Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Meditation on Politics, Part 2: The Card-Carrying Anarchist and the Centrist

The Card-Carrying Anarchist had been an on-and-off friend since I was in 3rd grade or so. We had met in Sunday School at my Episcopal church; his father taught then at the same college as my father did. We later crossed paths again when I was in about 6th grade and he was in 7th. He was of Italian descent, at least on his dad's side; there were Pa. coal miners somewhere in his background, I believe.

Now, in my junior year of high school (his senior), we ran into each other again, in my psychology class. In the years since we had first met, he had immersed himself in radical history and politics. He had read Bakunin, the Russian anarchist theorist, and was already a member of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World -- hence my nickname for him. (I kind of wish I'd been clever enough to think of that as a nickname for him at the time, but alas it was only in retrospect.)

We wound up sitting together at lunch most days. It was election season and I wore my McGovern button

every day in a school where "Nixon Now" and "Nixon -- Now more than ever"

buttons were far more common. The CCA wasn't impressed. "Don't Vote -- It only encourages them," was his motto.

The CCA was my principal tutor on the subject of radical politics and class consciousness. One day when I used the disparaging term "redneck," he corrected me, pointing out that the term was a dismissive insult to working-class whites. From our conversations -- and from some of the reading it inspired -- I began to learn a bit more about some of the obscured parts of American history. When I returned to the Quaker high school in my senior year, he was still in the area; I did a report for my history class on the IWW and brought him in as a guest speaker. My classmates didn't quite know what to make of him.

We corresponded for a time when I was in college and he had moved to New York to become a union organizer for the Garment Workers. But when it came to politics, while I found his ideas intriguing and ideals inspiring, I never made the commitment he did to fundamental radicalism. The closest I came was a brief flirtation with joining the Socialist Party, headquartered in Milwaukee at the time, and another with the equally brief presidential aspirations of populist Democrat Fred Harris in 1976.

But just as I had cast off the Nicene Creed as too constricting in describing my religious beliefs, I found myself reluctant to commit to any particular political party platform. To be sure, I always preferred Democrats when it came time to cast a ballot, but I wasn't drawn to the active organizing activities for any of the candidates on my campus.

Instead, I stumbled into journalism via the campus newspaper. Many things appealed to me about that craft. I loved writing, but I felt hopelessly incompetent at having to be "creative" (even though I was a composition major and took classes in Fiction and Playwritng). The best short story I ever wrote was basically an only lightly fictionalized account of the personal turmoils of another high school friend. Working for the college paper, I didn't have to make things up.

And I liked the idea of "getting all sides" to a story -- and the detachment it required. I absorbed the then-dominant ethic of "objectivity" with ease.

Degree in hand, I found a newspaper job. I payed close attention to national politics, but as an observer more than a partisan. I had voted for Carter in 1976, and largely admired his attempts to emphasize human rights in international affairs and energy conservation in the domestic sphere. I didn't particularly understand the economics of the time, from either a socialist or a capitalist perspective.

By 1980 I was subscribing to The Nation and Mother Jones, but I read them with the same reserve that I approached politics -- sympathetic to their basic outlooks, interested to learn more, but not deeply immersed in their world view.

Ted Kennedy challenged Carter from the left for the Democratic nomination that year, but I wasn't all that engaged with that fight. Instead, I was intrigued by the campaign of a local congressman, John Anderson, who was challenging Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Illinois had an open primary, allowing me to choose either the GOP or the Democratic ballot, and for the only time in my life I took a Republican one, voting for Anderson.

By now I had become completely disenchanted with Carter, and thought I would probably vote for Anderson's third-party candidacy in November. But when the time came to enter the voting booth, I thought to myself, "well, if I'm going to vote for a loser, why not one that I can feel a wholeheartedly support?" And so it was that in 1980 I picked Barry Commoner of the newly formed Citizens Party.

Looking back on that time, I find myself regretting, a lot, that I didn't vote for Carter's re-election. Not that it would have made a difference.

And this is where I'll try to pick up the story next time... even as I absorb the political changes of November 2nd, 2010.

PS: On February 26, 2011, I went through and edited the titles of this series slightly.


  1. I have a card carrying anarchist friend. And I'm a slightly libertarian leaning (very slightly) centrist. :)

  2. Looking back, I recall voting for Reagan (twice). So you have nothing to apologize for.


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