Retaking Our Party, One: From Whence I Came
"I don’t know what your parents did to you."
– Elaine Benes to George Costanza, Seinfeld
Right off the top, one thing must be made clear: I am not now, have never been, and can scarcely imagine a situation in what’s left of my lifetime whereby I will ever become a registered Democrat. (But I can imagine it if everything works out just right – and taking the first steps in that direction is what this series is about.)
Throughout my eligibility to vote – which has just eclipsed the (traditionally defined) generation mark of 33 years – the party has simply never been far enough Left for me.
So who am I, who never considered the party mine in the first place, to write about retaking it?
Well, I take a few things as "givens." Chief among those things is this: Where each of us stands politically at any given moment is the culmination of our singular journey up to that point in time.
Informed by our experiences, the full array of our life’s pursuits – education, work, family, friends, religion, recreation, exposure to other cultures – we look at the reality before us and perceive certain things as "good," others as "bad," and assign to countless more any number of middling values along that continuum.
For a long time – all of it before I was eligible to vote – I viewed the Democratic Party at the national level as a "good" thing; a force for positive change in our society.
I don’t anymore.
I state that not as some test you might use in deciding if this series is for you. It’s just an acknowledgment that my politics are as uniquely mine as my experiences. You might disagree with me completely. You might understand and appreciate my point of view to the exact degree and in the exact way I do – almost. But never fully. That would require in you the ability to be me, which you can no more do than I can be you.
So before I lay out the mutinous course I think we – the vast and varied universe of folks not just willing but proud to say it belongs to the American Left – should take across the next three elections in order to return the party to its progressive roots, I want to take a page from Rayne’s excellent series of recent diaries (which will be referenced generously in tomorrow’s installment of this triptych; no need to go looking now) and let you know something about the foundations of my politics.
Political life began early for me – and involuntarily.
It was April, 1965, and my biggest concern was how – oh how?! – would I, the shortest kid in kindergarten – reach the cartons of milk at the bottom of the horizontal refrigerator down the hall, when sent to gather them for my classmates at snack time, without falling in? And would
that smart ass my "helper buddy" Scotty Brewer simply slam the lid shut on me, return with the cookies, and inform the class that the milk had been been spilt, and no use crying over it?
Unbeknownst to me, our elementary school’s administration had bigger fish to fry, and had already set them a-sizzling – provided you accept mimeographed sheets of paper as a metaphor for the fish, and the schoolbags in which those sheets found their passage home as the cookware.
The ditto sheet (I can still smell the ink!) announced the school’s intention to mount a K-through-6 observance of May Day – maypole, streamers and all. We children, in "joyful" costumes of our choosing, would process out of the school building, onto the playground, and dance, streamers in hand, around decorated poles. That’s right, pole dancers, aged five to eleven – replicating, and thereby exposing ourselves (so to speak) to faraway cultures where (in our hemisphere, at least) the First of May is exuberantly greeted as the symbolic beginning of spring.
By her simple act of slipping that mimeographed page into my schoolbag, my teacher, Mrs. Malkinson, set in motion the event that would most define my politics, even to this day. For, me being the first of three kids in my family not to attend Catholic school, administrators were not yet (much) acquainted with my always-itchin’-for-a-fight mother.
Nina (correctly pronounced NIGH-nah; only a fool would risk the embarrassment visited upon those saying NEE-nah) was
a docile Swede, born and raised of Italian immigrants on the edge of the Montanan Rockies. And full of all the spit and vinegar customarily associated with that ethnic group she was.
A patriot of the "My Country, Right or Wrong" persuasion, Mom immediately recognized this little foray around the maypole for the commie plot it was, perpetrated by public school educators to inculcate in our youth the notion that an eight-hour workday was workday enough for anyone.
Never mind that…
– The fight for the eight-hour workday began in the heart of her beloved America;
– More than 80 other countries around the world had reserved May One as a day to honor workers; and not least,
– THE SCHOOL SAID IT WAS A CELEBRATION OF SPRING. As it had been in Germanic, Roman, and Gaelic cultures for. Hundreds. Of. Years.
No, what mattered to Mom was that seven years before that ditto-sheet landed on our kitchen table, Congress had proclaimed May 1 in this country as "Loyalty Day" – because one of those 80-some countries honoring workers on that date was the Soviet Union. And three years before that, the all-knowing Catholic Church had proclaimed the same date as the feast of "Saint Joseph The Worker," in response the day’s growing association with communism.
When you thought about it just right – and Mom clearly did – what could a dance around a maypole possibly represent but something other than loyalty? Well, she’ll tell you what: fealty – to Communism!!
Not about to see her boy so indoctrinated – nor to miss an opportunity to make her particular flavor of conservative patriotism – seasoned, just so, with the Body and the Blood – known throughout the public schools, Mom hatched a plan to show these Eastern ideologues that they were messing with the wrong Montanan. Maypoles? Good lord, what was next – Montessori schools??
"They want a costume?" said she. "I’ll give ’em a costume!"
Being five, I of course had no concept of the political subtleties at play, let alone the conspiracy theories careening around Mom’s head. All I knew was I was my costume was totally neat-o: red-and-white striped pants, a nifty blue coat with a long back – Mom called it "tails," which I thought was hilarious, I had tails! – and a red-and-white striped top hat with a blue band of stars.
That’s right. She dressed me as Uncle Sam.
As I marched happily out to the playground, Mom hooted and hollered her approval, nudging the other moms.
"Whaddya think of that? Made it myself! I’ll give ’em May Day!"
But sometimes things backfire.
This was one of those times.
"Really?" another mom asked. "Do you still have the pattern? My Billy would love that!"
Not quite the reaction she’d expected, but no matter – it was the school’s commie leadership she was trying to teach a thing or two, and as our class filed by, Mrs. Malkinson took the bait. She paused and set her hands on Mom’s shoulders.
"Your son’s costume – what a beautiful job you did! It’s the envy of all the other kids. What a great idea to be sure our country is represented in the maypole dance!"
Seems Mom saw so much red Red in the May Day concept that she’d forgotten – we were in the midst of a Space Race, and nation pride was running strong. Even in the Communist public schools.
I was too distracted – what with trying not to step on the outsized pant legs – to notice (and too young to care), but as the story goes, Mom accepted my teacher’s compliment with a shit-eating grin on her face, as the realization dawned that this May Day celebration really was about spring and renewal and childlike joy. (The little girls in their white dresses with flower garlands, and the little boys in lederhosen, knickers, and other traditional garb probably also helped clue her in.)
Still, Mom wouldn’t realize the full effect of what the family now calls "The Uncle Sam Episode" until years later, when, through countless telephone
arguments discussions lasting long into the night, she slowly realized that her boy had become exactly what she feared he might: His father.
That’s right, her husband, George. My Dad, who had grown up in the very Midwestern city in the heart of America where the idea of the eight-hour workday was first given voice.
Who had paid his steel-working employees in the heart of unionized Philadelphia so well that when the union rep made his annual stop, the workers themselves would say, "Good to see you again, and thanks – but no thanks."
And who, years after the Uncle Sam Episode – as if to crystallize for me all that he believed (and likely hoping to undo any damage wreaked by my later realization of Mom’s motives that fine spring day) – introduced me to an essay by Father Daniel Berrigan. A scathing indictment of this country’s wanton disregard for the world’s resources and addiction to niceties the likes of which most of our international brethren could scarcely conceive, the tract was penned long before Daniel and his brother, Father Philip Berrigan, Jesuit priests both, earned notoriety – and prison time – for numerous acts of symbolic vandalism and civil disobedience targeting the military-industrial complex.
Dad’s understated but clearly progressive morality helped me understand that Mom’s penchant for populist messages like "America, Love It or Leave It" and "My Country, Right or Wrong" were born less of pride than of fear.
In his most trenchant comments during the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama correctly asserted that guns and religion stave off such fears in the more remote areas of our country. The Right’s howls over the statement are perhaps the best indicator of just how perfectly he captured the truth, and the closest we are likely to get to an admission of the Right’s own complicity in instilling those fears in its rural base.
While Mom’s huge family were hunting and fishing – and genuflecting – in Big Sky Country in their youth, the equally large brood from whence Dad came was trying to scrape out a living – fatherless; the grandpa I never met had long since run away from the reality he helped create – in Cicero. The same Cicero, at the same time, that the Capone gang called it home. Dad saw plenty of guns growing up, always in the wrong hands, and it scared him straight. He’s never owned a firearm in his life, and is damned proud of it.
With Dad’s influence, I learned that we learn more – and grow stronger – by doing hard things, and never giving up until they’re done. By taking unpopular stands when we believe we are right, even if it means ridicule, or worse. A Catholic as devout as Mom – but willing to question what she would not – Dad crashed the Knights of Columbus in my hometown just long enough to get them wondering how Christlike their misogyny could really be. Such acts taught me that a little well-timed activism and dissent can go a long way, and I’ve been a proud practicioner of both throughout my life.
Though Nina was a social climber, Dad was not. He had no time for bullshit and called it out when he saw it – no matter who was spewing it – sometimes to Mom’s embarrassment. The dinner dances with a table of eight, followed by card games at the nearest couple’s house, were tolerable to Dad mostly because of those card games. Fiercely competitive and smart as a whip, Dad knew how to have a good time: Beat the pants off somebody at cards. Soon to turn 88, he’s still terrorizing wannabe card sharps in Florida casinos, all the while with a joke on his lips and a grandfatherly smile on his face.
Dad’s belief that government should do good, not just do the basics, further shaped my own politics. But wouldn’t you know it? The first presidential contest in which I could vote was in 1980. The National Democratic Party that existed then is long gone.
I can think of no worthier objective than leading it – through strategic activism, dissent, and non-participation – back to its roots.
Though she made me a political pawn in kindergarten, my mother factors heavily in my earliest memory, one also fraught with politics, and which speaks directly to the downward ideologic and policy-enactment spiral Democrats have traversed most of my life.
I was four years old, and sat on the floor of our den as Nina ironed altar cloths for the church. The house was quiet but for the occasional hiss of steam from the iron – and a slow, steady drumbeat from the black and white TV nearby.
I looked up from my playthings and saw she was crying.
"What’s wrong, mama?"
"It’s… oh, it’s just so sad."
It was Monday, November 25, 1963.
Look for "Retaking Our Party, Two: How We Got Here" tomorrow at The Seminal. A user’s guide to the series is here.