Every morning, my father sat down at our dining room table, a cup of coffee and a stash of Uneeda biscuits within close reach, to read the New York Times. It was his most observed ritual, but the meaning of his devotion was still a mystery to me. Weren’t the Daily Worker and other progressive papers, like the National Guardian, sufficient to determine what was going on? Yet I attempted to follow his example, and struggled to read the Times myself, gaining a currency with the headlines that made me want to know more. During the election campaign of 1948, my fifth-grade teacher set up a debate over the presidential candidates. Our class was mainly Jewish and also liberal. I volunteered to speak for Wallace, whom the overwhelming majority supported, while Danny Wolfman agreed to represent the Republican, Tom Dewey, since no one else would. Nobody volunteered to speak for the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. The day before the debate, I sought out my parents, note pad in hand, and asked them to help me with my speech. They were in their bedroom, dressing for a political meeting. As they outlined for me the Progressive Party platform, its points seemed as simple and inevitable as the instructions they gave to be truthful and fair, and to clean up after myself. We don’t want another war. Who could argue with that? If only the people were allowed to know the truth.
Like my other political lessons, this one reflected the core sense our community had of its political mission: The world is cursed by ignorance, and the task of progressives like us is to set everybody right. It was not too different from the liberal view that inspired the social agendas of PS. 150. And the Hollywood films my parents took me to, like Gentleman’s Agreement and Home of the Brave, promoted the same ideas. My personal favorite was The Boy with Green Hair, starring Dean Stockwell and Pat O’Brien. It was about an orphanage kid, played by Stockwell, whose hair turns bright green overnight, which makes him a target of his adolescent peers. In a futile effort to escape his tormentors, Stockwell shaves his head. A kindly priest (Pat O’Brien) comforts him and tells him that surface differences don’t matter, except to the ignorant Stockwell takes courage from this sermon, and decides to grow his hair back—green.
The moral of these progressive lessons seemed to be always the same: Evil is the failure to understand. And, of course, from our point of view it was. We were badly misunderstood. Terrible hatreds were directed at us because we were falsely perceived as spies, traitors, and defenders of tyranny; fifth-column supporters of the enemy camp. Whereas we were really progressives, friends of Negroes and the poor, partisans of peace, and patriots of a future America in which there would truly be justice for all.
— Radical Son, excerpted in Left Illusions
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