[Almost everyone has one — the distant relative who’s idea of discussing politics is to shout everyone down. Michael Moore described the persona in his Dude, Where’s My Country with suggestions on how to hold on to your seat at the table, and the following variation comes from experience.]
You’re home for the holidays and at a family meal your redneck cousin slams his fist across the table and yells you’re a traitor. No, he’s not drunk. He means it.
Ridiculous, but here you are, caught in only your natural humor; open-eyed. Your relatives are now watching you and this man with the dirt-lot diction.
He knows anybody different is a threat to national security, and he’s caught you, talking left. Both his eyes come slowly round. You watch his neck pulse.
One look at this man and you know you’re dead.
He’s one of the Right, with a dream for the way this nation will be and nothing is going to get in the way. He’s one of the minimally educated who is suddenly in fashion on the talk circuit. The way he crowds his big frame over, section by section, tells you that you won’t stop him with details.
He starts. America has been broken. By socialists. It’s you he’s staring down.
How do you hold your ground?
First, try this: tell him that you don’t talk politics with people who are disconnected from politics. You can ask him if he even knows the names of his state’s two senators. But that doesn’t slow him down one breathing space. He says, it’s not a democracy, you college fag, America is a republic. It’s loyalty or nothing. Democracy, he bangs the table, has destroyed the country: mob rule.
And you see what kind of swamp you’ve fallen in.
You liberals, he spits again, are all about taking good people’s money away and spreading it around among the lazy, and that’s a theft, he shouts.
People at the table sit with bated breath. You have to find something inside you.
Otherwise you will lose this argument so bad.
A strange look, your cousin. Needle-sized pupils. He starts in on welfare. If you won’t get a job, you’ll get what’s coming.
You ask: and what about the 18% of America’s children living in poverty?
Get a job, he grunts. This brainstem of a man. That’s going to be his one-click answer to everything. Welfare, he says, weakens. Just spreads laziness around.
And this man is proud of his plethora of guns. Gun rack in the house.
Why, you ask: Expecting something?
He says: guns install equal opportunity. He says protecting property is life’s priority. He table-thumps: your property guarantees your freedom.
So tell him: to the contrary, guns everywhere just builds vigilance and paranoia. That installs pathology in our communities. Guns everywhere destroys the trust which is necessary for a unified nation.
That brings his face closer. His breathing sounds like unwrapping paper.
He won’t state it in these words, but in his reality the nation is divided. It’s natural. Inequality is in the nature of things.
Explain to him: Our freedom is guaranteed by our laws. Otherwise, you have a two-tier society and only the haves are free.
Tell him: Property is fine, but it makes us unequal. Always has. Always will.
Now he’s out of his chair, caught you.
The fashion these days is to blame racism on the older generation. But close up and shark eyed, he reminds you of the tattooed skinheads in the news. Very racist and very young. There’s a saying, in the North, that there are principles worth dying for. In the South people say, there are principles worth killing for.
He’s spitting: inequality is in the nature of things.
Ask him: and is that good or bad? Is he promoting inequality and injustice?
There’s this idea he won’t tell about: ‘natural law’. It’s his right and wrong. If it’s natural, like hierarchy, it’s lawful. Selfishness and war are natural things. But abortion is not part of nature and a violation so, evil. Unnatural. So, homosexuality. So, cloning. Those move him because they are against the natural order. But not hungry children: pain is part of nature.
He starts on this: caught you: he knows you liberals have a complicated, socialist book of rules written by wild-haired Marxists, to convert us to communism.
(Don’t forget, you wedge in, that President Bush took your taxes and spread it around Iraq and then spread it around failing banks.) And about corruption?
But prior to any corruption, he snatches the point back, is the threat of terrorism. The Iraq war settled that; a success, you deny it? War is in the nature of things. That’s the way it’s always been.
This cousin of yours who pisses turpentine.
(Your fantasy: These people who want war: collect them up, put them all on an island, give them guns. Then the rest of us can live in peace.)
And the next topic: justice. He grins. He makes a gun-shape with his fingers. One-click answers for everything. Injustice, he says, is also a reality. It’s in the nature of things.
Priority for him is taking back this culture from the Europeans, those socialist dipshits who want to protect the underdog and raise the common good.
There’s a thinkable point: classic ‘common good’? There is no more common good in America. And the classic American support for the underdog? – No more.
Natural law, you think: this man is a walking billboard for Social Darwinism.
I’ll tell you. Our culture has popped a couple of wheels. We now deny we are a democracy.
And to the topic of torture. Here your cousin has a strange look; his eyes come back. His smile goes round more corners than the Thomas Guide. He knows a saying, nothing is cruel if it’s funny enough.
You try: The church and greed. The eye of the needle?
He’s out of his chair again shouting you liberals want forced equality.
– That’s unlikely, you can tell him. Just drive through any big city: radically unequal. Some people are born with 64 crayons in their coloring box. Some born with 8. Unlikely to ever get equality from that. Unlikely to get equal opportunity from that.
Pictures slow him down a bit. But you need to score an argument.
This man boasts he’s never finished a book in his life: you don’t need books. You learn everything natural by living life. He’s righteous. And he knows what moves the people. The only true motivation people have is selfish.
So you nudge him: say greed is good. Say it.
His eyes come back in silence.
So ask him: How do you build a strong society with only selfish people?
Reasoned points don’t bother him, they just get in the way of belief.
Freedom is everything, he says.
You press him: Bring a person outside and tell him he is free to jump 20 feet in the air. But – what kind of freedom is that, if you don’t have the natural power to use it?
You watch his neck pulse.
Strength is freedom. To this one-cylinder mentality, strength is everything.
So ask him: So does he trust the candidate he voted for in the election?
Not in particular. He idolizes strength. He votes for the strong; not for the good.
Somewhere, you remember: Heraclitis once said, the path up and the path down are the same. This means: somewhere in the collective unconscious, you already know the path up. That ancient talisman, the myth of the underdog, David and Goliath.
To the contrary, tell him.
Tell him this basic: the goodness of any society is not measured by the wealth of the richest, or the strongest; but how well-off is its lowest member. The underdog.
Tell him: unless things change in America, he will get his inequality. The strong will get stronger. The rich will get richer. And the poor fighting for breath.
Drop this in the hoop: None of us is as smart as all of us.
Tell him: Whereas rightists are busy finding the differences between us: believers and atheists, grasshoppers and ants, blacks and whites, rich and poor.
Here’s the liberal bottom line: We are all Americans. We take care of our own.
He should appreciate that.
That’s about as complicated as a door hinge.
re.ac.tion.ary (adj.,n.) An ultraconservative, a right wing radical. The word is free for you to use.
bated (vb.) is the correct spelling, a contraction of “abated.”