My Turn: A perspective nearly a century in the making

  • William Mattern, 95, is a prolific writer of letters to the editor. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 5/31/2020 6:20:14 AM

My father is a prolific letter-to-the-editor writer. Beginning in his 80s, he routinely sent letters bemoaning the state of American politics to his local paper, The Patriot Ledger, out of Quincy, Mass. He was pleased and proud when his letters were printed. He wanted his opinion in front of readers because “people just need to understand” how far off course we’ve gotten as a country. My father took photos of his letters printed in the newspaper to email to the family.

Now almost 96, my father hasn’t given up trying to set the world right. For as long as I can remember he’s centered justice and honesty in how he judges politics, favoring Democrats for the most part. Now he’s in the Party of Dismay, incredulous that such a dishonest and corrupt person could become president.

But my father and his computer are both frailer than a decade ago. When I talked to him last week he couldn’t get his letter into a document he could send to the paper. Six months ago someone in the family would have gone over to his house to fix whatever glitch was making his computer inoperable. Now we can’t. The senior apartment complex were my parents live is closed to visitors.

My father and mother moved in November, from their house of 65 years, the only house they ever owned. Both in their mid-90s, the move overwhelmed them. “We’re under house arrest in a really nice hotel,” my father said in their first month, bristling at the regimentation of meals at set times and scheduled events. Most upsetting was the clear message that talking politics wasn’t considered appropriate. At least my parents’ dinner mates had similar political opinions and they could talk openly with them.

Now my parents eat their meals in their apartment. There are no more concerts and trivia games and happy hours. They can go for walks in the corridors and on the grounds, wearing masks. But the family can’t visit them, even outdoors.

I told my father to send me photographs of what he couldn’t get to the newspaper last week. At least I could read what he’d written. Knowing his political views, what he wrote wasn’t a surprise. People overseas wonder what’s wrong with the American people that they could elect such a man. He has told thousands of lies. He is so narcissistic that he simply cannot accept reality if it doesn’t favor him.

Because I’ve never talked about my anti-racism work with my father, or much discussed racial issues, this was a surprise: The white people of this country are losing a natural edge and are about to become less than 50% of the citizens, which my father sees as one of the reasons people voted for Trump. He has successfully appealed to many Americans who feel their “white power” is slipping.

My father was born five years after the flu pandemic of 1918-1919. He lived through the depression in a middle-class family that lost their home. He served in World War II. He settled into the comfortable, expanding economy life of the post-war years. He worked for big companies and then he taught high school. He was always a sailor and a sail maker, and as he grew older became an accomplished photographer and watercolor painter.

Now at the end of what he describes as a lucky life, he can see how much of a difference it made to be born a white man in a world that favored his race and class. He sees how some people in power will do anything to maintain their advantage. There is ample evidence that many Republican senators know full well what a disaster Trump is. But Republicans dare not call out Trump. They will lose in their primary elections. Trump voters flock to the polls. Less intense supporters are not so apt to vote in primary elections. Republicans are afraid to speak up.

My father’s most recent letter: Money from the government to offset the effects of the viral crisis is often directed to red states where it is most likely to help Trump in the next election. This is not surprising for Trump, whose mind and actions are controlled by his narcissistic personality. But the comments by some of the other Republicans are really hard to believe, comments like they don’t send money to blue states because they do not use it wisely.

There is truth to these accusations of an unequal distribution of COVID-19 relief funding. An IRS breakdown of the economic impact payments, or stimulus checks, sent directly to citizens, shows a variance in the average amount residents received by states. The base $1,200 check was increased or decreased according to number of children in the household and the total household income. An example: Stimulus checks in Utah averaged $1,944. In Washington, D.C., the average was $1,385.

Of the 25 states with the highest average stimulus payouts, 19 have voted Republican in every presidential election since 2000. Red states are also favored when the money sent to the federal government is compared to the money received. The rhetoric of “blue state bailouts,” a term Sen. Mitch McConnell used to justify reluctance to send more aid to states is not only divisive, it’s not supported by the facts. New York gets back only 90 cents for every dollar it sends to the federal government, while McConnell’s supposedly superior red state gets $2.41 back for every dollar it sends.

In my father’s long life he’s seen our country pull through economic difficulties and a world war. He wants to do what he can to see the U.S. get through this crisis. While the partisan squabbling in Congress continues and states struggle to balance restarting economic activity with public safety, his 95-year-old ideas are worth listening to. He has wisdom and experience and a lifetime of seeing what works and what doesn’t. His voice has long vision in it.

My father’s most important point is this: Instead of coming together to fight this terrible plague, blaming blue states would only drive us further apart. We need to find ways to unite. He hopes the people who need to hear this will listen.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood.)

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