(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange is proud to be thought liberal. But the seeds of that were planted in conservative soil.
(LANGE) I was raised by stolid Dutch Reformists on a solid little island of Republicanism in an Irish sea of Catholic Democrats. Albany, at that time, was in the iron grip of the “Big Dan” O’Connell machine, fronted by Erastus Corning, a mayor of amazing longevity. My folks often expressed disgust over the boyos at the polls handing out slips of paper to Corning supporters. Each slip was in exchange for a vote, redeemable by the bearer for a sack of potatoes or a bag of coal.
I don’t know if my elders distinguished religion from politics or ethnicity. Their feelings were a package. They wouldn’t have called them prejudices; but that’s what they were, and I absorbed them.
But they also planted some seeds that would blossom later. Grandpa ran a mission where homeless people could come for a meal and used clothing. Every year I received a plaster piggy bank that, when filled, went off to an American Indian charity. My sister and I were adjured to save our daily candy penny for the collection at Sunday School. My grandfather, pointing to the human wrecks in doorways on Sunday mornings, always made the point that they had once been lovely children like us.
After Thomas Dewey’s ignominious defeat, I felt admiration for Harry Truman. I spent my first vote on Dwight Eisenhower, but my second to defeat his vice-president in favor of (Saints preserve us!) an Irish Catholic Democrat who promised a new frontier.
After Kennedy’s assassination, the tide began to turn. Lyndon Johnson pushed Kennedy’s civil rights initiatives through a reluctant Congress. Opposition came out of the woodwork with rubber hoses, police dogs and ugly crowds threatening little girls on their way to school. The nation, reversing its polarity, became Republican in the former Jim Crow states. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. revealed reactionary forces willing to kill to reverse social progress. Conservative states like Vermont and Maine began to appear more liberal.
In recent years, the values implicit in conservatism have shifted from the rock-ribbed, secular rectitude of George Aiken and Everett Dirksen to an evangelical righteousness offensive to liberals, both religious and secular.
The roots of liberalism for me spring from those old folks in child- hood’s parlor. Their politics have nothing to do with it, their acts of charity everything. There was a secret mark on Grandma’s house to tell hoboes they would find kindness there. Grandpa taught that we are not all created equal; that always there are those less favored than we; that everything we have – our personal attributes, our lives and the earth we live on – is a gift; and that our only rational responses are gratitude, a care to preserve and sharing with those less fortunate. Those, to me, are the root and flower of liberalism.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.