The Book That Created a Liberal by Thomas Martin Sobottke


Everyone ought to be able to name roughly a dozen books that we enjoyed most, were most inspired by, or which helped to shape the dimensions of our world in ways that are not only profound but that continue to beckon us to draw up by the fire or central heating these days and revisit them yet again.

In the 8th Grade the world of politics and the world that smacked me in the face daily were busy colliding with each other in ways that were often jarringly unpleasant. I’d come to realize that the world as offered me by two of the most protective and guiding, loving parents that ever existed could no longer be hidden from my more complete understanding.

I’d already been saved from the complete scholarly and mental ash heap by a grade school librarian. Librarians or information technology assistants in cyber parlance are the most dangerous individuals in our society. For they can point us to books, essays, magazine articles, and whole other worlds we never dreamed existed. They can open up and stimulate our minds in ways that are too multitudinous to even calculate. I had read, and re-read and oh my Lord, re-read a children’s book on Lincoln by the Sterling North Company. I’d then gone and voraciously devoured an entire set of historical biographies of famous Americans with just enough of a sprinkling of women and people of color to be of value five books at a time.

Then there came into my sad excuse for a pimply-faced pubescent male life, one of the most amazing educators to ever walk the Earth since Socrates. The elderly Miss Marple-like Miss Lass was humble and self-deprecatory but her manner of opening up our minds to learning in English and Social Studies in the 8th Grade was something for the ages.
We had to do a “Future Me” report. Little did I know that I was embarking upon a transcendent and life affirming enterprise that year. I don’t think my wonderful parents knew I had a usable thought flowing through my brain. Neither did I.

The book and person I selected to be my model was the plain-dressed, zigging when all others comfortably were zagging, contemptible to the rich and comfortable, defender of the damned: Clarence Darrow. It was a book published in 1941. The man Irving Stone is still the only author who has captured what must have captivated courtroom audiences who heard and saw the famous defense lawyer.

I liked the fact that the guy challenged accepted dogma. I liked his zagging just as soon as a whole bunch of the others folks in the world began to zig as he had done so alone before.

But I especially loved the way he defended the weak. Spoke for the oppressed; challenged the haughty and arrogant and prideful. Darrow doubted his own assertions about life as much as any, and yet brought humanity, decency, and dignity out from under his rather Bohemian and Free Love style of living so that I might be edified and learn how to do the same in my life. How much were this Irving Stone and his words bringing Darrow to life or the other way around I cannot tell.

I’d already sensed I’d joined the working class and not the employing class a couple of years earlier and the revelation was disturbing. It’s much easier to have power over others, have great material wealth, and know that society supports your every whim. But philosophically, and in the spiritual self here is an unimpeachable integrity and personal satisfaction that doing and feeling what Darrow did can bring.

Just as I had walked the community thinking I was Lincoln for a year in 5th Grade now I was Clarence Darrow ready to defend the defenseless and to stand with the humble and the weak and know it was good, right, and necessary in this life to do so. That’s what both Stone and Darrow have brought me.

It was one of a number of influences that made me a liberal, working class Union man seeking social justice in our world and trying to in some small measure justify the faith in Christ through the Holy Spirit that is in me. It matters not that Darrow was a confirmed agnostic, gravitating back and forth between Atheism and a love for the Holy Bible as literature and wisdom. If an atheist at a debate or lecture zigged he stood up right there and zagged and defended the faithful; or vice versa as the situation presented itself to him.

I read something that deeply moved me yet again in Stone’s biography of Clarence Darrow. It was this in trying to defend Union leaders charged with conspiracy against a private business during a long and harrowing strike in Oshkosh, Wisconsin at the end of the Nineteenth century.
Darrow had risen and for hours kept all spellbound. He said to the jury in part:

. . . “I appeal to you not for Thomas Kidd, (the defendant, mine) but I appeal to you for the long line—the long, long line reaching back through the ages and forward to the years to come—the long line of despoiled and downtrodden people of the Earth. I appeal to you for those men who rise in the morning before daylight comes and who go home at night when the light has faded from the sky and give their life, their strength, their toil to make others rich and great. I appeal to you in the name of those women who are offering up their lives to this modern god of gold, and I appeal to you in the name of those little children, the living and the unborn . . . “

Thomas Kidd and the other two defendants got an acquittal. As Irving Stone remarks “The jury brought in a verdict of “not guilty”: with the weight of the centuries on their shoulders they could do no less.”

To me such a verdict from an author was sublime. And it helped me get though what my parents may never have known or even my siblings, one of the very worst springs and summers I’ve lived yet. For that was 1968, when first they took Dr. King away from me and all those who so admired and were inspired by his words and example. Then just as I discovered a new champion of the people who himself may have been marveling at the transformation—Bobby Kennedy, they took him away too. And I heard of his death one morning during homeroom in that very same classroom.

Being able to lean on Clarence Darrow’s story, I knew that the weak and those who stand with them, no doubt with many weaknesses themselves, must face deep sorrow. History provides this example to us again and again. But it also does not take away all our hope. My faith and what I learned from such an amazing book had created a liberal who wanted to fight whatever power on Earth or in Hell might stand in the way of justice; real justice as blessed as that done in Heaven to Lazarus who had sat in rags outside the front gate of a wealthy man for his whole life on Earth eating what was left after the dogs ate their fill.

Books are amazing things. Why not try Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense or some other work that inspires you and sit in a comfortable chair some rainy day near a window for natural light. Coffee, some nice tea or a healthy juice drink and a couple cookies and your full use of an entire afternoon could not hurt you in the least.

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