of mine, parent of an 11- year-old boy in New York, told me that his son had been watching Bernie on television for weeks, with mounting excitement. The two traveled to the South Bronx together and were disappointed, the boy bitterly disappointed, to be only part of the overflow. And then, as they were leaving for the subway, Bernie’s car came around the block, hesitated, and Bernie looked at them and waved (as he did to so many thousands of others that day). The day was made: a memory that would last, perhaps for a lifetime, recast also as something more personal, as we all do in our memories.
Whoever heard MLK in person, or for that matter on a television news segment, would be likely to say the same, of course, but let us focus a little on Debs and Bernie. Eugene Victor Debs, a locomotive engineer from Terre Haute, Indiana, son of free thinking French-born parents who named him after authors Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo, was already a legend in the 1890s when he led a solidarity strike, for the besieged workers in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, a strike that spread across the Western states with almost perfect nonviolence and the immense idealism of human as well as class solidarity. Imprisoned, he converted to socialism. By 1900, the first time he ran for president, his Terre Haute friend and leading American sentimental poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote a lyric for the campaign, with a Hoosier “Injiana” twang:
And there’s ‘Gene Debs – a man ‘at stands
And jest holds out in his two hands
As warm a heart as ever beat
Betwixt here and the Jedgement Seat.
Debs was often viewed as secular saint, a hundred or perhaps a thousand years ahead of his time. His martyrdom sealed the image in history: arrested after a speech in Ohio in 1917, opposing U.S. entry into the First World War, he was convicted and sent to prison by the ostensibly liberal but emphatically hawkish Woodrow Wilson administration. Nearly a million Americans gave the unjustly imprisoned Debs their vote for President in 1920, an action unknown before or since. Prison broke his health, as it was perhaps expected to do, and he died from heart problems he experienced there.
No American politician in office, for generations, so venerated Debs as did the young Bernie Sanders. Certainly none thought to put on a record, in the voice of a later socialist, i.e., Sanders himself, the words of Debs for listeners of younger generations to listen and understand.
Bernie’s presidential campaign, whatever its outcome, has done more to bring back the idea of “socialism,” by any definition at hand, than efforts over three quarters of a century. Despite his apparent (and avowed) secularism, there is a spiritual affect to his message and the way it is heard. The incident of a bird landing on his podium in Portland, and his evocation, “No more war!” had more than a touch of the Biblical Dove. Immediately, memes placed Bernie as a modern St. Francis of Assisi – in harmony with nature and all the deity’s creatures – with the Jewish candidate’s visage replacing the original.
It is no wonder that many thousands of young Jews, as well as young Gentiles, view him with something more than admiration. He has opened their hopes to an escape from the downward cycle that has marked so many ordinary younger Americans’ experiences for something like forty years.
Bernie the secular saint, like Debs before him? Perhaps not, but secular saints are created, in the popular mind for what they symbolize even more than for who they are personally or even for what they manage to do. Today’s Bernie Sanders, in his ongoing campaign, with “honesty” and “integrity” polling as the chief virtues separating him from other candidates, unmistakably evokes redemption, the possibility of redemption. This evocation is not so different from Gene Debs’ a century ago.
Or so it seems to this historian of the American Left.
Paul Buhle has been a contributor to Tikkun for more than twenty years.
Gary Dumm, a longtime collaborator with the late Harvey Pekar, has contributed to many anthologies, including Students for a Democratic Society (as principal artist), The Beats, A Graphic Adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working, and Yiddishkeit.
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