No one would mistake my sister Dodie -- a super-mom (sometimes tiger mom) and entrepreneur -- for a hand-wringing pessimist. Intrepid and resourceful, she always rises to the moment -- like the "unsinkable" Molly Brown in the musical about the Titanic. But now (even after the smack-down that the object of her worst fears received in the first debate) she is worried sick -- so much so that she can hardly sleep at night.
Three recurring ideas disturb her peace of mind.
One is the thought that no matter what happens between now and Nov. 6, a huge majority of young people -- led by the smartest and best-educated among them -- will cast their votes for Barack Obama.
Next is the thought that their votes will tip the election in his favor.
And last is the thought these same young people (including three of her own children who are recent graduates of prestigious colleges) have no idea of what is about to hit them.
We have all seen the huge crowds that turn out for the president whenever he visits a college campus. But few parents I know have been more thoroughly wrapped up in the lives of young adult children than my sister Dodie. This stems in some part from the fact that her four children (one still in high school) have all worked for her in a various capacities from the age of 12 or 13. They learned about business from a real entrepreneur… who also happened to be extremely popular with all of their friends: being, at one and same time, a strict disciplinarian, the possessor of an exuberant and outspoken personality, and a role model for her children -- in short, a true super-mom.
Here, then, is the story of my younger sister and her family on the eve of what everyone is calling the most important election in recent American history.
Two years after the birth of her first child, Dodie (Josephine Havlak, to give her full name) borrowed $10,000 from relatives to start her own business -- doing wedding and portrait photography. That was in 1987, when Dodie was 32 (she's now 57). She made it into the black in year one and repaid the loan in full in three years.
The business thrived -- not just because of her talent as a photographer, but still more because of her discovery of an unsuspected aptitude for business. None of our Wilson family forbears possessed what I would call the commercial gene. Despite that, Dodie found the ability to overcome the challenges posed by rapid technological change, the constant need to replace existing customers with new ones, and the adverse impact of bad luck and bad decisions. And all that is to say nothing of the high state of anxiety that exists in this particular business (think Father of the Bride).
Everything was going well -- until the housing crash in late 2007, followed by the Great Recession of 2008/9 and the long bounce-less "recovery." Over the past four years, Dodie's income from her business has fallen by about 40 percent, due to sharp declines in weddings, births, and household wealth.
Painful as that has been, it falls well short of a personal catastrophe. Even in a down market, Josephine, as it is called, is still one of the top players in the wedding and portrait market In St. Louis. Meanwhile, her husband Jon, an architect, continues to earn a good salary at a well-regarded firm in the city.
With one full-time assistant to help her out in the organization (billings, collections, scheduling, etc.) of her home-based business, Dodie has combined the roles of a business-owning entrepreneur and a stay-at-home mom. She has been intimately and unceasingly involved with each of the children in their school work and other activities. Conversely, in growing up in and around her business, the children have all seen, from the inside, how the free enterprise system works in creating employment for some and value for others. What they've seen is also something that their mother preaches -- being a great advocate of competition, voluntary exchange, and free-market capitalism.
With some estimates putting unemployment or underemployment among young adults at close to 50%, the adult children are doing exceptionally well, helped by the fact that they all graduated from top universities with high honors (magna or summa). One has a photography business in San Francisco; another will soon complete a PhD in engineering at Cornell; and the third is a rising star a big New York PR firm. (Julie, the youngest, a sophomore at a suburban high school, is a budding writer and musician.)
But happy as she is with their early successes, Dodie is dismayed that her children, though raised as tigers, feel no need or desire to speak out in favor of free-market principles or ideas. As she describes it, they "dare not" criticize Barack Obama's economic policies, or let on to friends that they reject the liberal / progressive belief that it is in the power of big government to outdo the marketplace in producing material abundance and enabling more people to reach their full potential.
All of Dodie's children are avidly pro-gay marriage, seeing this as almost a make-or-break issue. While Dodie hates discrimination against gays, blacks, or any other minority, she is puzzled at the thought that anyone should see guaranteeing gay marriage as the great defining issue in this election year -- with Iran on the brink of gaining a weapon that it says it will use to destroy Israel … with the federal government racking up a trillion dollars of new debt every year as it continues to borrow about 40 cents for every dollar its spends … with the U.S. economy stuck in a seemingly never-ending recession … and with a growing threat to liberty within the U.S. posed by the growth of government mandates and regulations into strange new areas, such as forcing religious institutions to go against their own beliefs in providing health insurance that provides free contraceptives and abortion-producing drugs.
How bad could a second Obama term in office be?
Whether he wins or not, Dodie's children all say that they expect to continue to do well. "Oh, ma, you're just overreacting," they tell her. "You worry too much."
Dodie thinks otherwise. With the accumulation of mistakes and misjudgments that would ensue from a second Obama victory, she foresees a killer recession -- perhaps even a full depression -- in which no jobs will be safe. What is the likelihood -- she asks her math-whiz son at Cornell -- a bankrupt government will be able to fund your experiments in advanced robotics?
However, if there is one issue that trumps all others in Dodie's mind, it is the danger to freedom, even more than the danger to the economy. She thinks her own children have not begun to recognize how much of their freedom they have already lost through the silencing of any real dissent to current government policies in many quarters -- on college campuses, in the mainstream media, and even in everyday speech among friends -- through the self-censorship imposed by political correctness.
At the free-market think tank where I work on a part-time basis as a resident fellow and senior writer, one of my colleagues argues that it really doesn't matter how biased and pro-Obama the mainstream media have become, since everyone selects his or her cup of tea in today's informational tea house: Whether a person's tastes run to the left or the right, or somewhere in between, everyone has plenty of choice, according to this argument.
Not so, my sister counters. As someone who has spent a good deal of time on college campuses over the past decade in the company of her children and their friends, she says: "If you are on a campus today, no one dares to admit to following anything other than the mainstream media or something on the left. To admit to listening to Rush Limbaugh or to watching Fox news is to invite others to mock you for your stupidity. None of my kids wants to be a pariah."
She adds that the exact same point applies at the upper middle-class public high school where her youngest child is enrolled.
Though most parents are unconcerned, Dodie is shocked that the standard-issue Advancement Placement textbooks used at the high school (the third and sixth editions of World Civilizations) speak in generally glowing terms of the supposed accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, while glossing over the fact that Stalin and Mao slaughtered millions of their own people.
The latter edition of the textbook mentions "the messy transition period" following Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union in 1928, and it goes on to say, "If Stalin's approach to agriculture had serious flaws, his handling of industry was in most ways a stunning success."
To call Stalin's handling of industry "a stunning success" is, in itself, a stunning falsehood. But to speak of "serious flaws" and a "messy transition period" in his war against the Russian and Ukrainian landlords and peasantry is to bend history beyond the breaking point -- to a blatant misrepresentation of the past. What Stalin did was to unleash famine on a scale that killed as many as 20 million people or more.
Mao -- a butcher and famine-maker on an even greater scale -- is treated in World Civilizations as an idealist and a communist hero who "clung to his faith in the peasants… as the repository of basic virtue" and who went out of his way to champion the rights of women ("Women in the Revolutionary Struggles for Social Justice" is the title of one section the chapter dealing with Mao").
"This is what they are teaching in our schools today," Dodie cries in disbelief. "It's no different than the Holocaust deniers or what (Iranian President) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is saying."
Let us hope our nation is not serenely and heedlessly racing to its own destruction -- as the Titanic did a hundred years ago.