With Thanksgiving fast approaching, many freshmen college students will be heading home for the first time to confront their ignorant, racist parents. Semi-employed Millennials will leave their joblets to endure a long weekend of Dad and Uncle Mark spouting fascism between tearing hunks of non-free-range turkey flesh off the bone.
To prepare these young people for their ordeals, the Internet will soon be running guides such as “How to share a table with relatives whose views you abhor.” A Google search for something like “how to talk to family at Thanksgiving about Trump” brings up a cornucopia of advice. Young folks are told to listen to the olds’ racism with compassion and to realize their elders are threatened by their impending extinction. The job for youth alongside the turkey and gravy? “We have to put in the messy and unfun labor of listening to complaints about modern America, and then offer solutions that aren’t built on fear and hatred for the other.”
Well, that’s fine for telling them how to deal with us. But what about the old advising the young on how to better prepare for a Thanksgiving political showdown? Here are a few tips.
1) Take a moment to note that history did not begin on 11/09/16. Mother and I want you to know Trump’s wars started under Bush and Obama. Much of the assault on our civil rights, particularly the devolution of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, began right after 9/11. The CIA, NSA, FBI, Robert Mueller, John McCain, and others may be rock stars today because you think they’re part of the #Resistance, but each has a long history of serving the needs of the deep state. I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in high school, and The Handmaid’s Tale was written before you were born, so no need to quote them to me. Pass the beets, willya? Who doesn’t like beets?
2) Everyone can have an opinion, but you might want to listen more closely to the ones held by those who have studied a particular subject their entire lives. Some things have such a history behind them that they are “facts.” If you want to find informed content on federal contracting in regard to Puerto Rico, the lawyers at POGO are better than the kids at the Daily Beast, for example. “Conspiracy” in legal filings doesn’t mean spying, it means only that more than one person worked together to commit a crime; lawyers know this, dudes on Twitter do not. So careful about “hot takes.” What you want in most cases is a well-debated question among experts. Read The Death of Expertise to learn how intellectual egalitarianism cripples informed discussion. Think about Uncle Mark’s coffee mug, the one that says “Your Google search is not the same as my medical degree.”
3) For the love of all good things, look up the definition of “fascism” and read a bit about the rise of Hitler before citing each as a response to everything in the news that frightens or offends you. Might as well dig into the causes of the Civil War and the history of early compromises on slavery in America, too, instead of citing blurbs from Trevor Noah about the roots of racial inequality. The people on late-night TV are comedians. You are not better informed by listening to their jokes. Entertainment isn’t education. Damn, the stuffing is good this year. Why don’t we have this more than once every 12 months?
4) Freedom of speech means protecting the right of someone to say things without necessarily endorsing their content. The Supreme Court has repeatedly said no to banning hate speech. The ACLU supports the First Amendment rights of Nazis. Get with the program. The rights you defend are in reality your own.
5) The nation is not at the edge. Democracy is not dying in darkness. The issues of today can be important without being apocalyptic. Nobody is setting up labor camps for LGBTQ illegal immigrant POC refugees. A few Nazi cosplayers at a rally are not the same as Kristallnacht, nor are they likely a predecessor to that. You sound like bad dystopian fan fiction. Get off the ledge—America survived a civil war, two world wars, and a real constitutional crisis surrounding Watergate and Richard Nixon. A president who tweets is not the end of us. And stop sounding so gleeful when you predict it might be.
6) There’s a bunch of important stuff going on that you don’t seem to be focused on. If you’re looking for things to change, speak out against the war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year. You and the soldiers deployed there wore Huggies when it started; pretty much the same for the fighting in Iraq. You’re worried about the treatment of Muslims at America’s airports? Cool. Spare a thought for the treatment of Muslims in the multiple nations where America is making war at present. More gravy?
7) Learn how to read critically and think skeptically. The media environment is rough, with “facts” increasingly corrupted by ideology, and the speed of publishing a hot take taking precedence over getting the story right. Be skeptical of reports you absolutely agree with, especially if they are based on anonymous sources. Ask yourself who would really know what the president said in a closed-door meeting first-hand, and why they would leak that. There’s usually an agenda, on the part of either the writer, the source, or both, so try and understand it. You might actually have to read multiple media outlets, some representing a point of view you don’t agree with, to get a full picture.
8) Thoughtful criticism of a (black, female, etc.) candidate is not racism/sexism/bigotry/misogyny; it’s thoughtful criticism. A good line of questioning by a black, female, etc., candidate isn’t brave, fierce, courageous, or an attack on the patriarchy; it’s just a good line of questioning. Lotta turkey this year; you want seconds?
9) In the real world, you can’t slam the door on arguments with single-word retorts like Mansplaining! Benghazi! The Emails! Putin! Whataboutism is not a one-word alternative to the real intellectual work of sorting out history, precedent, and parallels that matter. Two things can both be wrong. A bad thing done by a Democrat does not cancel out something bad a Republican did. It might be necessary to talk about both. Some ideas cannot be explained in 280 characters. Some require whole books. Don’t dismiss an argument because learning about it is more work than thumbing a scroll wheel.
10) Talk is fun. But in the end somebody has to do some real work if anything is going to get fixed around here, so help clean up after Thanksgiving dinner.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.