1968, George Wallace and My Dad: How I know that Glenn Beck Populism is not New

Posted: 30 August 2010 in Everything Else...
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If you were my age or older in 1968 (I was eight years old) you remember.  If you were young you heard the names, saw the images on TV and sensed something in the faces of your parents.  If you were older you felt it in the world.  Things were going wrong.  First Martin, then Bobby.  Chicago.  Paris. Czechoslovakia.  Black fists raised in Mexico City. The streets of most American cities–war zones.  Vietnam–1200 killed each month, half a million troops there by the end of the year, no end in sight.

The world felt out of control.  Now, as an 8 year old I was focused on one thing: Bob Gibson.  He was not just my hero.  He was a god.  And he was a black man.  This led to a great deal of confusion on my part because not very many nice things were said generally about “those people” (in their cities*) and certainly not much (if anything) nice specifically about MLK.  In fact, in our house he was a communist, pure and simple.  His death was not discussed.  He was not missed.  No one mourned.  My sisters mourned Bobby–I mean, they sobbed.  But I think it was because of his good looks.

Anyway, Bob Gibson was on his way to an all-time record for least number of earned runs allowed per nine innings pitched in history: 1.12.  He was so dominating that in 1969 they lowered the pitching mound to “even the playing field”.  I am not writing about Bob Gibson today. (Though I spent that summer and many thereafter imitating his windup and flinging balls against the barn wall while playing that same imaginary perfect game over day after day.  Gibson (I) always won.  It was always a shutout.  It always came down to a last-batter strikeout.) But given what Bob Gibson did that summer you know it must have been a crazy world indeed for me to notice anything else. And yet, I did.

I don’t know how I knew that dad was suffering but he was.  He had always been anti-communist, ever since I could remember at least.  He read Sword of the Lord and listened to Carl McIntire (look them up).  He read US News and World Report and attended (I did not realize until later) John Birch Society meetings.  He had issues with depression around that time but I have never learned whether it was job-related only (his narrative), because my mom was really sick (partially paralyzed and we did not know why), or because the world was going to hell and he felt out of control.  It was probably some combination of all three.

All I know is that dad really connected to George Wallace that year.  I don’t remember the exact date but sometime when the weather started getting cold dad started sporting a “Wallace for President” button, put a bumper sticker to that effect on our car, and went to see the man himself at a campaign swing in Hershey, PA (chocolate town).  Dad was angry and Wallace had some answers.

When I got older it embarrassed me that dad had followed this man.  Once I got to high school and realized who Wallace was and what he had said and done, frankly, I was ashamed. But I love my dad and he is a good man–no, he is a great man in my eyes because he was and is a man of principle.  I knew my dad’s sins. I knew he was human.  But he was honest.  He worked hard (always two jobs at least).  He loved my mom and was faithful to her.  He took care of us six kids.  He refused to do things at the businesses where he worked if he sensed they were unethical–let alone illegal.  He served his church, giving many hours to serve on various committees or act as treasurer.

But dad was lost in 1968.  The world he had known was gone.  He had served in the last “good war”–the war in which the US had saved the world.  He had been in the harbor on D-Day.  (He was not the only one who felt this way.  Many years later when I lived in Paris he came to visit.  One day on the street near l’Opera an elderly French man stopped my dad and, in French, said “Thank-you for saving us.”).  The America that had done those things was gone.  He was adrift in a world in which leaders were no longer leading; the USA was in wars it was going to lose; and people were burning flags (or wearing them as underwear)–flags, the flying of which, was still a sacred act for him.

Dad hated LBJ–we were never allowed to speak ill of the president but we were allowed to watch the “Smothers Brothers” and their weekly thrashing of the political elites (for all you young folks, think of “The John Stewart Show” with guitars and beads).  He hated Nixon (though he would later “hold his nose” and vote for him).  He hated the war (though we could not speak against it at home and he only admitted his anger about it recently to my brother who had been part of that war and hated it too).  Dad must have been devastated to see my cousins, future/former brother-in-law, and his son coming back from the war at about that time high on drugs, drunk most of the time, and generally so screwed up that they STILL have not recovered (I want to weep as I write this).

Wallace provided some answers.  Washington was the problem.  Government was out of control.  Hard working people, like my dad, were the victims.  Good people were bearing the burden of a society gone wrong.  Uppity blacks, hippies, draft dodgers and effete university intellectuals hated America and they were making us lose our will, our courage, our energy.  Civil rights had gone too far–rewarding the wrong kind of black people (the message was subtle on this point) and neglecting those who really needed help (though it was not clear who they were).  Wallace provided certainty and a clear message that it was still possible to rescue America from all of this–but it was going to be hard.

Keep in mind that the “Moral Majority” was a future dream of a young man in Virginia.  The Republican Party was still associated with successful businessmen.  The Democrats had sold out long ago (except for Truman, that bastard).  And though Roosevelt had pulled us out of the Depression, he had gone way too far and made us, basically, a socialist nation.  Where was a young, blue/white collar white man to turn?  Well, in 1968 nearly 10 million (13.5% of the electorate) turned to George Wallace and his message of certainty.  His was a message of a man who was deeply aggrieved (Look at his angry face! Pat Buchanan learned how to twist his face in derision and anger from this man–I am convinced of that).  Wallace too, was a victim (remember what the Feds did to him!).

It is all well and good for me, 40-plus years later, to criticize the inability of Wallace and my dad to be “honest” about their own white privilege and how ludicrous it was for them to portray themselves as victims.  I mean, how was my dad supposed to think about his “privilege”?  How could that have ever made sense to him?  Brought up in the deepest parts of the Great Depression; raised in the poverty of West Virginia’s hills; a boy whose mom had abandoned the family; a young man who had nearly lost his life in “the War”; a father who struggled to put food on the table; an alcoholic who went cold turkey (my mom, not long into their marriage, confronted my dad and said “stop drinking now or I will leave you”).  Where is the privilege in any of that?  What did he have that he did not work–and work hard–to have?

To admit privilege is to wrestle with a tricky narrative.  There is a limited choice set:

1.  You can deny that you have any privilege and feel good about how your hard work has brought you what you have.  This is the way most of us deal with it because this narrative fits so well with the dominant narrative of the self-made person–the American dream and all of that.

2. You can acknowledge your privilege but keep living like you don’t have it.  This is the way of cognitive dissonance that must lead to insanity, suicide or many hours spent in front of a TV sucking beer and pretending like everything is as it should be (see point 1).

3. You can acknowledge privilege and set about hating yourself and seeking to save the world.  This has been my choice for the most part.  It is the way of self-flagellation offset by the white-man’s burden.  “I have been given so much and, dammit, I AM going to save the world from people like me! (Whether they want me to or not.)”

or…

4. You can acknowledge it and just commit to a long process of dealing with it in ways that will not destroy you (or the others you desire to “save”).  This is the way of a long walk in one direction and the way is not always clear.

The point is… I need to have some empathy for my dad in all of this.  I can’t create a rational argument to bring him to point 4 (and my life has been a hypocritical attempt to live number 2 while pretending I am walking the way of number 3–bad choices all around).  I have argued with my dad about all of this and, quite frankly, it has damaged our relationship.  I have walked right up to calling him a racist.  I have accused him of lacking compassion for the poor.  But only recently have I stepped back and tried to understand his fear, his sense of powerlessness and sense of betrayal in the face of a system that he proudly defended so many years ago.  I have stopped punishing him (in my heart) for doing what he had to do to live as consistently as he could in the face of things that he could not control (though society taught him he could and should buck up and try).

And maybe this brings me to today–to this week.  I am not afraid of the kind of populism (“denial populism” is how I think about it) that I see surging around Beck/Palin.  I am angry at them to be sure.  I am angry at them like I am angry at George Wallace.  In the end he (and they) use people like my dad for their ends.  They dial up fear, domesticate hatred, plant blame in the ground at the feet of “the other” and do it all in a cynical and self-serving way.  They take people like my dad–people with kids and bills and cares and fears–and they suck the energy from them and make them believe that there are simple solutions in a complex world.  And then, once they have what THEY want: power, prestige, money–they toss people like my dad aside.

By the end of 1968 Wallace was just a memory in our house.  The buttons were gone.  The hopes, deferred.  I am not saying dad was right to support this man.  I am just saying that I understand the fears that pushed him that way.  I am not saying I am okay with the folks following after the likes of Beck/Palin.  I am saying I am acquainted with their yearnings–their desire for answers in a world in which there are few.

Can I sit down and hope to have a rational conversation with them about privilege–their privilege, my privilege–in a world of 6 billion-plus people who can’t vaguely imagine the opulence with which they (I) live?  Nope.  I can’t.  I can’t, until… Until I commit to sitting in their living rooms, walking with them in their streets, feeling their anxiety… Until then I can’t hope to have a conversation about what it really takes to build the kind of community that I think (I hope) they and I really want.

I want to sit, walk and feel with them.  I think that is what compassion is.  I think that is what empathy is about.  They are not going to get it from Beck/Palin (or Obama/Clinton, for what it is worth).  Maybe, hopefully, they can get it from me…

*I was in a car, with the pastor of our church.  We were in a small city.  A car pulls up next to ours at a red light.  African Americans inside. We called them “blacks”.  I waved.  He grabbed my hand and said: “Don’t do that!  They will be out of their car so fast you won’t know what hit you.”  I was afraid but did not know why I needed to be…
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Comments
  1. Steven Andersen says:

    I remember that year well. “The whole world is watching”. We had a family from Czechoslovakia stay with us for four months after they fled – the father had filmed the August invasion. I do see a lot of similar ‘simple answer’ populism in Beck/ Palin, and fear that their (or similar) words could fuel some type of inquisition (likely followed by a counter-inquisition).

  2. Brian Gumm says:

    Robb, I wrote up a little post on the Beck rally at the RT blog, then came over here and read this post. I suddenly feel inadequate. Seriously, though, this is a wonderful personal narrative woven into an historically broader social concern. Top drawer!

  3. storydoula says:

    Beautiful. Personal. Multi-layered. Timely. Impactful. Loving. We’ve talked a lot over on this coast lately about the danger of the single story. This piece brings perspective, empathy and an intricately woven narrative to these confusing times. Just what I needed today. Thanks.

  4. Kara says:

    Don’t have much to say that hasn’t been more eloquently said in the comments above. Great piece.

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