The Activist and the Skeptic: How Two Minds Grew Apart
In the popular mind, older generations are generally more conservative and younger ones more open-minded and willing to embrace change. It’s a dynamic often played out in popular culture — think of the conservative administrators in Dead Poets Society who don’t take well to an upstart professor with an unconventional approach to teaching young minds. The modern history of the United States is a primer in the tension between generational values. The baby-boomer generation (the hippies and protestors and activists) are widely seen as having broken free of the traditional ethos handed down by elders and as having applied idealism and passion in the name of promoting peace and building a better world. But the real picture is far more complex than the stereotypes. In some cases, members of the younger generation turned out to be more conservative than their elders. The following family history challenges generational stereotypes by describing how a mother, who lived in New York at a time of radical upheaval, found a very different political identity from that of her progressive mother.
We tend to hold expectations of the youth of every time and place in history. It would seem odd if they didn’t assume a certain free-spiritedness vis à vis their stiffer, more conservative elders, right? Sometimes the young are in agreement with radical elders — just think of the crowds that Bernie Sanders drew. Too bad my lived experience is so radically, dramatically, different from what others know.
My grandmother, Margaret Beahon, who died in 2010 at age 93, held decidedly liberal views about the underclass and devoted much of her life to charities. Reports of the recovery of the U.S. economy under Republican presidents, and rising employment figures, didn’t sway a woman whose beliefs grew out of bitter personal experience. Her daughter, my mother, did not share her convictions. In fact, those convictions were almost diametrically opposite those of Katharine Washburn, never mind that my mother attended graduate school at Columbia in the 1960s, when a radical firestorm swept over the place. Given the common assumptions about sixties kids and their adversity to the establishment, these two relatives present a case that might disappoint the expectations of sociologists.
“If the Democratic Socialists of America got onto the ballot in primary elections, I’d formally join that party,” my grandmother once told me. The views that made her a “Michael Harrington person” first arose not from the heightened consciousness of an adolescent or college student, but from experiences in early life. Margaret was born in Rochester, New York, in 1916, the daughter of a public schoolteacher whose own father came over from Ireland in 1848. Her father and mother resided in a comfortable house which they’d bought from relatives a few years before Margaret’s birth. It was in this household, and in the peculiarly liberal atmosphere that her parents’ views brought to it, that Margaret lived throughout her childhood and high school years. The liberalism of her parents was probably in part a reaction to the virulently anti-Irish sentiments in Rochester, to the gibes and epithets Irish citizens endured at a time when it wasn’t uncommon to spot signs on the front doors of bars saying “No Irish or dogs.” The family also faced a quieter kind of discrimination. When Margaret’s father began his teaching career at a city high school, his colleagues insinuated that if he didn’t register as a Republican voter, he wouldn’t keep his job. After getting tenure, he was free to register as he pleased, but just try to imagine the long-term effect that the coercion had on him.
At age twelve, Margaret developed a friendship with another girl who lived several houses up the street. The two kids came from families of different faiths, but that meant little to them. But then, in 1928, the Democratic Governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, who was Catholic and of Irish ancestry, ran for president. Herbert Hoover trounced Smith, carrying forty states to Smith’s eight, to the frustration of my grandmother’s family. The day after the election, Margaret went over to her friend’s house and entered the living room, where a number of the friend’s relatives and some acquaintances sat around. One of them burst forth, “See — none of you will ever make it!” Margaret turned and walked out of the house, not really knowing how one should react, but awakened to the reality behind American opportunity.
Margaret was only thirteen at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. When we reflect now on that period, we might call to mind an array of statistics. In 1932, estimates placed the number of unemployed between twelve and thirteen million; wages on the whole were down sixty percent; businesses had lost over five billion dollars; factories in industrial communities, if they were still open, were running at twenty percent capacity; domestic conditions were generally pitiful, with large numbers of families evicted from their apartments. In January 1933, New York’s Governor Lehman announced that state welfare funds were nearly exhausted.
Margaret’s home city was no more able than Washington or New York to escape financial ruin. In Rochester, registrants for relief work in the first week of 1932 exceeded 11,000. That year, when Margaret was a junior in high school, is viewed as the city’s worst. Rochester faced a rise in unemployment from 13,000 to 15,000 citizens in March and then to 19,000 by November. Despite these figures, the city government spent extensively on projects of questionable necessity, such as the construction that same year of the Veterans’ Memorial Bridge for $2,604,051. It’s illustrative of the morbidity of the period that, after work was completed, people started a lottery based on a correct guess as to the day and hour of the first suicide from the bridge.
That’s pretty sick. But without such anecdotes, we’re left with cyphers and printed words that mean little to us, or at least fail to convey the sensations and feelings of people who, like Margaret, experienced the Depression firsthand. For such people, the early 1930s were a perpetual crisis one could not avoid by turning a page. Margaret would never forget watching endless lines of men and women waiting for bread in Rochester’s bitter and brutal weather. Throughout the Depression years, hungry individuals, tired, cold, and not a little embarrassed, came to the door of her home to plead for food. Usually, her mother allowed them to come in and served them a decent meal, though the family’s own resources were diminished. These scenes, painful and disillusioning, made Margaret question the practicality and decency of the economic system.
Giving food to beggars at the door wasn’t nearly the extent of the family’s charity. Margaret’s father seemed to talk often with friends in the neighborhood, and on evening during the week and, especially, on weekends, he left the house to go visit them with an unobtrusive package under his arm. He usually departed with an obscure remark like, “I think I’ll stop over and see how the Browns are doing.” The visits continued for a few years, but for the entire time, Margaret never discovered what the tied bundles contained. Only after the man’s death did she learn that the packages’ contents were portions of chicken, ham, and bacon. Her father gave it to the poorer neighbors for free. If Margaret’s parents provided role models for her to follow, then their charity led her to view helping the needy as the responsibility of anyone who wasn’t as poor.
Her experiences in Rochester weren’t the only spurs to her social liberalism. As a teen, she made occasional visits to an aunt and uncle in a grimy industrial quarter of Pittsburgh, and felt justifiably appalled at how far conditions there had deteriorated. Her hosts took her through mining towns outside Pittsburgh, and she heard about how the “company store” kept mining families in destitution. Margaret’s parents also had relatives in Syracuse, and when she had occasion to stay with them, they brought her to see the Indian reservation there, a home to the Onondaga tribe. Again, the squalor she witnessed provoked a sense of terrible injustice.
After graduating from high school in 1933, Margaret stayed in Rochester to attend Nazareth College. Here her budding progressivism found rich and varied expression. During her first year, she met a young Dorothy Day, and along with a dozen or so others, they founded a weekly newspaper, of which Margaret became secretary and assistant editor. In addition, they opened St. Joseph’s Home, one of the city’s early Catholic worker houses. The home provided hot meals and shelter to the needy and held regular “forums,” or seminars, at which issues of the day — labor, social programs, pacifism — came in for vigorous discussion and debate. Roosevelt and his New Deal garnered praise at these meetings, and the students voiced antiwar passions fueled by the popular novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Margaret’s role in organized social action began at Nazareth but was to go on well after her emergence from academia in 1938, as the need for urgent action made itself felt.
In 1943, Margaret gave birth to Katharine, the first of two daughters. When not busy with her children, Margaret worked as a librarian in Rochester. The period after the Second World War was one of relative stability, and in some ways a pretty comfortable time in which to grow up. Absent from Katharine’s childhood were the grating unpleasantness, the constant talk of money, the knocks of hungry people at the door, the ugliness that marred her mother’s youth. Margaret and her husband, who at the time both considered themselves staunch Democrats, influenced Katharine but didn’t really pressure her to embrace their ideology. Margaret was critical of America’s role in the Cold War, thinking that it diverted attention and resources from social programs. At the end of the decade, Margaret gave birth to her second daughter and the family moved to Garrett Park, Maryland, just outside D.C. In the capital, she got a position at the Census Bureau and entered a graduate program at the National Catholic School of Social Service, a division of Catholic University.
The McCarthy campaign of the early 1950s caused problems for the family. Margaret’s husband was smeared and lost his job in the government. She couldn’t escape a feeling of bitter irony when reflecting that everyone in her immediate family had managed to avoid getting laid off during the Depression. Eventually she and her husband separated, and, having obtained her graduate degree, she turned with greater focus to social activism.
Washington, of course, offered myriad opportunities. She found work making phone calls and answering letters for political candidates: Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern in turn. Here were men who, if they didn’t share all her views, would at least work toward some of the goals she yearned to see realized. McCarthy, for instance, promised to pull the U.S. out of Vietnam. Her involvement with McGovern went far. She worked at his office in Washington and then became precinct coordinator in Montgomery County for the primary election in which he ran and, much to her sorrow, lost. But it was a source of pride for Margaret that Montgomery County gave Eugene McCarthy the most votes out of all Maryland counties. Her involvement in national politics didn’t end there. As recently as 1988, Margaret served as a Democratic organizer in the same state.
But much of the political work of which Margaret felt proudest was right at home in suburban Maryland. In 1965, Margaret became secretary for a group called Garrett Park Citizens for Peace, and later founded a local anti-nuke group which had the distinction of making Garrett Park the country’s first “nuclear-free zone.” Margaret told me that she felt those who were young adults in their early or mid-twenties in the 1960s sometimes wrongly get credit for the antiwar movement’s achievements — the eventual withdrawal from Vietnam, and a lingering reluctance to enter another such conflict — when it was actually citizens Margaret’s age who organized the major demonstrations, setting dates and contacting speakers.
Margaret never lost her revulsion at the sight of others going hungry. In 1973, she launched yet another organization called GIVES, which raised money for the American Friends Service Committee and for a soup kitchen in downtown Washington.
Maybe it’s better that Margaret didn’t live to see Bernie Sanders twice try, and fail, to win the Democratic nomination. The disappointment would have been pretty crushing.
One image that’s indelibly impressed on our memories of the 1960s is the campus activist. Significant numbers of university students during that decade, the popular wisdom goes, espoused a radical agenda and held in disdain the values of older generations. It’s easy to forget that Nixon won fifty-two percent of the under-thirty vote in 1972. That was the year the sixties really ended, right? Everybody in the late sixties and early seventies was caught up in the summer of love, the radical moment, yes?
My mother, Katharine Washburn, who died in 2000, was living evidence that for all the attention the radicals got, the picture was a bit more complicated. She was a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at Columbia during the 1968 student strike, and witnessed it not as a wide-eyed participant but as a detached and wary observer. Katharine had vivid memories of finding Butler Library closed down, of the striking students hurling books and papers from windows of the math building, of endless meetings and discussions on the topic of “restructuring.” But all this meant less to her than getting her Ph.D. in Greek. It seemed to her that the events had a festive atmosphere, that the students involved shared, as she put it to me once, “an intoxication with their own importance.” A mob, she always felt, whatever its stated purpose, is a primitive form of protest. If someone at that time were to ask where her political sympathies lay, she would have said she was a Democrat and kind of liked Adlai Stevenson. But she was never deeply committed to that party’s politics, and her reaction to the Columbia unrest presaged full-blown conservatism later in life.
Her studies in literature, language, art, and religion were her true passion, one she was fortunate to pursue as an undergraduate at Brown University and then at Columbia. When the traditional curriculum began to come under attack as a bastion of racism and misogyny, she perceived an ideologically motivated attempt to subvert the permanent things. But it wasn’t until the dawn of the 1980s that Katharine became unapologetically conservative on other issues. She still voted for Democrats, but by this time it was really kind of out of habit.
Often, politics felt like a distraction from what mattered. It was literature and ideas that she found truly compelling. After completing her graduate studies at Columbia, where she met my father, she mostly divided her attention between a career in writing and translating and the responsibilities of childrearing. My family lived for nearly a decade in Boston, where she worked for a literary journal, Orion. When, in 1979, my father received a job offer from Seton Hall University in New Jersey, the family moved to New York. Now the mother of three sons, Katharine took on growing volumes of work as a reviewer and translator.
At the time of the move, she still had conventional liberal sympathies with the poor and supported social welfare programs. But in New York she gradually grew convinced that welfare harmed the very people it was meant to enable. At the time my family moved to Carroll Gardens, the Brooklyn neighborhood was largely Italian and about half gentrified. (It’s since gained many more white-collar folk and become one of the choicest neighborhoods in the city.) Katharine came to identify with the so-called ordinary working people whose interests, she felt, were damaged by liberal policies on crime and welfare. Young men so often maligned as racists in the media did have an interest in protecting their neighborhoods during the protracted breakdown in the criminal justice system that even liberal writers like Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, have acknowledged was a serious problem in New York during that decade.
But Katharine’s disillusionment with liberalism didn’t mean that she discounted all social programs — far from it. Through a volunteer program run by the New York Public Library, she spent many hours teaching people from disadvantaged backgrounds to read. But social assistance in any form, she felt, must be precisely that: the work of members of society acting voluntarily, not under any form of state coercion.
The deplorably high crime rate in New York in the 1980s made her uneasy about sending her kids to public schools. Crime hadn’t seemed so threatening when she lived in an apartment up near Columbia in the mid-1960s, before things really went to hell. But the climate in the 1980s, and the many high-profile cases of murder and depravity, influenced Katharine to vote for Reagan. “Liberalism seemed bankrupt,” she said.
Another cause that drew Katherine’s support was the continuing survival of Israel. This concern, too, derived from her belief in the importance of Western values, which the state of Israel, for all its flaws, to her mind embodied. Her learning and literary career distanced her from certain passions of the day and made her hostile to attempts to dismantle vital institutions: the family, the church, the traditional academy. I certainly haven’t lived up to everything she thought an educated middle-class person should be. I don’t have a Ph.D. in Greek.
Margaret was conditioned in a harder school, day-to-day life in the Depression. For Margaret, what you saw and felt and lived through in life was and should rightfully be the determining factor, the formative influence, all book learning aside. (N.B. I never actually heard her use the contemptuous phrase “book leaning.”) In reaction to what she saw growing up, Margaret took on the activist role often associated with members of her daughter’s generation. For Katharine, something higher and more sublime took precedence over what the mobs in the street were screaming about. This is why, contrary to expectations, she eschewed the radicalism of her generation and strove to think, not as a member of a mob, but as an individual.
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer. He has worked in both publishing and journalism over the past two decades, with a concentration in financial and legal reporting. He is the author of an acclaimed cover story in the Philadelphia City Paper entitled “Home & Abroad: Haunting Memories Aside, Local Vietnamese Refugees Refuse to Forget the Country They Fled.”
Washburn’s short fiction has appeared in Rosebud, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Concho River Review, New Orphic Review, Stand, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Weird Fiction Review, Weirdbook, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Nomadic Sojourns, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and many other publications. His books include The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). His short story “Confessions of a Spook” won Causeway Lit’s 2018 fiction contest, and his story “My Role in the Rise of Julian Assange” won the Adelaide Books fiction award for 2019.