I know a lot of young people taking to the streets right now and getting involved in politics for the first time to protest police violence. This has gotten me thinking about my own adolescent political awakening. I grew up in a conservative family in a conservative town in a conservative area of one of the most conservative states (Nebraska.) How the hell did I embrace the political Left by the age of 17? I've come to realize over the years that the key was in my voracious appetite for current events and political magazines, which allowed certain crucial events of my youth to sink in and change my consciousness. I am willing to bet that these same events had a big impact on other people born in the mid-1970s. Anyway, here they are:
The Iran-Contra Scandal
Ronald Reagan's inauguration was the first major political event that I can vividly remember, along with Hinkley's assassination attempt. During my childhood I thought of Reagan as a gentle, avuncular leader who was doing a great job. Although the full import of it didn't become obvious to me until a couple of years later, the Iran-Contra affair started me on the road to questioning authority. It seemed obvious that the president had circumvented the will of Congress, and that his later "I don't recall" testimony meant that he was either a liar or totally incompetent.
ACT UP Protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral
Being a devout Catholic at the time, this protest freaked me out. I couldn't believe that protestors would interrupt mass and even desecrate the host. At the same time, I really began to question the church's anti-safe sex stance. In the midst of a horrible epidemic it seemed insane to oppose condoms on narrow moral grounds. The church's response to the AIDS crisis really disturbed me, as did the awful homophobia of people like Jesse Helms. I was not yet too enlightened when it came to sexuality, but despite that fact I thought that hating people for who they were was appalling. The fact that one political party accepted people who spewed such hate was not lost on me.
This event, perhaps more than any other, shifted my frame of reference. When the war started I was very gung ho, and thought the kids at my high school who protested the war were ridiculous. In the months that followed it, however, I really began to question things. I saw articles about the "highway of death," and felt sorrow that so many people had to die, sacrificed to petro-politics. When the US stood by while Saddam massacred the Shiites that the US president had encouraged to rise up, I knew that there was nothing behind that war except oil. The insanely shrill nationalism unleashed in that war disturbed me as well, since it seemed to make people lose their senses.
Rodney King Beating and Trial
The video of the King beating landed like a bomb in my head. Around that time I had been heavily listening to Public Enemy, which had me thinking about white supremacy in a serious way for the first time. It was so completely obvious for anyone to see that Rodney King had been the victim of a horrific crime, and that the LAPD was full of violent racists. The acquittal of the police officers at the hands of an all white jury probably did more to increase my distrust of the criminal justice system than anything else. I was surprised at the decision, considering how obvious the crime seemed to be. Ever since the King case I have been disheartened by similar miscarriages of justice, but never surprised by them.
Clarence Thomas Confirmation Hearings
Before these hearings I'd never really known anything about sexual harassment. I was disturbed by Anita Hill's testimony, and wondered how many other men acted like that. At the same time, I was less enlightened in these matters, and wondered why Hill hadn't come out with the allegations at an earlier time. For that reason I was actually sympathetic with Thomas' comments about a "high tech lynching."
I was excited when Bill Clinton became president. I was one of only two students in my history class to vote for him in our mock election, and proud of it. His willingness to fight for gun control and health care made me happy, but very early on I wondered about Clinton's reliability. The NAFTA proposal didn't seem all bad to me, except for the fact that there were few labor and environmental protections. While I didn't care for Ross Perot, I did wonder if his prediction of job migration would be true. In any case, the whole thing was written in a way to be beneficial to business and not for workers, but was being promoted by a man claiming to be a liberal. It was about this time that I realized that the DLC version of liberalism was barely better than conservatism, leading me to vote for a third party candidate in 1996. This was really the point when I lost any attachment to the Democratic Party, and started thinking of myself as Left of the party of Jackson and Jefferson.
The Contract With America
Believe it or not, I was a little happy when the Democrats got shellacked in the 1994 election. I figured it would force them to take stronger stances and listen to their base (boy was I wrong about that.) At the same time, the Gingrich-style conservative politics that emerged in the aftermath of that election made it obvious that as much as I disliked the Democrats, I would never, ever vote for a Republican. This election convinced me that the two parties were not two legitimate, centrist institutions not too different from each other. Instead one was a milquetoast arrangement of hacks with corporate ties who made promises they didn't keep to the lower and middle classes, and the other was the vehicle for an extremist Right wing political movement that would stop at nothing to force its ideology on the country. Since that time I've wavered from calling myself a socialist to settling for social democrat, but my larger sense of the political lay of the land hasn't changed since I was 19.