Notes from home: But for Fortune

“There – but for fortune – go you, and I – you and I.” It’s a line from a song that ran through my head all last week after writing “Dislodged” for this column. Drove me nuts until I broke out the autoharp last night and worked on the chords, gave it the attention it wanted.

The voice carrying the song in my head was Joan Baez’s; the song writer was Phil Ochs, neither of them Republicans. So, many of you in this readershed may not have heard its critical message during the ’60s when folk music helped pave the way for the protests and civil unrest of that time. I wasn’t part of that, just so you’ll know: I was reticent and fearful, a working class teenager watching in the shadows and trying to see how to avoid getting caught up in anything that might impact my already uncertain future.

But songs have a way of penetrating and persisting well beyond the reach of performers and the shelf life of protest movements. This song begs the listener to rethink social class biases and stigmas, and see the truth that we are all in this together, neighbors in the biblical sense.

That girl, Joan: she was fearless. “Show me the prison / Show me the jail; / Show me the prisoner whose life has gone stale,” she begins. “And I’ll show you a young man / With so many reasons why / There but for fortune / Go you or I / you or I.” The next verses go on to address alcoholics, bums and vagrants, and foreign countries under onslaught from our military excursions. Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary, added a verse later for places undergoing mass starvations.

I’m a little afraid I might be writing one for renters soon.

I have seen (and heard) many comparisons between what we’re going through now and the Great Depression. There are lots of similarities, one of them being that then, huge numbers of people were suddenly out of work and quickly demoted in social class from substantial members of society to people who were looked down upon and feared because of their poverty. Who went from having a home and a place in the community to being homeless and shunned through no fault of their own. Yet because of the bootstrap theology of free market economics, their condition condemned them to judgment and rejection, as if they’d earned the demotion.

It seemed to me that the same thing happened in the Great Recession of 2008, despite the findings that the crooks at the top we think of as successful businessmen had rigged the system against ordinary working people.

But now there’s a tiny glimmer of hope (really tiny.) With the coronavirus being the clear cause of the economic disaster unfolding all around us, perhaps we can see that those being hardest hit are victims of something beyond their own doing. I see us trying alter that fact, to make it a disaster befalling people who are poorer, more vulnerable to disease because of their own lack of good health (practices, care, health care providers). I can see us finding ways to attach victimization to behavioral ignorance, like partying and not social distancing. We’re still mildly content to have the front line providers and care givers come from the poorer ranks of our society, and then shrug our shoulders when they get sick.

But all of this, including the revelations of our deep social inequalities and structural dependence upon it, are the result of something no one has any control over. That’s actually been the gift of it. The virus falls on the just and the unjust alike. Perhaps this reality will make us a more human society. There but for fortune.

Trudy Wischemann is a writer who lives too comfortably in Lindsay. You can send her your viral revelations c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit and leave a comment there.

– This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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