By Roy Lincoln Karp
Politics was like a religion in my family. My father – the freelance political writer and historian Walter Karp – was our high priest. He had a deep and abiding love for the American republic and little tolerance for lazy thinking or conventional wisdom. When others took aim at the American people, he turned his critical eye toward those in power. He did not believe in social forces; he preferred to name names and misdeeds. Perhaps most of all, he did not believe you could be apolitical. “Apolitical is political,” he would say, “it just means you support the status quo.”
Born in 1934 on the Lower East Side, my father grew up in East New York, Brooklyn. He passed away 30 years ago this month and I’ve been reflecting on his life and writing and the unique voice we have been missing these last three decades. The literary critic Alfred Kazin once asked my dad how a working class Jewish kid from Brooklyn became such an avid small ‘r’ republican. I don’t know how my father responded to that question and I’m still searching for a good answer.
My grandfather had put himself through law school, but the fall of 1929 was not a great moment to launch a legal career, so he became a bookkeeper and part-time house painter, while my grandmother worked as a secretary in the Coney Island housing projects. From these modest beginnings, my father thrived academically at James Madison High School (around the same time as Bernie Sanders and Ruth Bader Ginsberg) and went on to become valedictorian of Columbia College in 1955.
After college, he studied anthropology under the tutelage of Margaret Mead, but he left the field before getting his graduate degree, eschewing both anthropology and academia. His early aspiration to write about the history of science is reflected in two early books: a history of the Smithsonian Institution and an illustrated biography of Charles Darwin that was widely used in American high schools.
Like many Americans in the 1960s, he became politicized during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. In 1968, he started a bi-monthly political journal called The Public Life, which he produced from the apartment on the Upper West Side where I grew up. This was also the site of Sunday brunches with the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who once brought along her poet friend W.H. Auden.
The Public Life lasted only three years, but it helped establish my father’s reputation as a thoughtful and independent thinker. He did not fit easily into those political camps labeled “Liberal Left” or “Conservative Right,” but he found a home for his writing in Harper’s, American Heritage, and the short-lived Channels magazine. He also wrote three books that have thankfully been kept in print by Harper’s: ‘Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America’ (1973), ‘The Politics of War’ (1979), and ‘Liberty Under Siege: American Politics, 1976-1988.’ (1989).
My father died on July 19, 1989, from complications related to a colon infection. The republic lost one of its most passionate and articulate defenders and my family lost our beloved father, husband, brother, and son. In the ensuing years, we have been left to debate what my father would have thought about political developments during the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump years.
During the 1980s, my father viewed Trump as a vulgar product of Reagan-era materialism and he no doubt would have been appalled by the fear mongering and demagoguery that led to his election as president. But he would also have laid a great deal of blame on the Democratic Party establishment, which he believed is sometimes willing to lose elections in order to maintain control of the party.
My father believed our experiment in self-government was under constant threat from tyranny and that the only real check on those in power was an active and engaged citizenry. He had great faith in the American people, even though that faith was often tested.
“America is not as free as it should be,” he once said, “but it’s not so unfree that a voice like mine can’t be heard.” It’s a voice we have missed for the last 30 years and one that we need now perhaps more than ever.