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European-American Topics - Editorial - Politics: American perspective

How to talk politics to an American
By DW Hamilton

Naturally, there are Americans who crave a good discussion of politics, but one can’t approach this quarry willy-nilly.  Don’t just saddle up to a complete stranger and say, “Hey, so what do you think about abortion?” (or the death penalty, George Bush, Iraq, nuclear waste, whales, or gay marriage).   

You need a bit of an icebreaker.  Try this bon mot, “Did you hear what happened today?”  Usually, the subject will reply, “No, what?”  Now is your chance to quote a recent headline or top story, such as “Oil profits are at an all time high.”  Then add, “How do you feel about that?”  Now, there is a least a possibility the conversation will go a bit deeper.  A very likely response could be, “I hate it, but what can you do?”  Now is your opportunity to weigh in on SUVs, hybrids, big oil, bio-diesel, and depending upon whether your conversational partner gives a rat’s ass you might even have that heady discussion for which you Europeans long. 

However, there is a very distinct possibility, far worse than mere apathy, that you’ve unleashed the pent up personal rage normally left to fester beneath our seemingly blasť American exteriors.  Entering a political conversation can be like entering a mine-field.  Europeans have expressed to me how surprised they are when discussions of a political sort turn vehemently nasty. Like small children who have never been allowed to rough-house, we don’t know how to play fight in a nice way.   It is because people have sat on their opinion for so long, it simply erupts.  This is why these days, many people avoid political conversations at all costs.  It wasn’t always like this.  In my lifetime, dinner conversation in the 1960s and 70s was full of pithy social discourse.  It was like a sort of verbal tennis match, and it was considered socially desirable to be able to talk in an informed way about the events of the day. 

In the 80s, it seemed, cocktail and dinner conversation waned, unless, of course it was about how to make more money.  Having strong opinions was seen as detrimental to one’s career, and besides, after the Vietnam War, stagflation, the Arab Oil embargo and Jimmy Carter, people were just plain tired.  The tendency became to “tend one’s own garden.”  This is how Oliver North could be hailed as an American hero. 

Other factors have contributed to our conversational lull.  There are fewer and fewer places to actually talk. Television dominates a one-way conversation in what once was our primary forum for discussion – the parlor. In most nightspots, the music is too loud to allow for any meaningful conversation.  Cable and the internet have allowed people to specialize only in the news that interests them.  The “news” takes up less and less time, as entertainment gossip and lifestyle tips fill what’s left of the half-hour after commercials. 

The good news is that somebody seems to be reading those newspapers available at Starbucks and McDonalds, and the 2000s answer to Citizen’s band radio is the internet blogs, where you virtually can saddle up to a complete stranger, and weigh in on any subject you like.  Just not face to face.  It is  safer that way.

 

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