08/02/2011 09:33 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

What Political Protestors Taught Me About Parenting

The sign strapped to the end of the canvasser's table should have tipped me off. But as my daughter and I approached the post office I only glanced at it--just in case the two women behind the table wanted to start a conversation or ask for money. It was spring, the sun was shining for the first time in months, and the day bloomed ahead of me. I had lots of things to do: mail a copy of my new book to my parents, drop my 8-year-old daughter at her friend's house, buy the week's food, cut back the jungle that had engulfed my backyard. You know -- all the important things suburban parents do on a beautiful Saturday morning. I didn't want my day's momentum stalled by well-meaning activists wielding apocalyptic signs. And their sign was odd: alongside a cryptic image, three bold, black words scrolled down the side of the poster: "Destroy Solar Panels."

So I would like to say it was the sign that made me avoid the canvassers, but it wasn't. It was simple self-interest. When one of the women called sweetly, "Come on over! Express your opinion!" I shook my head. I had no time for local politics, or special interest groups, or whatever word they were spreading. Safely inside the post office, I vaguely imagined a splinter environmental group that I hadn't yet heard of, or some toxic ingredient I didn't know about, or a new objection to the business plan for the local wetlands. I searched my memory for something about a solar farm. We took care of our business, then as I made my way down the ramp, I saw the poster on the other side of the table. This one had nothing to do with solar panels. This one was President Obama, with a Hitler mustache.

I grabbed my daughter's hand and hurried past the table. Some primal instinct urged me to protect her, not from the canvassers, but from the image. Not three steps later, another instinct compelled me to stop. I turned to face the two women, stood my ground, and said, "That is not productive political speech." Then I turned on my heel and walked away.

"Thank you for your opinion," one of them said to my back, with what sounded a lot like condescending cheer. I ignored her. I would be dignified. I would not engage. I had my daughter with me. But by the time I reached the car that was the rub. My daughter was with me, and those women had brought that picture to her town. My hand shook as I unlocked the car door, and I sat in the drivers seat, pulsing with fury.

Like little deaths, I saw flashes of my past, my life before marriage, kids, suburbs: the slow slope of the Falls Road; bright murals of Bobby Sands and the Red Hand of Ulster; a defiant tricolor; a grim Peace Wall; armed funerals; the gut-jolt of a car bomb; two kneecaps, riddled with scars; armored tanks lumbering past my house; paramilitaries' children riding the nonsectarian prison bus--week after week after uncomplaining week. I felt a migraine coming on.

My daughter slumped in the back seat of the car, totally aware that I was going to do something to embarrass her. I turned around. "Ella, it's okay for those women not to like Obama, but it's not okay for them to call him hateful things."

Of course she had no idea what I was talking about. She had never seen a picture of Hitler. She had only a vague idea of World War II. She was in 3rd grade, studying Native American history. But it didn't matter: a switch in me had flipped.

"I'm going to go talk to them, OK? You stay here." For once, she knew better than to protest.

My heart hammering, I approached the women. "I just need to say that this kind of political discourse is not helpful. I don't care that you disagree with me, but this kind of speech is not accurate. Obama is not a Fascist,--"

They started to yell: Obama was a fascist. Obama was killing people. I hated America. We were in a depression.

Recession, I wanted to say, but then I looked down. The table was blanketed with leaflets emblazoned with swastikas and arm bands and pictures of Nazis saluting the Fuhrer, and pictures of the Fuhrer himself.

"We are not living in the Third Reich!" I threw up my hands.

"Do you know what happened in the Third Reich?"

I looked at the woman. She was black. "Do you know what happened in the Third Reich?"

She said she did.

I wanted to say Really? Show me: where are the death camps? The arm bands? The soldiers in the streets? I thought: You can stand on this street corner and insult a President you did or didn't vote for, without consequence other than a crazy suburban mother yelling at you. I wanted to ask her what she knew about Jesse Owens, and the Berlin Olympics, and the Nazi's take on human evolution. As we argued, a man joined in. He was on my side. He was taller than me. Irrationally, this made me feel safe.

It didn't last long, a few minutes maybe. Back in the car, I drove Ella to her friend's house, all the while telling her in the strongest, most age-appropriate words I could, exactly why it was wrong to compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler. It's wrong to name call, I told her. It's okay to be angry. It's even okay to disagree. These are things we struggle with mightily in our hot-tempered home. But the truth matters, I said. Always fight fair. She said she understood. Maybe she did.