Andersen: Why I’m a progressive social liberal |

Andersen: Why I’m a progressive social liberal

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The Ken Burns documentary “The Roosevelts” is a potent reminder that courage and vision in the Oval Office are necessary for advances in human rights.

Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed the common man who was being crushed under the heel of capitalism. These inspired presidents adhered to noblesse oblige and used altruism as a torch to light the dim passages of history they navigated.

And it wasn’t only the Roosevelt presidents. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt carried the torch for civil rights, lighting a still darker historical passage that’s being inflamed today in Ferguson, Missouri.

It was Eleanor’s uncle, TR, and her husband, FDR, who took on the all-powerful trusts and challenged “the mere accumulation of money” as the mark of a person’s success. They realized that social justice was the foundation on which the security of the nation must be built.

The Roosevelts, despite their foibles, are exemplars of altruism and moral leadership. However, that’s not where my social conscience was born.

The liberal principles I often espouse developed gradually through my youth — mostly from the jobs I worked and the contacts I made with the common clay, the salt of the earth. There was no education more important to my life than my eclectic work resume.

Taking a four-year respite from college, I worked one summer in the early ’70s at a gear factory in Chicago. I was assigned to a stool at a workbench mounted with two calipers. My job was to measure the tolerance of shafts on plastic worm gears, one of which went into every General Motors odometer.

There were two empty boxes on my right marked “good” and “bad.” A huge box on my left brimmed with thousands of tiny gears. One by one, I gauged the shafts, tossing the good gears into the good box and the bad gears into the bad box. A monkey could do this, and I felt like one.

After a full week of eight-hour days, I was ready for the looney bin. Not so for the man I worked with. Jim was a black man in his 30s who modeled incredible forbearance for tedium as he labored for $3.65 an hour.

Jim and I talked all day sharing life stories. I got to know him well, and we became friends — me, a privileged white boy, him, an underprivileged black man. Through our shared labor, we found mutual respect that went beyond race, class and education.

My next job had me climbing trees with a trimming crew in the tree-shaded suburbs. I worked with Hispanics, some of them illegals, doing demanding and risky physical labor using chain saws while roped into trees. These kind men became both my teachers and my guardians.

That winter, our work became a serious rigor. I wore stout leather boots; they wore thin street shoes. They had no gloves and only thin jackets against the biting cold. One day, I went home because of cold, wind and snow. They toughed it out to earn their $4.20 an hour, sending most of it home to Mexico. These men were far stronger than I, both physically and mentally, and they won my admiration.

My next job was on a Great Lakes ore carrier, working for Bethlehem Steel during the twilight years of the American steel industry. As a merchant mariner, I was assigned to the steward’s department, where I worked with a man 20 years older than I. He didn’t like hippies — and I had long hair.

Our hostilities ended one inky-black night on the fantail where we went to smoke cigarettes, usually in tense silence. The ship — SS Johnstown — was steaming across a placid Lake Superior. The air was balmy, the sky clear, the stars a chalky smear from horizon to horizon.

We puffed our smokes, studied the stars and, for the first time, shared thoughts about our small place in the infinite universe. Cosmic perspective transcended our differences. We became friends. Our bond became indelible, like brothers.

I will never forget these often-forgotten people — the common man who keeps the wheels turning. My die was cast as a progressive social liberal.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at

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