Friday, October 16, 2009

Politics and Dinner: Necessary Bedfellows?

By John Gilstrap

This post is a little late because it is not the one I had intended to put up today. That one was already written, but then I experienced something yesterday that I thought would make a way better topic: Political Discourse. You know, something light and nonconfrontational.

I'm at Bouchercon this weekend, one of my favorite events. I like the conference environment. Lots of smart, talented people hanging out with each other, discussing smart topics in intelligent ways. Writing is by definition about ideas, right? It's about expressing ideas and tolerating the opposing views of others. Until, it turns out, the topic wanders toward politics.

I dined last night with a new group of friends. There were ten of us, and the evening was a lot of fun. Toward the end, one member of the party (I swear it was not I) started saying, a propos of nothing, ugly things about people who occupy the right end of the political spectrum. The presumption was that every thinking person would agree. As one whose politics run maybe ten degrees to the right of center, which put me at least ninety degrees to the right of the group, I saw trouble on the horizon, so I found an excuse to announce that I was more conservative than liberal, and the I thought the current administration could be in real trouble if some important things didn't start turning in their favor.

Two things happened instantly. One, the sense of disgust that someone of my ilk would be breaking bread with them was palpable (not from all, but from more than one); and two, it was announced that it's time to stop talking about politics. I tried to point out that my intent was not to shut conversation down, but rather to talk about the strategies that will be necessary for the Democrats not to take a significant shelacking in the mid-term elections. Voices were never raised, and no one got ugly. I was trying to trigger the kind of discussion I frequently have with my colleagues in Washington, where politics is every bit the spectator sport that football is (and given the performance of the Redskins this year, a way more enjoyable one).

Nope, no politics.

Okay, fine. I was good with that. We moved on to other stuff, the check came and we went off on our own. No harm, no foul.

But then I started thinking. Is it possible that the current polarized, scorched-earth nature of politics these days is directly attributable to non-discussions like the one last night? The overarching message there was that political discussion is only unacceptable if there's an opposing point of view. Firing broadsides against an ideology or against a large group of people is fine so long as the other group is not present to defend their point of view. It's the Rush Limbaugh theory of discourse, and I think it's doing great harm in this country.

As mentioned above, Washington is an epicenter of intelligent political discussion. I explore issues all the time with colleagues who are on the other side of what I believe, and through rational (sometimes passionate) discussion, opinions really can be influenced. Certainly, stereotypes can be dismantled.

It's no secret that the current administration's politics don't agree with mine, but the fact that people I admire are huge fans gives me solace, born of the knowledge that the opinions on the other side are well-reasoned; something I wouldn't understand if we hadn't discussed the issues. If groups of us don't start having these discussions, if we don't start discussing issues intelligently, and airing differences, how will we ever undo the polarization?

If we don't invite opinions from the other side--or worse yet, if we reduce the other side to ugly stereotypes--how can we ever grow, either as individuals or as a nation?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great post John. My politics like yours are slightly right of center. My problem is that I am out here in CA surrounded by a group of employees that are so far left, they can't even see normal left wingers on the horizon. And it's amazing the reaction I get when I don't agree with the current administrations policies. It's as if I have spit in their face or something.

    When I made a statement to the effect that the latest Nobel Peace Prize delivery had cheapened the award, I think it had the same effect as if I had called the pope a pedophile.

    I don't ever remember a time like this and it's disturbing. In the past there has always been the left and the right, and their views have been split. Now it seems there is only the extreme left and the extreme right and they are separated by the space of a galaxy.

    I wrote a post about this a while back in my personal blog, and called it Dueling Hyperbole. Check it out.

  3. Point well said, sir.
    As one who makes part of my living doing political discourse I am usually astonished by the fact that a lot of folks really don't want discourse. They just want everyone to agree with them. And how often they are willing, even enjoy, being crude and abusive to their opponents but find the utmost offense if the treatment is returned against their side. Like herds of disgruntled lemmings they curse their enemies for foolishely rushing willy-nilly into the abyss when all the while they are rushing into the very same pit, to the very same death, on the very same canyon floor, just from the other side of the precipice.

    Sigh....that's one of the things I will fix when I finally become king of the world. That and creamy peanut butter. Because both have the same sense of "hey I just ate something, and my breath smells, but my mouth isn't satisfied at all."

  4. I keep my mouth shut about politics. Given the current political environment, I find that to be a wise course. Until you know someone and trust them, to cross the line politically is not a career-enhancing thing to do.

  5. You make a very good point. It's eminently possible to disagree and still respect each others' point of view, but without discussion no one knows where respect is due.

  6. I felt the same way Douglas does when the last administration was in charge. And I believe it always seems worse for the people whose politics differs from the administration in power, whether republican or democrate.

    The problem--many people don't really have their own opinion anymore, it's from those who have the loudest voices. People are listening to talk radio, news casters and people trying to get control or stay in control. I don't agree with everything my party does and I say as much when confronted. I also didn't agree with some of the decisions made by the previous administration, but sometimes I did. If we stop listening to the media, maybe everyone can have civil conversations about politics.

  7. Now, I'm one of those who is about ten degrees to the left of center - socially liberal and somewhat fiscally conservative. Therefore, no one likes me because I'm not radical enough for either side!

    I refer to myself as having the 'red state blues'. The politics of my state are going so far to the right that in ten years the only beings that will have civil rights will be frozen embryos and stem cells.

    My brother, who has a far more distinct lean to the left and I have fun, rousing, and sometimes loud political discussions that leave us both thinking. They are definitely win-win. Same goes with my main colleague who is to the right of the line.

    However, I do avoid group discussions. Since bird of a feather and all of that, odds are there will be an odd man out, either to the right or the left (not calling you odd John - honest!).

    However, I have to take great umbrage about the patently false statement about creamy peanut butter! That's just wrong!


  8. Spot on, JG. There is no political discourse out in the non-DC world out here. I'm about done talking politics, after being called, "A southern man of a certain age." (code for Racist)and having someone else say, "I don't often agree with his politics..." You know I'm finding myself withdrawing more and more from the world out there.

    By the way I nailed that Buffalo.