20 October, 2008

Fighting again and again the battles of our youth

Regular reader Clemens leaves a comment I really liked. I was going to reply in the same comments, but my reply grew too long and personal, so I thought I'd commit it to a real post. He writes,

For me, as I said, it was era before Civil Rights that I remember, and the struggle to get past it.What I most remember after that is the profound disillusionment of the 60s with Vietnam and too many assassinations, and then Nixon, Watergate, and worst of all for me personally, the so-called Southern Strategy. That must have been where you came on stage, just after that.
I can see how that would give someone certain political instincts. Not all conservatives supported segregation, of course; in fact I think many explicitly opposed it, but opposed even more the federal government's acting on it. Most conservatives who took that line had the decency to apologize subsequently, or at least to admit they were wrong. (From my point of view, it really is hard to see how States' Rights can justify such a thing when the amendments to the Constitution that concern slavery and the like include the provision, "Congress shall have the authority to enforce this with legislation.") Other so-called conservatives, by contrast…

Clemens has a good instinct about when I "came on the scene," too. I grew up in post-segregation, mandated busing, southern Virginia, attending a so-called alternative school* where several black children (am I still allowed to call them "black"?) sat beside kids like me, played with us, and ate with us in the cafeteria. I remember their names; I remember admiring some of them; and I remember that they treated me the same way the white kids did, which is to say, as an object of mockery.**,*** From my perspective, everyone was equal in grade school, except me.

I never once heard anyone complain about the school busing. I didn't even know it was court-ordered—I didn't even know the kids were being bused in. When we learned about the Civil Rights movement, I thought it ironic that the blacks on my school bus insisted on sitting at the back of the bus and grew angry when the driver told them to sit near the front. (Kids who wanted to sit in the back were usually up to no good. I won't relate any stories.) I attended a majority-black high school, with a black principal; it didn't bother me, and it didn't seem to bother my parents.

This isn't to say that racism didn't exist. Once I arrived at high school, I remember certain things being said. My first encounter with overtly racial politics occurred when blacks told me that the reason I favored the white Republican for Congress instead of the black Democrat was because I was "racist". That same argument persists today on the editorial page of the Washington Post, and in the words of (Democratic) Congressman Jack Murtha, among others. Later, a white kid I had known from grade school tried to get me to pass a note that contained a swastika and a racist message. I refused. I also had a white bus driver who told me that she thought people should marry their own kind.

The most I think I encountered of racism occurred at Church (we attended a Southern Baptist church), and I'm sure the people saying these things didn't think they were saying anything racist. Some may have considered themselves enlightened, inasmuch as they may have favored integregation in the schools. That said, one scion of a prominent family (car dealer) talked in Sunday School about white girls who went out with black boys, adding with amazement that they did this even though they weren't ugle. The Sunday School teacher shook her head and agreed that it was unfortunate; I sat quietly and said nothing. (I didn't attend Sunday School much longer, preferring instead the income I earned at Hardee's, often alongside blacks and whites from poor families.) Another kid told me that the probable reason that a friend of mine stopped attending our church was his father's unhappiness that a black woman had started attending. "They have their own churches," he was reputed to have said.

It may be unfair of me to highlight these episodes, inasmuch as I once expressed to a friend my revulsion at a music video showing a mixed-race couple doing some serious tongue action. As I told him, I didn't think at the time that there was anything inherently wrong with a mixed-race relationship, I just never found blacks attractive. I also said at one point that I had noticed most mixed-race relationships seemed focus on sexual attraction instead of love. Boy, was I naïve… But was it a racist thing to say? Was it in the same category? I don't think so.

My earliest political memories are my parents' happiness that Reagan won in 1980. My father, to this day, says that voting for Jimmy Carter was one of the worst mistakes he made, and the last time he'd ever vote for a Democrat. I then remember the 1984 Republican convention. I became a little too emotional when Lee Greenwood sang "Proud to be an American".

My 6th grade Social Studies teacher tried to indoctrinate us that the Soviet Union was a great place, and Communism was an ideal philosophy. She actually lied to us about what Marx and Lenin said. I came home one day to tell my parents all these great things we were learning in school, and my father had to correct nearly everything I said. (I'm amazed he kept his temper.) From that point on, I paid more and more attention to things. I grew up seeing liberals as wanting to appease, if not capitulate to, the Soviet Union. Quite frankly, liberal rhetoric and policies of the time did not provide much evidence to the contrary. (Much as mainstream conservative rhetoric of the last eight years would not convince anyone that conservatives have ideals of fiscal responsibility.)

I never ceased to hear the worst anti-American sentiment coming from the far Left—my time in seminary and visiting inner-city Chicago was a particular highlight of this—and since 2003ish the Democratic Party has bent over backward to appease such sentiments. As far as I can tell, Obama's only serious qualification for president (as opposed to rhetorical qualifications, which I don't consider serious) in the eyes of most primary voters is that he had never been caught saying something in favor of the war in Iraq. This is why, to this day, he can't admit that he was wrong about the surge. He knows he was wrong, but if he admits it, a lot of enthusiasm wanes from those supporters, and he could lose what remains a remarkably tight race.

I'm not an "America: Love it or Leave It" kind of person, but when people are posting manifestos asserting that America is the greatest cause of pain and suffering in the world—quotes that dates from the days of the Soviet Union, which to me makes them all the more incredible—and there were a lot of quotes to that effect bandied about by the anti-war movement in 2003—people have crossed a line that I consider unacceptable. Imagine if Anne Coulter's quotes about forcibly converting the Afghans to Christianity became the driving political impetus in the Republican Party, and you might understand my unhappiness with the current state of things.

So I agree, a lot of my politics is driven by what I see, rightly or wrongly, as a similarity between today's Democrats and the liberal teachers of my youth who seemed not to care a fig about Soviet aggression and who dismissed objections about the lack of human rights in the Soviet sphere with platitudes about everyone's having equal access to high-quality health care. (That turned out to be false in two respects, but never mind.) Obama's past association with men like Michael Pfleger only serves to confirm my suspicions and make it impossible for me to cast a ballot for him. Quite honestly, I see a vote for Obama as a vote for Pfleger, and if my encounter with Pfleger was a major reason I left seminary, then you can imagine how I view an Obama presidency. That may be unfair, but it's also unfair that people see a vote for McCain as a vote for Jesse Helms, merely because McCain is a member of the Republican party. Associations, no matter how tenuous, matter. Associations of many years matter more.

I'm not what you might call apocalyptic about the consequences of an Obama presidency. His deceptiveness regarding the positions he embraced on talks with the leaders of Iran, as well as his turnabout on accepting government funding for his campaign, give me reason for "hope" that he'll be just another of the same cynical, crony-favoring politicians we've had for at least the past sixteen years. "Politics of change" makes for wonderful sloganeering, but beneath the paper veneer I seem nothing but the same old sawdust.

Update! For a couple of days, I felt pretty bad about having written the last two paragraphs. The vague wisps of memory reminded me only that I'd mentioned Obama's associations, not his states stand on the issues. Rereading it, I'm relieved to see that, in fact, I did refer to his stand on the issues.

In addition, I was rereading this morning two endorsements of Barack Obama (those of the Washington Post and Christopher Buckley), as well as Michael Gerson's column on an Obama presidency's relationship with Congress, and it struck me that more or less all of them acknowledge the one thing I still feel bad about writing:
His deceptiveness regarding the positions he embraced on talks with the leaders of Iran, as well as his turnabout on accepting government funding for his campaign, give me reason for "hope" that he'll be just another of the same cynical, crony-favoring politicians we've had for at least the past sixteen years.
Buckley, for example, writes,
America ought, really, to be governed by men like John McCain—who have spent their entire lives in its service, even willing to give the last full measure of their devotion to it.… President Obama will (I pray, secularly) surely understand that traditional left-politics aren’t going to get us out of this pit we’ve dug for ourselves.
The Post**** likewise remarks,
We also can only hope that the alarming anti-trade rhetoric we have heard from Mr. Obama during the campaign would give way to the understanding of the benefits of trade reflected in his writings. A silver lining of the financial crisis may be the flexibility it gives Mr. Obama to override some of the interest groups and members of Congress in his own party who oppose open trade, as well as to pursue the entitlement reform that he surely understands is needed.… We had hoped, throughout this long campaign, to see more evidence that Mr. Obama might stand up to Democratic orthodoxy and end, as he said in his announcement speech, "our chronic avoidance of tough decisions."
I guess I don't have to feel bad about "going negative", then. If Obama's supporters and non-supporting admirers can express hope that his presidency won't be what his campaign promises to be, even though they see it as disastrous, what reason can I possibly have to regret saying the same?

*What was alternative about my school is that it was "traditional". This meant that we were expected to keep our mouths shut, to do our work, and if we wanted attention from the teacher we had to raise our hands. My middle school was the same way. It was the only life I knew, and I likely would not have succeeded in life had my parents sent me to one of those chaotic classrooms that my youngest brother attended. I like structure too much.

My high school wasn't bad, but that may have been because I mostly attended advanced classes, but even there I saw a lot of behaviors that I never saw in middle or grade school. The classes that I attended that were not advanced were either Latin—which, despite very qualified teachers, was not usually a class where serious studied of the Latin language transpired—and band, which required discipline. Oh—and P.E., but we can discuss that class another time.

**One example of people's using me as target practice is the following one that I find amusing. (I can't say that about all the examples.) It was fourth or fifth grade. One black kid, Marcus I believe his name was, asked me at lunch if I was a virgin. The only place I'd ever heard the word was in association with the mother of Jesus, so I thought that one criterion for being a virgin was that one was a woman. You can deduce my answer, and imagine the consequences.

*The mockery may have been deserved, for all I know. My friends told me in high school that I habit of "talking down" to them as if I were superior. (edit: College friends said this, too. I forgot about that. Come to think of it, some family members still tell me this. I think a priest told me something similar during my seminary days, too. At this rate, I'd wager good money that readers of the weblog would say the same!)

I likely wasn't the only child on the receiving end of teasing and mockery, either, but it sure felt lonely at the bottom of the feeding chain. I never managed to make friends in grade school, or at least I don't remember any. I remember trying to make friends, and failing.

This has nothing to do with politics, of course!

****I must remark that I found the following remark in the Post's endorsement unfathomable:
When he might have been scoring political points against the incumbent, he instead responsibly urged fellow Democrats in Congress to back Mr. Bush's financial rescue plan.
I guess they don't they read their own page A01 news. Come to find out, they don't read their own editorials.

That's okay. When endorsing someone for president, one doesn't expect a lack of bias, let alone consistency, or even accuracy. As Brandon points out at Siris, electoral campaigns cause otherwise-intelligent people to say silly things. Take me, for instance, and today's post…

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