I am trying to find out something about the state of mind in which it is possible to act politically. I do not have this state of mind, but I would like to have it. My mother had it. She spent her entire adult life, from her early twenties until she retired at eighty-six, involved in politics. But my curiosity is piqued less by people like my mother, whose natures are fulfilled in political action, than by people like me, whose principal fulfillment is not through political action, although we areconcerned about the world.
My father, a man of the Old Left, found it possible to act, although he was not by nature an activist. He was a quiet, thoughtful, intellectual person who played chess extremely well. On Saturdays, during the late forties and early fifties, during the McCarthy period, when left-wing newspapers were hard to peddle, my father and I would go from door to door in our neighborhood hawking copies of the People's World. We set out on our rounds every weekend although some neighbors, once they recognized us, hurried inside and set their dogs to barking. My mother, I believe, felt some contempt for my father's activity since it failed to generate radical change. She saw knocking at doors as time taken from other, more urgent social endeavors. The unemployed, the battered, the evicted, the wrongfully jailed would have seemed to my mother more worthy of committed effort than acts that are respected in
our time, like saving oil-soaked birds. As an absolute choice between urgencies, I suppose most people would agree with my mother. Nevertheless, I don't think she was right, although for most of my life I did think so.
The politics that derive from my mother's vision of the oppressed masses is a politics of total commitment, a giving all one has to right the injustices of the world, which must be intolerable to decent people, who simply cannot go about their own more privileged lives without working to change, especially now, an unfair, unjust, exploitative society. My voice changes when I write these words: My mother comes back into speech through me, hortatory, convincing, fist clenched, eyes blazing. Hers was politics on a grand scale, requiring an all-consuming dedication. If I were to give a name to my father's orientation, I would call it the politics of the small, to distinguish it from my mother's world view, in which all acts derived their significance from the way they led to radical social transformation, even revolution. During the time my father and I sold newspapers, a cross was burned on the lawn of the first
Black family that came to live in our neighborhood. My mother organized a vigil, towelcome our new neighbors, to let them know there were decent people around who would not allow them to be driven out.
I have a vivid memory of my mother charging out to gather people for the vigil. Until recently, I didn't think much about my father's behavior (my father and I stood vigil too, but we didn't think it up and we weren't organizers); it took place after the cross-burning, when the neighborhood was still largely White. Then, a Black man moved in a few blocks away and was tolerated, but isolated, by his White neighbors. My father struck up a conversational friendship on Saturdays with the newcomer. They were both quiet-spoken men—I could see that it was a relief to both of them to have found one another, which was a relief to me too, because I used to fear that my father's feelings would be hurt by our neighbors' rebuffs.
My father's new customer was a janitor in the local school system and used to walk home from work just after dark, which may have accounted for the fact that in passing our house he noticed a car parked across the street, first one night, then the next, and the next, which made him suspicious, so that he knocked at our door for the first time to tell my parents. That is how we came to know my mother was being followed by the FBI. Armed with this knowledge, we were silently able to start preparing for her arrest on the charge of "conspiring to overthrow the government by force and violence." When her arrest came, a few weeks later, we were not taken by surprise. Still, I imagine I (an eleven year-old girl) was somewhat less terrified than I might otherwise have been, because of this neighbor, who knew what was at stake, back then in the McCarthy period, who took a risk, who looked scared, but let us know what he
thought was happening.
If my father's relations with this man can be thought of as behavior derived from the politics of the small—by which I mean also the small acts of concern in which you do what is a natural expression of your own temperament, without having to believe that you are going to change theworld—our neighbor's behavior when we were in danger might also be understood as the consequence of the politics of the small. For a chain of consequence was set in motion by my father's pleasure at finding a neighbor friendly to his radical thought. It is this sort of consequence we tend to overlook when we think about the world through my mother's eyes, with the vision of the politics of total commitment on a grand scale.
Our neighbor had a niece who lived some blocks away in our neighborhood. She used to visit him occasionally on weekends. After a time, she and I began to play together with their brown dog while the two men talked. The niece and I attended the same junior high school, but we didn't become friends although we said hello to one another when we passed in the hall or on the playground. Nevertheless, after my mother was arrested, in the first difficult days when kids avoided me and stopped talking to me, she sometimes walked home with me, as if she were just stopping in to say hello to her uncle.
Thinking back on these walks, which meant a lot to the lonely, isolated girl I suddenly then was, I see them as among the consequences of my father's activities. Our neighbor told my father he had never thought some of the thoughts he read in our left-wing newspaper and that he was happy to have come across them. That too was a consequence of my father's Saturday walks, which led to the man's friendship in a hard time, which led to his niece walking home from school with me when it was socially a daring, even dangerous thing to do.
These small acts of concern that interest me may require some self-discipline but remain nevertheless acts that are temperamentally appropriate to oneself, belonging as they do to one's natural sphere of interest. Often, they are acts one might take for granted as the natural exercise of human decency,until one finds oneself failing to do them because the world has begun to look so troubled that small acts of engagement begin to lose their meaning and gradually give way to a self-protective indifference. This is the state of mind I discover in myself when I reflect on my failure to engage in political acts.
"The life of man, what a fathomless enigma," my father used to say. I like to think he was aware of how the small grows by its connection to other small things—gestures, moments of courage, local acts of caring. I have come to think of this as the generation of consequence in the hope of inspiring myself to stick with the small; perhaps all our acts unfold by knocking into other acts sent spinning on their way to effect yet others, in a vast chain of consequence that may, at times, lead even to the social transformation my mother desired when she set out every morning to do big things.
In some abstract scheme of value (in which I myself do not believe), human misery may count higher than the oily feathers of birds. But if my neighbor stopped building bird houses for endangered species she wouldn't be downtown helping the homeless. Not recognizing this is the error of my mother's political thought, and of those like her who urge all of us to become as politically engaged as she was. The capacity for political activity on a large, life-consuming scale, may be a gift, like absolute pitch in music, or the ability to create a literary masterpiece. If the desire for political activity on a large scale is a temperamental endowment, or an expression of an imperative inner need to organize, speak out, protest, fight for rights, these traits will never appear in all people, no matter how insistently we strike the moral note, urging them to wake up, become conscious, recognize injustice and act.
If the small is problematic, the large has its problems too. It tends to encourage a sense of contempt for anything that is not as large as itself, so that soon one is not doing what one might because one is defeated by not doing what one should, and the process of closing off sets in and soon one is wrapped in a numbing, life-threatening indifference. In this sense, aphoristically, I am proposing that we do the least we can. For that least done will still be more than the more we should do, but leave undone.
Photo - Jon Rendell