A Wish on Election Eve 2020

FAMILY BEFORE POLITICS, EVEN DURING THE VIETNAM WAR

Writing on the morning of November 3, I can say that I will be neither ecstatic nor enraged over the results of the 2020 Trump/Biden presidential race. If there is one thing I learned from an era 50 years ago when America was more dangerously divided than it is now, that lesson is never to let politics divide families.  During the 1960s, when I was angry over the Vietnam War and shocked by the Civil Rights struggle, I instinctively came down on the side of nonviolent protest. Violence breeds more violence, I concluded, based on my Catholic upbringing.

In 1968 I went to Washington and marched for an end to the war. I watched television in horror while peaceful protestors in the American South were attacked by police dogs, fire-hosed, and in some cases murdered for their belief in freedom , the American Constitution, and equal treatment under the law.  Soon after, I moved to Detroit, where my street-wise education continued in ways that it could not in my hometown of Armada, Michigan. 

The current divisions in American politics pale in comparison. Yet, all through those years, I never let my political beliefs turn me against my family. My mother, always kind and horrified by cruelty, once asked naively, “What are they protesting, them protestors?” I explained in some condescending youthful way that they wanted an end to an unjust and unwinnable war. Being my mother, however, she would have supported me even if I had signed up and gone to Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, I grew long hair and sometimes a beard. I listened to the protest songs of the period. I was sure I was right and the war was wrong. And yet, when I went home for family weddings and funerals, I never talked about politics, the war, the whole hippie scene.  The most politically engaged relatives were Uncle Hank (my mother’s brother) and Aunt Betty. They were loyal Republicans who had taught me, among other things, the importance of voting and engaging in the democratic process.  “Are you a hippie?” a little cousin asked me on one visit. I didn’t know how to answer. My aunt and uncle pooh-poohed the question and we talked about the farm and Lawrence Welk.  What tact and restraint they had. Later, I understood that they were delivering unconditional love that was quite a bit more tolerant than what I was getting at the one and only SDS meeting I ever attending at Oakland University. Because of my family, I rejected the extremism of agitators who advocated violence. My Catholic upbringing kicked in somehow, and I identified with Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, and the Quakers who were conscientious objectors. 

Uncle Bogdan and Aunt Mary (my mother’s youngest sister) were equally tolerant. Bogdan was career military and increasingly conservative politically, and he was never happy over the influence I seemed to have over his three sons who were younger than I and more interested in the trappings of hipness (hair, guitars, music, drugs) than in political protest. I paid no attention to whatever influence I may have had on them. I was not proselytizing and was reluctant to talk to my family about my pacifistic beliefs and my distain for what I saw as the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. Aunt Mary once confided that in her heart she believed war never solved anything.

And so the years went on, a half a century. Hank and Betty and Mary are gone. Bogdan remains, a devoted Fox News viewer. And so, on this election eve, I write this only to say that whatever the outcome of this election,  I love my family and always will, cousins galore. I have even taken to listening to old classmates from Armada who help me understand why we as voters choose one candidate over another. 

Yes, I was in Grant Park here in Chicago the night President Obama won, and I can tell you that the atmosphere was electric. People felt that a new progressive era had arrived. Yet, even then, I was wary. We are not electing a savior, I warned. It really was the start of the extreme division that led to the election of President Trump and to the 24/7 coverage of the president’s every tweet on every commercial news network.  My solution has been to stop watching and turn to NPR.

All politics is local. When we as Americans understand that, the clarity will come.  Oh, and by the way, the price of liberty is still eternal vigilance no matter who is president.

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