Ira Smolensky   


This land is our land . . . (what Carl Sandburg was and we are)


         Carl Sandburg College’s commencement ceremony last week was notable for many reasons.  On the most basic level, it represented an important step forward for the 300 or so students who were graduated.  Many will now go on to four year schools in order to pursue a Bachelor’s degree.  Others will leave the world of higher education to pursue careers in the medical field, criminal justice, automotive repairs, or numerous other areas where there is a need for well-trained, dependable practitioners.

         In short, the sweet smell of success was in the air.  It showed in the demeanor of the graduates, some of whom floated across the stage in a state of full euphoria.  It could also, I’m sure, be discerned in the hearts of those faculty members who got all goose bumply (and maybe even teary eyed) as their charges left the nest, anxious to embark on their next adventure.

         Also notable was the commencement address given by Ms. Helga Sandburg Crile, author, poet, and the youngest daughter of Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), for whom the College is named.  Born and raised in Galeburg, Carl Sandburg was a very prominent American writer.  In addition, to being one of our nation’s greatest poets, he wrote a best- selling, multi-volume biography of Abe Lincoln, one that is still read.  And, as Ms. Sandburg Crile reminded her audience in passing, Carl Sandbug was a socialist.  Indeed, she recounted that he met his wife (Ms. Sandburg Crile’s mother) at a socialist meeting.

         Of course, socialism is a naughty word nowadays in the U.S.  The term never was very popular here.  Nevertheless, no matter what we have called it, the socialist impulse has played an important role in shaping U.S. history and politics.  Without it, we would not have Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and, not least, community colleges such as Carl Sandburg.  Indeed, higher education in general would not be nearly as open to ordinary Americans as it is without huge government subsidies.  In addition, it is quite possible that the free market, capitalist components of our mixed economy would have perished without these and other socialist accommodations designed to foster more equal opportunities and outcomes.

         That is not the way a lot of us like to think of ourselves.  They see the Cold War as having ended in the triumph of the free market over collectivism in all its forms.  But that’s not what we are.  Ours is a complex mixed system in which market dynamics have great sway, but which cannot be accurately understood without properly noting the ways in which government ameliorates the “creative destruction” of the marketplace.

         It is a failure to understand what we actually are that leads to phenomena such as the gutting of FEMA by the current Bush administration and similar results with the EPA and HUD during the Reagan administration.  Likewise, it is selective self-understanding that encourages the World Bank and IMF to impose draconian economic measures on debtor nations, not understanding that the social and political costs of these measures will often neutralize potential economic gains (or even make things worse).

         Remembering what Carl Sandburg was and what we are also may give us a better perspective on the issue of illegal immigration.  Whether you come at it from a socialist or a biblical perspective, the truth of the matter is that earth is not the dominion of the wealthy and powerful.  It belongs to all of us or none of us.  Our immigration problem (to the extent there really is one) flows from the fact that we have not spread our bounty quickly or fairly enough to avoid conditions of extreme need.  That is something we should be working on with at least the same urgency that we apply to the so-called war on terror.

         As Carl Sandburg knew, when we sing, “this land is our land, this land is your land . . .” we are not talking about a deed-holding landed gentry armed with impregnable property rights and backed by a swarm of lawyers.  We are talking about all classes and nationalities of people, and, most of all, those in need.