Sunday, June 06, 2004

President Reagan’s death has prompted the expected flood of musings -- mostly positive, some negative. Liberals felt about Reagan rather like conservatives felt about Clinton: They couldn’t believe that the American people would elect this man twice. Of course, to so many people, Reagan was a hero: upbeat, positive, believing in America, a ray of hope after years of dark times. He never was a hero to me, even at my most conservative -- but then, I never made a hero out of any politician.

The 1980 election was the first time I was old enough to vote for a President. Those of us that came of age in the 70s got one message loud and clear: Government doesn’t work; it just interferes with people and should get off our backs; it screws things up. I grew up in a family that, with the exception of my maternal grandmother, was unremittingly conservative -- at least when it came to economic issues; there was some variation between individuals when it came to social issues. The man who was my boyfriend in college, and who I would marry, went from being an “uncomfortable liberal” to being deeply conservative. On top of that, I studied economics, a field where most professors were conservative -- although there were still exceptions. At the time I was in college (1977-82) there were still many liberals hanging around, quite visible in a college town, largely shaking their heads over the apathy and conservatism of the new crop of kids. Business Administration classes were packed full; the humanities were a joke -- and nobody who actually wanted to get a job after graduating was going to touch them, at least without getting a “bread-and-butter major” to go along with it. Anyway, that was the environment in which I came of age. And, I think, too, a libertarian attitude rather goes along with my own temperament. My husband once brought home a psychological test (the Firo-B) that was given to kids coming in to Juvenile Hall, and had me fill it out. It described my attitude as “You don’t tell me what to do, and I won’t tell you what to do” -- my problem with having government do things was that it interfered with people’s freedom, and because most folks don’t like their lives regulated or pockets picked, it doesn’t work.

I should probably make clear that I’ve never really been actively political -- I just try to follow events and vote, like any citizen. When I became a Baha’i in 1985, I changed my registration to non-partisan, which is fairly common among Baha’is, who are forbidden to actively engage in politics. But, during this period my political opinions changed from fairly libertarian to quite conservative as I shifted to a harder stance on moral issues. It seemed like conservatism was everywhere -- I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh when his show came out of Sacramento, and he was far less of a jackass than he became nationally. In order to be off the deep right-wing, one had to be a constitutionalist -- a breed that was not uncommon in rural northern California. (I still giggle when I hear mainstream Republican politicians described as “ultra-conservative”; it amuses me how everybody always thinks they are in the middle, and it’s those other guys who are extreme wackos.) My husband subscribed to National Review, American Spectator, and Chronicles of Culture, which I often read. I more than once observed to Grandma, the sole liberal in my life, that I wondered sometimes if I wasn’t taking the conservative point of view for granted, because I was exposed to it so much. As far as I knew, liberals scarcely existed outside academia, the media, and Hollywood -- apart from old geezers from the WWII generation who still saw the Democrats as the “party of the working man” and the Republicans as “the party of the rich”. In fact, it sometimes made me smile how conservatives always seemed to act like they were somehow under siege by liberals in these powerful centers of thought, when it seemed so obvious that liberalism had become marginal in the country and had long lost touch with where ordinary people were at. People started talking about “the L word”. Another aspect was that if I ventured to question any conservative position I’d get “the look” and an hour long lecture about why I was wrong from my husband. So, between being around apolitical Baha’is, and a husband who just expected me to agree with him, I learned not to talk about politics -- I listened a lot, but didn’t talk much.

Then, my first child was born in 1989 -- and strangely enough that affected my political attitudes. It made me somehow very aware of the fragility of life. I’d look at my brilliant and beautiful baby boy, realizing that just one good conk on the head, and everything I loved about him would be gone. When I heard of tragedies on the news, they began affecting me emotionally, when once I would have just said “Gee, that’s sad”, and forgotten it. And, I felt vulnerable. I was financially dependent on my husband, and had never really developed a career of my own. If anything happened to him, my babies and I would be in real trouble -- they’d go into day care, and I’d be struggling all day in some crappy, low-paying job just trying to survive. That is, if the crappy job would even pay for the day care, and pay the rent at the same time. My kids would come home from school to an empty house, and all its dangers. In short, the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality seemed less and less adequate, because I knew how easily my own bootstraps could break. “I’ve got mine, so screw you, go get your own” didn’t seem like a moral way to look at the world.

This seems an odd background for someone who has become so prominently associated with Baha’i liberals online, but I always had a strong liberal streak in my religious approach. I have always been repelled by Christian fundamentalism, and passionately believed in religious tolerance and the God-given right of every soul to explore truth for himself. Where I took conservative Baha’i positions, it was generally because I wasn’t aware of any other option -- when I discovered the options online, it didn’t take long for me to abandon them. Along with my religious explorations, I ran into people who were more liberal politically than anyone I had ever met in real life -- political liberals, instead of being virtually creatures from another planet, are people I know and respect. I can’t say I’m exactly liberal politically, even now -- I’m part of the vast American mushy middle, which is the group that actually decides most elections, when the chips are down. And, I’m voting against Bush, because I hate this war.

Which is far afield from Reagan’s passing, I suppose. It’s just that he was elected at the same time I became a voter, and I’ve traveled such a long way since then.