"The most common characteristic of all police states is intimidation by surveillance. Citizens know they are being watched and overheard. Their mail is being examined. Their homes can be invaded." ~ Vance Packard
Separation and Coalescence - Part I
In the last several years of his life, my father worked on a pet writing project. It was extremely important to him to get it published, and he was very anxious about getting it done. Being a bit of a perfectionist, however, he never published any of his work. After almost five years since his death, I've decided to take on some of his project.
Default">My father was what most people would consider a stoic individual. His upbringing certainly shaped his outlook on life and his value system. Further, it shaped my outlook more than I would have ever previously admitted.
Default">Edmund Anastas Langr was born in 1926 and grew up on a farm about an hour south of Minneapolis , outside a small Minnesota city named Owatonna . He was the oldest child among four brothers and two sisters. His grandfather had come over from eastern Europe, not too far from Prague in what is now the Czech Republic . Dad went through his formative years speaking only Czech. As a result, he failed and had to repeat first grade. While he kept up with the Czech language over the years, no one ever would have guessed that English wasn't his first language. Dad's mother died when he was ten, leaving him with the responsibility of helping to raise six younger siblings.
Default">Dad and family were among those who suffered during the Great Depression. Running a family farm wasn't all that lucrative to start with. The bad conditions that FDR let fester for more than a decade served only to make it worse. Every scrap was precious. Up to his death in 1999, Dad exhibited severe pack-rat tendencies, one of the classic symptoms of Depression-era individuals. Mom still has a few truckloads worth of junk in her house.
Default">Dad dug graves for a while when he got older. He was drafted in late 1950, but never saw action in Korea . He permanently moved to the Washington , D.C. area, where he met and married my mother. From about 1954 until he retired in 1988, Dad worked for "the Defense Department," now known as NSA (but we couldn't say that even as late as the 1980s). I've had one job that lasted for five years, with the rest of my stints averaging only two years. The idea of staying in one place for over 35 years seems like a lifelong prison sentence.
Default">I know little of what my father did for a living. He was "an analyst," he wrote reports, and claimed that the president(s) may have read some of them. While I was growing up, I remember him learning to speak Russian through courses at work. He groused about the poor working conditions at NSA. Apparently at one point, he was typing on a typewriter that was poised atop a file cabinet. Ergonomics be damned!
Default">I will never know more than these few tidbits. Mom had no clue, either. Today, I still can't imagine not being able to come home and discuss something that went on at work with my wife. I've got too many opinions to keep to myself.
Default">I mentioned in an earlier column (Save the Trees) that Dad raised me with a few simple values: respect others and don't waste things. But I grew, much as I hope my own children learn to build their own beliefs beyond mine. I don't consider myself stoic--I'm not beholden to strong religious feelings, and I seek escape often. Still, I retain a lot of my father's ideals. Given a traditional Catholic upbringing by Depression-era parents, you can figure that I learned a lot of conservative lessons. But I also learned a lot of liberal lessons from many other sources.
Default">I grew up in the early '70s with blinders on, a nice, simple, sheltered childhood. The Vietnam War? Watergate? I had no clue what either were. I started reading and relishing Doonesbury in the late '70s. But I had little other interest in politics until I realized in 1980, at age 16, how bad the economy had gotten under President Carter, and how that stood to significantly impact me. Until then, I had taken Trudeau's cartoons (which were human and funny at the time, but quickly turned into tedious hatefests under Reagan) and liberal ideas at face value.
Default">From the 1980s until several years ago, I considered myself mostly Republican. But I was still blind to a lot of things. For example, I puzzled over the insistence of my socialist history teacher at the U of Maryland that the United States was worse than the Soviet Union . Thinking back over all my public education, I recall many incidences of teachers forcing their ultra liberal beliefs on me. I was also exposed to massive doses of liberal viewpoints through countless hours of media bombardment. I blissfully took it all in. I didn't start speaking up until the 1990s, at which point I began posting to BBS's and writing letters to the editor. Still, I didn't spend a lot of time researching politics.
Default">Many things bugged me about Republicans, but I detested the socialist tendencies of the left far more. Somehow, I stumbled across Libertarianism. I score almost pure Libertarian on the World's Smallest Political Quiz. While I'm realistic about the practical limitations of Libertarianism (no one "ism" will ever work perfectly in a group larger than one), I've found a consistent political philosophy that I can use to hone my opinions.
Default">And while I detest socialism, at least I know where those people are coming from. But Democrats and Republicans? There's a confused bunch. By their words, it sounds like a battle between God and Satan (or vice versa, depending upon who's speaking). By their actions, I can barely tell them apart.
Default">I digress. The point is that I've arrived at the conclusion that I'm old enough not to need a mommy to wipe my ass for me. My father learned this at age ten, while it took me more than 30 years. Now, nothing annoys me more than others trying to control my life or the life of others. Along with that, I buy into the premise that public schools are an example of too much state control. (I'm obviously a hypocrite, because I send my children to public schools. My excuses are financial necessity and the fact that I didn't know better sooner. I already pay close to 50% of my income in taxes, and the kids wouldn't cotton to being wrenched from their friends this late in the game. But I do take steps to temper the brainwashing they get.)
Default">Here's where this long tangent truly ties together. I figured Dad for a pro-religion in the public classroom, pro-"one nation under God" Republican. I was dead wrong. The most serious effort that my father undertook in his life was to make a rational case that public schools are unconstitutional. Despite years of media and public school brainwashing, I had ended up with the same core beliefs as my father.
Default">I recently acquired the main document that Dad had banged on for so many years. It is almost 200 pages worth of legal reviews, notes to himself, recommendations, a draft petition designed to go to the Supreme Court, and so on. He peppered the document with headers such as "subsidies chill expression," "citizens own education rights," "erosion of religious freedom," "socialist school systems," and "children not state property." I've not read the entire thing yet. I believe it's a dozen or more documents lumped together. Honestly, it's a bit of a mess; it will take some time for me to sort it out.
Default">There is certainly some legitimacy to Dad's arguments. I recall him telling me in the mid '90s that voucher systems were a bad solution to the public school dilemma. He was confident that vouchers would be struck down as unconstitutional. While it remains to be seen what the ultimate decision will be, for the time being vouchers seem to be problematic in most localities. My state of Colorado recently declared them unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court and Bush administration so far seem to support the voucher movement. Dad figured, probably correctly, that the voucher debate was a big waste of time. He wanted to solve the real problem.
In any case, I have a lot to learn. About vouchers, public schools, the Constitution, my father, his final work, and myself. I intend on spending time to research what Dad labored over for so long. I plan on publishing more columns as I learn more. Maybe Dad was all wet. So far, I have no idea. What I suspect I'll find out is that the means may be different, but we both agree on the end.