Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Roots---and Branches

Pittsburgh from the North Side 2007  BK photo

Three of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates are in some significant sense from Pennsylvania, and from parts of the state near where I was born and grew up.

Ron Paul was born in Pittsburgh and went to high school in the Dormont section.  He worked as a resident doctor at a hospital in Pittsburgh for awhile, and I can hear Pittsburgh in his voice.  Newt Gingrich was born in Harrisburg, and grew up in a small town area near there.  Rick Santorum grew up in Butler County, attended both Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh, worked in a Pittsburgh law firm and began his elective political career in the U.S. House representing eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh in 1990, which placed him maybe 25 miles from my hometown, and much closer to where I was living in Pittsburgh that year.
Hummelstown PA Public Library in 1950s, where Newt
Gingrich once lived in his youth

It seems that Ron Paul's family was a little better off than mine, but probably not by much.  Otherwise these were lower middle class or working class families.  Gingrich was born a little before me, Santorum more than a decade later.  Santorum's background is closest to mine: first generation American of an Italian-born parent, Catholic, Catholic high school.  That our political differences are pronounced is not that remarkable, but it is interesting to me how we relate to our backgrounds, and what those backgrounds were and are.

Santorum told his story of his grandfather in relation to working class values and American values, notably in his post-Iowa caucus speech.  He said his grandfather emigrated from Italy in 1925, because he "figured out that fascism was something that would crush his spirit and his freedom, and give his children something less than he wanted for them."  He left his wife and child (Rick's father) in Italy while he earned a living mining coal in southwestern Pennsylvania, living in a company  town, getting paid in "coupons" or scrip.  He then sent for his family, and continued working in the mines until he was 72.

This is basically not an unfamiliar story.  My Italian grandfather left his pregnant wife behind in Italy when he emigrated, about five years earlier, and got work at his trade of tailor.  My mother was born in Italy, and four years later my grandfather sent money for the passage for her and my grandmother.
On my father's side, my Polish grandfather was a coal miner, as his father had been before him, and so my father grew up in a company town in southwestern Pennsylvania. 
unemployed miners and others at the United, PA post office
in 1935, the company town where my father grew up. The local
mines were closed, and they were waiting to see if their
families were selected for the new town the New Deal
was building as an experiment, eventually called Norvelt.
As Norvelt was being built, my father was at a CCC camp. 

There are elements of Santorum's story that are puzzling but still possible.  Thanks to the Immigration Act of 1924, 90% fewer Italians were able to get into the U.S. in 1925 than when my grandfather arrived.  What I know about the coal fields in southwestern PA makes me wonder how old Santorum's grandfather was when he came over, because those mines were pretty well shut down even before World War II, so I wonder where he worked until the age of 72.  (In the Iowa speech Santorum mentioned "Somerset" but it's unclear whether he meant Somerset, PA or Somerset Iowa.  There were a lot of coal mines in Somerset County in southwestern PA, so he may have been referring to where his grandfather worked.  Most of those mines were active early in the 20th century until perhaps the 1930s.)
Riva del Garda today, where the
main business is tourism

Of course every family is different as where they came from is different.  The Santorums were from Riva del Garda in the northern province of Trentino.  (My grandfather, like Santorum's, fought in World War I, and he was gassed somewhere in northern Italy.)  My grandfather and grandmother were from a mountain village in the Abruzzi, fifty miles or so from the Adriatic Coast in about the middle of the coastline.  Not long before this, those were
just about different countries.  Italy as a nation was a recent invention.

As far as I know, my grandparents and their families were not particularly political in Italy, but apparently that's not the case with the Santorums.  This story based on interviews with the Santorums still there say that Rick's grandfather was an ardent Communist, which meant something different in Italy than in the Soviet Union say (Communists became part of government coalitions) but it was definitely a party left of the socialists, and it would have made him a political enemy to the Fascists of Mussolini.

Otherwise I expect there are commonalities in our family stories that Rick doesn't mention.  After long and bloody conflicts, the coal mines were finally unionized, and various New Deal programs encouraged company towns to permit home ownership, and made that more possible with higher minimum wages.  Italians had begun flocking to the Democratic Party when it nominated Al Smith, a Catholic, for President in 1928.  FDR's programs and appeal made Italians a solid Democratic constituency for the next generation, helping John F. Kennedy win the Presidency in 1960.
Allegheny River, Pittsburgh 2007. BK photo

Western Pennsylvania was replete with immigrant families from Italy, eastern Europe and Ireland, mostly Catholic.  Pittsburgh had a class overlay of wealthier Scots and other Protestants, and an educated Jewish minority that especially made its impact in the arts and sciences, but the popular culture was largely Catholic.  It was somewhat like that in the America of the 1950s, of DiMaggio and Sinatra.  But then succeeding generations joined the economic boom, and Pittsburghers left the neighborhoods for the suburbs.  There was similar movement, though only by a few miles in distance, in my home town.  Ethnic and political identity began to change.

So I don't know what Santorum really saw and heard of his grandfather's world.  I remember the real presence of unions and labor union history, the legacy of FDR and the suspicions of big business spoken in and around the former company town where my father grew up.  But Santorum's life was touched perhaps even more directly by the legacy of FDR and his vision of the federal government.  Santorum's father served in World War II and went to college on the GI Bill.  For awhile in Santorum's youth the family lived in housing provided by the Veterans Administration, because both his parents worked for that federal program.  Santorum applauds himself for getting ahead with hard work, but he got ahead much of his life as an employee of the federal government, in the U.S. Congress, and then used those Washington contacts to become a millionaire.
Cathedral of Learning, built by WPA
at U. of Pittsburgh, where Rick
Santorum got his MBA

But I can at least rationalize a meaning from Santorum's seemingly self-destructive statement over the weekend that in wanting every American to have the opportunity to go to college, President Obama was a "snob" trying to further the agenda of indoctrinating young Americans with liberal ideas from their professors.  This is bizaare on so many levels.  Santorum praises hard-working Americans who haven't gone to college (as if President Obama denigrated them, which he did not) but even manufacturing--or mining--jobs these days require greater skills, obtained through higher education (as President Obama recognized with his emphasis on junior colleges.)   And if Sanctorum is going against 99% of women who use contraception, he is mocking 99% of Americans (a real poll number) who hope to send their children to college.

But this operates perhaps on a different level.  There was and likely still is a tremendous conflict within the working class/lower middle class, that on the one hand wants its children to go to college and succeed, even if it means moving to a big city far away, and on the other hand feels betrayed when children leave, and fears that their education separates them, and makes them feel superior to their parents and their hometown.  It's the Working Class Hero syndrome, characterized by words that so many of us have heard: "Who do you think you are?"  In a sense we always hear it, from everybody, where we came from, where we aspired to be, and where we ended up.

The Catholicism of Rick Santorum is very different from the Catholicism in which I was raised, which might have partly to do with that decade difference.  Catholics were an immigrant minority in the 1950s, and in need of religious tolerance in a predominantly Protestant nation.  In the 1960s, there was the social gospel and ecumenicism of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.  It was still dogmatic and there were fanatics, but the separation of church and state was largely accepted as a good thing.  "You can't legislate morality" is a phrase I heard often in Catholic high school.

For the general differences in world view and history of those Catholicisms I can do no better than to point to recent excellent posts by Andrew Sullivan here and here.   Not only is he both succinct and comprehensive, he's much more involved in contemporary Catholicism than I am.

But the difference in all this is signaled by Santorum's attack on President Kennedy's speech in 1960 on the separation of church and state.  Santorum said the speech made him want to throw up.  This is familiar Rabid Right language, straight off their blogs.  They tend to express disagreement through physical symptoms of disgust.  But to everybody else, it's extremely harsh language.  For one of the Catholic candidates for President in 2012 to say that about the only Catholic to be elected President--and a President admired if not revered by many Americans, especially Catholics--is extreme to the point of alarming.  What is the source of this disgust and anger?  Santorum mischaracterizes what JFK said (as Sullivan explains) but that's not really the point.  He is playing to an evangelical/fundamentalist religious right that apparently now includes major elements of the Catholic Church.  Sullivan summarizes:

"There can be no absolute separation of church and state, let alone a desire to keep it so; and in their necessary interactions, the church must always prevail, or it is a violation of the First Amendment, and an attack on religious freedom. The church's teachings are also, according to theoconservatism, integral to the founding of the United States. Since constitutional rights are endowed from the Creator, and the Creator is the Judeo-Christian one, the notion of a neutral public square, embraced by liberals and those once called conservatives, is an attack on America. America is a special nation because of this unique founding on the Judeo-Christian God. It must therefore always be guided by God's will, and that will is self-evident to anyone, Catholic or Protestant, atheist or Mormon, Jew or Muslim, from natural law."

How many Americans believe this?  This is not about common values, derived from many belief systems and common experience, but about narrow dogma held with absolute certainty. Does this reveal a Rabid Right agenda, or is this just another 1%, though a different one from Romney's?  That's something the elections this year may make clearer.
This Pgh Post-Gazette photo of Pittsburgh's South Side
includes a building where I lived for a year in the late 1980s.
I lived a few more years in Squirrel Hill/Greenfield--both
pretty close to Santorum's congressional district.

So what do I conclude from this geographical and partly socioeconomic coincidence?  At a certain level, I do seem to know these guys.  Ron Paul and Gingrich are like the self-righteous guys in bars who've read a book that blows their mind and defines their world view.  I can almost touch Santorum's feeling for family, and his anger at being overlooked because of where he's from.  But he's also from the foreign land called Rabid Right that I observe and try to figure out.  I know that apart from lying to themselves (as we all do, but it seems they do it a lot) they lie a lot there to others, and believe themselves justified in lying.  And that seems to be the result of a worldview I just can't understand. 

But I know it is threatening the future.  At a time when this country is going to need to work together more closely and more intelligently than ever, they are splitting off into paranoid and hostile camps, adhering to dogma and immune to reason or fact.  Santorum has recently been very vocal in support of the immensely damaging "Climate Crisis is a hoax"--in his view a deliberate and politically motivated one--which in his case is based on a theology that (as this perceptive commentary notes) separates humanity from the planet which sustains it.  This political pressure to ignore the Climate Crisis at a moment when every action taken or not taken will make its mark on a future stretching hundreds of years into the future, may be within the realm of being understood, but it is tragic, and in every sense of the word as I've learned it, unforgivable.

As for this vision of a theocratic dictatorship ruled by the zealots of the Rabid Right, well, that does make me want to throw up.

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