Lorna Wood is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama, with a Ph.D. in English from Yale. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Wiki Lit, and fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Canyons of the Damned, Spectacle, ShufPoetry, and Dark Magic (an Owl Hollow Press anthology), among others. Lorna has also published scholarly essays, and she is Associate Editor of Gemini Magazine.
FROM CANDY TO COURAGE: FOUR LIFE LESSONS ON PEOPLE AND POLITICS
1. Guns and Candy
My political awareness began with a shortage of candy bars. We didn’t always have dessert after lunch, but about once a week Dad would bring candy from the drugstore. Lately I had noticed a drop-off. I asked him why.
“They got too expensive.”
I was familiar with the phrase “too expensive.” This was why we couldn’t have nice things. But that something not too expensive should be snatched into that category outraged my five-year-old sense of justice.
“Why did they get too expensive?”
“Well, because of the Vietnam War.”
I knew about the war. Being the eccentric academic family we were, we had no TV, but my parents read The New Yorker aloud to each other. Still, how could that far-off event affect my candy bars?
“The government has to pay for the war, and that makes everything more expensive for the rest of us.”
I was indignant. Without my permission, my government was waging a war that everyone I knew disapproved of, and taking away my candy bars to do it. I started crossing my fingers during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Lesson 1: The perception that big government is taking nice things away engages people
in politics, but only by making their powerlessness apparent.
2. Education and Engagement
I was soon flooded with information about problems I could take no practical action towards solving.
I was especially gripped by The New Yorker’s analysis of legal matters: the threat to the First Amendment rights of a school teacher persecuted for wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War; the Fourth Amendment rights violated under the Nixon administration’s no-knock raids and wire tapping; the use of immunity granted under the Fifth Amendment to force people to testify; the long struggle for justice undergone by residents of Love Canal. From Ranger Rick and later National and International Wildlife, I learned more about threats to the environment.
In school, too, we studied pollution and endangered species. We were warned first about the paper shortage, then about the energy crisis. After that, we studied a progressive history curriculum that examined the American dream and the obstacles women and minorities faced in attaining it. I became interested in the stories of strikes and union busting in the early twentieth century and read biographies of Emma Goldman and Eugene V. Debs. Such listing to the far left was counterpoised by our studies of Animal Farm, which in turn influenced me to read 1984 and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Lesson 2: Education illuminates patterns in the distribution of power and gives individuals a sense of the contexts in which they wield and are subject to it. But education often seems like an endless study of how people in power take candy bars away from the powerless. It is confusing and somewhat discouraging to learn that you yourself, at various times and in various ways, are both an oppressive taker and an oppressed surrenderer.
3. People, or Why We Care
I was lucky to have a good education, but my understanding might have remained academic without personal influences. First and foremost among these were my parents. My mother, loudly typewriting her way toward a career as an art history professor, was a steadfast advocate of feminism. My father, though in many ways a man of his slightly earlier times when it came to women, was nevertheless the only dad I knew who did most of the cooking and cleaning in order to help Mom out. Dad’s pacifism and politics also affected me. Although I can’t verify his dark hints about why he left work in professional music in New York in 1950 to teach at Oberlin Conservatory, the atmosphere in the entertainment industry during the House Un-American Activities Committee’s heyday was undoubtedly a factor, and so wariness of witch hunts and repression were woven into our family life.
Other adults were important, too. I would have known little about the plight of Native Americans but for my third-grade teacher, who had worked on a reservation. Charismatic, passionate, and well-informed, she never let us sheltered private-school students forget how privileged we were to have our education and to live in a country that had once belonged to others.
When, in the middle of third grade, I was snatched away from my beloved teacher and taken on sabbatical with my parents, a new chapter was added to my lessons on privilege. In Cairo, the crowds and smells and animals in the streets filled me with questions whose answers almost always came down to lack of money. Poverty was why it always smelled like garbage. It was why our hotel manager could slap the elevator boy—only a few years older than I was—across the face. Poverty was why a man with a stump where his foot should be was begging on the street (how we could just walk by was harder to answer) and why crowds of children with flies swarming around their eyes tried to sell us things at the Pyramids. In Luxor, poverty was why there were no cars except a few taxis. The main mode of transportation was the donkey-drawn carriage.
As a Third World country, Egypt also taught lessons in geopolitics. My main takeaway was that official positions are often at odds with the people they supposedly represent. First there were the remnants of British and French colonialism everywhere, for example in the once-elegant trappings of our now seedy Cairo hotel, or in everyone’s penchant for kissing, French-style, on the cheek. The hotel food might be nationalized, so we got the same dishes in Luxor as in Cairo (only not so well prepared), but it was all French-inspired.
Then there were the headlines in the paper: “Sadat Says War May Come Any Day,” which alarmed my father but sent the desk clerk into gales of laughter. Apparently the government issued such pronouncements so frequently that no one took them seriously, even though the Yom Kippur War did come nine months later.
Finally, there were personal encounters. Although the Egyptian government was supposedly under Soviet sway at that time, Egyptians themselves spoke resentfully of Soviet intrusiveness into their national affairs, and we observed Egyptians treating Russian tourists dismissively. Conversely, Egyptians were uniformly friendly to Americans, in our observation, and made no distinction in their treatment of Jewish Americans in our tourist expeditions, despite troubled relations with Israel. The attitude toward Americans was perhaps summed up by a disreputable looking cab driver, who after asking us our nationality, announced, “Americans OK. Nixon no good.” He then turned to me. “You like Nixon?” When I shyly but emphatically shook my head, he abruptly pulled me into an unsavory version of the French cheek-kissing.
After living in France for six months and touring much of Western Europe, we returned home. There my interest in my father’s leftism and more generally in global and domestic socioeconomic inequities led me to a fascination with socialism. This was furthered by a brilliant friend of the family who spoke twelve languages and had once driven Ezra Pound in a Washington taxi. He celebrated the anniversary of the end of Vietnam with Champagne, called J. Edgar Hoover “the real Public Enemy Number One,” spoke colorfully of friends beaten up for demonstrating, and, after visiting China, declared that the Cultural Revolution was not all bad. Fortunately (I believe), the Hungarian and Cuban émigré friends parents of my friends counteracted his more extreme anti-capitalist views by making sure I understood exactly what life was like in the socialist police states they had fled.
Lesson 3: Although politics may seem to be all about money and power in government, the only place it means anything is down among the people.
4. Growing Up versus Giving Up
Politics for my grown-up self seems like a long, disappointing slide away from my hopes for America. From the trickle-up economics of globalization and the unthinkable consequences of climate change to unmitigated bellicosity and the rise of the “alt-right,” enormous forces are arrayed against the peaceful, moderate, free, clean-living country with a strong middle class that I came to envision as I made choices at the polls. At the same time, my own left seems to be sliding past me as well. I am not on board with extreme anti-capitalism, anti-Zionism sliding into anti-Semitism, or anti-vaxxers, though I am sympathetic to the frustrations behind such views.
The right, too, must feel that their vision for America is slipping away, or why would they be so desperate to “Make America great again”? Yet on the other hand, many of them are at least uncomfortable with their party’s new ties to White Nationalism.
Perhaps such disillusionment is partly an inevitable reflection of the truth that with each day we age, life itself is slipping away. Whatever the case, disengagement cannot be our answer. Indeed, it must be viewed as the most serious enemy we face.
Once again, my reading illuminates and expands on what experience has taught. Particularly germane is the thinking of Holocaust writer and chemist Primo Levi. A compelling yet discomfiting thread in his witnessing is condemnation of those who disapproved of Nazism but allowed it to happen. They are doubly guilty, in the former varnish maker’s view, for in allowing their principles to be overruled, they allowed Nazism to appropriate their passive support and give its monstrousness a veneer of respectability.
Lesson 4: Applying Levi’s view to my own life, I resolve to remain engaged and struggling, regardless of circumstances, lest I become one of those he calls (in The Periodic Table) the “honest and unarmed” who “clear the road” for unthinkable evil.