There is no singular road-to-Damascus event that triggered a socialist conversion. It cannot be measured in a few years, but instead by decades. Many Republicans today bemoan that the party shifted to the right and left them where they were. In my case, experiences and observation have progressively forced me to the left so that I am now functionally socialist.
PracticalDad: A Socialist by Necessity
…and a little child shall lead them.
Becoming a socialist didn’t happen overnight. It came by degrees over the span of decades via divergent experiences that forced me to reassess not only my political beliefs, but also what would be necessary for my own children – and grandchildren – to have a semblance of an economically stable life. The first step of that transition was simply an occurrence which in the moment made the home atmosphere a little lighter: shutting down talk radio. And as Isaiah noted, it was a little child – my then three-year old daughter, Eldest – who led me.
Like many conservatives, I listened to Rush Limbaugh. I wasn’t there at the very beginning of his decades long run but I did start listening in 1991 when I began to share an office with a talkative and easy-going co-worker while working in North Carolina. Nor was I a daily listener for the full three hours because part and parcel of the job was to spend considerable time walking the enormous medical center complex as a member of the Risk Management department. But when we were both in the office, Rush was reliably in the background. When I paid attention, I didn’t always agree but I did find him politically well-versed and frankly entertaining. As his popularity grew over the next several years, I listened intermittently simply because my new job in DC didn’t allow radios in the offices.
That listener status changed in the latter half of 1994 however, with the birth of Eldest and our mutual decision that I should stay home with the baby. While it is far more common for fathers to do so in 2020, it wasn’t the case in 1994. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect to being the stay-at-home father was the isolation. Mothers that I met at the playground were talkative and friendly but once they understood that I was the primary caregiver and not the engaged father with a day off, a switch was literally flipped. So what’s his deal? Is he unable to hold a job or is there something wrong here? Wow, his poor wife… Chat would peter out and any hope of setting up a play date for the toddler would wither like an elapsed time rose on the trellis. Starved for adult conversation and any variety in the day, I began to flip on Limbaugh at noon when Eldest and I had lunch and it stayed on when I put her down for her nap.
This routine continued for three years. It wasn’t as though I ignored Eldest and we ate in silence; children require conversation and interaction and as she grew, we would discuss the trip to the park or the change in seasons or even the squirrel who seemed to enjoy putting on a show retrieving plums from the tree outside the kitchen window. But Limbaugh was also on low in the background and I would listen more intently after she was napping, keeping me company while I cleaned up the kitchen or any other number of household chores. Until one day when was three years of age and she commented at the table about “the angry man”. The conversation proceeded along the lines of :
Daddy, why is the man so angry all the time?
What man? I don’t know who you are talking about.
Him, Daddy. The man who is angry.
I don’t know who you are talking about, honey.
Him, Daddy. The man who is talking now. He’s always so angry. Why?
It wasn’t until she mentioned that he was talking at that moment that I finally understood.
I made a point of relating that head-scratching conversation to my wife that evening after Eldest and Middle, the infant, were in bed. It was treated as a curiosity item from the day but my wife, BH, didn’t leave the conversation there. Maybe it’s more than just a remark by a little girl. His tone is obviously something that has caught her attention and sufficiently enough to remark upon it. And she’s saying that he’s always angry. When I responded to the effect that he wasn’t always angry and that such was part and parcel of his persona, she retorted that a persona was beyond the comprehension of a three-year old child. Her final question was succinct: Is this the kind of atmosphere that we want in the house through the day?
Point taken. With that, Limbaugh was off the air when Eldest was awake. It wasn’t that the kids were running the household and we were beholden to them; it was simply that every household has a particular rhythm and vibe and we chose not to have this ever-present angst humming in the background. By now, Eldest had been joined by Middle and the game of Dad, the Human Pinball was starting to get interesting and as the kids grew, there would be sufficient paternal crankiness without the talk-radio overlay nudging it along. Seriously, as much as you love your children and would die for them, raising small children is sometimes like being continually pecked by ducks.
There were occasions that I continued to tune in when the opportunity arose, even if I increasingly disagreed with him. But the final break occurred in the late 1990s when Congress was looking to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, a mainstay of financial regulation. Limbaugh continually argued with through that period that government regulation was as unnecessary in the financial sector as it was in the other sectors. He remarked – presciently – that far more wealth would be generated if the government and the liberals would only step back and let Wall Street make money. It was his use of the term liberal during one of these monologues that grabbed my attention one evening. Seriously…liberal? The principal Senate sponsor of the bill was Democratic Senator Carter Glass of Virginia. He was actively involved in laying out multiple pieces of key federal legislation regarding the national financial system, including the passage of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. He was also a highly conservative segregationist, certainly not one of this generation’s Democrats. After multiple Congressional hearings about the collapse of the market in 1929, Glass was ready to move with FDR’s inauguration and sponsored the act that subsequently bore his name. This bill was one of the few areas in which he agreed with FDR and he pushed for it because he saw that the collapse occurred due largely to the lack of any meaningful regulatory oversight of a laissez-faire financial sector that went far beyond the bounds of any semblance of rational behavior.
Glass-Steagall was not about ratcheting down and stifling innovation. It was about creating and maintaining a set of boundaries on unethical and dangerous financial behaviors. It was Limbaugh’s willful disregard that finally made me turn him off.
Through the subsequent years, talk radio expanded. It expanded across media platforms to television and podcasts as well as the political spectrum so that even the most far-left and far-right proponents had their own shows. That I didn’t listen was more about the function of time than dislike. By now, Eldest and Middle were joined by Youngest and there were now three children across a span of three educational levels. With constant activities and oversight, who had time? I might still hear a little bit here and there and I was well aware enough that I knew who was now on the airwaves.
This dislike of broadcast punditry fully blossomed when Youngest was in elementary school and I began to share greater responsibility with my sibling for an aging parent. Our father had died years before and as our mother aged and her horizons shrank, she increasingly spent her time watching Glenn Beck and all of the Fox evening programming. Her natural conservatism sharpened with the ongoing stories of liberals and societal decline and her fear increased. Over time, there were more phone calls seeking reassurance about that or that political issue, or why the Democrats would allow themselves to run a candidate who wasn’t actually an American citizen, let alone a Muslim. What I noted when I visited her retirement community apartment was that all of the public area televisions, as well as in the apartments whose residents had left the doors open, were tuned to Fox News. Her final four years were notable by an increasing level of paranoid dementia. She wasn’t incompetent but obviously paranoid and this was only fed by the constant barrage of fear-mongering and criticisms from Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity. The number of phone calls increased further and the tenor of our visits changed dramatically.
My mother’s television faced the front door to her apartment and when I entered, after a short hallway silent prayer and an unheard knock, I could tell what kind of day it would be. If she sat in her swivel chair facing the television and Fox News was airing, I knew that she had watched at least some of Fox and Friends and with her anger stoked, some fresh new misery awaited me. In those instances, she would hear me loudly call out a greeting, swivel her chair towards me like the turrets on a battleship and fire the first of what would be multiple angry salvos.
These instances, and the phone calls, increased in frequency and yes, they were also synced to her mental status decline. By the time that Eldest was in college and gearing up for a semester abroad to Central America, the dam broke while having lunch with her in the community cafeteria. This was also during the period that candidate Donald Trump was proclaiming Mexico as a land of rapists and drug dealers, his immigration comments trumpeted by the evening Fox commentators. Confused about where Eldest was traveling, she began by loudly questioning my competence as a father by allowing my daughter to travel to such a place. Heads swiveled across the entire cafeteria as she yelled. She couldn’t identify the destination that so badly scared her, simply referring to it loudly as there. Nor could she say who it was that scared her, only repeating the words them and those people. It required some minutes of quiet conversation to talk her down and get her to understand that her granddaughter would be safe from them, those unknown people that she couldn’t name but who scared the living shit out of her because the Republican candidate and good folks of Fox News said that they were bad.
As the comment goes, no amount of therapy and bourbon will erase that.
It is now impossible to avoid the political punditry even if I keep the programs turned off. The gas-bagging has taken over the actual news cycles and they are replete with reports about what nonsense has been uttered by Limbaugh or Carlson. Even Maddow and Scarborough on MSNBC make news with their commentary. I will sometimes verify what I read or hear and it is usually correct in it’s ridiculousness. I suppose that it would be exactly as the late Roger Ailes would have wanted with various commentators tossing out verbiage that itself becomes the news instead of the reality of what is actually occurring. The death toll today was more than a thousand lives, but did you hear what Carlson said? Roger Ailes would be proud. He helped to create Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s and under his later guidance, he led Fox News to top ratings and immense profitability. It was, is and will be about the money and if you doubt that, I refer you to then-CBS President Les Moonves comment in 2016 about candidate Donald Trump: It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.
As I write this, Rush Limbaugh is still broadcasting despite stage IV lung cancer. I haven’t listened in years apart from the rare verification under the heading of did he really say that? My own father passed away of that illness almost twenty years ago and having been there with my sister at his death, I don’t wish poorly for Limbaugh because it’s not likely to be an easy death. But I will absolutely not miss his presence. What he and his ilk, on both sides of the airwaves, have done in the pursuit of ratings and profit is multi-fold. They have assisted in the fragmentation of a nation and encouraged the practice of reducing people to broad-stroke caricatures. They dumbed down important topics and abetted the corporate class in selling and justifying a system of wholesale greed and theft. They preyed upon and fed the fears of a multitude of elders, including my mother, frightened by the natural course of change. They made the personal lives of so many adult children all that more difficult for their fear-mongering and dissembling.
More importantly for me however, it was the observation of a pre-schooler that forced me to re-evaluate my own involvement. It freed me from the constant barrage of one-sided narrative and gave the latitude to pursue current events free of the profit-driven angst and come to my own conclusions about the state of American society.
That was frightening enough, without the assistance of any of the gas-bags.