Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, August 26, 2012

How I Became a Democrat--and Why I've Remained One (Part II)

So why did I change species--from elephant to donkey?

Let's put it simply: changing personal circumstances, changing times.  These were the principal reasons that I found myself, as I grew older, moving away from the GOP and aligning myself more and more with the Democrats .

The personal part: My boyhood had been so insular.  Enid, Oklahoma.  Racially segregated throughout my boyhood (separate schools, churches, restrooms, drinking fountains--you've seen the pictures in history books.)  Protestant church.  All-white school.  My parents' like-minded friends (with a few exceptions).  My deep respect for my parents' opinions, a respect, of course, that eroded as I became a teen and was certain they didn't know anything worth knowing.  They just didn't get it.  (My sage friends, of course, did.)

When I was nearly 12, and we moved to Hiram, Ohio, I found that things were not much different.  De facto segregation replaced de jure.  Our little school was all white, all Christian (as far as I knew).  We did have some Roman Catholics--and even that was weird to my ignorant eyes.  Our lives still orbited the same white star.

But--slowly, slowly--as the Fifties reeled into the Sixties, and as television began bringing into our house images of worlds and people so unlike what I knew, I was at first perplexed.  And then, at some point, I realized that I'd been living on a very small cultural island throughout my boyhood.  I was shocked. You mean the whole world isn't like Elm Avenue in Enid, Oklahoma?  Hiram, Ohio?  Not everyone is Christian? White? Republican?  Middle class?  Yes, I'd been very, very ignorant--an ugly word for an ugly condition.

And then, in the fall of 1962, on to Hiram College, which was not exactly a bubbling cauldron of motley humanity but at least showed me that there were differences in this world.  And that those differences could be pretty spectacular.  One of my best friends, Claude, was black.  He lived on the south side of Chicago.  His father drove a truck.  His white mother had an M.A.. in sociology.  I had never known anyone remotely like him.  (I had never even spoken to an African American person--or any person of color--until college!)  Claude married one of my white classmates and soared off to a great career--including being chair of the psych department at Stanford University (he's still there--but in a different capacity.)  We're still very much in touch. I stayed with them a few times when I was out in the Bay Area doing Jack London research.  And the cliche prevailed: It was as if we had never been separated.

My senior year, I roomed with a Jew named Bob who also revealed to me the vast dimensions of my religious and cultural ignorance.  I met atheists, too.  And gays. (No one was openly so, by the way--still too socially risky for that in Hiram, Ohio.)  And women who boldly spoke their opinions.  Who had read more books than I had (not that great an accomplishment in those days).  And said bad words ...  Amazing!

And, of course, the professors.  They were not at all the monolithic left-wing stereotypical caricatures we read about now and then these days.  Not by any stretch.  They were all sorts.  A potpourri.  Left, right, middle, and who-gives-a-damn?  They, too, presented so many images that conflicted with what I'd known as a child.  The German professor was black.  My favorite English teacher (of all time!) was Jewish.  And women on the faculty!  (I'd thought, you know, that they taught only public school, mostly elementary.)

As I grew to know all these folks--in and out of class--I realized something I should have known all my life, of course: In the most fundamental ways they were just like me.  And in other ways?  I realized that our differences educated me.  And I was grateful for that.  So it wasn't much of a stretch to follow with this: If they're just like me, then they should have the same rights that I have.  And the political party that seemed most interested in assuring that?  The Democrats.  They were the ones proposing and voting "Yes" on Civil Rights legislation.  On women's rights issues.  On Medicare.  My father's party opposed all.  This was deeply unsettling and upsetting to me in the early and mid-1960s when I was in college.

And religion.  Although I was moving away from the orthodox religious practices and beliefs of my family, I still believed in the truth of many of those humanistic New Testament teachings I'd learned as a boy.  We must help the poor.  Love one another.  Forgive.  Accept.  Treat others as our brothers and sisters.  Be the Good Samaritan.  All that--and more--continued to make inherent and enduring sense to me, even stripped of religious contexts and significance.

So ... these are the personal factors that began to bring about the change--in me, in my brothers, in many of my friends.  But the country was changing, as well.  It was the Sixties.  I graduated from college in 1966.  While I was there, a U. S. president was assassinated.  Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.  Fire hoses were blasting Civil Rights demonstrators in the South.  Congress was debating and enacting the social legislation of the Great Society.  Hope, as Emily Dickinson wrote, was indeed the thing with feathers--and Hope was soaring in those days.

By the time I graduated, there was also a war in Southeast Asia.  And it was escalating.  I began teaching at the Aurora (Ohio) Middle School in the fall of 1966, and it was not long before anti-war protests were dominating the nightly news.  Martin Luther King had shifted his emphasis from Civil Rights to anti-war and labor rights.  The country was in violent turmoil.  Deeply, bitterly polarized.  I was opposed to the war--as I remain opposed now to international military aggression.  My reading of history had told me--and tells me--that those who want the wars, who declare them, who benefit and profit from them, are rarely the ones who fight them.  That's for the rest of us.  Remember Tennyson's lines about the cavalry in his "The Charge of the Light Brigade": Theirs not to make reply, /  Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the 600?  (And, yes, I've memorized that one!)

And the party whose elected officials tended to oppose the war?  Democrats.  By the 1968 presidential primaries, I was a supporter of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and had boldly (!) put a bumper sticker on my 1967 Chevy Nova SS 327 (oh my, what a hot car that was!) that said (boldly!): McCARTHY.  It was green, I think.  I was growing my hair a little longer, letting a moustache take up residence on my upper lip, allowing my sideburns to creep downward.  Radical, eh?  In 1968,  I drove up to Western Reserve University (pre-Case consolidation) and heard/saw McCarthy speak at a rally.  He quoted Shakespeare.  And some Latin poets.  And the Greek tragedians.  The auditorium--the packed auditorium--contained the most excited crowd I've ever been in, saving, probably, some Tribe playoff games.  And more than a few Cavs' games back in the 80s.

It actually was a little risky to start making myself a public liberal in Aurora.  The town had voted overwhelmingly for conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964.  And some of my students' parents were not too thrilled about this shaggy puppy teaching who-knows-what down there at the middle school.

More on THAT tomorrow ...

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