Nov 16, 2007

The politics of childhood

Sitting here in Norway, having just turned sixty-one, I find that the most difficult thread to depict from my childhood - from the headwaters of the stream my life has become - is the thread about politics. This is not because the politics of my life have been difficult - on the contrary, looking back at it all, I can't see that my central political viewpoints have had to change all that much.
What makes this thread difficult is that the politics that have formed my life are hard to separate from the other threads. Right from my childhood, political thinking has been entwined with all the other threads: Religion, culture, music, travels, literature, science, even the elm trees of Des Moines, and all the people who populated my childhood ... are ensnared by this thread.

One big difference between Bill Bryson's account of growing up in post war Des Moines and mine is that Bill's makes no mention of the one element that for me was always a part of life: Politics. I guess Bill's parents were either not too interested in politics or at least didn't talk about them with children. That was never the case in the Meglitsch house. Our family didn't sit in front of the idiot-box letting Howdy Doody dictate our world view. In Our house, as far back I can remember, we talked in the evenings, or read from books, or listened to music. And when I say talked i mean TALKED. When I was four, I'm sure I couldn't or didn't follow all of what the grownups were talking about, but it was very often politics.

Two important political words invaded the realm of my childhood long before I started school: McCarthy and War. The «War» term could be subdivided into several categories, all of which were equally bad, but not understood in the beginning: «The war», «Cold war», and «Korean war» were the most significant. «McCarthy» (sometimes pronounced witch-hunt) was clearly just a nasty word for something awful that happened to people.

Around the time I started school (1951) more political concepts were worming their way into my brain, even more difficult to understand than «McCarthy» and «War», but all of them necessary if you were ever to understand that big old world out there, some of the most important of these new concepts were: «racism», «freedom», «prejudice», «fascism», «communism» and «the bomb».

In grade school, we never at any time learned anything about any of these adult issues, we read stupid little books about Dick, Jane and Spot instead. But on one issue, «the Bomb» we were given at least specific training. Along with learning what to do in the case of fire (fire-drills), we were also taught what to do in the case of the bomb (Duck-and-cover-drills).

From the time I was in the third grade (1954/55) I was already getting the hang of at least some of these issues, and during the latter half of the decade the cornerstones of what would become my political agendas through life were cemented into place.

The first Pillar: War and Peace

Because I am the post war generation, I will not dwell much on «the war» itself. WWII was, after all, finished before I was born. And in the early fifties, there was a strong tendency amongst my peers to see the war not as recent, but as ancient history. Nonetheless, in the street jargon of my time, Germans and «Japs» were the bad guys and Americans were the good guys. Another word for Germans was «Nazi» (pronounced nazzy) ... there was no other term for «Japs».

More or less all the adults of my childhood had «been in the war». In the start, most of us kids thought that this meant that most of our dads had been in combat of the kind we saw in the wartime newsreels they sent at the Saturday afternoon matinées at the local movie theater. But as time went on, we discovered that most of them, even though they had served in the army, hadn't ever seen combat. Dad, as an example had been an instructor in survival training in Florida, Some of my other friends' dads had been medics, accountants, clerks and staffers of one kind or another. Our parents had a lot to say about the war whether or not they had actually been there: we heard stories of the friends and relatives that didn't come home, about Germans and Japs, about the trials of wartime rationing etc. etc. What we almost never heard were tales about actual combat from people who had actually been there.

Of the crew of dads that were active leaders in my Boy Scout troop, most were adamant about military things like marching in step, taking orders, cadre discipline, keeping your uniform neat, and that sort of thing, citing their wartime experience as proof of how important those things were – except, mind you, those very few dads that had actual combat experience. These dads were more concerned about learning self discipline, being able to keep your head cool in crisis, being concerned for the well being of buddies, and having the skills and knowledge you needed when it was necessary. None of them talked of glory or heroism or rank and file dicipline. And none of them told stories of combat.

There were a lot of other things that our parent generation didn't ever mention about the war. Perhaps the most interesting secret for my generation, was that the war against fascism started long before the military war started, and that some of our parents in some way or another had been active in the struggle against American fascism in the thirties, long before America went to the war against foreign fascists. The scenario we were led to accept, was that fascism and dictatorship was something bad that happened in Europe and Asia, and when things got critical, anti-fascist, freedom-loving America went to war against it.

The post war baby-boomers on the whole accepted this scenario blindly throughout the fifties and well into the sixties - not having a clue it wasn't true, they had no reason to ask themselves why the real truth was not being told: that it had been the left wingers who led the struggle against fascism in America, and that after the war the right wingers side-stepped this uncomfortable truth by whipping up an anti-left paranoia and persecuting the left-wingers. That's where McCarthy came into the picture – we'll get back to that.

But at our house, the cold-war era's collective amnesia hadn't taken hold. Wars were never portrayed in a simplistic way, and American society was never portrayed in a simplistic way either. As the fifties rolled on the Korean conflict, the cold war McCarthyistic propaganda, as well as human rights issues both domestic and international were common subjects of evening debates, and no one would ever have contemplated sheltering children from ongoing issues, no matter how difficult.

But it's important to understand that my siblings and I were never brainwashed into taking one particular standpoint or another. Debate in our house was never one sided – there was always someone taking the other side as well. And Dad as often as not was the one who took on the role of the devil's advocate on the big issues. Listening night after night to big debates about big issues amongst intelligent, well informed, well educated adults was an inevitable part of life for us kids, and no doubt contributed a lot to our intellectual development.

There was at least one issue, though, where there was a general consensus among the frequenters of our household debates: Everyone agreed that «the bomb» had given us a terrifyingly dangerous future.

Perhaps it was because at first only the US had developed and deployed the atomic bomb and that it was only the US that was further testing and developing the bomb in the first post-war years; perhaps it was because of the right-wing's frenzied, witch-hunt persecution of the left-wing in America; but mobilization of strong organizations against nuclear weapons happened in Europe but not in America. The Ban The Bomb movement in America was very small and lacked strong figureheads like Britain's Bertrand Russell. At the end of the forties The Society of Friends, and The Progressive Party with Henry A. Wallace (himself an Iowan) at the helm, attempted to rally support , but met little popular response.

Banning the bomb was a recurrent theme at our house right from the start, and perhaps one of my earliest political choices was to identify myself with the peace movement. Probably as early as in the third or fourth grade I began to adopt heroes like Bertrand Russell. I was still at grade school when I was publicly chastised by my teacher for writing a subversive quote from Russell on my my notebook:

"War does not determine who is right, only who is left."

Be that as it may, by the time I graduated from the 1950's I was a confirmed Ban the Bomb'er who sported the at that point the little known (at least in the US) nuclear disarmament symbol on all my books, a symbol that in the sixties would become both ubiquitous in, and synonymous with, my generation's opposition to the Vietnam war .

Looking back, I think that to understand my generation correctly, you have to realize that we were brought up to assume that a new world war fought with nuclear weapons would happen in our lifetime. It's tough growing up having to add the clause «if any of us lives that long» to any statement about the future.

The Second Pillar: Racism and McCarthyism vs. civil rights and civil liberties

Race, class, civil rights and civil wrongs

Among the political concepts that I learned very early on was «civil rights», the opposite of which being in my personal jargon «civil wrongs» which was my catch all term for racism, racial prejudice, and racial discrimination.

In the Des Moines I grew up in, there was a lot of racism. There was of course a lot of racism all over America, and there still is. Des Moines was by no means as virulent a racist society as many other places in America at that time. There was no pointy-hooded Des Moines chapter of the KKK in the fifties (there had been in the twenties, and it started to reemerge in the 80's, but in the fifties there wasn't); there were no lynchings; there were no church bombings or cross burnings or that kind of thing. Des Moines' racism was the racism of a decent clean living heartlands town.

I'm not saying of course that racism is any less vile if it is perpetrated by decent clean living heartlanders, But Des Moines' racism was definitely different than the strict apartheid segregationist racism we met in Virginia in the summers, neither was it the murderous Mississippi-red-neck-KKK racism we read about in the papers. It was the racism of the few, made possible by the vast majority of citizens who might well click their tongues in disapproval of racist incidents, but otherwise didn't do anything about the deep seated racial inequality occurring all around them.

But I can vouch for the fact that there were honest, decent, clean living, heartlands anti racists in Des Moines, too – both black and white. And I can guarantee as well that a lot of them at one time or another during the fifties were friends of our family.

Our family lived in a middle class neighborhood that might as well have been segregated by law, there simply were no blacks there. In fact there were no blacks in my grade school class, and hardly any in the school at all. In 1950, the largest portion of Des Moines' black population lived in the proletarian northern and eastern parts of town, and we lived in the bourgeoise southern and western part of town. The black population was poor, and rich people were always white. Time and time again I listened to decent, clean living, heartlands adults explain that it wasn't a matter of race but a matter of class: «There are lots of whites who live in the north and east of town, too, because they are poor and property is cheaper there» This explanation, of course, avoided the fact that there was indeed a true slum ghetto in Des Moines, the Southeast Bottoms, down in the river basin itself where only black people lived, where there was no indoor plumbing, that lacked any trace of affluent America just as completely as fieldworkers camps in rural Virginia. But as a grade school kid, I had never seen this part of Des Moines - as a teenager I would do community work there with the Quakers and would discover a darker side of my home town.

A friend of mine described her experience of race in Des Moines this way: «I can't even recall when I first realized that there were many black kids attending the school. I never saw them during the school day. We were all tracked into classrooms and teachers according to our testing ... no black kids were in my track. And I don't know how the class periods, lunch periods etc were arranged so that I did not even see black kids... but they were there.»

From that perspective I must consider myself lucky that I somehow broke through that race visibility barrier before I started high-school. Until 6th grade I hadn't had the oppertunity to meet black people in Des Moines – they didn't exist in my part of town. Of course breaking the barrier wasn't a matter of luck at all - My exposure happened through my participation in the late 50's in the Des Moines' Unitarian congregation, and through community action projects with the AFSC, the Quakers' community organization.

An important mentor, and a guiding beacon for me both in civil rights work and in community work in general was Edna Griffin, whom I was privileged to know through the Unitarian congregation. I have written a piece about her elsewhere. Through Edna, I had my first exposure to the political double-whammy principle of direct action combined with non-violent civil dissobedience - a combination Mahatma Ghandi had developed in the Indian struggle for independece from British imperialism.

Witch hunting McCarthy style and civil liberties

In the fifties America was in the throes of McCarthyism, and in our family this was a significant backdrop for our intellectual/political development. Dad was a young professor in biology at Drake University in Des Moines, and most of our family's social life happened in the context of other families at the University. And many of the young professors at Drake had a pretty progressive political views. Although both Iowa and Des Moines were staunchly conservative, Drake University, all through the McCarthy period, resisted the intense political pressures from the right wing to register and censure left wing teaching staff. For that reason the teaching staff at Drake was far less conservative politically than one might have expected.

Joseph McCarthy's reign of paranoid mind-control far outlasted his political life, unfortunately. We can see it working all over the world to this day.

During the 30's and 40's there was an escalating and complex struggle between varying shades of red among the Marxist socialists on the one hand and a number of political anti-socialist ideologies on the right wing on the other. Among the contenders on the right wing, the Italian and Spanish fascists and the German NSDAP, or Nazis, gained strength continually until they gained control. In the Soviet union and various parts of the international socialist movement in Europe the Leninists were gaining ground. Increasingly, it was the Leninist socialists and the Fascists that that dominated the struggle between right and left right up til War broke out in Europe. Parallel to the consolidation of right wing politics into totalitarian Fascism and Nazism under Hitler and Mussolini, Soviet socialism was consolidating into a brutal totalitarian state under Stalin.

And a similar scenario was unfolding in Asia with the rise of Japanese imperialism and a communist revolution in China

Both the Italian Fascists the German Nazis had a great deal of sympathy and support from the right wing in America, too – even after war in Europe was a reality. Contrapuntally, a wide variety of American socialist groups aligned themselves with different parts of the socialist antifascist factions in Europe, a number of them were aligned with the Stalinist Soviet Union.

Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese Empire lost the war in the end, but Stalin and Mao were on the winners side. That was apparently hard to swallow for certain right-wingers in the US, amongst them many who had supported the Fascists and Nazis, and had struggled intensely against the socialist movement in the US prior to the war.

Trying to grasp this complex reality as a child, I figured that the American right, to cover up their own murky past, started a virulent anti socialist campaign right after the war – often called the Red Scare. Their message was that anyone on the left side of American politics must be a collaborator with Stalin. And Joseph McCarthy was their prophet, leading the campaign to blacklist and persecute anyone who at any time had demonstrated even mildly socialist sympathies. When Stalin broke America's monopoly on the bomb in 1949, things started getting really paranoid in the US. When China backed North Korea's invasion of South Korea in 1950, it got even worse - the so called Cold War started getting hot even inside the US.

From about 1950, The House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, under Senator McCarthy's paranoid, alcoholic tutelage, arranged witch-hunt like hearings against socialists, social democrats, progressives and liberals of all kinds, alleging more or less that the slightest taint of socialist thinking was tantamount to being a Soviet spy. In the end the whole thing got so ludicrous that McCarthy himself was censured by the Senate and dropped out of sight. But the HUAC continued witch hunting for years and much of the Red Scare paranoia is still evident in US politics half a century later, even long after the demise of the Soviet Union.

If there had ever been a parallel black balling and witch-hunting of people who had either supported or sympathized with the Fascists before the war, the American right wing would have been sparsely populated indeed in the fifties.

Belonging to a family av non-Stalinist, non-Leninist socialists in this period, was difficult but interesting.

A second thing, then, that helps to understand the political earthquake that rumbled out of my generation is that kids that get lied to get very angry when they discover it. The post war / cold war period was a period of monumental lies. The Russians lied, the Americans lied, the Chinese lied, the Germans lied, the British lied. And they made the mistake of educating their kids better than the generation before ... Education inevitably lead to exposing the lies.

The Third Pillar: Respect For Nature and the Environment

Last week Oslo was almost totally devoted to The Nobel Peace prize for 2007 being given to the IPCC (represented by Rajendra Pachauri) and Al Gore. This week, all eyes have been focused in the ongoing United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali and the sobering realization that even when the crisis is real, thoroughly documented and frighteningly imminent, the leaders of the nations of the world can’t muster the moral courage to take really bold steps to safeguard the future of our species on this planet. We are proving ourselves to be a species of spineless wimps and weaklings.

Perhaps the most discouraging part of the epistle of mankind’s last days on Earth is this: the human threat to the stability of Earth’s crisis has been known for a generation, but virtually nothing has been done to avert the coming crisis.

1957 was the start of the IGY, the International Geophysical Year. My father was a Fullbright Scholar at the university in Wellington NZ in 1958-59, partly funded by IGY. The biologists, the botanists, the oceanographers, the meterologists, were already all talking about human impact on the climate in 1958. The freon scare, the CO2 - greenhouse scare, the gulfstream scare, were already firmly emplanted on the scientific agenda. That's fifty years ago.

To me, it has been wonderful to see Al Gore emerging as a world class communicator about the scope of this crisis. In his Nobel Lecture he pointed out that this crisis has been foreseen by scienists as far back as the 1890’s when The Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius published his work on the greenhouse effect of atmospheric CO2. Gore also referrs to Roger Revelle as his mentor in the 60’s in the issue of climate change. Revelle was one of the IGY oceanographers who influenced Dad. And Dad unquestionably influenced me in the direction of environmental consciousness.
So Gore and I have both grown up with a consciousness about the dangers that come with the human species' impact on the environment.

While still in grade school I learned a little story that I have been able to use all through life:

"In the beginning there was no life on earth, it was hot as hell, there was no free O2 in the atmosphere and hardly any in the oceans. Through the countless eons since the first life came to earth two kinds of living things changed the chemistry of the climate: plants and animals. First the plants in the sea learned how to use light and CO2 to make sugars to sustain themselves, In tjhis way, it was the plants that first produced O2. As this was happening, the earth gradually cooled down. Then along came the animals who learned how to live off the plants. The byproducts of this evolution became the foundation of all life on earth ever since: more and more fossil carbon and free oxygen.

And then came man and got organized … and after a million or so years he learned to dig up the fossile carbon and burn it. If he ever in the future manages to find all the fossil carbon and burn it there would again be no free atmospheric O2, only CO2, and it will be as hot as hell again. And man and animals will no longer be able to survive, only the plants under the sea."

The fourth pillar: Activism through art and culture

[This section of the article is "under construction" and may take a while to get finished with]

1 comment:

Steven Meglitsch said...

Sara Ransom sa...

I can't recall which junior high you went to. I went to Callanan. I can't even recall when I first realized that there were MANY black kids attending the school. I never saw them during the school day. We were all tracked into classrooms and teachers according to our testing (IQ). Thus, I was always with the same kids from 6th grade (when Sputnik trumped the USA) through 12th grade. But no black kids were in my track. And I don't know HOW the class periods, lunch periods etc were arranged so that I did not even SEE black kids... but they were there. I saw them all gathered in the lunchroom one time, can't remember why/when.

Same thing in high school. Wow! What a revelation THAT was. One morning and one morning only, I got to school quite early and was directed to the lunchroom til the school was officially open. Over there in the far corner were countless black kids, with their portable sound-boxes playing music that I never heard on MY radio stations.. and they were not dancing the rock'n'roll steps I learned at Tanglefoot Cottage (or wherever we took dancing)... I only learned a name for their dance style when Patrick Swayze was the lead in "Dirty Dancing." THAT is what these kids were doing, hot and heavy, at 7 or so in the morning... And when the school was "open" for the day's classes, these kids melted out of sight -- never saw them in classes or hallways.

The Unitarian Church however, alerted me to where most blacks lived. Thanks again to Edna Griffin (and her daughter who was my pal, Phyllis). As a youth group we'd troop over there to do work projects.

I also recall the great "Flush-in" when the black community, who lived in "The Bottoms" near the gold-gilded State Capitol Building, decided they deserved indoor plumbing, too. So close to that bastion of democracy, and the blacks had only outhouses. They staged a "Flush-in" where any time they needed to go, they'd just waltz up to that grand edifice and use the public facilities... I do believe that the city found funding to put in a water system in The Bottoms... Again, it was the Unitarians who alerted me to this.

In high school days, a group of us liked to attend church services in the black community where the entire congregation got DOWN when singing their hymns.... We were always very kindly welcomed, but proved a bit ungracious by barely putting in a dollar each in the collection basket...