Monday, February 18, 2008

A Political Family Reunion

For those who remember, politics in my father's family is a contact sport. My great-grandparents were honest to goodness Yiddish Communist-Socialists who used to read every edition of the Forverts (Forward, Socialist) and Morgen Freiheit (Morning Freedom, Communist) and then fight about which one was right. In the 1950s, my grandparents were paranoid that Baba's ravings about the Revolution might be repeated by some of der kinderlach at school and get us all deported or Rosenberged, so she was banned from speaking to her grandchildren unless an adult was present.

The relatives also had a fun practice of renting a meeting hall for family gatherings where my great-grandfather and his younger brother would sit opposite each other across a table on a stage, calmly prepare themselves, and then scream at each other in Yiddish over various political points. Whoever won the "debate" determined how the family would vote in that election cycle.

My grandparents were more moderate Democrats. FDR was good, Nixon, not so good. Vietnam was a necessary evil, etc. My father came of age during the 60s and absorbed a lot of its values, to a point, at least (he had friends who once tried to stage a sit-in and take-over of some CUNY facilities; Abbot got the hell out of there. "I draw the line at getting maced or bashed in the face"). This attitude filtered down to me and my bitterly apathetic brother as well, incidentally.

My father's brothers, however, are a different story. For the purposes of this post, I will call them Moe and Milt (yes, the same Milt I previously said was a great-uncle. I lied). Moe is the oldest child. He is a retired engineer and could technically qualify to be a senior citizen. He identifies as Libertarian, but Abbot says that he's really just a "selfish putz." When he found out I was studying Vietnam in high school, Uncle Moe mentioned to me that he thought Goldwater had the right idea. "One nuke and the war would have been over." I wanted to point out that, aside from moral issues, Vietnam was large enough that it probably would have taken more than a single bomb, but my parents thought it would be better if I just dropped the issue. Since then my occasional interactions with Moe have often proven to be just as bizarre. At a bar mitzvah a few years ago he mentioned that he wanted to create a book of biographies about the various "dictators" of all the different Muslim nations in the world. I told him that the CIA Factbook already had a lot of that info. He then offered to pay me to write his book. I ultimately turned him down; creating a Mein Kampf for Muslims really isn't something I need on my conscience. Incidentally, Moe was drafted to go to Vietnam but failed the physical because he had wrecked his knees playing football, the lucky jock. Moe lives in Texas on a large swatch of land and enjoys crazy things like scuba diving and mountain climbing.

Milt is the youngest sibling and was a Reagan Republican in college, scandalizing the rest of the family. Apparently he was quite the schmuck back in the day; my mother can recall him making a lot of barefoot and pregnant jokes in her presence- back when she was pregnant with me. Milt has since settled down and has three young children, which seems to have mellowed him considerably. Milt supported McCain back in 2000 and has held his nose on Bush ever since. He is very hawkish on Israel and is part of the Right-Wing Jew phenomenon so common to Southern California. His family belongs to a Reform congregation and are very committed to having a Jewish family, unbothered by his children's non-halachic status- something for SG and me to aspire to.

It's always interesting to talk politics with my uncles. (Though Abbot tends to get in over his head, which is too bad, since he's also always the one who initiates the political detours away from discussions of Milt Jr.'s Little League Game or the latest bizarre vacation Moe has been on.) The last time I saw them the big issue was illegal immigration. While the two of them railed against illegals, I pointed out that I had issues with people saying things like, "round them all up and ship them out on trains" given our own family's mixed history with boxcars and unplanned trips. Similarly, I mentioned that not all of OUR ancestors had come over legally; the truth was that Poland was a shit-hole, sometimes violent, often brutally poor, and so our family got over any way they could, and upon arriving, continued to do whatever they could do, to make money, whether it was entirely above-board or not. Isn't it just a tad hypocritical to chuckle over a black sheep great-uncle's probable mob connections and then say that any illegal immigrants who commit crimes should be deported? Needless to say, Moe and Milt looked like they wished I could still be forced to sit at the kids' table. They also didn't like it when I said that all the blame for the Middle East couldn't be laid solely at the feet of the Arabs. "It's not like colonialism didn't happen, guys. Look at the map. There's a reason those lines are so straight." More death glares.

Now Abbot Yid is at it again. He sent an email out to the family (Grandma, Moe, Milt, and my aunt, who I'll call Sally) wondering, oh-so- innocently, who they were voting for? The exact wording was slightly more inflammatory (all original verbiage preserved):

Among you die hard Republicans who brought Bush's war, economic disaster, etc is there any way I could convince you to vote Democratic & get some new leadership & hope for our poor beleaguered country?

Oy. Off to a good start, right?

Moe gave a rather terse reply:

My advice is do not drink the Obama Cool Aid.

And Abbot took the bait:

Better than an old washed up war hawk who will drive us into bankruptcy - I really would like to see my retirement investments mean something & I'm sure that will not happen with more Bush policies! ...I finally voted for Obama but of course I represent the progressive wing of the family. When there are no jobs, food lines, etc maybe you will wake up & see that years & years of the old guard Republican "values" are entirely bankrupt. While I have concerns about both Hillary & Obama I cannot live with another Republican administration that panders to the rich getting richer; big business abusing consumers, foreign policy that sinks the US into a quagmire just like Vietnam, etc, etc.! McCain is more of the same - how can you not see that? How is he going to do anything that will represent your interests?

Then Milt joined in:
McCain is more than capable and of course he has his baggage. Best thing he can do is pick Ms. Rice to be his running mate. The problem is not partisan, it’s all about “values”. We sold this country out 30 years ago when we started giving our jobs away. Today, a 15 year old kid on welfare will find $50 to hire a gardener rather than start the mower himself. CEO’s being rewarded $115M after they drive their business into the dirt is not what I call capitalism. Sure lets raise taxes and support another welfare generation! I say bring the troops back and build borders, close down the obsolete military bases, require all 20 year olds to do gov service - four years, modify the health system, don’t trade with countries who do not allow us to buy land in their countries and require any expenditure over $100M to be approved by the tax payers not their representatives. Oh, a law stating English is our national language...

Abbot responded:

Who has the monopoly on "values"? From a "family values" perspective I have a traditional family, raised 2 kids, pay my taxes, always worked. So, I'm not religious & I believe that social safety nets are important & I am pro-choice & support legalization of pot & support gay marriage - so what! More importantly, I value that my country should not be the world's police but rather should be a force to demonstrate the values of democracy, free speech, etc.

We are facing a ton of very difficult issues with no easy solutions. "Close the borders" - maybe but there is no easy fix to immigration issues esp. when trying to live out "values" that say we are a country of immigrants where those seeking a"better life" have always been welcome... How important is having English as the national mandated language in the grand scheme of things?

Then my ever-elusive Aunt Sally chimed in:

I would rather see a Clinton/Obama ticket even if it means drinking cool aid, than a McCain/Rice ticket and another 4 years of Republican abuse disguised under the name of " values".

Finally, even I had to toss in my 2 cents regarding Milt's "4 years of mandatory national service" quip:

Not to be a jerk, but why should any of us young ones be required to fulfill ANY sort of national service when not a SINGLE one of you guys did?

Milt came back with this:

If they had called me I would have gone! And, its great training for our youth. And I never said it had to be military! ...Plenty of other countries do the same, Israel for one! It's a great training ground for most people to learn to become more independent. Given the jobless rate in this country I think a lot of young people would flock to something like this.

Which is pretty funny, since national service has ALWAYS been voluntary, and no one in our family has EVER done it. The closest we got was WWI, where one great-uncle volunteered to be in the Jewish Legion (fighting for the UK, of all things, in Jordan), and another for the Marines right after the end of the war, where he spent 2 years guarding banana fields in Cuba while drinking himself into a stupor to self-medicate the constant tension of worrying about guerrillas taking potshots at his buddies. By and large, my family does not consist of the "volunteering" type. And maybe that's a failing of ours. But it's pretty damn assholish of my uncle, who spent his 20s in college, then the rest of his life in the private sector, lecturing me about how all young people should be REQUIRED to give four years to national service. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to national service. But something tells me he won't be broken up if none of his kids wind up in the Peace Corps.

Lastly, just as the inferno was dying down, Moe tossed one last grenade on the smoldering flame:

Obama has come from total obscurity. I do not know of a single speech, sound byte or utterance where he has said or done anything about the situation of blacks in thiscountry. The minute that the words 'should' roll out of his mouth about black illegitimate birth rates, black on black crime, black prison population, black high school drop out rates, the black version of English, rap music, etc he will become a pariah among blacks... If he cannot address the issues of his own people how is he going to help the nation? Stay away from the Cool Aid because that is all that Obama has.

Bill Cosby should run for president at least he recognize the problem. If Obama cannot even deal with black issues, how can he deal with the economy, Islamic terrorism, or reform health care? ... He is not a John F. Kennedy and certainly not a Martin Luther King.

Yes, that's right: Moe, who my father suspects might actually have some black issues traipsing around somewhere in his psyche, doesn't like Obama because he isn't a responsible "King of the Blacks." Because, of course, that's totally been what he's campaigned on, right? No word from Moe as to whether his support for McCain will hinge on how much "straight talk" he intends on dishing out to his own ethnic group, near-octogenarians who live in Pueblos and suffer from occasional goiter issues. I emailed Moe back and asked him why it was reasonable to hold Obama responsible for fixing all "black America" issues but not charge McCain with, say, having to fix all of the woes associated with Vietnam vets (homelessness, addiction, mental illness, sometimes even- gasp!- crime). I also pointed out that as annoying or personally insulting he may think they are, rap music and Ebonics are not, in fact, existential threats to the United States.

He said he didn't want to talk about this anymore. Hmm.

The family passion for politics is alive and well. But something tells me this would all have been more fun in Yiddish.

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