Wednesday, March 02, 2005

What Made You

What made you turn out to be a liberal or a conservative? No doubt, it's an identity question, a matter of finding which side makes you feel better about yourself.

Personally, looking at my parents and my childhood environment, I think I could've gone either way. Somehow, even when I was a little kid living in severely unhip West Virginia, hippie culture had an allure. Things I remember: I had an uncle who at least looked the part of a hippie: wore his hair long, partied, didn't finish college and enter a nice profession like the family wanted him to. He was the most fun of my relatives, and seemed (to me, at the time) to be living his life in a brave way. This uncle had stacks of Mad magazines, which I devoured and which taught me more about what was hip, what was square, and about a few things like Vietnam and Watergate that resisted satire, that were serious matters, and seriously screwed up. He also had stacks of Playboys, which taught me plenty, but besides the obvious taught me a respect for the concept of two-consenting-adults.

Later I became a fan of Doonesbury comics, and followed Trudeau's band of flower children as they grew up and their politics matured. I was a big fan of the TV series M*A*S*H. I watched the mini-series Roots and Holocaust. Saturday Night Live came along. I got hold of a Richard Pryor album, a Cheech and Chong album, and some underground comics, notably the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Watergate happened, and I drew a hopeful lesson from it. Our system of government worked; a corrupt leader was peacefully removed from office. In junior high school my class went to see a play called "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been," about the McCarthy era. I didn't make any Nixon connections, but the play made an impression.

My mother followed feminist yearnings and social justice impulses. She was active in the church and drew me into it as well. In 11th grade, thanks to the fact that we were attending a tiny church with too few adults to fill all the leadership slots, I got elected to represent our parish at the annual (Episcopal) diocesan convention. I got to hear a passionate and eloquent debate on the subject of abortion, which completely turned my view of it around. (The diocese passed a resolution in favor of abortion rights.)

I have forgotten my motivation, I don't think it was a school assignment, but in 11th or 12th grade I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. That stands out as a mind-expanding event. For a little while at least, I entertained the thought that the white man is the devil. By contrast, Tom Frank and the news media furnish multiple examples of conservatives who refuse to hear anything about themselves that doesn't flatter them. I think about the experience of reading Malcolm X fairly often.

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