…And this, above all: to thine own self be true.
— Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet
If I still believed the things I was told when I was a teenager, barely able to distinguish truth from fiction, I would be as cranked up about a vast liberal conspiracy to control my every action, take my guns away, and teach my offspring to be sexual deviants as the vast majority of Americans. Actually, that’s not exactly correct. My views would correspond to those of the “electoral landslide” in direct contradiction of the over 2.5 million more voters who went with the more liberal candidate. My attitudes and beliefs, however, have changed drastically since I began taking a hand in my own education, and started being responsible not just for what I think, but for being able to defend and improve upon my particular beliefs and my overall worldview through continued education. Thus, I rarely believe in conspiracy theories, value the contributions of liberal politicians to American life, and worry considerably more about the effectiveness and longevity of the First amendment than I do about the Second.
My own journey from the ignorant state I was raised in to a greater condition of awareness has not been straightforward or premeditated, but it was, once begun, inevitable. In my high school newspaper class, I developed something of a reputation as a provocative speaker, not because I knew anything, but because I had been persuaded to believe certain things and enjoyed the attention I got from saying those things, to people with developed more sophisticated worldviews. My cousin Richard was a World War 2 veteran, an honest, hardworking logger, and a man given to regular drink. He was also in possession of a number of opinions popular among his friends, none of whom had much in the way of formal education. So I spouted off about “the Jews” and how Hitler was correct in his assessment of their character and essential nature, as well as his plans for eliminating them. Needless to say I attracted the attention of a teacher. He politely took me aside one day and explained some of the facts my cousin Richard had overlooked. Since that day, my belief in illusion, hearsay and unsubstantiated allegations has eroded, if not entirely, at least enough that I am more inclined to be skeptical of outrageous claims than I was as a teenager.
The next important formative event was my employment as a sawmill laborer during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I worked for a multinational corporation which had not long before purchased the logging and lumber company which had formed my hometown in its own image, complete with company store, baronial mansion, and squalid worker’s housing. I was fairly conservative when I started my term of employment; a sworn radical progressive within just a few short years of direct experience of the ass-end of capitalism. This was at a time when presidential politics were being played out on the killing fields of Nicaragua and El Salvador. The patriotic attitude was officially to support US policy in those Central American nations, which meant supporting death squads and right wing dictators on one hand and fomenting and abetting an underhanded revolution aimed at taking down a democratically elected government on the other hand.
In those days, it was very common to encounter veterans of foreign wars in the mill. In fact, it became clear to me that the soldiers of capitalistic adventurism and the industrial working class were one and the same. Their problems were and still are my problems.
Of course, being in that mill meant that I was regularly exposed to more innuendo, hearsay and outright falsehood than ever before, making good critical evaluation of evidence a real chore, since the evidence presented was rarely accurate or even remotely verifiable. A great many of the millworkers would have agreed with my cousin Richard: The Jews, the Blacks, the Hippies and the liberals were at fault for anything that could be described as a problem in America. It would have been easy to go along with that. It would have also been very similar to the kind of experience victims of kidnapping go through, in which they begin to identify with their captors. I could smell a rat, I knew there was more going on, and I began to make an effort to find out what I was missing.
On top of the casual ignorance of my fellow workers, I was exposed to the professional ignorance found in the corporate propaganda found lying around break rooms and supervisor’s offices in that mill. Timber industry officials tirelessly condemned any criticism of their philosophy, which I had been briefed in as part of a high school forestry class which taught the magic of silviculture on the industrial model, in essays remarkably similar in tone and perspective to the essays in sporting magazines which had already by that time for several years been in a state of frenzy about protecting my right to own weapons.
There was precious little social diversity in that mill, with the exception of a large minority of Mexican workers, and a fair number or Portuguese who were either immigrants or the children of immigrants fleeing poverty and political oppression in their native land, frequently not continental Portugal but its possession, the Azores. The racism was of course blatant, ubiquitous, and casually accepted as justified. A supposedly humorous account of local history concerned a white woman who taught her parrot to say “You goddamned Portagees get off the street!” when it saw the clannish and easily distinguishable denizens of Fury Town, the ethnic enclave they had been forced into by local real estate practice, as they headed in to Mendocino, now much more famous as a center of tolerance and fashionable liberalism, complete with art, wine and chocolate.
As for the Mexicans, most of them lived in areas of Fort Bragg left behind when previous ethnic neighborhoods were broken up as people advanced up the social and occupational ladder, earned decent incomes, and purchased more desirable properties nearby. The main thing I recall learning as a laborer in that mill was how hard Mexicans worked, and how willingly they accepted what would have been considered deprivation and hardship in my own family, just for the sake of making their earnings go farther. On several notable occasions during my career in the mill, federal immigration authorities arrived to conduct citizenship verification which the mill either didn’t bother with or was careless about. The company was more than willing to accept Mexican laborers because it was plain they would work hard and complain little, particularly those without the proper documentation. There was no discernible difference in the work performance or attitude of the two groups, but all were roundly despised, by most everybody, as “beaners” regardless of what they did or how they did it.
The irony of third or fourth generation offspring of earlier immigrants criticizing the Mexicans on the basis of their having been born on the “wrong” side of an international border was glaring to me, especially as the rhetoric became heated and personal. But Mexican-Americans and Mexicans stubbornly kept working and saving their money anyway.
A key political event occurred in the late 70s when President Carter enacted legislation enlarging the size of federal parks in the redwood region. Though this act did not directly concern workers in Fort Bragg, the company provided several busses to transport loggers to the Federal Building in San Francisco, where they were given drink and encouraged to support corporate environmental policy. That they behaved boorishly and spoke intemperately goes without saying. The park, of course, was enlarged as planned. But a great many workers with no political background at all had been introduced to the kind of ignorant criticism of the liberal prerogative to conserve, even in fragmentary form, some remnant of the admittedly spectacular natural world which had once been the rule in North America, and which is now, of course, all but gone.
I was expected to go along with all that but even then, dependent financially upon policies I was beginning to question, I could see that I was not being given all the facts, and the conclusions leapt to from the few facts in regular circulation were not the ones I arrived at.
Since then I have worked for small companies, large companies, the US government, myself, and a community college district. I have never quit or even slowed down the process of self-education which began even while I was still working my way through high school. When I compare my opinions to those who are willing to let the superficial survey of history and social sciences we were provided with in an American high school 40 years ago guide their thinking, I see enormous differences.
Had I gone through the Reagan era without at least becoming skeptical of official pronouncements I might still be as light-headed and happily ignorant as I was at the time.
But there can be no doubt that, having possession of more facts than I did then, I can do a better job of analyzing whatever I see or hear.
One common theme throughout my adult life has been the relentless trashing of the liberal society, its motivations, and the results of liberal policy on American life. Pointing out the benefits of liberalism to those who would condemn it is not necessarily arrogant, although there is undoubtedly a great deal of arrogance among the educated classes of society who most often favor liberal agenda items.
That concession cannot be made without insisting on equally heartfelt scrutiny of the so-called “conservative” agenda represented by the president-elect. This is not going to be accomplished by people who are guided by emotion when a cool, rational, decision-making process is required.