Public Comment

Letter to the Heartland from California

Harvey Smith
Friday November 25, 2016 - 01:20:00 PM

I am a White guy writing from California to all of you White people in the middle of the United States. The two parties of the 1% have managed to separate us into two evenly divided blocks. I’ve been to your part of country so just in case you haven’t been here I’d like to take the time to introduce you to my region. 

I want to say first I know you folks out there are problem solvers. To the hard hats, let me say I’ve worked construction so I know every day on a job you may have plans in hand, but they leave out a lot and you have to figure it out. To those of you in farm and ranching country, I am also a horse rancher and know that baling twine, baling wire and duct tape come in handy for making a clever quick fix. You have to use what’s at hand and think of novel ways to repair stuff - what is sometimes referred to as “hick technology.” I started working on cars as a young man and learned too, like every shade tree mechanic, there are solutions to seemingly unsolvable mechanical problems. 

I also know you have mothers and perhaps some sisters you deeply respect. You’ve picked up some values at your house of worship and/or through your elders. So what happened that you did not apply this knowledge and respect, these lessons and ways of thinking to problems in our communities and in our nation? 

Let me put this in the form of a story… 

The snake oil salesman rolls into the town of Lake Charles, Louisiana with his horse and wagon. (I say Lake Charles, but it could be almost any other town.) The snake oil salesman pulls up to a busy corner and starts his pitch. A woman comes by whose family has a gap in health insurance coverage. She is taken by the huckster’s pompadour, his red tie and his shiny label pin. His way of speaking is somehow assuring. Her whole family is suffering from various ailments due to the heavy pollution in the area. The pitch is convincing, and she buys a bottle of the magic elixir. She soon discovers that her family’s symptoms don’t get better, but they all actually get worse. She asks her neighbors, who also bought bottles, how they are doing and she gets the same story. What do they all do? Blame the snake oil salesman or their own gullibility? No, they all blame his horse! 

Now we must ask - did we get hustled again? Like a broken piece of machinery, it takes some problem solving and systemic thinking to fix our political system. If the machine breaks down, yelling slogans at it will not get it running. Calling it names will not repair it. Snake oil will not help. 

During this election cycle nobody – the political parties, the candidates, the media - disputed the fact that our nation now has the biggest gap in income since the Gilded Age, which was over one hundred years ago. Granted our choice was either for an actual member of the 1% or for a person who is a shill for the 1%. In the end our choice for president was between two candidates who played the system from one side or the other. However, we did get to vote for either a candidate who scapegoated and demeaned people or one who did not. 

Some say that fear of the other or stone cold racism is at the root of the election result. We have been warned about succumbing to fear before. Let me tell you from my vantage point in California we have nothing to fear about folks that don’t look like us. 

Let me share another story… 

I was in East Oakland the other day. Some folks shun it as dangerous, but it is actually a vibrantly wonderful community although beset with some problems related to lack of decent income, housing, education and health care. I’m hungry so I stop at a Vietnamese noodle restaurant. Obviously it is run by immigrants, but I don’t know how recent. The clientele is perhaps half Vietnamese. The rest consist of a couple of Chicano bikers, a couple of FedEx workers on their lunch break – one an Asian woman, the other a Black man, a Mexican-American family. I know the neighborhood. Around the corner and down the block is a Native American community center. 

This is a community we all inhabit together. We share each other’s food and culture. My life would certainly be much less rich without Vietnamese, Pakistani, Italian, Turkish, Afghan, French, Mexican, Burmese, Indian food… I could go on. Surely if we can come together around a table, we can see the possibility of the beauty of cultural exchange, of learning from each other. Despite the nay-sayers, being American is about welcoming and then enjoying the flavor of another culture. This does not take from us; it adds to the richness of the interwoven strands of our community’s fabric. Knowledge and experience of “the other” goes a long way in establishing respect and building tolerance. To most of us in California this seems like a basic value. 

The weather is moderate in California, and unfortunately our major cities are now overrun with many homeless people. They sometimes walk the street spewing epithets or nonsense. Some are veterans, and some have personality disorders or mental health issues. Young urban dwellers think homelessness is normal because they have never known anything else. I am old enough to know there was a time that the homeless were not a feature of our city streets, that the homeless merely need a job or a home or mental health care. 

However, I wish I could say that someone with a personality disorder did not find a job and a home at the White House. We’ll now have four years to deal with reality TV as reality, four years to ponder our values, our respect for difference, and our involvement in fixing the ship of state. 


Here is a link to my recent book - Here are links to the National New Deal Preservation Association and The Living New Deal. Please take a look and if you like what you see, sign up to receive occasional updates. I hope you’ll join us in pushing for a New New Deal! and See the latest enewsletter - - or previous enewsletter - 

Harvey Smith is author of Berkeley and the New Deal. He has advocated for public policy at the city, county, state and federal level. He has worked as an educator, public health worker and researcher, radio journalist, horse rancher and union carpenter. He has been an activist on health care and educational issues and has fought the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service.