Politics at daddy’s knee.

Harry Drabik

I learned what I’d call a form of “hard knocks” politics from my father. In his mind and words my dad was absolutely a staunch conservative who knew what was right and would not back down. He was adamant about that. Dad’s way of adamancy was what some in his generation would call “peppery.” That means in times of political stress or to make a point dad swore. He learned that from his father (swearing, not politics) who was a champion curser in the great tradition of Polish peasantry who had the art of under-the-breath cursing infinitely mastered. The silent mutter had to do for peasants who were never allowed to show their masters any sign of dissention. And they didn’t, not until such time as “the revolution” allowed them to show it by executing the “God-damn-it-bastards.” It was the actions speak louder than words thing. “Your family keeps us poor and groveling for seven centuries. Now we thank you. Shoot them.” That solved the problem based on another ancient belief that old dogs do not pick up new tricks. If the dog is unlikely to change and has a history of biting you shoot it. Not allowed luxury, the peasants weren’t going to start with the luxury of contending with the finer points of justice. “Shoot them. Shoot the kids, too. Get rid of all of them.” The peasantry had, after all, been hard schooled in a no frills life which spilled over into no frills social justice. “Shoot them all.”

My dad’s solution to many a social ill, problem, or challenge was that of a peasant lacking the time to bother with much beyond survival basics. Dad’s social IQ had improved from earlier days however. He was not an advocate of shooting people on the spot. Dad favored hanging. “Hang them. Hang every one of them.” Functionally this is the same as shooting, but it is somewhat more festive in tone. But maybe I’m wrong and neither option is very jolly. I think my dad sensed that dilemma as well because his other cure-all was considerably more merciful at no added cost of kindness. Dad would fume, turn red, sprinkle pepper in his speech, and declare “Lock them up and throw away the key.” That fate of being locked away for life is better than being shot or hung because you get to enjoy it, though the actual enjoyment aspect of dungeon life is probably slight what with the confinement, overcrowding, poor food, no sun, no exercise, etc. But as a well known Arizona sheriff likes to say, jail isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be torture, either, but I’d guess torture might be fun (and politically profitable) for the torturers who get whatever satisfaction if not entertainment they’re able to gather.

It was almost impossible for me to talk politics with my dad. We were both good for thirty seconds (the record was thirty seven) of calm before the first dash of pepper flew. From then on discussion was purely an exercise in mutual frustration. If I didn’t know better I could credit my father with founding the Tea Party movement which has so many of his characteristics stamped heavily over it. Dad loved simple, direct solutions. Any attempt to characterize a problem as complex was seen as subterfuge for trying to pull the wool over his eyes. He’d have none of it. Complexity was an invention of the educated who dad defined as over educated and therefore systemically out-of-touch with peasant realities. It makes me wonder why such a man would have ever in the world have been so insistent his only son go to a university. That seems the same as wishing your boy would become a sissy. It doesn’t fit, but then things often don’t make sense beyond the simple knee-jerk level. In many cases that is as deep as a thing goes. Say a magic word and knee jerk, you get the automatic, default reply of choices between “shoot them,” “hang them,” or “throw away the key.”

Now, here’s the truly complex part of this, and don’t blame me for it. I’m telling you now that I am not the one who made it complicated. Dad did. Matching his other considerable skills, dad knew how to complicate. You see, he might swear up and down that he was true blue conservative to the core, but that was an act. Oh, he said it and he meant it, but it was no more true for him than it is true to call me devout because I pass outside a church and nod in its direction. Dad was a conservative because he could not abide what he felt was the stigma of being called a liberal. To him liberal meant loose and wasteful. That’s pretty much the peasant definition of the word. “He’s liberal with his vodka.” “He’s liberal with his women.” You get the association. Being none of those things, dad couldn’t tolerate being seen or thought of as liberal.

But he was. His basic sense lined up very well with the liberal, progressive, DFL side of the scale. He knew darn well it wasn’t the blue blooded conservative aristocrats who rose up to shed blood for the freedom and dignity of the peasant masses. He knew, but it just killed him to be thought of or seen in the context of that peasant mass. No, no, he’d risen above that, reaching a point in middle management where he could rail against unions. Like Reagan, he’d been in one and had benefited from it. But it was more emotionally rewarding to think he was a self-made man all the while supporting public education and social programs because he knew very well it was the peasants who’d take the biggest kick in the teeth and could stay that way for centuries if the powers that be had their way. About political labels dad was stubborn and bull headed. That didn’t make him stupid. If he was alive I think he’d rally with the current populist peasant movement. What’s unsure to me is if he’d realize in time the side he was really on.