fresh voices from the front lines of change







The President’s plane touched down at Tuscaloosa Regional Airport at 10 am this morning, local time.

That’s Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA.

These are the moments that bring us together as a nation, and as people. Just like 9/11 did, before people used it to divide us. I lost friends when those planes struck the towers near my old office. We felt love and support from every part of the country back then. Hopefully the people of Alabama feel ours today. We are so sorry for your loss.

Back then the country singer Alan Jackson, who has his share of fans around Tuscaloosa, asked: “Where were you when the world stopped turning? Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer, and look at yourself and (at) what really matters?”

What really matters. We spend so much time vilifying one another that it takes a tragedy to bring us together. As bitterly divided as we get, most of us still care for each other in time of need. When President Bush spoke from the rubble of the World Trade Center, it seemed in that moment that he spoke for all of us – even those of us who questioned the way he became President. When President Obama came to Alabama, the hand he offered was our hand. The help he’s sending comes through the government, but it comes from us. That’s all a government really is, when democracy’s working: It’s just us. So hold on, Alabama. Your country’s here for you.

People say that it takes a tragedy to bring us together, but maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it takes a tragedy to remind us that we’re always together.

Alabama’s Governor, Robert Bentley, upset a lot of people when he took office by saying that people who weren’t Christians weren’t his brothers and sisters. “”So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”

That ticked some people off. The President of the American Atheists said it was “outrageous” and added. “He is a governor, not a mullah.” That’s a reasonable reaction, but so’s this one: Aw, that’s just how those born agains talk. I had cousins like that. When the Governor says he wants to be my brother, that’s evangelical talk for wanting me to join his church. But I’ve got news for him: He’s already my brother. He may not find me in the next pew, but we’re brothers. And another brother came this morning to tell him the whole family’s here.

Now, Governor Bentley’s a Republican and, like most Republicans, he’d rather cut government spending than raise taxes. And in the tradition of Dixie politicians from time immemorial, he pretty much told Uncle Sam to go hang in his inaugural address: “I will defend our right to govern ourselves, under our own laws and to make our own decisions without federal interference,” he said.

Yesterday he asked for emergency federal assistance. A person could get indignant, I guess. Last time they did a study, Alabama was getting $1.71 in Federal money for every $1.00 it pays in Federal taxes. And interference was very much called for back in the civil rights days. But Alabama’s hurting, and now’s not the time to quarrel with my brother the Governor. Besides, I’m not indignant. If they get more money than we do, it’s because they need it. That’s the way a good government works. We all pay what’s fair, and if someone else needs more help they get it. The Governor did the right thing by asking for our help yesterday. I’m glad he did, and I’m glad we can give it.

What’s more, I respect Gov. Bentley, despite our differences. He wants to cut the state budget by 15%, but he laid out some ground rules in his first State of the State address: “Medicaid, which provides health care to approximately one million children, elderly and disabled people, must be protected.” He also said that he wouldn’t lay off any teachers or shorten the school year. If you insist on labeling everything as “left” or “right,” that puts him to the left of a lot of Democrats in Washington. And politics aside, it makes him a decent man.

I do hope the Governor asks his Republican colleagues in Congress to think twice about their vote to cut funding for the agencies that protect people from violent storms. But he’s my brother either way.

Besides, as a former musician, I have a special place in my heart for Alabama. Aretha, Otis Redding, Bobby Womack, Percy Sledge … they all recorded in Muscle Shoals. Hank Williams was from Montgomery. The Louvin Brothers came from Henagar, up in the mountains. Their innovative brother harmonies influenced the Everlys, and through them the Beatles. Arthur Alexander was born in Sheffield, and he was the only songwriter who ever hit the rock and roll trifecta: His songs were recorded by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. The great and too-often overlooked Eddie Hinton was from right there in Tuscaloosa.

And let’s not forget Lynyrd Skynyrd. Once I was dating someone interesting – very interesting – and I took her to see Skynyrd and ZZ Top. I could tell by the look in her eyes she was having second thoughts about me. Really? Southern rock? But then Skynyrd started playing and she was yelling just as loud as as those bottle blondes in the tight stars-and-bars t-shirts …

(Did somebody just yell “Free Bird”? Go ahead, wiseguy, but they’re great. And you’re damn right I married her. You don’t let one like that get away.)

Why talk about music in an hour of tragedy? Because music’s an expression of the heart, and our hearts can be close even when our politics aren’t. Lynyrd Skynyrd likes to attack liberals in general, and President Obama in particular, with songs like “God and Guns” and “That Ain’t My America.” I know, I know. But doesn’t everybody fight with their brothers sometimes?

Rebecca Solnit wrote a book called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Solnit described our response to catastrophes this way in an interview: “The great majority of people are calm, resourceful, altruistic or even beyond altruistic, as they risk themselves for others. We improvise the conditions of survival beautifully. People rescue each other. They build shelters and community kitchens and ways to deal with lost children and eventually rebuild …”

Pulling together can even bring economic benefits. Some people were surprised when the Japanese yen strengthened against the US dollar last week. But economists were already predicting that the Japanese economy would rebound and become even stronger because of government spending to rebuild. Do we need to learn that lesson the hard way, too? We’re still in a financial disaster. We’d all be better off if we made more of an effort to rebuild from it. And if our hearts break for those who lost their homes to a whirlwind, can’t we feel something for those who lost their homes for other reasons?

It’s not about economics, of course. It’s about us. If we can respond this way when tragedy strikes, then isn’t that who we really are? This generosity of spirit must be inside us every day. One purpose of government is to express our inward generosity while we’re busy going about our daily lives. Government can represent our best selves, our bond, our spirit.

The Bible says God spoke to Job from a whirlwind. I’m no expert, but I think the message was that sometimes things must be accepted rather than understood, because there are limits to our human understanding: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? … while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” It’s heartbreaking to read of the deaths, to search for meaning in the wreckage. But even when we can’t understand, we can help.

I’ve never heard the morning stars singing together, but I’ve heard the Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams and Arthur Alexander and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’m grateful that my President and my government were there to offer my hand in brotherhood when I was so many miles away.

Where were you when the world stopped turning on 9/11? You were in lower Manhattan, as the head of your government stood in the ruins and spoke for you. Where were you when the winds ripped through Tuscaloosa? Your plane touched down at 10 am this morning.


This post was written for the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign.

Paid your taxes already? Thank you. If you’d like to do more to help, try donating to the Alabama Red Cross. And let’s not forget the victims in other states. The governor of Mississippi, the one who ticks me off so much, arranged for donations to be made here; hope he collects a million bucks. The local Salvation Army seems like the best bet for Georgia.

Mississippi gave us the blues – the blues! It gave us John Hurt and BB King. And Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, both of them, which means it gave us rock and roll too. Georgia gave us James Brown, Johnny Mercer, the Allman Brothers, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Travis Tritt, and our old friend Alan Jackson. And all three states gave us writers like William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald …

Here’s a sampler of fine Alabama music you can listen to while you’re donating. Like the man on the record says: Turn it up!

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