Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Non-talking New York Blues

The New York Times has tackled a subject near and dear to my heart.

In this article that appeared Sunday, October 29, called "The Elephant in the Room," Anne E. Kornblut faces the fact that politics has become the untouchable third rail of conversation at the dinner parties and the book clubs and the mothers' play groups that form the glue of our social interactions these days. Even families aren't immune to the cold chill that descends when the topic comes up (tell me about it!).

Judith of Kesher Talk has a masterful and heartfelt post on the subject. She's been there--oh, how she's been there!

The Times article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, is a curious document indeed. It describes behavior--the social shunning of those who disagree, mainly on the part of liberal Democrats--that is neither liberal nor democratic. It's not even civil. And yet I can only assume that much of the Times's readership is in basic sympathy with that behavior.

I've never had the experience of being in a group of Republicans as the lone liberal Democrat, even back when I was a liberal Democrat (I still consider myself a liberal--of the classic variety--but not a Democrat). Maybe it's because liberal Democrats (and conservative Republicans?) tend to hang out with their own kind, not by design necessarily but by confluence of interests and activities. Perhaps conservative Republicans are just as nasty to their liberal friends and family members; I really wouldn't know (although if one of the commenters to Judith's thread is to be believed, in Utah the Republicans are quite nice to the liberals in their midst).

But I do know that conversos, neo-neocons such as I, reprobate traitors to their political roots, are probably exposed to this sort of intolerance for differing opinion most often, for the simple reason that we still tend to socialize with liberals. After all, we didn't make a bunch of neo-friends to go with our neo-neocon status, nor did we get adopted by a neo-family. The fallout and the flak has been difficult, although most of the time, by now, we do the "agree to disagree" thing and it works out okay.

I know people whose marriages have suffered greatly from differences of opinion that previously were something to joke about. Now--as the article points out--viewpoints have hardened and the other side has been demonized to the point where the Other has become the Enemy.

It's a reflection of what's happened in Congress, as well. As districts have become more rigidly fixed along polarized lines, and members of Congress have become more extreme on both sides, collegiality has gone out the window.

But let's look at that Times article more closely. It features a liberal woman of thirty-seven named Sheri Langham, whose parents are Republicans. It never used to be much of a problem for Sheri before, but now she says, politics "became such a moral litmus test" that she stopped speaking to her 65-year-old mother for a month.

Sheri again, on her mother: she became the face of the enemy.

To her credit, Ms. Langham came out of her funk and started talking with her evil Republican mother once again, only this time they've agreed not to discuss politics. But Ms. Langham puts her finger on the source of much of the hatred on the Democrat side: Bush supporters have become "the enemy."

American politics have always been contentious. I grew up with fierce political disagreements among family members, and arguments whenever the group got together, which was often (the sides in question were liberal, left, and far-left, by the way). But if people stopped speaking over politics, it was the rare exception. Now it seems, if not the rule, certainly a fairly commonplace phenomenon.

And even in the Times article, it seems to be the liberals doing most of the outright shunning.

The article reports, however, that many people in both parties are choosing to be among friends who agree with them rather than deal with the contention of differing views. As Judith mentions in her post, political discussions among the liberals with whom she hangs out (or used to hang out) seem to have evolved (or devolved?) into support groups:

In other words, they brought up politics, but they are the only ones who get to play. If you join in, you are the one who soured the conversation by bringing up politics. Because they weren't trying to start a political discussion, they just wanted to commiserate with friends. You party pooper.

Yes. And the shock of learning that someone who somehow looks liberal (whatever that might mean; I don't wear Birkenstocks) and sounds intelligent and even likes the arts and isn't into Nascar racing might actually disagree on political issues is so profound it sometimes can't be processed properly.

I recall being at a party where a political discussion was being held--actually, it was more of a political support group, until I made the mild comment that I agreed with Bush on that particular issue (I don't recall any more what it was).

The woman closest to me asked, "What did you say?" I repeated my response. She asked again; this happened three times. She wasn't being sarcastic. And she wasn't hard of hearing. She simply was having trouble assimilating the information; it did not compute that someone like me could agree with someone like him.

I'm reminded of the famous remark attributed to film critic Pauline Kael, to the effect that she could hardly believe Nixon had won in '72 because no one she knew had voted for him. And since I so love to do research, I looked up the remark and discovered this slight correction; it turns out Ms. Kael was misquoted. She actually seems to have refused to comment on Nixon's election when questioned by a reporter, and gave as her reason the fact that she didn't even know anyone who voted for him.

That seems to me to be a sort of comment, as well. But it's not the same comment as "How could he have been elected? No one I know voted for him!" which strikes a note of arrogance and insularity astounding even in a woman who probably moved in rarified circles.

Her actual comment, however, is just as good for the purposes of this essay; I have no trouble whatsoever in believing that Kael had no friends who voted for Nixon.

Actually, I'll amend that: I have no trouble whatsoever believing that Kael had no friends whom she knew had voted for Nixon, who talked about it openly in the liberal circles of literary New York. But perhaps--just perhaps--she knew someone who was a Nixon supporter, and who was in the closet about it.

We don't know what we don't know--although we may think we know--and if people don't speak up, we continue not to know. And, believe me, if I were voting for Nixon in the liberal New York of 1972, I'd probably keep my mouth shut about it, too (but yes, indeed, I was one of the 38% of the country who voted for McGovern).

[NOTE: Part II of the Lurçat trial planned for tomorrow.]

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