'Tis the Season (for Political Hijacking)

Why would we voluntarily model our private behavior on the provocations of Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews, in our own homes, with our actual loved ones?
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From the first week of November straight through to New Year's Day, the questions come roaring into Social Q's -- the advice column I write for the Styles section of the New York Times -- faster than a drunken starlet behind the wheel of a Maserati. And their subject is just as relentless: The Holidays.

I receive questions about bad gifts, no gifts, re-gifts, pet gifts; questions about in-laws, exes, extended family, and extended warranties; questions about office-party groping, holiday music on outdoor speakers, and Christmas trees for Jews. But mostly, the questions involve knotty family dynamics that are as hard to untangle as silvery strands of tinsel.

But this year, I have noticed a new fly in the ointment: Letters from folks -- lots of them -- who have had it up to their giblets with divisive political speeches hijacking their holiday spreads. They don't know how to stop it. And they want my help.

Take a look: "Growing up, my parents were always middle-of-the-road politically. But lately, they've taken a sharp turn to the right. At holiday get-togethers, they rant about Obama care, welfare queens, and deficit spending. Normal attempts to change the subject fail. Other than gritting our teeth or fighting back hard, is there anything my wife and I can do? P.S.: We love them!"

The postscript probably rules out chloroform.

And the problem isn't just on the right, of course. Here's another: "My new boyfriend is obsessed with the Occupy movement. It's all he talks about. He hasn't spent much time with my family, who will probably find his 99% tirades a little extreme. Should I ask him to cool it for Christmas (not that he will) or ask my family to put up with him? Who is better to annoy in this situation?"

For the record, it is always better to annoy our families than new lovers. The former are required to forgive us; the latter simply reactivate their Match.com accounts.

Normally, I would suggest a conversation-changer in these situations. Simply steer the talk to Oscar contenders or post-season football or the dreary new crop on Dancing with the Stars. That is the time-honored ploy for redirecting awkward moments, is it not? When Uncle Harry asked: "So, are you two getting married anytime soon?" Wasn't Aunt Betty always poised to save the day: "Have some more gravy, kids, before it gets cold."

Catastrophe averted!

But my correspondents tell me that when it comes to politics, changing the subject has become about as effective as the Deficit Reduction Super Committee. Uncle Harry takes more gravy and then resumes his diatribe (about the Obama administration or the Republican primary candidates) as relentlessly as Barnes & Noble has been shilling its Nook on TV ads this month.

So, onto Plan B: Speaking with likely offenders in advance, using a calm and friendly voice, and out of earshot of others (to reduce the embarrassment). Try: "Your tough talk may be hurtful, Cousin Sue. Can you tone it down so everyone feels entitled to speak up?"

Nope! It turns out (at least from the post-Thanksgiving reports) that our new breed of relative-slash-talking head will not be silenced -- not even for an afternoon. Not even if we ask them right at the table!

It probably shouldn't surprise me that we ordinary folk have come to emulate the shallow and divisive politics we hear (and read) all day on cable stations, nasty political blogs and campaign stumps. But it does. Why would we voluntarily model our private behavior on the provocations of Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews, in our own homes, with our actual loved ones?

These talking heads are paid millions of dollars a year to preach to their converted (and stimulate the blood pressure of everyone else to the danger zone). There is a commercial advantage for them in doing so. Same with political candidates: In a crowded field, it is the most provocative campaigners who rise to the top of the news cycle, and possibly, its fund-raising machinery.

But what have these professionals to do with Uncle Earl? Surely a blood relative can be persuaded to speak calmly, and listen quietly to a reasoned counterpoint. But letters to Social Q's are telling me just the opposite: That many of us are coming to see ourselves as the hosts of our own imaginary (and mean-spirited) cable shows.

How to change the channel?

Well, I'm an optimist where family is concerned. So, my first two tips remain: Try to shift the subject when conversation veers towards the explosive. And consider a quiet word, in advance, with relatives who are prone to provocation.

But if these stratagems fall on deaf ears, here are two more tips -- just to keep in your back pocket. First, when you feel inclined to scream (or throttle) the angry political lecturer at your holiday gathering, excuse yourself for a moment. Check your never-ending Facebook newsfeed or slip out the front door. A brisk walk and a few deep breaths should restore your equilibrium in no time. With any luck, the subject will have turned to the Kardashians by the time you return.

If not, finish your holiday goose as quickly as decorum allows, and decamp to the kitchen with the dish-washing brigade. For this is the room where true communitarians gather -- working together towards a difficult common goal, and generally up for giving peace a chance.

Happy Holidays!

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