As is well known to any person who’s political sympathies lie closer to E.J. Dionne than P.J. O’Rourke, political arguments over holiday dinners are a bit like old landmines in the Ardennes. With the right map, you can tell where they are and avoid them, but at ground level they’re invisible and once you step on one it’s too late. What’s worse, as a newlywed you’re running through the forest, your map is shit, it’s foggy, you’re wearing heavy shoes, and they’re serving wine.
Last November, my wife and I saw Free State of Jones, a film about a band of Confederate defectors who attempt to set up their own “free state” in southern Mississippi during the Civil War. The film is more about class than race. The protagonist, Newton Knight, is a struggling white farmer who comes to see the Confederacy as fighting for the continued oligarchy of the plantation owners at the expense of not only black slaves, but also of poor whites like himself. So he defects — not to free slaves or join the Union — just to be left alone. We really liked it. So last holiday season, our first as a married couple, I would bring it up in response to the inevitable question, Seen any good movies lately?
One aging Mississippian in-law’s response to my summary of the plot was, “So what? Why’d they make that? What does that prove?”
Later, after hearing my description of the film, a distant relative-by-marriage of my wife’s, whose relationship I’m still not clear about, regaled me with a tale of Union soldiers arriving at their South Carolina family farm (a/k/a plantation), stealing their silver saddle (bought with the profits of slave labor, if not outright made by it), and threatening to loot the whole place until they were driven away by grandma so-and-so standing in the front door with her shotgun — and all this after General Lee’s most honorable surrender! Those barbarians! My stars!
Dumbstruck by the obviously apocryphal, likely untrue, and not-particularly-worthy-of-pity-even-if-it-were-true nature of this tall tale, she went on to regale me with a number of unfacts and irrelevant historical information all too familiar to anyone who has hailed from or married into an old, Southern family or read a Bill O’Reilly “history” book: Lincoln was racist, slavery continued to exist in the North after the Civil War, Lincoln was a tyrant, Lincoln only freed the slaves in occupied Confederate territory — didn’t he care about those poor slaves in Kentucky?! — and the real kicker:
“Actually, the war wasn’t about slavery anyway. It was about states’ rights.”
“The right to do what?,” I asked, playing dumb, my Midwestern Yankee heart racing in indignation.
“To run their states how they wanted,” she replied, as if it were so obvious.
“What was the thing they wanted to do that they feared they wouldn’t be able to do if they didn’t secede?,” I coolly asked.
“No,” she insisted, assuming what I’d left unsaid, “it was tariffs. Their economy.” She paused, unable to spin the obviously distinguishing factor that drove the Southern economy in the 1860s. She trailed off, “Well, I don’t know if it was probably going to fade away in a few years anyway or what…”
Yeah, what was a few more years of just about the worst abomination anyone can think of, I kept to myself.
A second cousin-or-other then chimed in. He was young, a genius, and a grade-A pot-stirrer. “Well you know,” he said perfectly sophomorically, “you can’t always believe history that’s written by the victors.”
I had just finished my third pinot and was getting willing to take the bait. Plus my tongue was sore from biting it.
“Really? What specifically about the history of the well-documented Civil War do you think is a lie, still propagated a hundred and fifty years later by nearly every peer-reviewed historian?”
So that was Thanksgiving.
At Christmas dinner, six weeks later at the same house, the pot-stirrer broached the always popular dinner-conversation topic of the Versailles Treaty. This after he’d arrived with an armful of plausibly-but-not-certainly ironic MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hats, which he had tossed around like he was Regis Philbin on Letterman. This also after he’d tossed out a couple of not-very-critical Hitler references over appetizers in the den. Ironically, I’m sure.
My stepfather-in-law had some strong opinions on how the Versailles Treaty had driven Germany into Hitler’s arms. Hoping to be on the right side of one of one of these things for once, I agreed with him and contrasted the Versailles Treaty to the Marshall Plan. By rebuilding instead of punishing Germany, I’d offered, we’d not only made Europe prosperous, but made a lot of money for American companies as well.
“So you think we only fought World War II to make money?”
“No,” I demurred. I tried to explain that all the profit was just a bonus. That I wanted America to win World War II. That it was a just and noble war. How had this happened? How could I be the unpatriotic pinko about, in addition to everything else, the Marshall Plan? And now cousin was back on Hitler and I was on back on my third pinot. Then came the unopposed lecture about the Versailles Treaty and a general reminder that America was great, since I had obviously forgotten. Then why does it need to be made great again?, I thought. Finally, I had had enough.
First I told my stepfather-in-law — in his own house (well, his wife’s anyway) — to shut up. Three times in one sentence, in fact. Not cool, I freely admit, but I was in a fighting retreat and taking stand at Neufchâteau. Next, an unexpected cross-offensive toward Rossignol. To his girlfriend’s shock, I took aim at the genius, telling him it was his fault for bringing up “ridiculous shit” at the dinner table, like — I don’t know — Hitler on the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ! Standing now, I barked that I was tired of stepping on landmines, first a hundred and fifty year old one with somebody’s great aunt-in-law at Thanksgiving and now a hundred year old one with the goddam Versailles Treaty! What was this, the Ardennes?!
“I didn’t realize the friggin’ Versailles Treaty had been a hot topic on Fox News this week,” I snarked.
Victorious and fully adrenalized, I retired to the guest room, leaving Christmas dinner in absolute shambles. There were some tears. The savant slunk out with leftovers and his girlfriend. My stepfather-in-law went to the den and sulked, later apologizing as well. I ate my pumpkin pie alone. My wife came in and reassured me that I hadn’t done anything wrong besides ruin Christmas dinner, though she admitted it had been headed downhill anyway. MAGA man had been sarcastic and callow. Stepdad had been haughty and rude. I had only been guilty only of a Kinsley gaffe and losing my temper, both pardonable offenses under the circumstances.
I thanked her and smiled to myself for I had lived the daydream of every liberal at a holiday dinner at their in-laws’ house. I’d blown it up. If you’ve never done it, though, be cautious. It is the internecine equivalent of charging across a landmine-strewn field. Once across, you’re in the clear, but you could to take some nasty hits along the way and you might not make it at all. I wouldn’t do it again, although I now won’t have to. I still speak to everyone and I think we all get along quite well these days.
For most, however, instead of facing the political conversation onslaught head on it would be advisable to instead try to turn the discussion to topics everyone can agree on, at least in part. Maybe it’s better to avoid the Ardennes; the Netherlands is quite nice this time of year.
Wholeheartedly do I agree with the oft-written-about sentiment that it is bullshit that it’s always the liberal family members — even the milquetoast ones — who are expected to bite their tongues while the family’s Fox News drones drone on about Benghazi for the fifth year in a row. (Don’t bother retorting. They won’t know that the House report basically admits it was a sham scandal to begin with or even that there is a report. Nor can they explain in any detail just what the scandal is supposed to be, other than pointing to Hillary’s testy testimony. And I think the whole Libyan invasion was illegal and Hillary Clinton is a neoconservative warmonger, so King’s X.)
But I also recognize that not everyone can just tip over the turkey, pour gasoline on the green beans, and strut away from the table while throwing a lit book of matches over their shoulder like they’re Keyser Söze. There might be family jewels to consider.
So with Thanksgiving approaching, it is hoped that this piece may serve as a reference for those who have to navigate their own personal landmine-strewn Ardennes of holiday dinner conversations with arch-conservative relatives. It is intended as a guide for those liberals, progressives, moderates, apoliticals, neutrals, and foreign-exchange-students among us who seek to turn conversations back to those few remaining topics that can bring us together instead of push us apart.
Of course, it would be easiest to advise that anyone who doesn’t have Breitbart bookmarked on the their browser limit their conversation to the weather. (Upon further thought, considering the whole “climate change thing,” you should steer clear of the weather even. In fact, especially stay away from the weather, Hurricane Maria in particular.) The goal here, though, is not just to avoid fraught topics, although there are some that should certainly be avoided and those will be identified. Rather, the goal is to provide those with Bernie Sanders T-shirts in their skeleton-strewn closets — or even those who just prefer watching Jesse Palmer to Jesse Watters — with a few topics on some aspects of which we can all agree. By bending the familial badinage toward such cases, it is sincerely hoped that a much more jovial affair can be enjoyed by all assembled.
Topics to be Avoided
Religion, politics, and money. Traditionally, these were the topics we were educated to eschew in dinner-table discussion. Today, they’re all anybody talks about ever. Drawing on the “Big Three” subjects of prohibited parlais, what follows is an updated and more specific list of topics that should be considered off limits in the dining room. (In private discussions, some of the issues below may be bandied about on a case-by-case basis.) They are set out here because the reader may be well-advised to consider similar parameters for themselves, for once talk starts down these roads, as with those in the Ardennes, it’s hard to win and there’s no turning back. All you can hope to do is turn the conversation to one of the more agreeable alternative topics discussed later. Sadly, I’m considering putting this list on a chalkboard above our own dining room table:
- Hitler, including x being <, >, or = thereto
- Game of Thrones
- All wars since The Thirty Years War, inclusive, plus the Crusades
- Kardashian/Hadid trivia
- American and European politics since 1919, inclusive, and all world politics
- The Marvel universe
- The Berlin Conference and its after-effects
- The three Gs: Gender, gluten, and golf
- Real estate values
- Umbrage at people not being allowed to do things “for liability reasons…”
- Private school or day-care and how hard it is to get your kids into either
- How busy anyone is, including whether that is a good problem to have or better than the alternative
- Sentences beginning with “Well, you know…” or “Actually…,” and
Suggested Harmonious Discussion Topics
When you feel the uncomfortable clips and terse rejoinders of politics generally or any of the above topics creeping into the simple reminiscences and catching up of holiday dinner table banter, you could fight the losing battle of trying to change the subject to Parisian-salon topics such as high classical literature, European cinema, avant-garde poetry, or tennis. But make no mistake, like at the Battle of the Ardennes, no one will win. And you know fuck all about those topics in any case. Instead, when the table talk starts to turn toward the matter/antimatter annihilation of current American political discussion, or anything else sought to be avoided by the less reactionary, perhaps posit the following subjects to possibly point people toward a more pleasing persiflage:
The old Rough Rider can be a great force for conversational agreement. For liberals, he was a trust-busting, National Park-creating, food- and drug-regulating progenitor of many a progressive policy. He even left the Republican party, causing a party split that allowed a Democrat to win in 1912. Dare to dream! And if you don’t like that, he was a wealthy, imperialist, racist, protectionist, trophy-hunting warmonger. Something for everyone!
Woodrow Wilson also brings people together. President Wilson was only slightly less racist than TR, supported eugenics and compulsory sterilization, cynically allowed segregation in federal workplaces to appease Southern Democrats, got the United States into World War I (where the Battle of the Ardennes was fought), and was a free-trader. He also instituted the income tax, promulgated a minimum wage and maximum hours for federal employees, and created the League of Nations (though we didn’t join). He also supported the Versailles Treaty, was generally a wishy-washy fuck face, and his attorney general makes Jeff Sessions look like Oscar Zeta Acosta. Everyone’s got something to hate!
He was a two-term Democratic president who enacted much-needed tax increases, advanced some civil rights causes, and presided over an era of widespread peace, large budget surpluses, and wide-reaching prosperity. He also presided over the dismantling of “welfare” (a/k/a Aid to Families With Dependent Children) by replacing it with the less generous, less effective, but much cheaper Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. In doing so, he adopted and perpetuated Republican poor-blaming, thereby handing them both a political and public relations victory that helped expand and extend their congressional majorities. He also signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which disastrously concentrated corporate power in the media and birthed Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and terrible radio nationwide. He signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall, allowing the perverted and harmful merger of commercial and investment banking, which contributed to the 2008 Financial Crisis. He instituted Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Ruther Bader Ginsburg, you say? I give you Dick Morris, John Podesta, Sister Souljah, and “super predators.” Oh, and he was a 49-year-old man with more power than anyone on Earth who had an affair with a 22-year-old female White House intern, a scandal that has definitely not aged well in the post-Trump-Ailes-Weinstein era. Love him or hate him, fuck this guy. Well, actually, don’t. It won’t end well for you.
He’s clean, he’s funny. You like him, your mom and dad like him. He’s Catholic, but he’s sort of tongue-in-cheek about it. He has five kids, but they were born at home by a midwife. That skeptical old lady voice? Kills. Disney World in July. Bacon. Hooooottt Pooockets!
When in doubt, when the turkey-munchers are turning against you, when it seems all is lost, play the Gaffigan card. Better yet, get out your phone and play some Gaffigan bits. Who doesn’t love this guy? Nobody.
Happy Holidays! Oh, I forgot the War on Christmas. Here we go…