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Moats: Lending A Hand

If you’ve read “The Grapes of Wrath,” you know it’s about the epic migration in the 1930s from the Dust Bowl to California.

Hundreds of thousands of poor folk from Oklahoma and elsewhere were forced off the land by drought, debt and mechanization, heaping their belongings onto trucks and cars and heading across mountains and deserts to a place where oranges grew.

In “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck told the story of the Dust Bowl through the harrowing experiences of the Joad family.

It’s worth considering those experiences at a time when epic migrations are under way again. “Grapes of Wrath” is fictional, but the way it rings true shines a light on the reality of the migrations occurring in Europe and the Americas.

Those migrations cross borders so they create international issues the Joads didn’t encounter. But consider the reaction of the people the Joads met along the way.

A gas station operator saw the pitiful family piled into their truck and cursed them for having, as he said, “ sense and no feeling. They ain’t human,” he said. “A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.” 

People didn’t understand the poverty driving the migrants, nor their courage and ingenuity. People were afraid, and their fear became political.

Steinbeck wrote, “In the West, there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry.”

It’s easy to see the suffering of the Dust Bowl migrants as an inevitable outcome of industrialization, combined with drought — as tractors replaced tenant farmers and banks took over the land.

Get big or get out — farmers have heard those words for many years.

But if this outcome was inevitable, you can also see that it was enacted by ordinary human cruelty. Banks calling in loans, growers paying starvation wages, strikebreakers clubbing workers into submission — if these historic processes are made possible by human cruelty, then it becomes necessary to activate human compassion in response.

The Joads were reduced to living on flour and lard in one end of a box car. We kid ourselves if we don’t think conditions like these exist today.

Maybe it’s true, as one of the Joads remarks, that poor folks are more likely to lend a hand than rich folks. But we can choose which side we’re on — that of cruelty, or of compassion.

David Moats is an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
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