W is for ….

I saw this yesterday, while I was lazing around and it seemed to sum up something essential about where I live. Simply put, people around here don’t like George W very much. And they are fine saying so. All the time.

The car sporting this bumper sticker was an old, dusty Volvo, protected by someone’s Triple A membership. It’s okay around here to drive an old car. Volvos go without saying. Let’s not discuss the latte. (I must say, though, that a child at one of my twins’ school said, when he saw my husband’s beat- up old BMW pull into the carpool pick up line, “My playstation cost more than your dad’s car.” He wasn’t from Berkeley.)

Pretty soon the Berkeley City Council is going to offer some kind of referendum about whether or not we should impeach President Bush. It’s the sort of thing people in the rest of the country love to laugh about. And it really can be terribly irritating and holier than thou around here.

But I still love living in Berkeley. There is the most fabulous food to be had right down the street. We live in a garden of Eden, the place where so many lovely fruits and vegetables are grown, quite a few of them organic. Plus, the view from the hill I hike up is stupendous. There are so many great independent bookstores it’s hard to decide where to go to buy a book. It smells like jasmine at night. And the things that grow like weeds in my yard are actually sort of exotic like Meyer Lemons and bougainvillea. There’s windsurfing out our door, for those who windsurf (all males in our family windsurf. I do not.) The mountains are beautiful. Did I mention the food?

Which brings me to my topic today and no, it is not food: where on earth do we get our political ideas? How did I grow up to be the openly liberal person I am, when several, very smart, kind people in my family are not?

Growing up, I always thought my father was an impressively liberal person. By that, I mean he exuded a distrust of authority (probably because of his experiences in the military) and he believed in the power of the written word. You could tell because he spent a lot of time sitting in a comfortable brown chair reading things like Russian grammars and Nietzsche. He shocked us all when he decided he was an atheist. (It was 1970. My mother had always marched all five of us children to church every Sunday without fail. My father sat in the car and read the paper while we went to mass. It was a fine example of religious tolerance.)

I probably read more into my father’s admiration for Rush Limbaugh and dislike of Democrats than I should. Maybe what he doesn’t like about Democrats is that they’ve failed to really follow through on their promises of creating a better society. The Republicans have never made any such promises, so there’s nothing to resent about them. Not everyone in my family is a Republican. My mother doesn’t say a lot about how she votes except to suggest that she sees her role as cancelling out my father’s vote.

No one ever told me how to vote or which political party to join. Because I live in Berkeley now, I get some grief from a few of my siblings for being reflexively, unthoughtfully liberal. It’s true: it’s never occurred to me to be any other way. I think I’ve chosen my political path for the simple reason that I feel happier being a liberal, when that means being generous, trusting, community-oriented, and accepting of differences. I’m well aware that Republicans can share those very same qualities.  Sometimes the differences lie in how those ideals are executed.  It’s also true that I’m embarrassed by the preachiness and stupid ideas, by the elitism, and the cowardice of the Democrats. But those are qualities shared by both parties, which is to say that Democrats don’t have a monopoly on being sheep-like or stupid.

What interests me is how our children will turn out. My own sons don’t like George Bush, the way you don’t like the “other” sports team. But they haven’t at all sorted out what they think. They’re beginning to though. Yesterday, one of my older boys wanted to go into San Francisco to take part in a rally “against America.” That really bothered me. I told him that he’s an American, and he can’t really rally against his own country. The country is not its government. In fact, demonstrating against the government is as American as baseball. Turns out, it was a march designed to protest our government’s refusal to do anything meaningful to stop genocide in Darfur. And it took place during school hours.

The answer: no last minute rallies, and hardly ever when there’s school. I wonder how many other parents in America had to make up a rule like that, on the spot, yesterday afternoon? And that’s the last thing I love about living here: it’s a rich and complicated environment in which to grow up. My kids have to think about homelessness because they know homeless people, they think about race, because we live in a racially mixed environment, they know about wealth and its problems and benefits because there are a lot of wealthy people around here, and they see it butting up against poverty in a way that just calls out for some kind of explanation. It’s an explanation I imagine they’ll have to come up with for themselves. And maybe it won’t be the one I end up with. But they will get to their political views thoughtfully, I hope. And that’s really all you can ask.


24 thoughts on “W is for ….

  1. There’s nothing wrong with being liberal. Mom used to vote Democrat as a matter of choice, except for the year when Dad ran for Country Commissoner in 1972. I will admit to voting Republican for a few terms, but not the last two elections. 🙂

    The other story Mom tells about Dad and religion — when they went to be married, the priest recognized that Dad really didn’t want to become Catholic, so he didn’t have to convert.

    The weird thing is now Doug goes to church with me. We attend a small Weslyan church just up the street.

    Didn’t you once march with the Colemans in 73 or 74? I seem to remember photos. 🙂

  2. The title of your post “W is for…” came up long before the picture loaded (my computer being cantankerous). The suddenly the picture popped up and I burst out laughing! I knew George W Bush was unpopular in parts of America but I didn’t realise he was that unpopular! Now what can I call John Howard? J is for…

    It is interesting what you say about different family members having different political and religious ideas. My parents brought my brother and I up in exactly the same way – and that meant mass every Sunday and Saturday religious education classes because we didn’t go to a Catholic school. As an adult, I’m a rubbish sort of Catholic but I do try to haul myself to mass. My brother on the other hand, has no belief in God and considers himself to have no religion. What was very cool, though, was that he agreed to be Kiko’s godfather. Kiko has two godfathers, his cousin, who is a devout Catholic, and my brother, who is his namesake and I hope will be someone he looks up to. My brother was concerned about being a godfather when he isn’t a Catholic but to me it is so much more important that he has thought through what he believes in. We didn’t tell the priest. I’m sure people would disagree with my choice but I don’t think God minds.

  3. I come from a family of Christian Republicans, and I’m now neither of those, so I find it interesting to hear how people make sense of their differences with family, and how they define themselves by and against family. I don’t discuss either religion or politics with my parents — it’s much easier that way!

  4. If I lived in California, I’d want to live in Berkeley. I love the bumper sticker. I come from a family of raving liberals, but if you press her, my mother will admit that before she married into my father’s family, she was leaning more towards becoming a Republican. I wonder about where political beliefs come from, too, though, because my husband is extremely liberal, but he came from a family full of Republicans (interestingly enough, though, his one Democratic uncle and he are the two members of the family who decided to become ministers).

  5. Posts like this really make me miss the PRB (People’s Republic of Berkeley, for you non-Califonians). My family is a weird mix of sort of redneck Democrats. My dad left the army in 1972 a Republican but quickly converted to hippie revolutionary. His parents were FDR Dems, and my grandmother proudly proclaimed that she’d vote for Satan himself if he ran as a Dem. But there was also a racist/populist subtext to everything. When I went to Cal, I thought I was liberal, but soon learned what liberalism really was and drifted leftward myself.

  6. Hey BL,
    Great post!

    Coming from Ireland where our politics is more historical anachronism than idealistic in its divisions, it can be hard to stand for anything significant. Often party affiliation is very strongly family predicated and that was based heavily on the opposing sides in the Civil War back in the 1920s. However that is fracturing more and more since the late 1980s and its more volatile now.

    As for me I come from a family of moderates who probably vote centre or centre left and I stand out as a radical on economics being very pro-trade and pro capitalism and also very liberal on social issues!

    I thing it can be very hard in a society like Ireland, where politics can be so local, to break a family tradition especially when the local TD (our national representatives) are pretty well known and easily access by everyone!

    Really intriguing stuff BL!

    PS Berkley does sound very cool!

  7. This sounds like a wonderful place to live, Bloglily. Hmmm, if only I could persuade someone in Berkeley that they desperately needed me as a visiting lecturere… fat chance. The political question you raise is fascinating, because I think that the way a person votes reveals their deepest, innermost soul. My parents are conservatives, and that’s pretty much true for everything in their lives, but I don’t feel I could possibly be that way, not even out of family loyalty. Over here in the UK all the parties have pretty much merged into one and I have little but contempt for the sabre-rattling, inefficent, spin-obsessed, manipulative world of politics, so I’m finding it difficult to put a cross anywhere on a ballot sheet at the moment.

  8. Your main question was How do we develop our politics? From what everyone has said, it seems to evolve, if at all, from the influences of parents, college, and, finally, self–self education, that is– and then some assessment and realization of who you are. And what influences all that? I think books are number one (what else would I say in this column?), well-done visual documentaries or even movies are two, and occasional individuals just talking eloquently and rationally is number three, but you have to watch CSPAN Book TV, for example, for that (which is great, BTW). And books include several categories: Non-fiction in which you actually learn something factual about the world and life (e.g. evolution, environment, biology, brain and body); non-fiction mostly factual/opinion/historical/political to understand something about other cultures and philosophies/religions; and then fiction, provided you were brought up and educated well enough to start early and actually absorb at the cellular level, the great lessons and insights of great writers . I wasn’t, so I just hang out with those who were, and let osmosis do its work. So the degree to which you read like crazy and like broadly is what determines your politics, I think. That raises the question– how does reading broadly track with the politics in a society. I think my answer would qualify me as a Berkeley elitist, so I won’t give it; I’ll wait for Bloglily to do the survey whenever she gets into actual survey mode. (the kind with one to five stars).
    litlove really nailed it, as we say in the colonies, by saying that her country has merged into one party and that “the sabre-rattling, inefficent, spin-obsessed, manipulative world of politics” is so comtemptible. The U.S. may have to take credit for a lot of that, recently. What most people don’t seem to realize is that the single party, economically and geopolitically, is “consumerism.” And what we have been sucked into politically is “sloganism.” It can’t get any lower than for one of highest leaders of one party to label everyone in the other party, in terms of patriotism and national security, as “defeatocrats.” But sloganism is as slippery as slopes can get. You feel obligated to answer in kind. And you can’t logically display a bumper sticker that says “No More Slogans.” Although I think I will.
    Please, BL, do some more actual surveys (like your most influential book survey a while back). I like to put check marks on multiple choice questions, and then add a qualifying opinion, in case you couldn’t tell. Sorry to lecture.

  9. Hi Sue — I didn’t know that you went to a Weslyan church. It sounds like a nice place. Helen, We have non-catholic godparents for our children too. The church we go to (the Newman Center in Berkeley) didn’t seem interested in the faith of the people we chose. I’ve been thinking about posting about catholicism and how moving it is to go to mass with one’s children, after a lifetime of being a child in the church. But then I think, oh but food is so much easier to write about, or books, or cleaning up…
    Dorothy, I think you have made a very important point, which is that political discussions often yield nothing of value or interest when they occur among people who are devoted to their points of view and, among family members, can sow the seeds of a rancor that is very hard to unroot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone change his mind during a political argument and that has led me to conclude that politics is not a very good topic at family gatherings. 

    Hello Emily, I really liked that post you did a while back about materialism — that was when I realized your husband is a minister.  There’s a long and healthy tradition of people who do so much good doing that kind of work.  Like anything, there are plenty of counter-examples, but that’s never an argument for discounting the importance of the work itself.  (I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up in a family of raging liberals — we’re a family of raging contrasts, in some ways.) 

    BikeProf — Don’t you think that the redneck democrat is a dying breed?  Those are the people who became republicans with Ronald Reagan.  It’s very true what you say about realizing you’re a tepid liberal when you show up on campus.  Still, much of what passes as radical politics can be terribly off-putting and coercive and not at all effective in helping people figure out their political views.

    Eoin, I’d so like to hear more about Irish politics (although I know you are most interested in publishing topics!) — your description of the family politics, and the possibility that lines were drawn in 1920 around issues I know very little about really interests me and I know a lot of other people too.

    Ah Litlove, eloquent, on target, perfectly apt.  What you say about British politics applies equally to American, as Smokey points out.  And Mr. S., thank you for those incredibly smart thoughts about what goes into the making of a political point of view.  Lots of reading and listening and a survey or two.  (I’m working on the survey, but I don’t know how to make a box show up in a post.) 

  10. Great post. I often wonder such things about me and my family. I am unabashedly liberal and my parents are moderately conservative on most issues, very conservative on a few. My family makes fun of me for voting Green when there is a candidate I like and my “The only bush I trust is my own” bumpersticker is both vulgar and scandalous. Of course, sometimes the reaction value from them just eggs me on 🙂

  11. I suspect I’d fit in rather well in Berkeley. But I also like the fact that my daughter is being brought up in New Zealand which has a woman Prime Minister and both a practising Rastafarian and the worlds first trans-sexual Member of Parliament as representatives.

    So yes, I’m definitely left leaning- I generally vote for the Greens -and yet I can see that a lot of the Left can be annoying, judgemental, humourless and sanctimonious and, if I had to choose who “my people” ultimately are I would prefer to ally myself with the kind, open minded, generous, thoughtful people of the world regardless of political label.

  12. Nice post. I love that bumper sticker. Try being liberal and living Nebraska where our one Democratic representative might as well be a Republican (she said perturbedly–is that a word?), so you have to vote for him anyway (because the alternative is still scarier). I am not even sure if in my lifetime Nebraska has ever gone for a Deomocrat? Doubtful. Here’s what I saw today at Walmart (blech) today: bumpersticker on car reading: I will forgive Jane Fonda when the Jews forgive Hitler. Don’t say it. This is the typical ideology I am treated to living here. I always think that maybe someday I might live where people actually think the same way I do. At least I work in a library at a university which is traditionally a fairly liberal environment. So, I shall just be one blue light in a sea of red. 🙂

  13. Lol at Stefanie’s bumpersticker.

    I love Berkeley, and wish I could be there more often. Four times in 5 years is too few times for someone who lives in Silicon Valley. When I am there, I’m usually visiting Cal, though I went to a pub once to lend support to a friend’s band which was playing there. It was fun. Agree completely with Danielle that the attitude inside universities is been more innocent and more liberal than outside. Still, Berkeley is on a whole other level. I especially like this one place near the gate which is supposed to belong to no country, and where some one can stand and say anything without fear of prosecution. Such a thing can only be found in Berkeley.

    Now, if only Berkeley loosened its current grip on the Big Game, I would like Cal just that little bit more ;).

  14. Great post, BL– and here I am responding from a hotel in Berkeley! I always thought that if I moved back to California from Cleveland, it would be to settle in fabulous Berkeley. What little I’ve seen of the city in the last day has been lovely, as always. And fleeting.

    I love the bumper sticker. “Wanker” is one of my favorite derisive words.

    You bring up such an interesting question–about how one gets one’s political bent. I thought a lot about this during the last election, when certain people–even those related to me–were voting for Bush, and I just couldn’t understand it. I knew they disagreed with his domestic social agenda–even found it repugnant–but went along anyway. I think part of the reason they voted that way was that some of his policies regarding taxes and business and so on benefited them–it was cash in their pocket and that trumped the discomfort they had about the social agenda. But I finally decided that there was some other more elusive, visceral connection that they had with Bush–that he was their type somehow, that they found some sort of brotherly comfort there, that they could picture talking and joking with him–and that was the hardest thing about their allegiance.

    I know that there have been some twin studies suggesting that conservatism and liberalism are genetically influenced. My father–as loving, generous and kind a man as they come–only voted for the Democrats when they ran Catholics.

  15. Al — It’s one of Kristen’s favorite derisive words! Isn’t it amazing how that particular word manages to convey, just from the sound of it, derision? (And welcome back to blogging!)

    Kristen I hope you had a wonderful trip west (and a good trip home). It’s a lovely Sunday, and yesterday was equally beautiful, so I’m glad you picked this week to be here. It’s interesting to think about genetic influences on politics, I suppose that would explain differences among children raised in the same family.

    Well, Polaris, if there wasn’t so much traffic (and if the Big Game was a more Stanford-friendly event…) maybe you’d find your way here more often. But you’ve got more than your share of great bookstores and walks and delightful smelling evenings, so I can see how you could not make it up here often.

    Hello Danielle, I didn’t realize you hailed from Nebraska, which is where the wonderful Ted Kooser’s from. I’m glad you have found refuge in the library (and blogging). I like thinking of you as a lighthouse in a sea of red.

    Ms. Make Tea — I’m with you. The proper alliances are between people who share similar qualities, not similar party allegiances. New Zealand sounds like a paradise.

    Hello Stephanie — Why is it that the left tends to have funnier bumper stickers than the right?

  16. “Wanker” is a much stronger word in the UK than in the US. To wank is to masturbate, and though not as bad as the F-word and nowhere near as bad as the C-word, it is a word that is only used informally between friends.

    I *love* the bumper-sticker, and would like to have one, but I was slightly shocked by it.

    I’ve no idea about my siblings’ political leanings, little about their religious practice and even less about their actual beliefs, which says something about the respect our upbringing gave us for self-determinism and one’s duty to think things out for oneself, and not have the bad taste to evangelise.

    There are so many parts of the US I could not live in, but you describe a part which does sound refreshingly heterodox.


  17. Ms. Behn — That’s such an elegant explanation, not just of the W-word, but of the way in which you were raised to think for yourself and not blab about the results. Few people practice that kind of restraint and more should.

    As for the bumper sticker, it probably speaks to the amount of almost helpless rage that exists at the current administration for all the damage it’s done around the world. Or it just demonstrates how acceptable it is to fling insults at political opponents, richly deserving of it though they may be.

  18. Hi Sis,
    Well, if you’re discussing politics you must be feeling better and that is a nice thing. I don’t have much to add to the discussion. My recall is the parents really didn’t discuss politics. I asked Dad about that once and he told me that he had no political lean. He went on to say that both parties had faults and that it really didn’t matter which one got into the office as they both had to operate within the bounds of the constitution. Even today I think it is a pretty good answer. I remember having a discussion with your husband on the subject when we were young (and yes, that was a long time ago). He was reading a book that took the position that we are stuck between been conservative when it comes to our own money but giving in our hearts. I voted “Green Party” the last two elections–more out of frustration than anything else. The problem I have found in holding opinions about politics is I am never willing to do anything about the issues–I guess I figure if I’m not willing to do something about whatever issue it is that expresses the political opinion, what is the point in expressing the opinion. Here is a thought for you–ever wonder how a judge can run on a political ticket when the law is apolitical? Further, it takes about $400,000 to run for a two year position as a sitting local judge. How can one spend $400,000 when they only make $100,000 a year as a judge in the end? It takes a different type of bird to be a politician and perhaps that explains the net result.

  19. My mom campaigned for JFK and on Election Day pulled the wrong lever.

    There is strong independent stock in my New England genes. I am an Independent who is registered as Dem only so I can vote in the primaries.

    My parents had strong feelings about humanity, freedom, and personal responsibility. My political choices are based on these pro-social values. Often, the only choices which seem remotely isomorphic are the Greens. I am sickened by the lack of bi-partisanship on the part of both major parties. The one time the Dems were bi-part was the time they should have stood firm. I cannot forgive the likes of Kerry et al for supporting the invasion. They sold their country’s fate for their political expedience. What else is new?

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