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Thomas Steinbeck

Thomas Steinbeck is a photographer and an author. He is the son of John Steinbeck.

September 27th, 2010 1:40 PM

John Steinbeck, Michael Moore, and the Burgeoning Role of Planetary Patriotism

My father, John Steinbeck, was a man who held human history in great reverence, and in particular the biographies of those people who had risked their lives, their fortunes, and their worldly honor to defend the rights and prerogatives of those who were powerless to defend themselves. Under his guidance I read Herodotus and Thucydides before I got around to “Wind in the Willows.”

My father valued patriotism above all other social obligations, but he had his own particular interpretation of just how true patriotism was meant to function. His definition was directly geared to a socio-political axiom of his own invention, and I knew it by heart by the time I was seven years old. He said, “If the solution to a problem of absolute disagreement extends to a call for bloodshed, then neither party has demonstrated the intelligence to formulate the question properly.” He also liked to affirm that only poets and composers should be made ambassadors. According to Steinbeck, most political placemen have neither the wit, nor compassion for such a profound responsibility that so desperately requires both.

With this in mind, the Steinbeck Award points to examples of American patriots who have made an indelible impact on our culture, and even influenced the core sense of ourselves on a worldwide plane. And they have all come to us with two rare qualities in common that are quite unique for human beings. First, they are all artists, poets, composers, writers, singers, playwrights, and so forth, and secondly, none of the award recipients to date has ever drawn blood over a bad review. On the contrary, as true patriots they have been willing, and morally well braced to endure, not only rank and file criticism, but also broad disdain, public ridicule, numerous slanders of every hue, and in some cases even physical violence. From my father’s point of view, without a thought for self, a true patriot stands up against the stones of condemnation, and speaks for those who are given no real voice in the halls of justice, or the halls of government. By doing so these people will naturally become the enemies of the political status quo. J. Edgar Hoover hated my father with an abiding passion, and believed he was a full-blown Red communist, which, if you knew my father, would be found ridiculous on the face of it. But since J. Edgar had nothing he could pin on Steinbeck, he used his power to encourage the IRS to audit my father’s taxes every single year of his life, just to be politically annoying. I’m quite sure that previous Steinbeck Award recipients like Studs Terkel, Arthur Miller, and Joan Baez would have blood-chilling tales to tell in that same regard, but they never faltered, in fact they all won handsomely against the forces arrayed against them, and they are now part of our proud public idiom of intellectual independence like Mark Twain, Louis Armstrong, and Woody Guthrie. So if this recipient of the Steinbeck Award, Michael Moore is half the man we believe him to be, then he has by now received at least as many written death threats as Steinbeck, Miller, and Terkel combined. My father believed, like Pericles, that a man’s genius could be easily judged by the number of unenlightened fools set in phalanx against his ideas.

Be that as it may, John Steinbeck was the first person I ever heard use the phrases ‘ecological balance’, or ‘conservation of organic energy’. He had watched us walk on the moon, and yet remain childishly embroiled in a pitiful and pointless series of military conflicts from which there would emerge no winners. And with this knowledge that everything had changed technologically speaking, he still witnessed voices of sanity and social equilibrium being politically smothered on a global scale. In that vein, he once sent me a letter in Viet Nam in which he stated that he had completely modified his perception of patriotism. Where the concept had once easily applied to one’s county, state, country, or empire, it was obvious that the idea of patriotic principles now had to be applied to the whole world at large. Culture and language aside, the planet was now so chemically and financially interlinked, that the failure of one, meant the fall of many. He closed his letter by quoting Socrates. “Do not call me an Athenian. I am a citizen of the world.”

In this particular instance, and without question, Mr. Michael Moore aptly fulfills every required parameter designed to guide the choice of award recipients. When once asked what his role was as a writer, Steinbeck said it was to reconnect people with a sense of their own innate humanity. This sentiment has been the guiding principle in all choices made for the Steinbeck Award, and Mr. Moore has carried the banner higher than the world ever expected. We are profoundly proud of him, and also proud that he accepts the honor as it was intended.

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