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March 4, 2014

Keep on the Sunny Side

Minimum outrage

Seventy-one percent of Americans, including 52 percent of Republicans, support raising the minimum wage to at least $9 an hour. What does it mean for our system of government when a clear majority of the population favors a policy, yet our elected representatives refuse to implement it? Who’s in charge here, anyway?

This sorry state of affairs needn’t diminish our tendency to roam the earth extolling citizens of other countries to embrace the miracle of the democratic process. The situation America finds itself in is not an indictment of democracy; it’s a demonstration of its efficiency. We have elected the government we deserve.

The working-class in this country have been consistently voting against their own interests for decades. Fundamentalist Christians obsessed with other people’s sexy time are laughably easy targets for political strategists. People who in previous generations might have been helped by trade unions now seek to destroy them. A tendency to favor the rights of the unborn over those who haven‘t been born again, a paralyzing fear of falling further down the economic ladder and a distressing deference towards the rich have combined to form a real dream date of a voting block.

Add to that some shitty public schools and a maniacal desire to stockpile military-grade weapons in your rumpus room, and you’ve got a minimum-wage worker who voted for Mitt Romney — out of ignorance, bigotry or a Powerball-fueled fantasy that someday they, too, might need an elevator for their Lamborghini. So it would be smart to make sure a favorable tax climate is already in place.

“WWPSD?” What would Pete Seeger do? Seeger died on Jan. 27. He was 94. Music was his weapon against greed and oppression. He was a great string-bean of a man, armed with nothing but a banjo, a loud tenor voice and an endless supply of songs from around the world: labor songs, love songs, anti-war and anti-poverty songs, songs of hope, songs of outrage, some very silly songs and some very sad lullabies. Seeger was on the front lines of political struggle for more than 70 years.

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” written by Pete Seeger, is one of the saddest songs in the world. I was a kid during the Vietnam War, when the song was written. The cedar chest where my mom kept extra blankets made an amazing pretend coffin. I would lie in there with the lid shut, imagining I was a dead soldier and singing that song over and over. The lyrics are circular, like an infinite riddle. WWPSD? Really.

Writing songs about politics is so much more fraught than writing about how awesome it’s gonna be when we finally hook up. I dream of someday writing an irresistibly catchy tune about income inequality, but it’s really hard! Maybe I should start small, like introducing glass and aluminum recycling to the classic country drinking song.

Earnestness is a blunt instrument, and most protest songs just aren’t that great. The best ones have the satisfying click of puzzle pieces falling into place. They make you feel like you’re part of the story and can inspire you to do great things, or at least stop doing so many shitty things. Woody Guthrie’s songs will yank you up short and drop you straight down into someone else’s worn-out shoes. “If You Ain’t Got the DO RE MI,” it’s time to dust off some Dust Bowl Ballads.

We need more songs that are just pissed-off, not resigned or hopeful. Florence Reece’s 1931 masterpiece “Which Side Are You On?” defies the specificity of its Harlan County setting. It is universal and the question she was asking is for everyone.

There may be a reason for not raising the minimum wage, but it’s not the one Republicans are claiming. The reason is greed. If Walmart, whose ruling family has more money than the bottom 40 percent of the entire population of the United States, can’t afford to pay its workers a living wage, maybe buying politicians has just gotten too expensive!

Catherine Irwin is a songwriter living in Louisville. And $7.25 an hour is not a living wage. Let’s fix this. If not now, when?