Wednesday, July 16, 2014

800 Words: Park Heights Ave. vs. North Ave. Part 1


It’s very difficult to be pulled in two directions. Some people, perhaps most people, have a family with which they fit perfectly well - even if it’s a surrogate family. They say things knowing fully well that they’ll get validation for what they say, and interlopers to their world are easily banished, because no one has ears to hear the value in what they say.

But what about those of us who have no such luxury? What about those of us trying our best to fit as best we can within two worlds to which we only half-fit. We speak both their languages, though with a foreigner’s strain, and consequently have no easy pass into their clubs; not because we never wanted it badly enough, but because they never wanted us.

Every Israeli war is like a holiday ritual for me in which I’m purified through a trial by intellectual fire. I go about with my friends, who expect me as the token Jew to speak up for Israel, then go back to my family who expects me as the token liberal to speak up for Palestine, and both agreeing on nothing but that there’s something in me that is morally lacking. And both taking at least three hours to tell me so.

What can I do? Such is the unhappy life of the pluralistic liberal drowning in a sea of monist ideologues. One side inevitably gets around to calling you a fascist, the other gets around to calling you a communist. I’ve been forced to play these ‘bad-guy’ parts for so long that at this point I play it almost vengefully, deriving pleasure from puncturing their bubbles, because where else could a pluralist between two monist worlds derive such pleasure except by abusing both sides equally? I wouldn’t know how to play a different part, but what else can anyone do in such a situation? Even if gatherings get unpleasant, could you ever abandon your family just because you have some unpleasant disagreements? And wouldn’t you have to be grateful that your friends don’t? And would you ever feel justified in cursing your lot for being in this situation rather than being embroiled in a real war?


Living the political arguments of my family was bad enough - you learned very early that you had to know exactly what you were talking about because you would be shown no mercy, even as an early adolescent you might be called an idiot by older family members or, still worse, a hypocrite. The idea that the personal is not political has never seemed to occur to the Tucker or Witow households. Every political stand you displayed was a potential indictment of your moral character. The fact that you supported higher taxes might be considered indicative of your problem holding a job. The fact that you opposed government-inflicted torture might be a sign that your parents might have spoiled you. The fact that you didn’t hold people with tattoos and unusual piercings up to contempt meant that you were personally responsible for society’s moral decay. Dad, though no saint in any of these behaviors, was considered the decadent liberal rebel of our family until I came along, and he had it bad enough. Though no saint himself in his conduct toward others, he’d tell me stories of how my otherwise saintly maternal grandfather would get so angry with the mere mention of liberals that my father had to talk him down by reassuring him that Richard Nixon was still president. As I’ve often recounted on this blog, he used to say that my mother’s family had pictures of President Nixon in every room. In his family, they had pictures of Nixon on the toilet paper.

I don’t think my dad’s parents ever thought very much about politics. Between Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Czar NIcholas, Marshall Pilsudski, the White Russians, and Kaiser Wilhelm, they lived politics far too much to think about it abstractly. They were business people accustomed to scrounging for a living (and sometimes, to live) in extremely adverse circumstances. Their obsession was money, which they equated with survival, and drove both their family and themselves insane with their obsessiveness over it. In his last years when my grandfather was gripped by dementia, he would routinely insist that my father drive him over to the bank to yell at one of the tellers, accusing the bank of stealing his money from his account. And yet in spite of his paranoia for losing money, my grandparents always voted Democrat. Like everybody on the outside of a club looking in, my father’s parents believed in a system that was rigged against them - probably rightly, in theirs as in every other case. They became liberal Democrats because the businessmen with much more money than they had were Republicans.

Politics, however, was the long-term obsession of my mother’s family. Like many Jewish neoconservative famlies, they began as communists and somewhere along the way made a Damascus conversion. My red-headed great-grandfather was apparently quite an intellectual, and such a committed socialist that he refused to accept a promotion at his factory to forman. Other parts of the family came to blows with one another over whether or not to embrace the Soviet Union and Stalin as the coming savior, and refused to speak to one another for decades. But my grandfather paid his own way through Hopkins, and after the war, he worked as an engineer for the Defense Department - no private company would hire a Jew. A few years later, he nearly ended up on McCarthy's blacklist. Somehow, a few years after that, he was as right-wing as Barry Goldwater, and never diverted from these new beliefs. He even passed on all his neo-con/libertarian genes to both his children. Like my other grandparents, he believed in everything against which the ‘club’ believed. He saw the waste of government bureaucracy, and as a result he wanted to destroy it. And who knows? Perhaps he was also right to want that. He loathed the hypocrisy of liberal Jews who all the made money never available to them in the old country, and nevertheless still preached about the evils of the capitalist system.

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