George McGovern, 1922-2012. Will his time, the time for his ideas, ever come?

My generation is dying. That’s what happens to all of us when you reach my age. (OK, I stand corrected. It happens to all of us, period.) I was reminded of this by the Washington Post’s annual gallery of notable deaths of the year. Average age of the notables? Without doing the math, probably about my age of 80. But I’m still alive. And that’s something to think about, and enjoy.

Of this year’s, so far 66 notable deaths, number two was George McGovern, who died on Sunday, October 21st, in a Sioux Falls, S.D. hospice, located in the southeastern corner of his state, and not too far from his lifelong home in Mitchell.

Number one in the same Washington Post list of notable deaths was Russell Means, who died at 72 years, one day after George McGovern, at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D. on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in the southwestern corner of the state, near the traditional homelands (now the Black Hills “National” Forest) of his own tribe, the Oglala Sioux.

I have no idea if the two South Dakotan natives were friends, acquaintances, even knew one another, had any kind of relationship whatsoever, but they should have. For in addition to being well known public figures and Dakotans, both of them were revolutionaries in that they were throughout their lives out to change things, in particular to radically restructure, or better, fundamentally change their country’s values and attitudes regarding poverty (McGovern),  and  (Means) the American Indian, who at the present time is mostly ignored while living on reservations, that is bits and pieces of land that was at an earlier time all his, that is all the Indian’s own.

The life-long efforts of both men failed of course to change the attitudes of their fellow Americans. The country wasn’t ready. And now, and in spite of these two memorable lives, the country’s attitudes towards poverty and toward the American Indian are pretty much the same today as when the two of them began their efforts to bring about change more than half a century ago.

In the case of Russell Means the war he would wage to regain for the American Indian at least a part of his earlier grandeur was over before he even got started. Nothing he could do would restore to the American Indian any of the grandeur of his past. An earlier life, when, for example, free to roam the woods of upstate New York and the plains of the Dakotas, was no more. In fact, the some 300 or more native American Indian cultures spread throughout the land were, in just a few hundred years time shoved aside, at best into oblivion, by the coming and then the colonization of the entire country by mostly white, European settlers.

And no one, certainly not Russell Means, was going to undo what had already happened. The land had been forcibly taken from the Indian and the Indian was never going to get it back. The very best the Indian could do, and that’s what many of them have done given the force of circumstances, was to join up with those who had taken their lands, become themselves colonizers on the very land that had once been all their own. Russell Means understandably found that hard to swallow.

In the case of George McGovern, himself one of the race of settlers on the lands of the Oglala Sioux, his priorities were different. Also the changes he tried to effect in his own lifetime while not possible then, might, unlike the case of Means, at some future time still be possible. In his case only the timing of his struggle with the country’s attitudes was wrong. For the country wasn’t ready for his ideas. Perhaps he sensed this himself when, following his landslide defeat in the presidential election of 1972 he said, while attending the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner one year later: “Ever since I was a young man I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way — and I did.”

Perhaps the “worst possible way” was to want to change his country in ways that the country did not want to be changed. But unlike the return of the Indian to his lands, which was never going to happen, McGovern’s proposals to end poverty might find one day a country ready to accept them. While Russell Means was behind his times George McGovern may have been ahead of his.

And even during his own time his ideas attracted other liberal idealists like himself, including Bill and Hillary Clinton who joined up with him during the election campaign of ’72.

Already some of McGovern’s proposals, rejected in 1972, have gained acceptance. Who today would deny the rightness of his advocating immediate withdrawal from Vietnam? Or amnesty for war resisters,  or the abolition of the draft? He was right about all these. When we did finally leave Vietnam we agreed with McGovern that we should never have been there. We granted amnesty to war resisters, I think so, —in any case we should have. And we’ve done away with the draft, although there are those today who would like to see it come back.

But there were other McGovern proposals in 1972 that got little acceptance at the time and even today would probably be resisted by a majority of Americans. In fact the so called European nanny state, something McGovern would have probably supported (may have, in fact), is even today held up by politicians, especially on the Right, in order to frighten us, held up as representing a loss of our freedoms to a super state structure. And his other proposals are no less deeply resisted, —proposals such as deep cuts in the defense budget, a system of universal health care, a guaranteed job for every American, and for every American household a guaranteed income above the poverty line.

McGovern would in this manner do away with poverty with one swell swoop. He had only his own lifetime to do so and was therefore in a hurry, as are all reformers who are also revolutionaries. At the time the country smiled at him, and many laughed at his naiveté. At the time I did too. I’m not laughing now. Poverty  is still very much with us. And it may be poverty that is principally at fault in the twin scourges we now confront, that of failing schools and that of filling prisons.

So why does the country still resist McGovern’s proposals? Conventional common sense has it that you just can’t give people what they don’t have. People have to work hard, have to save and do without, in order to one day earn what they don’t have, health care and jobs and adequate income, things that to be properly appreciated need to come through people’s own efforts. For people won’t respect, won’t use well, won’t take proper care of what they’re simply given.

I’ve heard this all my life. You can give people too much, and by so doing destroy their own will and initiative to work and create for themselves. Is this true?

Don’t parents give all these things to their own children, health care, profitable occupations, such as schooling and travel, and of course food, clothing and shelter. I had all these things from my parents and was as a consequence better able to develop my own unique gifts. Why, well in good part because I didn’t have to spend my time seeking food and shelter etc.

Why do things change so drastically when we reach what age, 18 years, 22 years, for some of us who go on and on with schooling, perhaps 30 or more years? Well for those who have not grown up in poverty they will have the strength to make it on their own, and be happier for it. That I’ll concede.

But what about for the others? For those who have grown up in poverty? For those who have always lacked essential supports? Is there also a time when they should be left to make it on their own? Or should that be rather the time, as McGovern proposed, that they be given the help that they never had earlier? For many the “nanny” state may be exactly what is called for.

Otherwise, by allowing hundreds of thousands, millions of young adults, to begin their lives hungry, homeless, jobless, and without proper medical care are we thereby making them better citizens, more hard working, more entrepreneurial, better parents themselves etc. Is keeping them in poverty somehow a good thing?

If we have the means to eliminate poverty, to provide schooling, to provide housing and jobs, and if we don’t do so, can we justify our not doing so by saying that these people without help will learn what’s most important, that is, will learn to help themselves? I don’t think so, the evidence from our schools and prisons, from our prison schools, is telling us something very different.

Well so far, at least in modern times, this has never happened. Poverty has never been eliminated as George McGovern would have it, by one fell swoop. Large numbers of people are still not provided for, are left to themselves to provide for themselves, because it’s somehow best for them to do so, when they are clearly not able to do so.

The result is that we still have poverty. George McGovern, who sat on top of the largest granary the world has ever known, always knew that if government had any essential role to play it was to use its grain, and its other riches, if possible, in order to do away with hunger and need and other such. And for these ideas in the election of 1972 he lost the electoral votes of 49 of 50 states. When will McGovern’s time come?

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