By Randy Cunningham
April 6th, 2020
How do we become us? How do we form our politics? And especially how are we radicalized and how do we make the leap into embracing socialist politics? I think everyone is different and how we got to where we are is the reason biographies and personal essays are popular genres.
I was an odd child and there were many points in my life where my parents wondered where the hell I came from, and whether there had been a mistake made at the hospital nursery. My father sold rags, as he put it. He was in the retail clothing business. My mother was a classic housewife of the era. They were both veterans of World War II, my father in the Army, my mother the Navy. And they raised my brother and I in a small glass factory town in Missouri where most residents worked at “the plant” and knew one another going back several generations. It was the type of place that Norman Rockwell, the famous illustrator of wholesomeness would have considered heaven.
I say I was odd because from my earliest years I was a devoted amateur naturalist. At night my parents would lay in bed, and hear the clump, clump of the latest box turtle I had captured and put in the basement to eat bugs. I subscribed to the monthly magazine of the Missouri Conservation Commission, and at age eleven read one of the most influential books in my life – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I was a tree hugger before there were tree huggers. It was what set me on the road to perdition.
At the time our county, just south of St. Louis, was being cored with the construction of Interstate 55. The contractor was the Fred Weber Construction Company and they had a problem. They needed to find a place on the Mississippi to off load the ingredients of a highway. They bought land just north of where we had moved. The land was heavily forested and was my playground. They blew it to smithereens over a summer as they dug a road to the river. Teenagers are great guerrillas. They are fearless, imbued with moral righteousness and excel at being devious. I applied all these talents in a war of vandalism I unleashed on the construction site. Which was noted at the dinner table. My Dad said, “I hear that someone has been wrecking equipment over at Weber’s. You don’t know anything about that, do you Rand? Nope Dad. Don’t know anything. Could you pass the hominy?” In the shadow war, a combatant might be sitting at your own dinner table eating fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
I lost my war. It was no contest. Us kids used to point up to the sky when Weber’s helicopter passed overhead and say, “There goes God!” I have hated developers ever since. When we visit my brother, we drive by the entrance of the facility that was my first encounter opposing power, and I tell Tris to slow down the car, so I can give it the finger.
My small town was comforting but also suffocating and conservative. As a teenager I wanted out and did not have good enough grades to go right from high school to college. In desperation, I asked my father to sign papers for me to join the Army when that meant a direct flight to Vietnam. My father’s experience with war in North Africa and Italy was horrific and he said hell no, and my father was a tough person to cross. So, I went to junior college until I could transfer to the University of Missouri at Columbia the fall of 1969.
It was deliverance. This was a time that I describe as a society wide jail break. Campuses offered you everything you were denied in tight ass small town America. Drugs, booze, and irresponsible sex along with all the cultural currents that were turning the society inside out. Prominent in the list of forbiddens was radical politics centered on the anti-war movement. I jumped right into it when I participated in one of the greatest national series of demonstrations against the war – the Moratorium Against the War in Vietnam in October 1969 which drew crowds in the millions.
Dial back, I was not a radical. Maybe in temperament, but in politics I was a good liberal. I was not impressed by the real radicals of the era. I thought carrying the Viet Cong flag at demonstrations was outrageous and found the macho posturing of the era’s left offensive. But I was on my way.
Let’s put it this way. I was not a red or even a pink diaper baby. I was not handed my politics. I had to fight for them. My way forward was not straight and narrow. It was twisted and full of turns, dead ends and at times the road was washed out. But the seed of my early heresy against God as represented by the Fred Weber Construction Company was starting to sprout. It grew with the first Earth Day in April 1970 and grew with the student strike to protest the killings at Kent State in May 1970. During this strike I had another aha moment. I was standing in the middle of one of the daily demonstrations and looked around at the crowd of students around me and considered what I had experienced during the strike, and thought “Damn, this is interesting!”
There are a lot of myths about this era and let’s get one thing straight. There was a lot of student opposition to the protests from fraternities, and the aggies and future business tycoons in the student body. Including my cousin who had just gotten back from Vietnam. The Kappa Alphas made African American students welcome on campus by riding down the street on horseback in Confederate uniforms to deliver invitations to their Old South ball to the sororities. When my dorm was emptying out for the summer of 1970, one of the aggies told me that he was going to National Guard training camp to learn how to shoot people like me. As I said, it was contentious.
My liberalism was getting harder and harder to maintain, because standing between any issue I was concerned about and its resolution, were the corporations. The enemy always had to same last name – Incorporated. I began to flirt with socialism, but the deal was not yet sealed. And as I continued on this path, my relationship with my parents deteriorated. My father made Milton Friedman look like Ho Chi Minh. He was the head of the Chamber of Commerce. He became the chairman of the board of the local hospital and successfully broke a union and a strike. As I said, I fought for my politics. My mother was more sympathetic and if any social consciousness resided in my family it was from her with compliments to the depression and her family’s steady New Deal loyalties.
The deal was sealed in September of 1973 with the overthrow of Allende in Chile. Allende was a hero to me and was much more appealing than the Mother Country revolutionaries who were finishing up the self-destruction of the New Left. I decided that there were two sides in the world. Those who stood with Allende and those who stood with Kissinger and Pinochet. I became a self-conscious socialist and have never looked back. My subsequent life in socialist politics and activism has been good to me. I met my wife through the movement, made lifelong friends, and for a person who likes to write I think activism is a Mother Lode of great stories. I have not made much money in my life, and we are the poor relations and outliers of my family. But no one in my family has had anywhere near as interesting a life as I have.
That is how I got to where I am.