How does a political identity begin?
Political identities, like religious identities, start when we’re very young, and they start with the family. Later on, in our teens and early twenties, we may rebel, or we may continue along the path laid down in childhood. But as little children we can’t possibly understand politics rationally. For children, politics is mostly a matter of affilliation, plus some vague information swirling around in the public domain and filtering down to the child in childish terms: What does my family think and believe? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?
My first political memory is of the Korean War, which began when I was almost an infant (please do me a favor and don’t do the math). I must have been only two or three years old when I told my mother, after careful and solemn consideration of the pros and cons, that red was no longer my favorite color. When she asked me why, I answered that it was because it was the Communist color (or perhaps “Commie color”?).
Thus is a political consciousness born. I didn’t–and couldn’t, being so young–have any understanding of the conflict itself, nor of the issues involved. But I’d overheard things, enough to conclude that there was an enemy, and that since the enemy liked the color red (heretofore my favorite color), now I needed to hate red.
On my first day of kindergarten I was issued a set of metal dog tags with my name and address and instructed to wear them around my neck at all times. I don’t know whether this was a national policy, or one limited to New York, but everyone in our school was given them, although few of us ended up wearing them (we were also supposed to bring a handkerchief to school every day, and I forgot that too, and regularly got marked down for it). I knew exactly what the dog tags were for, though, thanks to my best friend. If we were bombed and blown to bits, she explained, and there were no bodies left, the dog tags would help them identify the pieces (ah, those innocent pre-DNA days!).
So I grew up with the idea of war and danger hovering very near, although the danger never did materialize on our shores. Later there were the famous “duck-and-cover” drills, which seemed useless even then, in a war that was likely to be catastrophically nuclear. There was once an even more elaborate citywide drill in which all the schools and businesses closed prematurely at a certain pre-planned time in the early afternoon, and we were all supposed to get home immediately, or to go to another pre-arranged place where a trusted adult would be waiting. We had about 15-minutes’ time to get there.
This latter drill was supposed to mimic the way it would be if we actually got a warning that a fleet of ICBMs had been launched and was zinging our way from Russia. I viewed my lonely walk home that day as an exercise in going there to die, not to be safe–for how could home ever protect me from that? The eerie, silent, nearly car-free streets I walked along half convinced me, a child with an overactive imagination, that this was the real thing. As I looked up at the sky I could almost see the warheads coming, so real did it all seem.
I saw the movie “On the Beach” when it first came out in 1959, and read the book, too, for extra measure. Afterwards, I became so fearful that the world would end in 1964, the year in which the book was set, that for self-protection I started to avoid reading things that seemed likely to upset me so much, although my avoidance was far from complete (I did a project for the Science Fair on fallout shelters, for example).
During these early years I was quite aware that everyone in my family was a Democrat. So, I was a Democrat too, whatever that meant. It meant I was for Adlai Stevenson and that I didn’t like Eisenhower, although since Eisenhower was the President I had to root for him, too, which was a bit complicated. But I was a mini Pauline Kael in the making, unaware of knowing any Republicans at all, and I had been suitably shocked when Eisenhower was re-elected (as Kael had been about Nixon’s re-election). I hadn’t the foggiest notion what Democrats actually did, just that they were supposed to be kinder and nicer, especially to poor people, and that Stevenson was smarter, too.
But there was another strain in my family that was impossible to ignore. I had one relative who was relentlessly pro-Soviet. At all family gatherings, he would hold forth on why the USSR was better than the US in every way–why, in fact, the Soviet Union was the greatest and most progressive nation on earth. And this wasn’t in the early days of Communism, before the awful picture had become crystal-clear; this was after Stalin, after the purges and famines, after the point of no return for most who had previously supported that regime.
This relative, whom I’ll call Joe, was my first introduction to fanaticism, although I didn’t know the word. There was no argument that could possibly dissuade him, even when presented by my father, who was awfully good at debate. Joe could rationalize anything, and never ever ever admitted that he’d been wrong. He seemed to touch a particular nerve in my grandmother, a stalwart and patriotic sort. At each family gathering she’d listen for a while to the mounting argument and the raised voices, and then she would finally raise her own in exasperation and say: “America has been very good to you, Joe. If you like Russia so much, why don’t you just move there?”
Not a bad question, actually; right on the money. But Joe never missed a beat, in the same way that he never had trouble weasling out of any other question he didn’t like. “Oh, I could move there,” he’d answer. “I’d like to. But it’s more important for me to stay and work for change here.”
I would observe from the sidelines. There was no point in entering this repetitive exchange, which always seemed to proceed in choreographed fashion to its inevitable denouement. I had no idea why the adults persisted in an argument that never changed, and clearly never was going to.
So, what did I learn in my childhood about politics? I learned to affiliate with my family’s beliefs on an emotional level, but I learned very little except generalities about the reasoning and factual basis behind those positions. I learned that politics could be a very contentious subject, but that people still liked to discuss it. I learned that some people were fanatics and didn’t listen to reason or argument, and I knew I never wanted to be like them. And I knew the world was a dangerous place, and that (at least in my mind) there was an excellent chance I wouldn’t live to grow up, because a nuclear conflagration would stop me. There was fear involved in politics, but it seemed important–perhaps a matter of life or death. I learned to protect myself from the intensity of this fear by tuning out information about certain subjects, by not reading about them in depth.
How much of this is universal? I imagine this sense of danger is typical for a child growing up in times in which there is a threat of war, which (unfortunately) includes most times. I think the sense of right/wrong and us/them (polarization and identification with a particular group) would also be quite strong for virtually all children growing up with family and friends who are more or less on a single political page. I also think it likely that even children in more politically heterogeneous families form some sort of political identification based on the politics of one parent or another, and that, although this identification is probably more tentative, sometimes it can be quite strong. I think that most, if not all, children lack the cognitive powers to understand the deeper issues behind political affiliation, and so the decisions children make aren’t really cognitive decisions at all, but simply emotional reactions.
Extrapolating from my own situation and the situation of my friends who grew up as liberal Democrats, I think the sensitivity that caused me to turn away from seeking out deeper knowledge of upsetting or frightening topics of the day may have been somewhat typical. Paradoxically, though, my interest came in through a sort of back door–I would read about other wars and other times. In this, perhaps, I was not typical; I really don’t know. The Holocaust, WWI, the Trojan War, the Civil War–I could (and did) read about these events, but not about threats that were too close to home, too up-close and personal.
I think that there were special circumstances in my own family–Joe, to be exact–that sensitized me to be extremely wary of fanatics. As a result, I dedicated myself on some very deep level to the idea of being openminded, and to seriously considering arguments that ran counter to my habitual opinions. I think it was this deeply-rooted antagonism to fanaticism that set the stage for the possibility (not the actuality, and certainly not the inevitability, but just the possibility) that I might change my political position much later in life.
(To be continued….in Part 4)
[ADDENDUM: For next part, “Interlude,” go here.]