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“The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life.” Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part One
“You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
As my three sons will tell you, I often misquote Shakespeare (like so many others) when I tell them “discretion is the better part of valor.” Retreating in family arguments or on the battlefield can be a winning tactic in the long run. With Thanksgiving and Christmas soon to arrive, many family members who hardly ever see each other and who have little in common other than a few random strands of DNA will be faced with an important decision: charge ahead in an attempt (probably futile) to win the family argument or hold back and live to fight another day.
“Leave that to your mother … I never intended to involve you in any of this. You have your own life. Just have fun and be careful.” Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
I’m not much for the holidays. I avoid them whenever I can. I have barricaded myself in the kitchen with my standard excuse that I’m busy cooking. When I owned a restaurant I worked it alone once just to avoid a holiday, but that’s no longer an option. In recent years I’ve travelled away from home during the holidays. It’s usually a foolproof plan. Still, there are times when one simply cannot hide. How to cope with such times? My advice is based on my own strange personality. You are surely different (we all are, that’s the problem) but you might find my thoughts useful. If not, just turn things around a bit.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
One way to keep family discussions civil is to watch a movie with a strong moral point and a happy ending that brings everyone together. This won’t always work and to the truly dystopian it may seem banal but more often than not it avoids the Rand Paul curse of being attacked while mowing the grass.
“Once there was this one day … this one day when … everyone realized they needed each other.” April Burns, Pieces of April
Two movies I love to watch during the Holidays are Pieces of April (best at Thanksgiving) and Babette’s Feast (based on the story by Isak Dinesen and great to watch anytime). Pieces of April is about a dysfunctional family, the new friends they meet and a Thanksgiving dinner that changes everything. Babette’s Feast is more complicated. It’s about a religious sect who discover the joy of fine dining and transform their lives. “Feel-good” movies are designed to work on the emotions, something that can work to lessen the stress of family get-togethers.
A movie is a great time-killer and conversation stopper but so are the football games broadcasted all day on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. I’m convinced that football was invented to challenge the intellectual ability of those incapable of making a reasoned argument. Just listen to the announcers. Combined with hot mulled wine, hot buttered rum, and most any other kind of booze including the go-to beverage for all real football fans—BEER—a football game can be a good diversion to avoid disaster … in most cases.
“We went our several ways,” said Lady Dedlock, “and had little in common even before we agreed to differ. It is to be regretted, I suppose, but it could not be helped.” Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Whether or not you watch a movie or a game at your family get together, the topical issues of the day will surely come up with everyone contributing their unique folk wisdom and solution to the “problem” as they perceive it.
Mass shootings will likely be a popular topic this year thereby putting gun control front and center. Or, hurricanes and earthquakes and fires will set the stage for a discussion of the Apocalypse. Look out for the Seven Deadly Sins of family division: abortion and homosexuality, gun control, welfare, government ineptitude, immigrants, drugs and global warming.
“We’re fed up with redistribution of wealth,” one of the speakers said. “We want free markets, not freeloaders.” Robert Wuthnow, Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future
In spite of the warnings against it, it is likely you will at some point regress into politics and religion. Beware that the level of such discussions tends toward the lowest common denominator.
“I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.” Mark Twain
The older folks will bemoan the “good old days.” After a few hot toddies they might be willing to admit “the good old days weren’t really that good.” That’s when they wax philosophic with statements like: “Life has gotten so busy that people don’t have the time to sit down together like they used to. The family isn’t as close as it used to be.”
“Amen,” you say under your breath.
Never trust the opinions of family members on the economy or financial markets. Opinions change with the winds of politics. When one’s party wins office, for example, its partisan supporters are more likely to improve their predictions about the nation’s political and economic future. (And when the opponent wins, the outlook is considered bleak. Alas, I fell victim to this myself.) This is an example of “animal spirits,” an important factor in the economic make up of human beings according to the famous economist J. M. Keynes. In the medical world it’s called the “placebo effect.”
Once the discussion gets going, the decline in morality is sure to arise. “The moral climate of our country has decreased precipitously over the last thirty or forty years … Kids are no longer taught that there are absolutes as far as right and wrong is concerned. There’s a grave danger in the constant teaching that we are nothing more than glorified animals.”
Don’t go there. This automatically leads to unwinnable arguments about abortion, homosexuality and evolution.
“The universe makes rather an indifferent parent, I’m afraid.” Charles Dickens, Bleak House
If you must say something, try to keep it light and funny. “I believe in the wisdom of the Constitution. People who are trying to force their own religion down other people’s throats had better think twice. You allow the camel’s nose under the tent, and you get the other end too.”
Bringing up the constitution might be a bad idea. It will almost certainly lead to arguments over the 2nd Amendment, so be prepared. Have some stories about taking a gun safety class as a kid and learning to hunt deer, ducks, doves, and pheasants or your animal of choice (humans excluded). Don’t be a pushover but don’t be a fool either. Gun control is a losing topic around the dinner table. Turn the subject to fair wages or healthcare or bashing the “elites.” Less contentious.
“Ever been to a collector’s gun show? Ever see the kind of people who attend? You don’t find the meth-heads and the gangbangers at the gun shows. Believe me. They wouldn’t be very comfortable. Ya gotta give the gun show sellers and collectors a little credit, for Christ’s sake. They ain’t stupid, and they don’t want to see criminals carry guns any more than you do. And they get sick of people underestimating and bad-mouthing them. There’s supposed to be hundreds of crimes committed with guns bought at gun shows in Virginia. I just don’t believe it.”
“There’s a solution to most of it. It’s the thing nobody’s gonna do because it’s too late and maybe can’t be done now anyway. Get the dope off the streets. Do that and you’ll whack the crime rate. But all this hysterical ‘crime is caused by guns’ shit doesn’t cut it, I’m telling you. A hard-core crack head will just as soon rob you with a hammer or a knife. You gotta go after the real problem. Dope.” Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting With Jesus
Abortion has turned many Americans into one-issue voters. (i.e. Republicans)
“One might also wonder if opposition to abortion helps in some communities to shore up their collective identity, perhaps like the witch hunts did in colonial Massachusetts. When the colony felt threatened, scholars have argued, witch hunts became a way of affirming loyalty to the colony’s basic values, especially because accusations against witches drew the community together and gave the colonists reason to declare their faith in correct religious teachings. A similar assertion has been made about the temperance movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when rural communities presumably promoted Prohibition as a way of protecting the traditional values residents felt were threatened by immigration and urbanization.” Robert Wuthnow, Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future
It’s not that they are against abortion in all cases. Three-quarters of Americans say abortion should be possible in cases of rape, serious health danger for the mother, or a strong chance of serious defect in the baby.
Still, when asked what the most serious or troubling moral problem in the United States is, many people will point to abortion. When pushed privately many of these folks agree with something like: “Abortion is a personal issue, strictly personal. I would like to see it stay that way. I don’t believe that it’s right of me to tell someone else their rights. I’ve got my personal feelings and I’ve given those to my children. But they are adults now and they have their own decisions to make. So for me I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. It’s just simply a matter of leaving it up to the individual.”
I’ve always wondered how it is that libertarians bemoan too much government in our lives yet happily invite the government into their bedroom.
“Human communication, it sometimes seems to me, involves an exaggerated amount of time. How briefly and to the point people always seem to speak on the stage or on the screen, while in real life we stumble from phrase to phrase with endless repetition.” Graham Greene, Travels With My Aunt
There is a wider range of opinion about homosexuality than about abortion. A reasonable response to a family member who’s “again’it” that might shorten the argument could be “that’s just how God made them.” Not everyone will agree but some will. If you don’t believe in God (like me) it’s a silly thing to say, but it’s a great argumentum ad verecundiam to make to a religious zealot. “God has the right to judge, you don’t.”
Sadly, there will always be obnoxious relatives who won’t let it go. Here are a few tried-and-true techniques I find useful.
“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” George Burns
- Serve something really spicy or really awful. This can change the conversation quickly or even end it in the case of a burned tongue.
- Suggest that everyone (except you) go outside and throw the football around. Almost certainly someone will get injured and that will keep the clan busy.
- Put on loud music so it’s impossible to talk and refuse to turn it down.
- Arrange to run out of essential ingredients so you can to make a trip to the grocery store removing yourself from danger.
- Surprise everyone with an out of character statement like: “I love Sarah Palin because she is really not afraid to speak her mind. She stands for a lot of things that American people feel but don’t necessarily voice. And besides, she’s one gorgeous woman.”
- Put on the country music channel.
- Invite a neighbor that everyone hates. That concentrates the anger outside the family.
- Apply the same strategies as professionals use to reduce taxes: avoid, shift, delay
- End the whole sorry mess as soon as possible. Sometimes going out for dinner makes this easier.
- As a last resort, bring out the family pictures or video.
If nothing else works, you’ll just have to grin and bear it. The same arguments go on year after year …
“meanwhile, a local business dies, a family moves away, a homecoming queen gets pregnant, ad a promising athlete succumbs to a meth addiction.” Robert Wuthnow, Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future
Statistics indicate America is getting more divided along political and religious lines. Some attribute Facebook and Twitter and cable news and talk radio. It is possible for people with widely different political and religious views to get along, but it’s not easy. For those with different views to trust each other, there must be less stress on proselytizing and conversion. It is easier in politics. Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican (Libertarian) strategist Mary Matalin have been happily married for years. Republican President Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill were famous friends. Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy collaborated on many pieces of legislation. Religion is more difficult. Believers are always insisting everything will be better if you accept Jesus.
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” – Thomas Jefferson to William Hamilton, April 22, 1800
These arcane family gatherings are meant to be good fun. They are sustained by habits ingrained over the years, habits hard to break. Try as I might to avoid them, such cherished traditions continue year after year in spite of me (or to spite me). It does no good to complain. I’m told:
“Tough beans, because nobody can stop ignorant folks from having ignorant fun and spectacle, which is pretty much the only kind of fun and spectacle available in this country.” Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting With Jesus