How I Became–and stayed–a Liberal


Probably the first instance of politics I became aware of and had some understanding of was the Civil Rights movement. That was because my parents bought us a comic book telling the story of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott in Birmingham, Alabama, in the mid-1950s, which made Dr. Martin Luther King prominent.
Other people obviously didn’t have the same response to the movement I did. Probably that had to do with my parents. A black friend recently told me how impressed he was when my mother invited him and his brother to play with me and my siblings. I was surprised, because I hadn’t thought that was such a big deal.
I was somewhat aware of the Civil Rights movement, but can’t claim to have had any deep understanding. If I ever acquired that, it was much later. Nor can I entirely explain my reaction to that comic book, or to witnessing Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech on TV. The latter was happenstance: I happened to be with my grandmother when she was watching coverage of the March on Washington. Hairs rose on the back of my neck as I listened.
I think I must have felt even then that the way black people were treated was unfair, and later extended that feeling to other oppressed groups: gays, women, immigrants, etc. I had little to complain of myself, since I lived a comfortable life. I think I felt others should be as comfortable as me.
That’s certainly how my mother felt. She had a black friend in the 1920s or 30s when that was very unusual for a white middle class girl. When I asked her about it years later she mentioned that her church didn’t object, which I think may have been even more unusual. Not everyone has a mother like that.
Another unusual thing was she married a man whose initial attraction was that he was a conscientious objector during World War II. That meant that he opposed war, and didn’t wish to support it in any way. One of his brothers was a doctor, and served in the war in that way. The other was an ambulance driver. My father didn’t want to contribute even in that way, so performed alternative service in Indiana and North Dakota, building and repairing things. During that time he and my mother corresponded, marrying after the war.
My father was a devout Christian who believed that Christians should stand together, rather than each sect condemning the other. Although, as a member of the Quaker meeting in the town we grew up in, he was not a minister, he attended regular meetings of the ministerial association. That’s how he met a retired black minister who was grandfather to the friend I mentioned. We got to know him and his wife a little, then his son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. I can’t say we were extremely close, but did consider them friends.
Another influence was the Quaker meeting I grew up in. Although our variety of Quakerism was called conservative, there were some pretty liberal ideas current in it. We didn’t think much of the Vietnam war, for instance, while being in favor of civil rights. Another instance was a surprising tolerance for homosexuality.
This was shown in the Quaker high school I attended where one of the teachers (my favorite, as it happened) was gay. If secret at all, this was an open secret. I found out about it my freshman year, when I had very little understanding about sex in general, so that homosexuality wasn’t something I understood in any depth. I got that it meant males having sex with males, and noticed that the very word “homosexual” carried a strong negative charge, which made it sound sinister. I was biased, though, because I liked the gay teacher, with whom I had conversations on a deeper level than with most adults. This may have been what led me to reason that gays probably had little more choice in their objects of affection than I felt I had. Puberty had come for me, I was interested in girls (though afraid of pursuing them), and didn’t feel I had any choice in that. I had no interest in sex with males.
That made three areas in which my background encouraged me to feel differently than probably the majority of Americans. I was brought up not to have prejudice against blacks, as well as not to think well of war. Meeting that high school teacher in that environment encouraged me to to be prejudiced against gays either.
About the time I entered high school, the book Silent Spring was published. It was the first book on the environment I heard of, and though I didn’t read it, I was inclined to approve its message. The concern always seemed rational to me, just as the later concern about climate change seemed plausible. At about the same time I read a long article by a journalist named Fred Cook about the military/industrial complex that President Eisenhower had warned us about. I don’t remember many of the details now, only that I found it appalling. The military/industrial complex remains at least as influential now as it was then.
Later in high school Vietnam brgan heating up, and I was caught up in the outcry against that, though I didn’t know much about our involvement there until later. I knew I had no interest in being a soldier, though my disinterest I think was less idealistic than my father’s. It was my family’s expectation that I be a conscientious objector, so I did that, and worked in a hospital for two years as alternative service after graduating from high school.
That didn’t make me stand out from my background. Some of my friends and acquaintances refused to cooperate with the draft at all, and spent time in prison. Others performed alternative service, like me. Perhaps the most outstanding person I knew at the time was a German exchange student who, after spending a year at my high school, decided to declare himself a conscientious objector, with a lot less precedent in Germany than here, and managed to convince those in authority to let him perform alternative service there.
I can’t claim to have done anything much in the realm of politics either, other than reading things to try to deepen my understanding of history and current events. I think my background has meant I identify more with underdogs than with wealthy and powerful people. This may be a generic difference between liberals and conservatives, as I think the latter tend to like how our society is structured. Although I recognize my advantages, I’d like to see more people treated fairly.
Had I been brought up elsewhere, and with a different background, my political beliefs might well have been different, though I’d like to think not much different. I think the passions in politics are often aroused by feelings of personal injury. My anger in political matters is generally less personal, more over situations that seem unjust to me. At some point I may suffer injury from politics, but haven’t so far. That might be called “white” or “middle class” privilege. There have been times I haven’t made a lot of money, but haven’t needed a lot either. I haven’t been persecuted for skin color, beliefs, or anything else.
It seems reasonable to me to believe that failure to prevent injustice will eventually make us suffer it, so I try to stand up for what I believe in small ways, though I doubt that I influence many people. I’m not wealthy, and don’t have a very loud voice. I do enjoy discussing issues with people, but if I sway them, I don’t know about it.
In the 1960s it seemed as if we were headed towards a more egalitarian society, but the trend has reversed since then. There are a lot more billionaires than there used to be, and correspondingly more poor people. There also seems to be more condemnation of poor people simply for being poor, which makes little sense to me. Not that I think poor people are automatically virtuous, but neither are rich people. Rich people who inherited their money don’t deserve to be congratulated for being rich, and those who didn’t only deserve adulation depending on what they did to become rich. Being rich doesn’t make a drug dealer a better person.
It did seem that we’d learned a lesson from Vietnam–for awhile. We did have “military actions” that weren’t worthy of being called wars, but then we got into wars that were successors to Vietnam in that they took a long time and we didn’t win a clear-cut victory. Once Vietnam was 25 years behind us people infatuated with our military power became influential again. The result didn’t make me feel more secure. For one thing, that was the beginning of the massive national debt we now have. For another it made a lot of people hate Americans because of our arrogance and because we killed so many people in the Middle East. We complain about Islamic terrorism, but we inspired a lot of it by our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We weren’t smart enough to learn from Vietnam for very long, nor from Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan. To be fair, Russia doesn’t seem to have learned from it either.
There are two particularly troubling issues at present. The first is climate change and the refusal, especially in this country, to take any substantive action to ameliorate it. That refusal is part of the second issue: that our country is controlled largely by corporations who have more influence over the government than almost any other group. That’s not how a democracy is supposed to work, and it means that concerns of the majority of citizens are often not addressed.
That means that many of the jobs that successfully made the American Dream come true aren’t around anymore. Factory jobs used to be jobs almost anyone could get because they didn’t require highly skilled labor. Once factory workers started getting well-paid, the middle class expanded, and more Americans were financially secure than before or since. Now the middle class is contracting, as employers look for ways to avoid paying most employees enough to have any financial security. Many seem to see employees as their enemies.
Some things have improved in my lifetime. I never expected gays to be so accepted or gay marriage to become legal. It’s interesting that the gay rights movement began at very nearly the same time as the resurgence of conservatism, and the two movements, though different in aims, have been successful for similar reasons: they organized, and got their message out there. We may or may not like either of their messages, but must acknowledge their success in promoting them.
On the other hand, a lot of things haven’t improved. Many people are at least somewhat environmentally aware, but degradation of the environment continues. Racism also continues, and contributes to our having one quarter of the prisoners of the world, making our claim to be a free country sound ironic. Not only do we mistreat minorities, but there have been more and more voices justifying it. It’s as if we don’t have the imagination to think how we would tolerate discrimination aimed at us. Of course there are always people who claim to be victims that really aren’t, which obscures the problems of the real victims. I don’t see any justification for the claim that Christians are being persecuted in this country, for instance.
I wish I could see my country in a more positive light. There have been bad things we’ve done since the beginning of the European migration to this hemisphere, but there have also been good things.
Organizing a government with at least the potential to be an actual democracy was an unlikely achievement. So was the American Dream, possibly best epitomized by Abraham Lincoln, who came, seemingly out of nowhere, to keep the Union together and free the slaves. The task he took on, successful at the time, was left unfinished, because there are always threats to liberty and decency. Each generation has to fight those battles again. My generation tried, but in many respects didn’t succeed. Now the dangers are even worse. I hope my country will make good choices in the coming years, but am afraid it won’t.


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