It is the early seventies, and I am unsure of what I believe. I am the youngest of the old ones and the oldest of the young ones, and I sit at the dinner table with the grownups: my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, my great aunt Reeva, and my great uncle Leon.
“When’s the fight going to begin?” my sister Jessica asks.
“It’s not a fight, it’s an argument,” my mom says. “We’re not mad at each other.”
But it always sounds like a fight to Jessica and me, and we welcome it. And if “the fight” doesn’t begin soon enough, Jessica goads it. “Alioto!” she says. “Grandpa, Dad — Alioto!” My father finishes his piece of Larabarou bread and takes a swallow of water. “So what is this about the strike?” he says to my Grandpa Jack. And they’re off.
They argue about Alioto, San Francisco’s mayor from 1968 to 1976, the newspaper strike, the strike at City College, downtown development, school busing. They argue about the Vietnam War — what’s to be done, how to get out. Civil Rights, Feminism, Stalin. We live on the edge of the Haight-Ashbury with its Hippie-dom, and the Fillmore with its Black Pride — on the edge of radical feminism and Power to the People! We live in the heart of San Francisco’s Left Wing, in a family where New Left meets Old Left, and in a time when people march and our voices are heard around the world. There’s going to be a revolution. It’s important to state where you stand.
Voices are raised, my dad parries and thrusts, always the Devil’s Advocate. Aunt Reeva takes him on, leaning back in her chair with a calm, dry voice. My grandfather makes his points clearly, my Uncle Leon pounds a fist on the table. My grandmother stammers and moves herself — and the rest of us — to tears, with arguments that widen the issues to all humanity.
Lots of things they disagree on. But they’re relatively small. They mostly agree, they’re arguing nuances. Certain things they all identify with, and they all end with “ist.” Clearly, we are all Leftist. Collectivist. Activist. Artist. Marxist. Communist. Unionist. Humanist. Atheist.
Some “ists” the family splits forces on: Feminist (in the early years). Socialist (wishy-washy). Maoist (the Cultural Revolution). Stalinist. Buddhist. Anarchist. Existentialist. Womynist. Pacifist (and here, my dad hauls out real evidence that Gandhi is anti-Semitic).
And there are the clearly bad “ists”: Racist. Fascist. Capitalist. Zionist. Centrist. Spiritualist. Trotskyist. Fundamentalist.
I don’t say anything — neither does Jessica. This is a grown-up argument. They sound so certain, and as I sit there, unsure of the issues, unable to argue a point because I don’t have one, I don’t realize they are trying out arguments. Politics is their sport, their life, their vocations — their avocations.
“Jack, that’s a load of crap!” my dad says to his father-in-law.
But it’s not a fight. It’s serious, and it’s important, and nobody is angry, even though they sound angry.
Looking back, maybe they weren’t as certain as they sounded. Maybe this was a place to become certain, within the safety of family. My family were union leaders and leaders in the community. For them, this wasn’t an idle spouting of opinions. My great uncle took these arguments, honed at family parties, into union negotiations that went all night. My great aunt took hers to meetings, rallies, demonstrations. You cannot make social change and revolution if you doubt your position — at least in public.
The argument goes on. But after a while, we segue into the singing, and even here, it’s political — we sing strike songs and Spanish Civil War songs and old Negro spirituals used to communicate in slave days. “We are not free until we are all free.” The arguments and the songs all tell us this.
I grew up on the edge of the continent — that section of land they say will separate and fall into the ocean in a big quake. I grew up in a San Francisco with vacant lots to play in, blue serpentine and red chert, the wind off the bay, eucalyptus, fog horns, and hills.
Decades later we’re at my own house, across the bay; I rarely hear fog horns at night. Dinnertime with friends, and the conversation turns to politics. My friend Milo mentions Karl Rove. My husband Bill joins the rant. My daughter Annie listens intently, her head ping ponging from one to the other. But my heart beats fast, I roll my eyes, pick my cuticle, loudly clear the table; I stand in the kitchen, wanting to cover my ears. I don’t want this conversation. Who cares what you think? I think. I agree George Bush and his cronies are evil maniacs. Do we have to talk about it again? For years I’ve banned political conversation at breakfast; no rants over the newspaper — I don’t want the world intruding before my coffee.
The members of my family — those still alive — have largely moved on, our political arguments a shadow of what they used to be. Our lives don’t depend on our political rhetoric anymore. None of us really believe there will be a revolution. The Old Left is dead, even in my family.
Except for my dad, who still has a Stalin wall clock in his office, and who still argues the old way. He’s our version of a Traditionalist.
And then there’s my daughter Annie, who comes from a long-standing Jewish tradition of questioning, and a revolutionary tradition of grabbing and holding fast to ideas, sometimes long past the time when they should be let go. She’s certainly good at social argumentation: reading, thinking, discussing. She points out articles in the newspaper, does her school reports on women’s suffrage, reads Bitch magazine. This week, Annie began brainstorming for her “This I Believe” essay in her English class. One of her ideas: “I believe you should stand up for what you believe in.”
Brava the Old Left.
But another was, “I believe you can always change your mind about your beliefs.”
And Brava The New.