Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Grace Boyd, Liberal, RIP
December 7—Pearl Harbor Day--was the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death. That’s right; it’s been a quarter of a century since I last saw or hugged the woman. In many ways, this blog was created as an homage to Grace Boyd, my mother. Grace wasn’t a socialist or even a Russophile, but she inherited a moderately left-of-center political disposition from her father, who was a self-professed “Christian-Socialist” who never missed a chance to evangelize about agrarian populism and the advantages of “the cooperative” alternative to capitalism. As my mother told us, she grew up in an intellectual atmosphere of unremitting opposition to the deleterious effects of consumerism and capitalism. Her father, an editor of a tiny newspaper, wrote minor treatises on socialism and collectivism in almost every edition of his paper, ignoring the opinions of his manifestly uninspired readership.
After 25 years, my connection to my mother is necessarily tenuous, but writing about my mother’s intellectual world is one way to revive this connection. My mother’s cultural heroes were not, of course, Lenin and Trotsky. While Grace must have been interested in the Soviet Union’s putative attempt to implement social equality, feminism, internationalism, and anti-colonialism, the influence of these dead men was very remote from the microscopically small Midwestern town where she grew up, namely Capron, Illinois.
Rather, my mother celebrated the work of Liberal, Democratic, and feminist icons of the post-war era, including Margaret Meade, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, Jean Paul Sartre, John F. Kennedy, J.R., Paul Tillich, Enrich Fromm, Joseph Campbell, Thor Heyerdahl, Gloria Steinem, Jane Goodall, and Luis Leakey. (Note the decidedly non-revolutionary nature of this strange cast of characters—Malcolm X and Mao Tse Tung never made the list). And, truth be told, a liberalized, post-War Jesus Christ also made her list. (I remember that for many years she had a picture of a white, smiling, hippie Jesus hanging over her bed, making the classic peace sign with his fingers.)
In the era of African independence, Grace studied African history in college and once lived for a brief time in Southern Rhodesia, Africa. The country, now called Zimbabwe, was dominated by a white, apartheid regime, which ultimately declared independence from Great Britain in order to set up a locally controlled racist regime. The enemies of that regime, led by Robert Mugabe and others, were African freedom fighters who were inspired by the twin ideologies of nationalism and socialism. To Grace, the choice seemed clear: socialism was preferable to racism, and might even be an antidote to it. (How sad to think about Robert Mugabe in the present).
I don’t know when the idea first hit me, but not long ago I decided that it was important to look at cultural heroes who were no longer in fashion. Think, for instance, of the whole system of Esparanto, an invented language that, once upon a time, seemed destined to become a neutral and therefore unifying force in diplomatic and inter-cultural relations. Remember the Equal Rights Amendment, which seemed ready to take us to another epoch in gender relations but narrowly failed to pass and then quickly vanished into obscurity for modern women?
Celebrating the importance of the unimportant, I decided that it would best to go to the source of discredited ideology: The Russian Revolution of 1917. While it’s true that both Liberals and Conservatives formed a united opposition to Soviet aggrandizement, and my mother never even participated in systematic opposition to the Vietnam War, I believe that most Liberal ideology was ultimately grounded in some form of limited engagement with Bolshevik ideals. I can’t speak for my mother, but I suspect that she and I share this grudging respect for the “workers’ paradise.” If it meant nothing else, she feared the Right (whether that meant the Nazis or the followers of Ronald Reagan) more than she feared the Left. If Fidel Castro wasn’t admired in our household, neither was he a bogeyman.
I’ll close these random ruminations about my mother by quoting from her own college notes on Marxism, taken from a class she attended on 21 February 1957. How strange to be separated from Mom by half a century: the notes still feel fresh, as if they had just been written, and some of the historical judgments haven’t been affected all that much by 50 years of scholarship. They suggest a rather critical attitude to Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism. According to the Radcliff/Harvard lecturer of Humanities 125 (named Buttrick—and easily identified via Google), the Soviet Union was an attempt to overcome “man’s” inevitable anxiety about death; the Soviet citizen might die, but the state would live on. The Soviet critique of bourgeois pride made sense, the lecturer goes on to say, but Communism reinstated this divisiveness by creating administrative rather than social ranks. Ironically, the Soviet elites even had property now, including limousines.
Mom’s notes leave off on a decidedly un-Communist note: “We are free whether or not we understand.” Rest in peace.