Sometimes people ask how I turned out to be (mostly) liberal, given the (mostly) conservative world I grew up in. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. There are many, many answers–enough so that if anyone had been paying attention, they’d have known from day one that I’d end up a registered Democrat. It was inevitable. But today I’m going to trace my political leanings–and, more importantly, a large chunk of my value system–back to three literary moments that have stayed in my head since childhood.
Starting with Bruce Coville. Somewhere around 3rd grade, Bruce Coville became my favorite author, and held that spot for as long as it was age-appropriate. His books were so full of magic, mystery, silliness, and scariness, all wrapped up into the perfect package for my already overactive imagination. I’d love to get copies to share with the children in my life, but they’ll have to be old copies, because I resent all the new cover art. The originals were so much better…
Anyway, that’s a tangent, and not the book I’m talking about. Coville also wrote the “My Teacher Is An Alien” series, ending with the only one I still vividly recall, My Teacher Flunked The Planet.
In this book, a group of aliens are filing a report on the planet Earth, determining whether they should destroy it. At one point, the aliens take our team of child-heroes to witness world hunger up close and personal. They see the vacant look in people’s eyes as they’re told there will be no food again today. They watch a baby die in its milkless mother’s arms. The shocked kids demand of the aliens, “Why don’t you fix this?! Why don’t you feed these people??” The aliens respond, “Why should we, when you can fix it yourselves?” They then take the kids on a quick trip around the world, showing them all the food that’s going to waste.
That scene must have pierced my little heart, because it’s never left my head. I was thinking about it again just last week, when I attended TEDx in Portland, and one of the talks was all about hunger. The speaker kept repeating that we don’t have a food supply problem; we have a distribution problem.
A cynical adult might side-eye the book for brainwashing kids or simplifying a complex issue. And sure, it is a simplification. But you know what? I don’t care if you call it brainwashing. I’m in favor of teaching values like, “we should feed people,” “sharing is good,” “waste is bad,” and “we should feed people.” (Yes, I repeated that on purpose.) We can argue over the details of how to carry out these ideas. But I remain convinced that humanity could totally solve the whole hunger problem if we all agreed to make it a priority.
So, sorry-not-sorry, but since that scene etched itself into my brain, I’ve firmly believed this…
As I outgrew Bruce Coville, I remained an unashamed book nerd. Anther gem that helped solidify my liberal leanings was in The Once and Future King by T. H. White.
There was a chapter where the Wart was transformed into a goose, and he migrates with the flock. At some point, he asks one of the geese if they’re at war with other geese, and the response is shock and disgust. The goose can’t imagine what wretched species would intentionally kill its own. The Wart insists that they must fight over territory. The goose responds, “There are no boundaries among the geese.” The Wart, still a child, asks what boundaries are. “Imaginary lines on the earth, I suppose,” the goose answers, but “How can you have boundaries if you fly?”
Again, I remember almost nothing about the rest of the book, but this scene still pops into my head all the time. Sometimes because of the war and violence issue. We all seem to accept war as a natural part of life, but when you stop and think about it, it’s mindblowing that a supposedly civilized species deals with problems by killing each other. We teach toddlers to use their words and not hit, but then somewhere along the line, that lesson goes out the window.
But more often, I think about the boundaries between countries being “imaginary lines.” Ever since reading that book as a kid, I can’t see borders as anything more than imaginary lines. We place so much importance on those lines. Everything about your circumstances–your access to wealth, resources, opportunities, and likelihood to live another day–depends so much on which side of a line you were born on. But pull yourself up into the air a bit, and look at the world from a goose’s level, and you can’t even see those lines. They’re imaginary. Pretend. Make-believe.
Simplification of complex issues again? Sure. But regardless, I’ll never be able to view my fellow humans as being less “one of my own” just because they were born on a different side of an imaginary line. I’ll certainly never be able to use the common slur of calling anyone “illegal” because they crossed an imaginary line. I can’t and I won’t.
Ok, my third example is a major stretch of the word “literature.” It isn’t a book; even a book nerd like me watched plenty of 90s Nickelodeon. But TV shows have scripts and stories, or at least they did pre-reality TV, so it’s kind of like literature, right?
Whatever, my third scene-in-my-head-forever came from an episode of “Hey Dude.”
In this episode, Ted was putting together some stereotypical movie portrayals of Native Americans, and Danny called him out on it. The argument led to Ted accepting a dare to go an entire week without using anything that originated with the American Indians.
Throughout the episode, Danny kept taking food and other things away from Ted, telling him about the ingredients that were first used by Indians. The challenge ends with Ted in a towel, all of his clothes off limits, and after explaining the influence of Indian government in the founding of the US government, Danny tells Ted that even his towel violates the terms of the dare. Danny admits he was wrong, and together they recreate Ted’s original presentation with more accurate and respectful portrayals of Native American history.
And that was the day I started thinking about the vast overrepresentation of white people in the media, the entertainment industry, and the history books. I realized how little I actually knew about any other group’s stories, and yet how much those stories probably influenced my own life in a million ways I wasn’t even aware of. I was too young to eloquently talk about those thoughts, but they were taking shape. By high school I was complaining about how my education had consisted of eleventy billion courses on American history, a little dabbling in western Europe, and then crammed the rest of the planet into a single year of “world history.” I was seeing the token diversity in everything I watched on TV through the non-white friend of the white main characters, and it wasn’t good enough for me. I knew there were still Indian reservations around because that’s where people bought their fireworks for the 4th of July, and they’d show up on the news occasionally to debate whale hunting. But other than that, my education would leave me believing they’d all died off a hundred years ago, so I wondered what else I didn’t know.
Thanks, Nickelodeon, for making me think and ask questions that I wouldn’t be able to put into words until many years later.
I’m usually terrible to discuss books and other entertainment with, because I forget the details so quickly. When I’m enjoying a story, I tear through it as fast as possible, eager to know what happens next. After finishing quickly, the details don’t stay in my head. I think it’s significant that these three scenes have stayed strongly rooted in my mind for decades.
I’m afraid that publicly expressing my beliefs via children’s books and TV makes them seem childish. I really do understand that the world is more complicated. But none of those complications can change my core value, and I think it’s important to reflect now and then on what those values are and where they came from. This is the soil that my more nuanced adult beliefs are planted in. It anchors me through the storms and ugliness of the “real world.” I’m not apologizing for any of it! And then I wonder, does the world even have to be as complicated as we make it?