A Song for a Difficult Holiday Season
Holidays can be hard, and achieving the delicate détente that allows families to come together without serious political incident might be more challenging this year. This is especially true if Uncle Phil is three scotches into his “make America great again” gloat while cousin Moonbeam is blubbering post-election despair into her vegan eggnog. The Phils of the world are clearly relishing an electorally sanctified post-PC freedom, cheerfully and openly making suggestions that the Moonbeams can stuff their multiculturalism claptrap into their safe spaces and smoke it. The Moonbeams are obviously reconsidering their principles on non-violence. They look like they’re a slug of fair trade amaretto away from shoving Phil’s smug pie hole right into the desert plate. If shared genes and Aunt Petunia’s trifle can’t bridge these gaps, what can? How can we speak to each other when we see each other’s political views as unspeakable?
To tell the truth, I’m damned if I know. I suppose one option is the Voldemort strategy, which basically means avoiding all mention of he-who-must-not-be-named. Given that half the people at the table are umbilically twitter-connected to every random bellicosity crackling across the president-elect’s synapses, I don’t give this much chance of success. Silence is golden, but shooting rhetorical lead across the roast turkey is just too tempting when the divider-in-chief is feeding declamatory dynamite right into your pants pocket.
Another tried but hardly true path to managing family comity is avoiding not just particular personalities, but all mention of religion or politics. Methinks this too is doomed to failure, at least at this time of year. While theology and ideology can be declared off limits by mutual consent in polite company, the Phils and the Moonbeams are in no mood to be cordial, least of all to each other. Besides, pretty much everything is political these days, especially religion, and extra-especially non-religion. It doesn’t even have to be that religious, or even that non-religious, to spark a Defcon Four family event. An offhand “merry Christmas!” rather than a “happy holidays!” (or vice versa) is enough to get people snarling about needlessly exclusive cultural hegemony versus killjoy PC tosh. If someone brings up kwanzaa it’ll be gloves off and flung turkey legs at ten paces.
Traditionally, the most efficacious means of defusing seasonal political conversation bombs is sports. We might disagree on whether the Donald is the right man for the job or a con man doing a right hack job, but surely we can agree that the Dallas Cowboys have a shot at the Super Bowl, even if you can never rule out Tom Brady and his deflated balls of gridiron glory. That might not get Phil and Moonbeam to a platonic but loving peck beneath the mistletoe, but it at least distracts them from shoving provocative auditory nettles into each other’s ears. Unfortunately, there’s little conversational sanctuary in pigskin chit-chat these days. Someone will inevitably mention someone taking a knee during the national anthem and we’re off and running right toward the political chasm we’re so desperately trying to avoid.
So if silence, conversational demilitarized zones, and safe talk spaces won’t work, what will? Well, if we are having such a tough time talking to each other—nationally, not just at the dinner table–here’s a radical idea … maybe we could try to, you know, listen to each other. Near as I can tell, talking politics these days is incredibly popular, but it mostly seems to consists of taking turns to megaphone out a tally of grievances and insults, or to distribute gazettes of righteous indignation. And don’t get me started (again) on social media’s sorry record of infantilizing political exchange. There’s no room for a thoughtful give and take in 140 character political analysis or Facebook meme shares.
So how can we listen to each other if our primary communication tools are bumper sticker bromides, internet troll tirades, and, on the odd occasion when we do poke our heads above the parapets of our partisan comfort zones, yell fests across no man’s land? Well, how about books. I know it’s old fashioned, that it takes a bit of sustained intellectual engagement, and that there’s no comment section where you can get a good cathartic rant on and anonymously napalm the author’s ideas, morals and dignity. But bear with me here. Amazingly, there are still numbers of grownups on both sides of the political divide trying to thoughtfully deal with partisan differences, and they need more than encouragement. They need a bigger audience.
I’m not talking about the delegates of division, here, the folks who occasionally take time off from their usual agitprop platforms to pack one-sided harangues into print form. I’m talking about people genuinely interested in, and capable of, talking across the political divide. Phil and Moonbeam aren’t getting anywhere shooting eyeball daggers across the yams at the holiday table. But maybe both of them could get to recognize a little bit more of what they have in common if they found a genuine messenger in hardback in the old Christmas stocking. Yes, I know Christmas has come and gone, but if the holiday spirit is still there, maybe it’s worth ringing in the New Year with a belated gift that will encourage dealing with politics on more cerebral and less emotionally raw basis. Allow me to make two suggestions, one from the left and one from the right.
From the left I’d recommend Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Hochschild is sociologist, and not only a sociologist, but a University of California Berkeley sociologist. In other words, she’s a card-carrying member of the lefty-left. Foreknowledge of her academic background should insure that the mere sound of her approaching Birkenstocks will raise hackles amongst Trumpinistas.
She’s also pretty curious about why people are so politically different from her, curious enough to spend several years hanging out with committed Tea Party types in Louisiana. She finds them to be a pretty likeable bunch and certainly not the two-dimensional yahoos brought up at progressive white wine and cheese condescension confabs. They’re friendly, hardworking, and dealing with some pretty tough social and economic issues. She’s initially baffled by their political reasoning. Some of her subjects are literally being killed by the petrochemical industry—and they are perfectly aware of what’s going on—and yet they are pro-business, anti-government, anti-regulation, and most certainly anti-EPA. She never pretends to agree with her subjects’ politics, yet she ends up making a pretty convincing case about what they are based in. If you’re one of those liberals still shell-shocked by the coming ascension of Trump and wondering what happened, this isn’t going to make things sting any less. But it might help you understand why we are where we are.
From the right, I’d recommend A Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Vance also has some fancy-pants academic cred—he’s an Ivy League-educated lawyer—but he’s a Republican and a conservative and has a gobsmacking hardscrabble backstory. Socio-demographically speaking, his tribe is the Trump electorate. While his memoir has gotten a lot of (well deserved) attention for being a sensitive portrayal of the white working class, one of things that impressed me about it was how he made good. He went through a top notch public school (Ohio State) before going onto the snoot circuit at Yale Law. Along the way he dealt with who you’d expect to find in such circles, i.e. a lot of lefty-leaning Hochschild types. Not all get a sympathetic portrayal—some clearly don’t deserve it—but plenty do. And plenty go out of their way to help a promising guy get up the ladder. Vance clearly has an open mind and seems less interested in condemning than in connecting.
Would there were more on the left like Hochschild and more on the right like Vance. If you’ve got people like these two in your social circle, consider yourself very lucky (and invite me over for a beer sometime, that’s an interesting crowd). Lacking that, leave the Phils and the Moonbeams to their food fight and check out these books. Reading is a kind of listening, and we could all stand to do a sight more of it.