My Years as a Closet Liberal


My dad was a Democrat. My mom was a Democrat. Originally, I was an unregistered Democrat. As a kid I watched the McCarthy hearings -at first worried and then became aware of the ignorance and fear mongering. I voted for Kennedy in 1960 and watched him become President. I was also very sad and very much aware of events when he was murdered. I was watching live TV when Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered. We were living in a Milwaukee suburb in those days. I'm not at all sure that I had any firm views about politics. Then we rolled into 1964. I liked Barry Goldwater and was incensed by how he was portrayed as first and foremost a warmonger by the Johnson campaign. At the same time, I was a believer in the civil rights movement.

So let's talk about civil rights and discrimination. I was never exposed to any direct connection to a minority as a child but I was exposed to racial attitudes. In our neighborhood people had very negative views about Native Americans. There were reservations close to Red Wing where we shopped. The people living on these reservations were obviously poor and our adults referred to their dress and social habits derisively. Comments such as watch them squat and pee right in the street were not challenged and registered on a preadolescent mind.

There were lots of ethnic jokes as well. Even though I had never met a person of color I could easily laugh at these stupid jokes with no idea of how much hurt they contained. I am sure some sensitive folks discouraged such expressions but suggestion are so easily overcome by the "fun" in these jokes. We did not appreciate the narrow boundary between humor and despicable tolerance. Moreover, our schools did little to forge a better attitude. Most of the texts and library books were dated and crafted by middle aged white folks, a fact that we did not recognize in any way as caustic.

We were also exposed to the more vocal in the community and thought they knew. Typically these people worked in the "cities" where they encountered minorities in the workplace. Never mind that those poor souls of color were subject to hard core racism. The ignorance was dropped into our community and grew like mold in our (my) young ears. It didn't help that some of these expressions came from otherwise respected family members.

The first black guy I ever met was at Badger Boy's State when I was 17. He lived across the Hall in our dorm and seemed like a nice guy. He was a talented singer and already something of a celebrity. We elected him our governor. After that there were really few more encounters for many years. Yet my early years trained me to notice things -things like height, hair color, weight, visual attractiveness, nationality, dress, and, of course, skin color. Note, humans are good at this sort of thing. It is a survival deal to notice differences or unusual features especially concerning size, teeth, fangs, strength, and attitude. None of the real survival issues involve skin color or ethnicity but who is to notice such a fine point.

Barry eventually lost, we moved to AZ where my career as an engineer progressed with little interference. My job was wholly unencumbered by any uncomfortable minority exposure - there was no minority to be exposed to. Then, we experienced a company push to hire minorities to get into compliance with a government mandate. I ended up enmeshed in a painful hiring episode. We hired a young engineer just out of a minority college in Texas who was horribly unqualified. My problem was I had no idea how to communicate with him. We had no common ground to discuss anything. Under some pressure, I recommended hiring. The problem was soon enough removed from my responsibility as he was reassigned and enrolled in remedial engineering classes. He eventually resigned and I remain troubled by how this got screwed up. I am proud to say, my company got through this period and ended up hiring a cadre of very fine nonwhite talent. I came to realize the creative benefits of a diverse work force. Racist barriers risk wasting volumes of talent.

The world moved on - the really interesting projects came my way and when I looked up we moved through assassinations and Nixon. The Vietnam war was on and the news was troubling. Early on I had had zero interest in joining the military - much too macho and regimental for my taste. I was in college and received deferments; by graduation I had two kids and the draft really didn't want me. Now, I saw others being called up and sacrificed for I'm not sure what. I have the greatest respect for those that participated and thank my lucky stars I never had to go.

There were awful scenes of conflict between those supporting the war and those who objected. It is sort of noteworthy that the first person I ever heard voice objections to the war was my Dad at least 10 years before the real protests began. In his bones he did not like war. Now I was being won over by the protesters. I was still well in the background. I watched our troops coming home and felt awful for the way they were treated. I am still profoundly proud of those that served all the more so because I did not.

In the mean time other battles were being won. Gradually a few of our minorities were beginning to break through becoming celebrities of talent and skill. They did not seem to fit the "stereotype". Some were angry with obvious reasons to be so. A lot of these people were and still are very likable. Remember Mohammed Ali? Many had mixed emotions about his patriotism balanced against his integrity. I came to think of him as a hero - someone I would like to talk to- someone I would like to know.

Following my support of Goldwater, I continued as a registered Republican. I no longer remember my level of enthusiasm. I hope there was some level of skepticism. I do remember being disgusted with Nixon and holding out hope for President Ford. My republican friends were uniformally against President Carter. It was only later that we learned of all the dirty tricks GHW Bush pulled via the CIA. Then I listened to Ronald Reagan only to become dismayed at the stupidity of "trickle down economics". It was true that there was a masterful negotiation going on with the failing USSR. That was countered in my mind by the blatantly unlawful Iran-Contra affair.

On the domestic side, I had a lot of sympathy for the so called "tree huggers" and saw most of welfare reform as misguided. Later, we saw the equally misguided law and order initiatives with the move to privatizing prisons. About this time in my career, I came to be the GM of a plant in VA where a significant part of the labor force was of African descent. But, I cannot recall a single one in a position of real importance in engineering or management. I can only conclude this status was the result of years of white control. I should note that some of this has improved in the years since I left.

Returning to the southwest, I had a chance to visit with GHW Bush when he toured my plant while on his campaign journeys around the country. After an hour and a half I was left pretty much unimpressed. I was particularly disturbed by how he talked to his staff. He may have been tired but I heard typical patriarchal management I had come to despise. Never voted for a Bush again. About this time I became aware of talk radio. The rising star was Rush Limbaugh. I actually tried to listen to him but could not stomach the hateful rhetoric. It has only gotten worse.

In these years - maybe the years between 1982 and 1992, part of my activity involved briefing or congressional delegations about our manufacturing activities in their districts. I met senators such as Bingaman, McCain, Goldwater, Domenici, and Wellstone among others. Memorable representatives included Bill Richardson and Manny Garcia. Maybe surprising but, I found most of these people engaging and interested in what we had to say regardless of political stripe. I don't think all of this exposure altered my own views but it did make me more sensitive to what was going on around me.

Of course I voted for Bill Clinton, against GW bush, and for Barak Obama. I finally registered as a Democrat in 1996. I think I have come home. I am proud of my votes for Obama. Especially proud of supporting Al Franken even though he is from a great distance. He truly demonstrates what a senator should be.

In recent years my resolve has increased as I have witnessed the disasters of states where Republican governors have been elected. Kansas, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, and my own state of Arizona are examples. Wisconsin vs Minnesota is a striking example of what happens when a demagog like Walker is allowed in the State House.

Today I am comfortable with where I have landed. I am willing to risk speaking up when I feel something must be said or defended. I am a Democrat with a strong humanist viewpoint. I feel I have a handle on and control of the racist patterns I picked up in my youth. I am helped along by a thoughtful wife who has always been a humanist. And helped along by non white friends and relatives. Please forgive me if I am not always perfect for it is not possible to blank out all of those years of my ignorance nor is it possible for me to understand and appreciate all of your experiences. I appreciate that I am ever the beneficiary of white privilege; yes, I fully understand that Black Lives Matter (too).

Dave Brickner