I saw two things recently which reminded me of an exchange from my childhood. The first was a toddler in an “Obama for Change” shirt, being pushed down the street by a yuppie mother. (Who, incidentally, ran me off the sidewalk and into oncoming traffic with her stroller.) The second was a photograph from a McCain rally of some parents and their young children, waving pro-McCain signs.
And I couldn’t help but wonder how much choice those children had in those situations. Toddlers don’t usually dress themselves, and even if they do, how many support Obama? Do seven year olds really ask to be taken to McCain rallies to wave signs like mommy and daddy?
When I was a kid, my father gave me every possible chance to turn into a conservative, though he himself is quite liberal. I don’t know if he did it because he felt that I deserved balance and a chance to make my own choices, or if he was secretly just wondering what would happen. He was assisted in this by a very conservative friend of our family, whom I will call the Birdwatcher. The Birdwatcher is a very bright man, who is very good at arguing politics, and he is very conservative.
Pretty much any time the Birdwatcher was over, the conversation devolved into politics. He has since moved out of the area, but every time he comes into town, politics inevitably comes up. The last time he visited, we argued for three hours straight about nationalized healthcare and taxation rates. Initially, like most children, I pretty much parroted my father’s political views. Eventually, I started engaging more, and the Birdwatcher started providing me with all sorts of fodder, including books, magazine articles, and so forth. It got to the point where I demanded a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, a paper which was not delivered up here then, and my father made arrangements with a friend in New York who would buy the paper and mail it to me every day.
But it was the Birdwatcher who was responsible for the following exchange with one of my schoolmates in middle school:
Schoolmate: Hey, do you want to come over after school?
Me: No, I’m expecting the new National Review.
Yes, the Birdwatcher did indeed buy me a subscription to the National Review, and I really did give up social engagements to come home and read each new issue. My father absolutely refused to read the National Review, although he usually ended up reading most of it anyway, just so that he could argue more effectively at the dinner table. I even brought in a National Review article for class discussion about a controversial ballot initiative (I ended up getting in hot water, and being rescued by my father, who pointed out that the National Review was a respected publication, whether or not the teacher agreed with it, and I was therefore entitled to bring in articles from it). After said show and tell, “bring in an item of news to share” was disbanded in favor of “craft like the Egyptians,” and I was permanently disinvited from several of my classmates’ homes by their parents.
I have to give the Birdwatcher credit. He really tried. He paid for my National Review subscription through college, when he called me a “pinko Communist queer,” a turning point which filled me with immense pride. I still have a number of books which give my houseguests room for pause, courtesy of the Birdwatcher. And I have to give my father credit. He never pushed me into liberal politics, and in fact never pushed me to get into politics at all, which made it kind of amusing when I went to college with the goal of studying political science.
My father figured, I think, that if he gave me access to information and conversation, I would come to my own conclusions about life, and I did. Our politics are not identical, although they are closely aligned, and we have had some fairly vigorous arguments about politics. I wonder how much information that toddler is going to get as he grows up? If those seven year olds will get The American Prospect or Mother Jones and read with the same avidity I dedicated to the National Review.
I suspect not, since independent thinking is not encouraged in this country by either the left or the right. It’s a pity, really. I think that if I had ended up a rabid Republican, my father would have liked me just as much.