"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Don’t Talk Politics Or Religion At The Dinner Table!

My mother was always one for decorum; and keeping dinner parties under control was always a priority.  Back in the Fifties, people got well-oiled before they arrived, and by the time guests rolled into the dining room, they were voluble at best and unstoppable at worst.  My mother was a great hostess, however, and with charm and gentle deflection she could defuse any brewing discord. She adhered to the old adage – no politics or religion at the dinner table – and kept the chatter light and interesting.  This is not to say that the conversation was dull. Far from it.  Without politics and religion, sex was a hot topic.  Anyone who thinks that the Fifties were straitlaced and cossetted never paid attention.  The old goats around the table knew exactly what housewives did in those long, yawning hours after Dad went to work and the children went to school; and it wasn’t cleaning house.

My sister and I, listening from the top of the stairs, loved the story of Betty Carlson and the orderly; Mrs. Thomas and the mailman (“I knew it didn’t take that long to deliver a package”); and best of all Harriet Stone and the young priest (“He didn’t even bother to take his collar off”).

There were golf stories, stories about cheating at bridge; Jewish jokes; and lots of chat about recipes, grilling, cars, and makeup; but the conversations all came back to sex.  One evening my sister sneaked downstairs, hid behind the loveseat in the front hall, and used her periscope to look under the dining room table.  Sure enough Mr. Talbot was playing footsies with Mrs. Henry. He had slipped her shoe off and was rubbing her foot with his wingtip.

I have often thought about those days.  I loved the smell of perfume and cigarettes, the fancy dresses and jewelry, the topcoats and scarves, the canapés prepared by the Swedish caterers, the silver and china, and the sex talk.

Religion and politics were definitely not out-of-bounds at my dinner table.  What were the Sixties all about if they were not about personal expression, idealism, and principle?  Of course we were all on the same page in the early days, so ransacking General Motors, the Vatican, and the military was common sport. No one disagreed, and we never knew any Republicans.  We all could rant about changing the system, tearing down prison walls, exiling owners and bureaucrats, creating a new world order.  Marx was right.

As we all got older, discussions got a lot more heated. People argued about politics and disagreed about religion. Dinners were messy affairs. Friends went for the jugular.

In retrospect this was all very understandable.  It was only a matter of time before group-think ended; when we realized that political philosophy was not such a simple thing, and that it reflected who we were, not simply what we thought. Some of us traded pseudo-Marxism for a belief in social perfectibility. Man was good, and progress was possible.  Others looked at Jan Kott’s Grand Mechanism of history and his reading of Shakespeare. Man is, was, and always will be predictably self-protective, assertive, acquisitive, violent, and brutal.

If man is good and perfectible, then we all have a responsibility to help each other along our way – realign our errant ways, reconfigure our environment to be more conducive to personal progress, engineer change, and aspire to higher goals.  If man is neither good nor perfectible, than the law of the jungle is good enough.  History has shown that the economic principle of countervailing power applies everywhere.  Opposition, contention, and fights for power and supremacy have always produced wealth, innovation, and opportunity.

As we got older, ‘religion’ became faith. Secularism was not enough anymore. Religion was no longer a question of institutions but personal belief.  The lines were drawn.  There were those of us who never left the Sixties and still thought of religion as nonsense, a con game, a greedy, corporate enterprise no different from General Motors. Others went back to church. Whether it was to the Quakers, the Baptists, Rome, or Unitarians, it was a reaffirmation of God, divine purpose, and meaning.

So of course we argued over dinner. Politics and religion were no longer academic subjects, but personal ones; and the older we got and the more we learned about the nature of political and religious expression over time, the more hardened we became in our views.  Either religion has always been a predatory, aggressive, and corrupt institution; or the solace and salvation of millions. Either you believed that human community was a whole bigger and better than the sum of its parts, and the government was the highest form of this community; or that government was an oppressive, intrusive, and implacable enemy of the individual.

I have finally learned the lesson of my mother, and avoid politics and religion at the dinner table.  I know the sensitive points of all my friends.  With one I cannot possibly raise the subject of public education.  With another environmental skepticism is a no-no.  And with my dear friends the Mortons, any criticism about gender, race, or ethnicity is completely verboten.

I am fine with all this, although I am continually surprised at the reach of religion and political philosophy. It is hard to discuss literature with committed Post-modernists. Fiction, drama, and poetry are not about individuals, artists, or genius, they argue; but about social context, history, and environment.  It is hard to talk about garbage collection without a debate about privatization and taxes. 

I have always assumed that after all these years personal convictions would fade.  If anything we all should be following an even wiser admonition than my mother’s – “Too soon old, too late shmart”.  It is too late to defend and attack.  Why not accept and maybe to learn a little something before your children have to pay for your funeral?

On the contrary. Because political philosophy and religious convictions are who we are, they can never be discussed indifferently or even objectively.  If anything, the older we get, the more tenaciously we hold on to them.

So, my dinners are all about food, provenance, celebrities, fashion, children, sports, and sex.  Who said the Fifties are over?

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