Originally from Kansas City, Sanders took up residence in Greenwich Village towards the end of the fifties, and among his many other activities, opened the Peace Eye Bookstore on the lower east side in the early sixties, an important center for the local counterculture. He also is the founder of the investigative poetry movement in the seventies. I pick out these points from his biography, which in truth are overshadowed by many other achievements, because they are relevant to the point at hand.
The point being one of his poems in particular, "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side," which I quoted a few lines from in my op-ed. The poem tells the story of an important chapter in the history of the United States, New York City, American politics, and the Jewish-American experience. The focus is on the first two decades of the 20th century, and the rise and fall of a democratic socialist movement spearheaded by the Jewish immigrants living on the lower east side.
The poem concludes with the failure of that movement, but its influence was felt, in part through the participants that were still alive in the postwar period, in the protest and counterculture movements of the sixties, especially as one of the main centers of the movement, as it was called back then, was in Greenwich Village and New York's lower east side. Perhaps these things run in cycles, so we're seeing a revival of that sensibility from the turn of the 20th century and mid-20th century today in the teens of our new century.
Whether that's the case or not, the poem provides a quick and easy way to understand the milieu that Bernie Sanders come from, both the politics of his parents' generation and the political movement that he took part in as a young man.
The poem also communicates in a clear and stylish manner what democratic socialism is, and was, about. Not communism, socialist dictatorships, or totalitarianism. It was about human rights, many of them rights we take for granted today, rights denied to working people at the beginning of the century. In the spirit of general semantics, it is vital to avoid having knee-jerk reactions to particular words, and instead try to understand what people really mean by them, and that includes socialism. From that perspective, it is indeed heartening to see how that term has been rescued and resuscitated in Bernie's election campaign. In the words of that great socialist president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and that is especially true when it comes to words.
So, now, I am pleased to give you two options for accessing "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side" right here and now. You can read the poem on the online Woodstock Journal that Sanders maintains, here's the link: The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side.
Or you can listen to a semi-musical recording of Sanders reading the poem, accompanied by an electronic instrument of his own invention, the Bardic Pulse Lyre. The recording was originally put out on vinyl, but there is a nice YouTube version with the printed words as the visuals, so you can enjoy the best of both
I would suggest that this poem is quite helpful in understanding where Sanders the candidate is coming from, and perhaps also why his campaign is not reducible to simply winning or losing caucuses and elections. As for Sanders the poet, over on the Woodstock Journal, as of this writing, his most recent post is a new poem entitled, One Reason Hillary Clinton Should not be President. I guess we can infer from that where he stands on the Democratic primaries...