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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Life As Musical Comedy–The Return Of Civility

Riddick King’s mother, taking a less on from the English, insisted on keeping her dinner parties civil.  No sex, politics, or religion were to be discussed at the table; and she was quite deft and agile and steering the conversation away from contentious issues and inviting only those people whom she had carefully vetted for good manners and an attuned sense of social propriety. While this neutralized any serious discussion, it avoided unnecessary scraps.

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Of course nothing went totally according to plan; and even the most deferential and cautious guests could say something inappropriate. Of course these people were never invited back.

With his mother’s gag order for most topics, guests could come, enjoy the guinea hen and foie gras, leave at a reasonable hour and certainly wonder why they bothered. He was wrong, he told me.  Being at one of her dinner parties was like being in a musical comedy. Everyone knew and played their part – the ingénue, the generous uncle, the handsome leading man, the object of his affections, the upstart, and the single lady.  It was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, My Fair Lady, High Society, and Hello Dolly. The men wore tuxes and the ladies long dresses.  They spoke well, behaved mischievously, and all ended happily together.

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His mother’s tea salons and dinner parties were anachronisms and just as fanciful as the musical comedies she loved.

Dinner at the Bernsteins was another thing altogether, he said. The talk over the kasha and brisket was about what was in it for the Jews, how McCarthy was destroying America, how the legacy of Samuel Gompers’ unionized socialism was the only way to counter Christian individualism and capitalist excess.  Uncle Herman championed ‘the little man’. Esther Pilchman denounced Republican neo-Nazism; and Daniel Bernstein insisted that there was not now nor ever would be a Palestinian ‘right of return’. Guests fought and argued but left the table as happy and as satisfied as those at his mother’s affairs. Civility was simply defined differently. Rhetoric, debate, and eloquent defense of an argument was as old as the Torah.  Even when put upon by the Romans and challenged by Christianity, Pharisees and Sadducees both argued principles of The Law.

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After a long series of political arguments, a close friend of Riddick’s whom he had known since they were in grade school, suggested that they not see each other so often. “To preserve our friendship”, he said. Their disagreements had become acrimonious, he said; and more importantly he could no longer overlook the profound political differences between them.  Political philosophy was a matter of character, Riddick’s friend said, coloring ever aspect of life. “The way we look at the world is very different”, he went on, “and we will never agree”.

Political argument for Riddick was simply rhetorical speed chess. He was consistent, exaggerating his views to make the game more challenging and more interesting.  For his friend liberalism was a matter of philosophical commitment.  It was who he was; and Riddick’s conservatism was an affront to his principles of equality, justice, and compassion.

Riddick was surprised and disappointed at his reaction.  He had known him since the age of 10.  They had been friends in high school, roomed in the same dorm at prep school and both majored in history at Yale.  Riddick knew his mother and father and his girlfriends. He knew his moods and his insecurities and he knew Riddick’s. What else was there? How could anything trump that intimacy?

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Which brings me back to the question of civility.  Riddick had been unwittingly uncivil in his debates. He had been unsparing in his disassembling of liberal cant and self-righteousness.  He had exposed the hypocrisy of Upper West Side progressive compassion. He had cited the foundering state of public education, social welfare, and racial polity and excoriated the ineffectual and discredited policies of the Left.

His friend was hurt by his arguments. Since political philosophy was a matter of character, Riddick had attacked him and not his political convictions. Why had Riddick not seen this? How could he have so badly misjudged the nature of belief?

At the same time both Riddick and his friend were both summa cum laude, and his friend had two PhDs. Intellectual rigor and Ivy League confidence should have been enough to understand the nature of political debate.  It was not.

Riddick told me that few people he meets these days are as smart as his friend; and few have the agility to contest complex ideas.  Commitment to causes often takes the place of understanding and defending them on rational grounds. Hackles go up at the first sign of an intruder’s growl. Battle lines are drawn long in advance, and no quarter is given to the enemy when he is engaged.

When battles are fought on principle, there can be no compromise.  So, taking a page from his mother, Riddick says he looks for ways to draw out his guests’ comedic sides.  Personal biographies are good and stories from the old days draw everyone closer around the campfire. Everyone has quirks, oddities, and family clowns in common. Bits and pieces of character can be extracted over time, and although the pastiche may not be entirely accurate it is likely to be a decent representation of Bob Phillips or Jane Tolley.

Civility can be defined as knowing when to stop an argument before it gets personal.  Knowing when it is time to agree to disagree. Putting up the muskets and sabers and having a round of ale. People who are civil understand the nature of political difference. They pull up before the final attack, let victory slide, and take time to tease out smaller bits.  What ever happened to Mary Jane? Did you hear that Danny Bernstein’s father died? The weather is turning cold.

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Riddick was criticized by his ‘progressive’ friends for spending so much time in the Deep South..  They can never forget the lynchings, Bull Connor and his dogs, fire hoses, truncheons, intimidations, and murders. There can be no redemption for Mississippi, they said because it never turned its back on its past and Riddick’s trips there were tantamount to a betrayal of liberal values.

People simply cannot agree to disagree. “No one can understand American history without understanding Southern history” one of his Southern friends had told him. “From a Southern perspective.”

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There was the sticking point. ‘From a Southern perspective’ meant listening to self-serving, discredited arguments. What was the point?  Why even waste time on Creationist arguments, Biblical injunctions against homosexuality, climate change denial, the role of men and women in the family?  Civility is impossible when such a priori judgments are made. Politeness is condescending, not respectful. 

Real civility means going way beyond respecting another’s viewpoint.  It is conceding the possibility that Creationists may be right; that Biblical injunctions should in fact be heeded; and that traditional family values do need to be restored.

Civility means understanding that every belief has an origin; that no belief is devoid of affect or character; and that all beliefs, however implausible they seem, should have a hearing.  Everyone’s ideas are crazy to someone.  That might be a good starting point for getting along. 

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