Teenage Politics

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On Thursday, around our dinner table, I couldn’t help but think that my kids are becoming really great liberals.

If liberals means they espouse a political ideology founded upon ideas of liberty and equality.

We discussed the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the State of the Union address, the economic impact of falling oil prices and, of course, school testing, a topic they are all too familiar with and opinionated about.

As I listened to each of them make a case for or an argument against some aspect of our discussion, it dawned on me that they have become what I had hoped they would.

Independent thinkers.

Thoughtful question askers.

Skeptical analysts.

I was fast becoming a Young Republican at their age, bent on making my worldview, the one I had fashioned as a second generation immigrant, work for me.

I was an Izod-shirt-wearing, card-carrying member by 18,  whose worldview and politics were crumbling in a collision of missionary kid exposure and small-town containment.

I had traveled the world as the first-born child of missionaries whose theater was the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

As my siblings came along and the Cold War raged on, we settled into a small, rural community on the outskirts of the the capital city of the state of Oregon.

My father read Time magazine religiously, and there were National Geographic magazines scattered on coffee tables and bookshelves around our house. Our television and music were limited somewhat, but we had access to thoughts and ideas.

There was never a formal discussion of politics in our home. My parents never seemed to expect us to adopt a particular ideology, mostly because life as a missionary is complex, and earthly political ideologies don’t often fit easily into a job where saving lives for a Heavenly Kingdom is your first priority.

My father is well read, and my mother is an avid historian, two traits that seem to have been passed down to me.

If our politics were centered around anything, they were centered around the Bible and its basic tenets.

My extended family, mostly immigrants on one side and old-school pioneer, salt-of-the-earth, conestoga-wagon-traveling, Declaration of Independence signing types on the other, held a mix of blue-collar conservative and land-run libertarianism views.

I grew up very proud of the patriotism in my family, especially on the Ukrainian side, which symbolized, for me, our complete assimilation in the United States.

On the colonial side, there exists a long-standing and deep mistrust of the government, which is odd, if you consider the fact that many of them helped establish the very first government here in the United States.

As a small aside, there is something about leaving a place you helped establish and going far away to a new place. My ancestors on the colonial side came over with the Pilgrims and helped establish a new government. Until Manifest Destiny called to them across the great plains. They settled on the other side of the Great Divide as substantially different people, independent and mistrusting of the government their fathers built. Maybe that’s not so odd. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Anyway, these were the branches of my political heritage.

I became politically cognizant when Ronald Reagan became president. But I loved the ideal of Reagan the actor-turned president far more than I understood the implications of his politics.

Much of that was because of the role he played in ending the Cold War, which had huge ramifications for the work my parents were doing in that part of the world.

By the time I turned 20, I was grasping at political straws, my beliefs were shards on the floor, tenuously resembling a mosaic of traditional viewpoints that were not founded on anything truly political. Merely by association to the tenets of the Bible and certain things I was taught in Sunday school.

Halfway through Clinton’s presidency, I realized that politics were more than just buzzwords like abortion, separation of church and state and small government.

A few years earlier, the confirmation hearings for Bush’s Supreme Court appointee Clarence Thomas left a bad taste in my mouth for the way that the growing religious rightwing played the Anita Hill scandal in such an egregious and sexist manner.

When my birthright political ideology crumbled, Ralph Nader and the Green Party were there to pick me up. I registered as a member of the Green Party on a whim one day after walking into an alternative bookstore in my hometown.

This was simple and it felt good. It wasn’t confusing in the way that church politics were confusing.

For awhile, I felt like I had found a good identity for myself.

But the party’s failures to establish a beachhead in America’s two-party system left me feeling empty.

I enrolled in university a few years later and learned how to learn. I spent four years reading more than I had ever read before. I read widely and discovered so much beyond the limited elevation of my life so far.

I pursued a degree in journalism and shook off the shackles of political identity in the way that most journalists do.

This is not to say that journalists are not political. They are.

But they disassociate with it in a way that creates a deep interest in and necessity to understand both sides.

Having grown up religiously conservative, and losing that identity along my journey prepared me for a world where politics defined almost every story I would write for newspapers.

Registering as an independent was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, because it afforded me the opportunity to study both sides of every issue drawing on my own history, the one I was forging for myself.

I worried that my children might either be disinterested, because I don’t lean on my political ideology as an expectation for them, or become intensely interested, because it’s often the center of our conversations in one way or another.

Turns out it’s a little of both.

I don’t think they’ll ever come to a point where their world crumbles, because they don’t wear political ideology like I did.

I think that’s very good for them.

The most fascinating thing is that I believe I have tried not to influence them in their politics, even though I know some influence is inevitable. And yet they have developed to their current state based largely on the experiences they have had, by talking about what they do and do not understand and by thinking about these things rather than by simply believing them.

And that’s the single biggest difference between their lives and mine. I believed everything I was raised to believe and saw it all come crumbling down as I grew older.

If I can give them anything in this world, I want to give them the ability to think critically, to be skeptical, to question everything and to look for the good in each and every decision they have to make.

I don’t know if they’ll grow up to be Democrats, Republicans, Green Party or journalists.

I don’t really care.

As long as they they are thoughtful about what they believe and why they believe, I’ll be comfortable with their politics.

I only hope this will translate to many wonderful Thanksgiving meals free of the strife that normally accompanies them.




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