It was Tip O'Neill, the former Speaker of the House, who once said that all politics is local. With apologies to old Tip, I will go one step further. All politics is personal.
Whatever one's political preferences, who cannot admire Barack Obama's verve, spirit, and oratorical skills? But the words of his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who Obama has revered and trumpeted as his inspiration and spiritual advisor, make one shudder with embarrassment for the candidate even as he attempts to override, excuse, justify, and separate himself from the pastor's hateful rhetoric while avowing his solidarity with the Reverend.
As for me, my reaction is visceral, complicated, entangled with my life's experiences and, therefore, deeply personal, just as Obama's reaction was deeply personal. Of course, I am not running for President and my voice is a tiny whisper compared to his. But I treasure my one vote and my reaction means just as much to me as Obama's reaction means to him.
At the height of the Depression, my family was periodically dispossessed from our apartments and took refuge at my grandparents' house in Brownsville, Brooklyn. My father, a bookkeeper, was serially unemployed, and luckily my grandparents had at least one son who had the means to buy them a tiny detached house where family members economically squashed by the severity of the depression could take refuge.
Frankly, I never knew where the money came from to keep food on the table. I think my uncles might have contributed something, but I was certain that my dad would never have gone on the public dole, which was considered a disgrace. As a child during those times, I never had a sense of deprivation, nor can I remember anyone in the family whining about America's injustice and discrimination, despite the fact that anti-Semitism was rampant in those years and many doors were closed to Jewish employment and housing.
Such bigotry was considered a fact of life and far worse than the brutality and murderous pogroms of Eastern Europe that had driven my grandparents to immigrate to the United States. At least they were alive and free and there were, despite the discrimination, enough avenues of opportunity to assure their survival.
My grandparents had arrived penniless in America around the turn of the twentieth century and had lived here three decades before the depression hit. By then their family of six children had grown to eight, and their sons were slowly finding their way into mainstream America. I had little knowledge of their hardships and struggles and happily passed through infancy and pre-school days in the loving arms of my stay at home mother and dad in blissful ignorance of their economic troubles. When I entered P.S. 183 in Brownsville, we were living through yet another depression whiplash caused by my father’s layoff.
School days always began with the pledge of allegiance and in our weekly assemblies we began the proceedings with the "Star Spangled Banner" and a rendition of "America the Beautiful." We were taught to memorize such poems as "I Am An American" by Elias Lieberman and the last stanza of "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, and all of us knew it was featured on the façade of the Statue of Liberty. Later, when Kate Smith forever memorialized Irving Berlin’s great song "God Bless America", we were taught the words and would belt out the song at assembly with great heartfelt gusto. Hung on the classroom walls, if memory serves, was a picture of George Washington.
All this happened in the height of the depression, when many were unemployed and economically deprived, but somehow the hard times did not translate into any loss of faith in America or in the gospel of freedom, or anything to shatter our belief that our country was still the land of the greatest opportunity. Indeed, as part of the street lore for us kids was that in the throes of an argument you could bet that somewhere in the dialogue of contention were the words, "Oh yeah, well it's a free country and I can say whatever I want."
Sure there were lots of sour voices declaiming that America was the land of the bosses, who were called capitalist pigs, and there were many people marching through the streets carrying the Red Flag replete with hammer and sickle and roaring their protests. We were not what one might call today an activist family. We thought of ourselves as Americans, free citizens in a great land. Never did we question our commitment to our country. Yes, we were going through a bad patch and Franklin Roosevelt told us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself and we believed absolutely in that message. I still do.
While my world was in large part circumscribed and ghettoized by like folks, most of them Jewish, we were not immune to the world outside and ventured out, cautiously to other equally ghettoized neighborhoods, populated by immigrant Italian, Greek, Irish, Black, Chinese and other enclaves were people of like antecedents lived together in exclusive communities. As we moved about, cautiously dipping our psychic toes in these alien neighborhoods, we contemplated these strangers and they contemplated us. At times these contemplations became confrontations and we often retreated. Eventually these ethnic barriers receded somewhat and confrontation became tolerance and tolerance became, albeit grudgingly, acceptance.
At Brooklyn Tech, where I went to high school, every assembly began with "The Lord's Prayer." As a Jewish boy, I never felt uncomfortable reciting the Lord's Prayer. It was simply part of the curriculum and didn't in any way affect or intrude on the possession of my own religious and cultural certainties. I'm sure there were others who felt differently. Nor did it bother me in the least to sing "Silent Night" and other songs of Christian celebration. This was, after all, America and that meant that the flag covered all of us, whatever our race, creed or religion.
It is true that there was a sense of separation between religions and races, and it was appalling to us to see other people persecuted, reviled, and physically abused in America because of these differences. Such abuses were not part of the personal culture of my childhood, except as it was experienced as a Jew. This did not mean that it was completely out of our radar range.
We knew that Harlem was a place for Negroes with its own rich heritage, just as it was true for other ethnic populations throughout the city. Of course, the black and white gulf was wide in my youth. Although I went through all the phases of the New York City school system and later attended New York University, I cannot remember more than one or two black classmates. It was as if we lived on different planets.
But, alas, my father-in-law opened a Stetson Hat store in the heart of Harlem, which in an odd way began my insight into the soul of the Negro experience. No, it will not be within the clichéd expectation of the traditional attitude of guilt or pity for the many insults and terrible persecutions the black people have endured for years. What I saw on the occasions when I helped out in that store on 125th Street was something else, something bigger, something that transcended whatever I felt before or since.
The hat was an essential accoutrement of a finished gentleman in the days when I worked in the store. It defined a sense of completeness and dignity, and the black men who came into that store brought with them a solemn dignity, a sense of self-worth and elegance that was powerful and intimidating. These were men who held their heads high with an intrinsic pride in themselves that nothing on earth could possibly dismantle. As they looked in the mirror to see themselves in their hats, I could feel the power of their dignity and knew they had the pride and fortitude to stare down any slight that might come their way.
I felt certain that these men defined themselves as successful, assured, perhaps even superior, since they had weathered all the storms that had tried to thwart them and their ancestors along the way to this moment. It was a lot more than simply a hat that these men were buying and, I must admit, I felt small in their presence and, at the same time, admiration and respect. Believe me, I am not exaggerating my reaction. I felt it then and I feel it now and it will forever influence my attitude toward these people who had discovered the powerful weapon of dignity.
I know. I know. People will say I am romanticizing, ignoring the damaging realities of black persecution and years of cruel and debilitating treatment at the hands of an indifferent white culture. It is true that I do ignore traditional sociological assumptions. But I am moved by what my eyes saw and my heart told me and that is that human dignity trumps self-pity and the culture of victimhood.
These proud men in their wonderful hats spoke eons about the black experience. These hats were not made to be doffed to self-acclaimed superiority. Indeed, they were not there to be doffed to anyone. I am not an invisible man, their demeanor told me. I am a person, a somebody.
Of course, these reflections are purely personal (and political), but Reverend Wright's words have offended me so deeply that I am literally paralyzed by grief and embarrassment for Barack Obama. God Damned America, Wright preached to a cheering congregation. I am insulted, chagrined, and disappointed by Obama's reaction, and I have searched myself to the core to contemplate its meaning, and this essay is a modest attempt to explain it to myself and others who will take the time to read it. Yes, all politics is personal. It surely is.
Audacity means boldness and daring, not rationalization of the unacceptable.