Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Eugene Debs - Terre Haute’s Own

[gary daily col. 38 Oct. 20, 2002]

“While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element , I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” - Eugene Debs

There are some women and men in American history whose stories can never be told too often. Their contributions to our society remain fresh in meaning, inexhaustible in significance, and unfailing in their capacity to inspire. One such person is Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926).

Debs grew up and lived in Terre Haute throughout his eventful life. He was a labor organizer, a spellbinding orator in support of workers, and the Socialist Party presidential candidate in five elections. His last campaign was in 1920. It was conducted from the confines of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary where he was incarcerated for his opposition to World War I. The Debs campaign button that year simply proclaimed: “For President - Convict 9653.” Nearly one million citizens voted for Gene Debs. They knew he was a man devoted to their interests and dreams.

Gene Debs’ life and work were larger than the times in which he lived. He still speaks to those who will listen on the issues of politics, inequality and justice. Here are some thoughts he might express today if he could step out on the porch of his home at 451 N. 8th Street and answer reporters’ questions. I emphasize, “might express.” Debs is not with us and so we are deprived of the intelligent passion that he alone could bring to the problems we face today. [All quotes are from Debs’ writings and speeches. For committed scholarship and more of Debs’ words of commitment, read Gentle Rebel: Letters of Eugene Debs edited by J. Robert Constantine.]

Q. Mr. Debs, how would you assess the political climate in this country today?

Debs. “Beware of capitalism’s politicians and preachers! They are the lineal descendants of the hypocrites of old who all down the ages have guarded the flock in the name of patriotism and religion and [then] turn[ed] the sheep over to the ravages of the wolves.”

Q. Do you feel the Democratic Party, as represented by people such as the current Democratic Senator from Indiana, Evan Bayh, deserve the support of the American worker?

Debs. “The ‘middle-of-the-road’ element will be sorely disappointed when the votes are counted, and they will probably never figure in another national campaign.”

Q. Today the voters and the media put great emphasis on the image and “charisma” of candidates for high office. Many historians describe you as a charismatic figure. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Debs. I can only say what I said in 1910: "Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come, he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.”

Q. Republicans, along with most Democrats, emphasize the forces of the market economy and competition as the solution to society’s ills. Any comment?

Debs. “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful, to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

Q. When these kinds of ideas are raised today, President Bush and some Democrats cry out, “class warfare” and hold up “rags to riches” stories of workers in America. Your response?

Debs. “It is true that one in ten thousand may escape from his class and become a millionaire; he is the rare exception that proves the rule. The wage workers . . . produce and perish, and their exploited bones mingle with the dust.”

Q. Crime and the prison system are on American minds today. Having been in prison, what are your thoughts on the justice system in America?

Debs. “There is something wrong in this country; the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through . . .”

Q. Today 1 percent of the population own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. That figure will rise with the recently enacted Bush tax cut which favors the rich. What are your views on these apparent inequalities?

Debs. I see such obscene inequalities of wealth as, "The savings of many in the hands of one."

Q. Finally, what words do you have for those in the country today who feel they have no program to implement, no prospects for change?

Debs. "If it had not been for the discontent of a few fellows who had not been satisfied with their conditions, you would still be living in caves. Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization. Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation."

In 1962, the Eugene V. Debs home was saved and the Debs Foundation created. Next weekend women and men from all walks of life and from every corner of this country and from abroad will be in Terre Haute to attend the annual Debs Award Banquet. Julian Bond, the current Chairperson of the NAACP and an individual with a distinguished career as an activist, public servant and teacher, will receive the coveted Debs Award.

On this fortieth anniversary of the saving of the Debs home, all of Terre Haute owes hearty congratulations to the founding members of the Debs Foundation. In 1962 they recognized with Gene Debs that, “Progress is born of agitation.”

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