Politics and the Christmas dinner

LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA.- "So how has Newtown affected you," I asked a member of my wife's family-I won't say who-at the first social gathering here in La Jolla, where we are staying in a hotel, about a 15-minute drive from the home of my wife's mother and stepfather. "Oh, it's too far away to have much of an effect on us," she Said.

Lee Siegel,

30 de dezembro de 2012 | 01h00

I wasn't too surprised. If being in LA can make you feel like you are on Space Station 4X288, visiting La Jolla can often give you the sensation of finding yourself on another planet altogether. The town is beautiful, as gemlike as its name implies, all swaying palm trees, sudden panoramic views of the Pacific, lush green hills dotted with lovely homes overlooking the ocean. As winter storms pounded most of the rest of the country, the sun shone over La Jolla's exquisite restaurants and stores. The slaughter of innocents in Connecticut, the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, even the paralysis in Washington that is about to plunge the most vulnerable Americans into a long night of economic anguish seemed the events of another country.

La Jolla is so protected that they say some Mexican drug lords buy second homes in La Jolla's many gated communities because they like the increased sense of security. Mostly affluenct retirees live in La Jolla, and quite a few wealthy young entrepreneurs. You can see the mountains of Tijuana from the town's hills.  Submarines leave the nearby naval base to patrol the coast. Pelicans nest on the cliffs, a few dozen pregnant seals lie in the sandy coves waiting to give birth, and several tons of bird shit permeate the air with their pungency. Mitt Romney has a home here.

This was our first Christmas with both children at my mother-in-law's house. The scene is typically American. You need a baseball scorecard to keep track of the personnel. My wife's mother is on her second marriage, her second husband is on his second marriage, his son by his first marriage is on his second marriage to a woman on her second marriage who has a daughter from her first marriage, and I'm on my second Marriage.

The mixture of classes is also characteristic of contemporary America. My wife's younger sister married a truck-driver, and her younger brother is a teacher at a small Midwestern college whose wife has a part-time job in a fast-food restaurant. The brother and his wife are fundamentalist Christians. They are all good and kind people, and I am lucky and grateful to have them in my life. But it is a perpetual vexation to me that I, as an ironic, urban intellectual Jew, have little to talk about with them. Oh, I try. The wine helps. But after exhausting the topics of kids and schools, I withdraw, go out onto the patio and look for a while at the lights flickering in the violent, enigmatic Mexican hills, then I get bored, come back, and always against my better instincts, start a conversation about politics.

This is always a mistake, it is always a disaster, and I never fail to instigate it because I can't stand out on the patio all night looking at Mexico, and I can't keep drinking to the point where I not only am drunk but actually appear drunk. Last night was a particular disaster. I began with the importance of raising taxes for certain tax brackets, at which point my otherwise warm and generous mother-in-law crossed her fingers at me the way people do in movies when they are trying to ward off a werewolf or vampire and abruptly left the table. I turned for support to people of more humble means, the truck-drive and the college teacher, but they shook their heads at me.

Now a more rational and socialized person would have changed the subject, but inspired or provoked in some obscure way by those enigmatic Mexican hills, I launched into another issue: gun control. Not only should people not be allowed to own any kind of gun, I said, but given human nature, people should not be allowed to own anything more dangerous than a water pistol-and even water pistols should be regulated by the state. This caused an uproar, to put it mildly. And so it went, as I proceeded to tackle the subjects of universal healthcare (the equivalent of communism, I was told), immigration (let everyone in, I intoned), and what I referred to as Romney's irremediable whiteness (dumfounded stares). By the end of my little seminar, I sounded like exactly the type of uptight, self-righteous liberal I detest, a realization that I promptly made public, which resulted in a round of smiles and a smattering of applause. Then I had two more glasses of wine and went around the house kissing and hugging everyone's children.

Of course the problem with politics is that, like a husband and wife fighting about money as a symbol of everything else that is wrong with the marriage, politics is never really about politics. I could well have been displacing my sadness at feeling misfitted at the Christmas dinner, since my childhood memories have nothing to do with Christmas, and the people who are embedded in those memories are all gone. Ideology and a private ache go together like Santa Claus and reindeer.

In the car on our way down the winding hilly roads toward the hotel, my wife, who had not heard my political provocations, asked me if I had enjoyed myself. And the truth was that I had, even if, at the same time, Christmas was still too far away to have as much an effect on me as it did on my enthralled and sleeping children.

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Lee Siegel

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