So you’ve spent three weeks grieving on the sofa in deep depression, repeatedly watching Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton singing “Hallelujah” on “Saturday Night Live,” weeping into your bottomless glass of wine and obsessively checking your phone to discover what horror Donald Trump has most recently appointed to his cabinet.
But across the country, your aunt, uncle, or cousin – or maybe even your brother or sister or parent – has been walking on sunshine, feeling energized and happy, thrilled that after eight years of Obama’s weaknesses and failures, an empowered Republican president and Congress are finally going to take charge, grab the reigns of power, end gridlock, drain the swamp and make America great again.
You may have spent the past months sparring with these loved ones on Facebook, Twitter or the family WhatsApp group. Now, on Thanksgiving, everyone is heading home for the holidays and you have to get ready to sit next to them, in person, and ask them to pass the cranberry sauce and stuffing.
Face to face, you can’t delete their comments, unfriend or block them. So what do you do now? An ABC online news survey found that this predicament is on the minds of many Americans, with more than 45 percent reporting that the idea of politics at the Thanksgiving table is stressing them out.
Israelis have lots of experience with intrafamilial tension at the holiday meal. Committed anti-occupation leftists frequently sit at the Pesach seder, Rosh Hashanah table or even just a random Shabbat dinner with their right-wing brothers, sisters or cousins who harbor – and fight for – opposite visions for the future of the State of Israel.
Sometimes, they find themselves breaking bread with loved ones soon after they’ve marched and yelled at each other at opposing demonstrations. In even more heightened instances, a family member may have had to evacuate their homes, lost comrades in controversial wars or witnessed terror attacks – and they blame the political camp their relative belongs to. It’s not easy.
Here are some of their time-tested strategies for getting through such meals:
1. Before you issue or accept a holiday invitation, look yourself squarely in the mirror and judge whether you can handle post-election contact with these particular family members without an unpleasant argument. If your gut tells you such a level of self-control is beyond you, find an excuse not to attend their meal or invite them to yours. The insult at being excluded or rejected, if a white lie is cleverly concocted, is sure to be less painful than the ugly memory of a family member storming away from the table in a tearful fury – or worse, grabbing and wielding the turkey knife in the midst of the argument, threatening to resolve family differences as they do on “Game of Thrones.”
2. Consider laying down ground rules. A group pact forbidding political talk at the table – going cold turkey, pardon the pun – is an option if you think it can be enforced. Remember, though, that banning politics can be a hard thing to do. So many topics can easily lead to a political discussion: a conversation about how the kids are doing in school can morph into education policy or political correctness on campus. Updates on dating lives can turn into discussions of feminism, gender roles and sexual harassment. Workplace news can quickly devolve into talk of economic policy.
It’s not easy – the personal is always political. In Israel, for example, even if you casually ask your settler uncle what’s new, he might respond that things would be dandy if they didn’t fear being dragged out of their home or being stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist. Or your Tel Aviv cousin might answer that she’d be great if her Nigerian boyfriend didn’t have a deportation order hanging over him. Not to mention the high odds that relatives of a certain age are serving in the army.
Even if you can’t force others to stick with a vow to avoid political spats, self-control is an option “The best decision I ever made was to stop talking politics with family,” said an Israeli friend. “I basically shut up.”
3. If you decide to engage, choose your opponent carefully. No one wants to live in a cave or an echo chamber. And how will anything ever change for the better if people don’t talk to each other? But it’s best to make sure real dialogue is possible with a given conversation partner. Often, it comes down more to the personality of the person with the opposing view than their positions. Some people are pleasant and even-tempered enough to disagree with, and you can converse about and disagree on political issues. As one friend told me, “The art is knowing when to talk and when to steer clear.” When in doubt, do the latter.
4. Be judicious about alcohol consumption. Everyone reacts to drink differently. In some families, breaking out the sangria and getting everyone a little tipsy can be a good thing; it will relax people and smooth out the edges. But beware of the notorious drunk uncle, whom alcohol makes more belligerent and free with his political opinions. If you know for sure there’s someone like this in attendance, consider an alcohol-free meal. This is harder to avoid at a Passover seder, where the wine consumption is built-in.
Unlike Passover, however, there are good carbs to enjoy. Instead of stiff drinks to calm folks down and keep them happy, bring on the pies and cakes. If you are hosting the meal, a really impressive and dramatic dessert presented at a strategic moment in the conversation can keep things running smoothly. You can’t argue with your mouth full, after all.
5. Focus on the positive content of the holiday. Thanksgiving may not have a handy Bible tale to focus on, the way Jewish holidays do, but it does have a narrative. Be inspired by the Thanksgiving narrative: if the Pilgrims and the Indians did it, so can your family (it may be best not to delve into the actual historic details and racial politics of that interaction, however).
Be careful of the “Going around the table saying what you’re thankful for” dynamic – that, too, can be problematic. (In that ABC online survey, when participants asked what they were grateful for, among the top 10 responses were “Trump” and “Jesus.”)
The gratitude schtick can be harnessed proactively for argument prevention. Speeches at the very beginning of the meal declaring how grateful people are to have their family, even in turbulent political times, can go a long way. Reminders that what binds us together is stronger than what drives us apart are also helpful. Let’s not forget – midterm elections are only two years away, and positive feelings of shared interests should be a priority.
6. Consider using the irresistible charms of children and animals. If you can’t supply adorable little kids of your own, make sure some of the guests at your holiday meal bring them. Sure, they can be disruptive sometimes, but they provide welcome distraction at key moments, and everyone can bond over how cute they are. They also offer a handy excuse to leave the table to play with or care for them, and a legitimate cause for censorship when things get too angry – “Please! Not in front of the children!”
In lieu of children, pets are also cute and soothing, and can conveniently need to be walked just when your relative’s political rant becomes truly unbearable.
7. If all else fails, shut everyone up by playing good music. Make sure it’s not too divisive: choose a playlist that is as mainstream as possible, no angry urban rap, no “good ol’ boy” heartland country tunes. Last year, Thanksgiving took place in the immediate wake of the Paris attacks, in the midst of an immigration crisis (at the time, it felt like the world was falling apart, but that seems like small potatoes now) and “Saturday Night Live” reminded us that when all else fails, there’s always Adele.
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