WHAT'S IN A NAME?
WHY AM I A LIBERAL?
Why am I a liberal? Good question. I have no idea. It’s not a question I’ve often asked myself although lately as the term “liberal” has become synonymous with everything bad, ugly and useless in the right wing world, it is something I’ve wondered more about lately. Superficially the answer is, and must be, because that’s the way I want to be. It’s the attitude, stance, posture and political philosophy that’s right; the only rational choice. But that’s solipsistic, lazy, engaging in intellectual indolence and sloth. So let me give it a go.
It had been three days since our brand new B&W 17” Motorola television set had been delivered and an earthquake could not have torn me away from that fuzzy screen and turning the channel knob to see all four channels. I’d already seen cartoons Saturday morning, Omnibus Theater on Sunday and today was the Joseph McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee hearings down in Washington. It wasn’t the most exciting programming but since it was all new to me, I watched. I’m not sure if I understood what was going on, I must have been around eight at the time, but at some point my Mother walked into the living room, dishtowel in hand having just done the dishes for lunch, stood for a couple of minutes watching the proceedings, and then said: “What is this? We’re supposed to believe that all our friends and neighbors are Communist spies?” She then stomped back to the kitchen in a huff.
Neither of my parents finished high school, both losing fathers, my mother’s at age16, my father’s at 17, requiring them to contribute to the support of their families rather than finish school. We were a Working Class family, my father was a steamfitter at Eastman Kodak, my mother a sales clerk in a department store. We lived in what had been farmland but would become suburbia as I grew up. It was a polyglot of a neighborhood. My neighbor to the west of us owned a tool and die business, the guy across the street worked in an auto repair garage, my adult cousin to the east also worked at Kodak as a film processor. It was the 1950’s and times were good especially in Rochester as the country switched from the manufacture of war material to cars, cameras and appliances. And television sets.
Neither my mother nor my father were particularly liberal. My father could be quite racist, in fact, and was intolerant of Negros and Micks and Dagos - the standard demons at the time. My mother, on the other hand, was always on the side of the underdog whether in the Joe Lewis fight or the Joseph McCarthy fight. Of those Negroes, Dagos and Micks, there were a few that my father respected and liked. They were, of course, the exceptions to the rule. But I think he “got it” when I dragged a Black friend of mine from college home over Christmas one year. They hit it off famously.
There were no Blacks in our neighborhood nor were there any in the public schools I attended for twelve years. None in the Dewey Avenue Presbyterian Church, none in Boy Scout Troop 157, and none that I can recall in any of the stores, shops and restaurants we patronized. But on our month long summer vacations down south (my grandparents moved to Florida when I was 12) I became curious about the “For Colored Only” signs on bathroom doors and over drinking fountains in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. I conducted a personal survey, pretty scientific in fact, and discovered that the water tasted no different from both fountains and while the “For Colored Only” bathrooms were usually dirtier than those reserved for whites, I really couldn’t see any other differences.
In my junior year in high school, one of my neighbors, Janice, went down South as a Freedom Rider. She came back reluctant to talk about it, saying that it had been very scary. Then in my senior year, another neighbor, Christine, joined the Peace Corps and shipped off to West Africa. She was also the one who encouraged me to join Students for A Democratic Society (SDA) when I went off to college. These are pretty much the only events I can think of that might have informed my liberalism. But I never saw them as such, they were just stuff that happened.
Attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. was based on the very same premise as my drinking fountain studies. I knew nothing about Black people and I thought that five years at Howard would certainly give me some first hand experience. And it did. Those five years were perhaps the most joyous and influential years in my entire life. Yes, Blacks had a different culture and history from mine, but from that first week when the kid across the hall kept reminding my so much of my cousin – his mannerism, his jokes, his thin self – except that his skin was several shades darker than my cousin’s. From then on, I realized that yes, there were differences, but inside we were all pretty much alike. This insight was driven home by my two Peace Crops years in West Africa surrounded by Muslim Ivoirians who, indeed, had a different culture but all in all pretty much wanted the same things as I did.
So from all this, I don’t see a “cause” for my liberal disease. Maybe it was my dogged insistence to find things out for myself and not take anyone else’s word for anything. Then, too, I was a curious kid and I still am. Now, I was adopted so maybe there is such a thing as a liberal gene. Who knows? I surely don’t. All I can say I’m glad I’m a liberal, proud as hell that I am, and as far as I’m concerned there is simply no other way to live in the world.