THE PUBLIC EYE: Growing Up Liberal

By Bob Burnett
Friday February 14, 2014 - 08:27:00 AM

I’m a middle-aged, affluent, prototypical WASP. I was born in Los Angeles and raised in Orange County where my father and grandfather were small businessmen and Republicans. Knowing all this you’d expect me to be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. But I’m not. I’m unabashedly liberal. 

I thought about my path to liberalism when I read the recent interview between President Obama and Bill O’Reilly. After a discussion of Obama’s so called liberal agenda, O’Reilly said, “I think that you are much more friendly to a nanny state than I am. I’m more of a self-reliance guy, you’re more of a big government will solve your problems guy.” O’Reilly mouthed the classic conservative trope: liberals love the “nanny state” and think big government can solve all of America’s problems. Not surprisingly, O’Reilly doesn’t understand liberal values. 

I’m “a self reliance guy.” After my father’s business failed, I worked my way through Stanford. Then I made my way up the Silicon Valley food chain and eventually became one of the founding executives at Cisco Systems. But, I’m not a conservative because, as I grew up, I acquired three core liberal values. 

“War is not the answer.” Three of my uncles served in WWII and I was raised in a patriotic household. My grandfather was Dwight Eisenhower’s cousin and once Ike became President, my elders believed the US could do no wrong. Eventually, my attitude began to shift when America got entangled in Vietnam. 

My brother was drafted into the Army, but I got a deferment because, as a computer scientist, I was doing something the Defense Department thought was essential to the war effort – my software group modified our operating system so that it was “spook friendly.” Then I studied the origins and politics of the Vietnam conflict, which led me to join the anti-war movement. 

Involvement in the anti-war movement made me aware of government lies and misconduct. As a result, I’m suspicious of the Department of Defense, CIA, and FBI. O’Reilly deplores the “nanny state” while I reject the conservative veneration of the military-industrial complex. Conservatives blind obedience to the national security establishment led to the tragedy of 9/11 and the asinine invasion of Iraq. 

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". I grew up in a Presbyterian household that practiced Christianity light. We didn’t pray or read the Bible, but we did have an informal code of ethics. Foremost among these was the Golden Rule. My grandfather mouthed this code, but he was a full-spectrum bigot, who didn’t like blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Italians, or most anyone who hadn’t immigrated from England or Germany. (Where our ancestors came from.) 

My father was far more tolerant and preached a message of fairness; “If you treat other people right, they will usually treat you right.” This applied to the people around us but not particularly to blacks or Hispanics – because we didn’t know any. 

This changed when I was in high school and went to a Presbyterian youth camp, where I met black students who were involved in the civil-rights movement. They spoke about the impact of segregation on their lives and their harassment by the police. (A few years later, 1967, I saw police beat anti-war protestors at LA’s Century Plaza Hotel.) 

At his memorable 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama said, “It is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work.” I agree, which is why I support the social safety net. 

Senator Elizabeth Warren said “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own.” I agree. 

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from out children.” When I was a Silicon Valley executive, I learned there were four criteria for success: get your work done, treat your employees fairly, handle customers with respect, and develop a strategic vision. Whereas many CEOs plan only as far as the next corporate earnings report, a technology manager has to plan for the future. “You make big money by anticipating the market, not reacting to it.” 

One of America’s key problems is that it doesn’t have a unifying strategic, democratic vision. Since the Reagan era the plan has been, “Help the rich get richer and our problems will disappear.” That’s not working and it’s destroying our democracy and the planet. 

I had a plan for my own life and for my family. But I was blind to consequences of global climate change. Then, in 1987, when I was on vacation with my children, I heard their fears about destruction of the environment. “The world we grow up in is much less healthy than your world. We’re afraid to have children.” 

America’s biggest problem is global climate change caused by our mindless addiction to fossil fuels. 

I’m a liberal. I believe in self-reliance but I also believe in common sense. We have to curtail the US military establishment. We have to take immediate action to save the planet. And we have to work together to protect the human rights of all Americans. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at