During this silly season when rhetoric on both sides of this U.S.
presidential election seems perfectly hollow, I think this is a good
time for all of us to examine the source of our convictions, (if only to set an example for our candidates).
How did you get your politics?
I grew up in a leafy little town called Hudson, Ohio, where it was once said you could fit all the Democrats into the phonebooth at Saywell’s Drug Store.
My dad was the son of a steel executive; he grew up in a house where the name "Roosevelt" was an obscenity, and he voted for every Republican presidential candidate from Tom Dewey to George W. Bush. (The first time; by 2004, he’d decided enough was enough.)
My mom grew up poor, in Detroit. Someone who eats spaghetti whose sauce is concentrated tomato soup is likely to vote Democrat, I’d say. When Dad said he’d vote for Carter in 1976 and then changed his mind and went for that nitwit Ford, Mom’s fury was noisy enough that I remember it, even though I was seven at the time.
So I guess I could have gone either way, and I think that when I arrived in Chicago, fresh out of college in 1992—my English major and my liberal college campus, at Kent State hadn’t swayed me much if any—I was neither liberal nor conservative.
And long after having landed here, I remember scoffing at people who defined themselves as essentially "left." I thought they were intellectual babies.
Now I open myself up to being called an intellectual baby by recalling the moments that I think drove me to the left, and ask you to remember moments that drove in one direction or another on the political spectrum.
1. I read Alex Kotlowitz’s book "There Are No Children Here," about a family trying to exist in the Henry Horner Homes housing project, on Chicago’s West Side. I read this while on the Lake Street El, which ran right by Henry Horner, on the way to work; I could see kids playing—maybe those kids—in the playgrounds where stray bullets sometimes killed people.
I thought: There are people living in circumstances so unfathomably different and more difficult than mine that I cannot tell them what it’s they’re responsibility to accomplish; I cannot talk to them about "personal responsiblity." I can only vote for those who advocate public policy designed to aleviate some of these conditions. (Or at the very least those who talk about these conditions. When was the last time John McCain uttered the word "poor"?)
2. I think of myself as an intellectual, but the question, "whose side are you on?" which I heard from one or another of the middle-aged liberals to whom I was gravitationally drawn for my Chicago friends, resonated in this brain. One of these guys told me he began to understand his own politics when, on a family vacation, his dad shouted out the car window a warning to some hoboes in a boxcar that the railroad cops were approaching. Oh, Eddie thought: That’s the side we’re on.
3. Woody Guthrie and Studs Terkel. It feels to me like you could go to hell for disagreeing with guys like these. And if you went to hell for agreeing with them, at least you’d be there with them.
4. My asshole lefty Uncle Randall, who is 17 times more persuasive on politics than my completely considerate conservative brother-in-law Lewis.
5. My wife’s job as a teacher in inner-city Chicago. Just for instance: While the right-wing argues that "throwing money at the schools" won’t solve the problem and claims that what the schools need isn’t resources but "accountability," my wife comes home with tales of kids passing out inside their classes because of the heat. Will installing air conditioning raise test scores? Let’s try it and see!
Of course I don’t consider myself a lefty baby; of course I try to approach every issue with a clear and open mind. Or, as the pandering, disingenuous CNN commercial says, "All Americans are independent thinkers."
But when I’m confronted with a political dillemma, I think I run it past the "Henry Horner Whose Side Are You On Woody Guthrie Studs Terkel Uncle Randall Can We Get Some Fucking Air Conditioning Over Here" filter, and I usually side on the left.
You weren’t born with liberal or conservative tendencies. What winds made you lean the way you do?