Politics and family

I wasn’t going to write about politics at all but here I go again. My last three posts got a little back-and-forth going with two cousins who are on the other side of the seemingly intractable political divide, one evidently more strongly than the other. This was no anonymous internet-commenter free-for-all. It was family. I don’t think anything we wrote persuaded any of us to adjust our views. But it made me think of these divisions that run right through the middle of families. They express themselves most vividly in politics (and religion) but they may be based on deeper emotional rifts.

I’m going to risk something here because these cousins might read this. Let me say upfront that these are my views and they may see things quite differently.

It doesn’t surprise me that these particular cousins have political views so radically different from mine. Although we have not been in touch much over the years except recently, through Facebook, the differences were there in the beginning, in our families and how we related to each other.

Here is a confession. As a child I never felt quite comfortable around these cousins. It was not because of how they treated me but because of my own attitude—an attitude that was subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) encouraged by my immediate family. I looked down on some of my cousins. Always felt just a bit better, smarter, more privileged. My family was more stable, had a little more money, and I had a pretty sharp little IQ going for me. My brothers and I were gifted at ridicule and we had plenty of fodder for this in our extended family (as well among each other).

Mocking and ridicule come naturally to kids, and we did this mostly behind our parents’ backs and, as I recall, mostly behind our victims’ backs as well, but it rubbed off a bit from our father, whose family was class-conscious. When my parents met his family had more money and more community respect than our mother’s family. They were more religious. (These cousins are from my mother’s side.) Our mother was kinder and more compassionate than our dad, but she felt lucky to escape some of the struggles of her own large family, which was quite poor when she was young. She didn’t know how to handle these signs of unkindness, superiority, or class-consciousness in her own children. Or maybe she didn’t pick them up. She couldn’t disagree that in certain ways we were “better off” than some of our cousins, including some whose families actually had more money. She tried to give us a better life than she had as a child.

I’m not saying these old family relationships are responsible for my cousins’ current politics. I’m just recognizing a deep current of elitism in my own family history and temperament. And I recognize that elitism contributes to the political divisions in our country. Elitism contributes to blindness on the part of the “elite” (did we foresee Trump’s appeal? No way!) and resentment on the part of everybody else. And it starts early. In the ins and outs of the classroom, the playground, the family. Brains over brawn. White collar over blue collar.

Can we overcome class differences as well as racial differences? Can we end class consciousness along with race consciousness? Can we overcome the family differences that we allow to divide us before we are even aware of them? This election is teaching me something about myself I hadn’t recognized before. I am deeply sorry for these old hurts. I don’t know if I am hurting my cousins more by writing about this. That is not my intention. Nor do I intend to justify myself.

I just want to try to stop the cycle of division and resentment. I don’t know what attitudes I have unconsciously passed on to my own children, like my parents did to me. But I believe they are capable of modeling different attitudes to their children.

Meanwhile, although my mind is firmly made up around this election, I am trying to keep my heart open.

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