A Thanksgiving Contest

Giving thanks for what we haven’t got.

Thanksgiving fast approaches, with an entire holiday season following hard on its heels. Many of us will mark the coming occasions with family celebration—gathering together with our loved ones to enjoy the subtle pleasures of food and conversation. These are the experiences from which greeting cards are made. Adults will exchange stories and laughter while children and pets scamper contentedly. Everyone’s bellies will be stuffed from a delicious feast. For one brief moment, we’ll experience something close to perfection. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to turn out…

Even in the happiest of families, holiday gatherings threaten to go horribly awry. Family grudges may simmer below the surface, erupting into a boil at the least expected moment. Our curmudgeonly relatives may serve up side dishes of venom at the banquet table. Liquor might loosen the lips or libidos of adults, unlocking lifetimes of secrets. The spontaneous oddities of children and animals can frustrate our orderly plans. With little or no warning, the holiday cheer can transform in a heartbeat to humiliation or horror.

In last week’s Dear Prudence column, a letter writer sought advice for dealing with her unpleasant in-laws over the Thanksgiving weekend. After seven years in the family, her brother-in-law doesn’t even welcome her to the table using her correct name. In the spirit of charity, mermaid33 responded with her own, more traumatic, tale of a Thanksgiving gone wrong:

Methinks some perspective is required here. Thanksgiving 1972. I was 9, my brother was 7, my sister 5 and we were on our way with our mom and dad to grandpa’s house for Thanksgiving. I say “grandpa’s house” because that’s the way it was that year; grandpa and grandma being in the middle of one of three divorces to each other. There was a heightened sense of anticipation and trepidation, as my mother had not seen her father since the last Thanksgiving where everyone was together, sitting at the long table and my grandfather hadn’t liked the way my uncle had asked him to pass the mashed potatoes. So, he hurled the bowl through the air in the general direction of my uncle. My mother booked it out of there, hearing on the way out her father ask if my uncle wanted some gravy with that? It was with this in mind that my parents, especially my stepdad, had reluctantly loaded us up in the Valiant station wagon and made the two hour trip in our best going-out-to-eat clothes. I remember we had gift-wrapped packages with us and the foresight of my mother makes me laugh; that she would instinctively know that she wouldn’t be seeing her dad again at Christmas, like this was all my dad was gonna be able to tolerate…So, quivering from anticipation and the muscle contractions from sitting absolutely, perfectly still on the way there lest the curl fall out of my Indian hair, not to mention the constant monitoring required to ensure that my siblings didn’t cross the imaginary line I’d drawn in the upholstery and get more than their fair share of the bench seat, we arrived.I imagine my grandfather must have seen us pull up to the curb because we were still uncrating ourselves when the front door opened. Down the front walk towards us bounded my grandparents’ Dalmatian dog, delighted to see us. In his exuberance, he jumped on my little sister and knocked her down. Having dogs of our own, she was used to this and got right back up unscathed. But my grandfather was not satisfied. He strode down the walk, picked up Denny by the skin on the front of his neck, raised him up to eye level and punched him in the jaw like a man.My father said, quietly, “Kids, get in the car.” We got right back in and drove away without a word. My father didn’t even have to say “I told you so” and my mother didn’t even need to hear it. Of course, since we had planned on dinner at my grandfather’s, there was no Thanksgiving dinner waiting for us at home.A toast – To holidays with family that do not involve hurled tableware or animal cruelty! May the worst that befalls you be that someone you only see once a year forgets your name and you have to sit through a child’s recital!

We here at Fraywatch join mermaid33 in wishing you a mayhem-free holiday. But, we also know that some of you will inevitably find yourselves gnashing your teeth and wondering how things could possibly go worse. Which is why we’d like to offer you the dark comfort of knowing how much worse things could really be.

In the spirit of one-upmanship, we invite you, dear readers, to submit your real-life stories of disastrous family celebrations to the Fraywatch Fray. Funny, frightening, or just plain sad, we welcome them all. Our gang of editors will select your best entries and feature them next week in this space. In the meantime, we wish you good eating and a happy Thanksgiving. G.A.8:50 a.m. PST

Monday, November 19, 2007

If you ever decide to make your living reading internet posts, prepare yourself to reach some dark conclusions about human nature. While there’s a lot of brilliant and worthy material in the Fray, many posts are so toxic that just reading them gives one the urge to rinse the eyes with soapy water. In my darker moods, well-meaning optimists reassure me that the internet is a distorted lens for viewing the human condition—that people sheltering behind anonymity express very different views than they’d profess in the public sphere. But, if this argument is true, then one has to wonder about that lynchpin of modern democratic governance—the secret ballot. After all, in their secrecy and insulation from personal accountability the ballot box and the internet are very much alike. If voters are as nasty in the polls as posters can be on the boards, then democratic theory might need a re-think.

Several articles published last week in Slate worked in tandem to generate a perfect swarm of the brain-dead and the bigoted. Pieces on the death penalty, the surging crisis of Iraqi refugees, and the political gaffes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama provoked a tidal wave of response capable of drowning even the most cynical democrat’s populist tendencies.

In her piece covering the legal debate about contemporary execution practices, Dahlia Lithwick decries the “carelessness, raw politics, and inertia” of the American death penalty. While there are some sharp responses to be found in the ensuing Fray discussion, the cumulative debate presents a theater of sadism. One can at least recognize the faculty of reason at work in the grim utilitarianism of folks like Atarxian, who support greater cruelty throughout the penal system on the basis of its deterrent value. In one of the debate’s most bizarre arguments, jimthecarguy finds inspiration for speedy public stoning in the durability of Jewish culture. Teslarawks speaks with envy of Chinese criminal procedure’s efficiency, in which “they march you out of the court room and shoot you in the head with a rifle.”

In their articles on Iraqi refugees, Fred Kaplan and Daniel Byman discussed the scale of the problems of sanctuary faced by an estimated 2.5 million people, including many thousands who have provided material assistance to American forces. Overall, Fray respondents are decidedly hostile to any effort that would grant American refuge to Iraqis. To autokick, the chance that “one or two Iraqis would slip through the screening process and later put the American people in danger” moots the entire proposal. Most shocking for its starkness is the perspective of self-professed war widow, Audresym:

If some want us to provide asylum for those who were a help to us there, while we’re there, fine. There are plenty of those over there trying to provide help. But provide some sort of asylum for them there. Don’t bring them here. For those of us who have been directly affected by this war, like my four kids and I, who lost a husband and father on Jan. 5, of this year, to an Iraqi terrorist, to see someone like that here, infuriates me! Not long ago, I saw a Muslim woman and her children while I was out shopping and was suddenly filled with anger and rage. My immediate thought was, “Why are they here when my husband never got to come back???” Before this, I never thought such things and was more “compassionate” and sympathetic to others. Now, not as much. As far as I’m concerned, if the political “higher-ups” are screaming for us to get out, then we should. But, before we do, we should let the UN know that we’ll be doing this, and that since they won’t support us we’ll be fixing it our way and there will be NO repercussions to how we do it. Then, pull ALL of our people out completely and level the whole place and take Iran while we’re at it. Does this sound cruel and callous, because of the “women and children”? Probably, but as far as I can see, MY family has nothing else to lose, but other families do; and those same “children” will grow up to do what their daddies and uncles, and grandfathers, etc. are doing now.

For those who survey the contemporary American scene and despair that this nation has lost its moral compass, it’s tempting to see the upcoming election as our national shot at redemption. If this is to be the case, one has to hope the average American has sharper political analysis skills than those brought to bear in last week’s Politics Fray and Explainer Fray. If the bloggers of XX Factor want evidence that misogyny plays a large role in people’s opposition to Hillary Clinton, they need look no further than the responses to John Dickerson’s article about Clinton’s use of planted questions at appearances. Though we have no blog devoted to hashing out racial issues, Obama’s supporters will find no shortage of racists spouting off in response to last week’s Explainer on Obama’s improper display of deference to the American flag.

Against all evidence to the contrary, I’m trying to uphold my faith in America and its values. But it’s hard not to get fatalistic about a country that sees the upcoming election as a showdown between Vince Foster’s killer and a Muslim sleeper agent. My burning eyes could sorely use some rays of hope. If you’ve got a brain in your head and a heart in your chest, we’d like to see more of you in the Fray. The nation’s fate could depend upon it! G.A.10:15 a.m. PST

Monday, November 12, 2007

For half a century, America arrayed its military might against the dour adherents of a soulless dogma. The world’s fate hung in the balance of power between military behemoths running empires of global reach. Neither politicians nor generals could break the impasse which threatened to bring to a full halt the march of human history. Yet, onto this dark battlefield there strode great heroes, rough and untutored in the merciless ways of power. With a spring in their step and song on their lips, these cultural warriors brought peace to the hearts of men. After years of conflict, the opposing sides laid down their arms to revel in the freedom of good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll.

For many, some version of this story provides a compelling account for the end of the Cold War—an American cultural victory surprisingly wrested from a standoff where no political or military solution could ever be found. While the narrative might fairly be accused of oversimplification, it taps into archetypes that have been embedded in Western culture since David first squared off against Goliath. After a viewing of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll, Fred Kaplan dares to hope that the vigor of American culture was indeed the weapon that brought down the Soviet bloc, and that such a victory might again be possible in the face of America’s conflict with the societies of the Middle East. His argument leaves me hoping Marx’s famous quip—that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce“—has been as thoroughly discredited as the political system called Marxism. But as an inveterate skeptic, I do worry that the pursuit of history leaves one open to blindsiding from the future.

With any luck, the entries in Kaplan’s inbox are more decidedly upbeat than submissions to the Fray. Our readers responded with a decidedly pessimistic take on the worth and persuasive power of contemporary American culture. According to doodahman, America can’t hope to replicate the method of its “cultural victory” because it no longer has a culture worthy of admiration or emulation:

It is beyond ignorant to believe that foreigners see the US and its role, impact, aims and program in a distorted fashion. Rather, it is folks here who have a distorted view. Merely attempting to distort our image with fluffery is a fool’s errand. Why does jazz and rock resonate among the oppressed? Because it has soul. Soul is the very antithesis of what our globalized, corporate one world is all about. Soul is what is left in people when everything else– their wealth, their security, their family and community relationships, their spiritual expression– is stripped from them, or distorted and repressed. It’s that part of humanity which shines through when the material things are gone. Well, what are you going to do to show the world that we still have soul? Nothing. You can’t manufacture it. You can’t create it with propaganda or aid programs or ambassadors. You can only show soul by suffering deprivation with grace and good humor; by sacrificing personal interests and gains for the greater good of all; by respecting human rights, human values, and human life. Now how do you do that while enforcing a world wide empire of a thousand foreign bases, with a military behemoth sucking up more resources than it would take to clothe every naked person and fill every hungry belly? You can’t. So give it up. Give it up and wait patiently until the evil we send out in the world comes back in full force on our own heads. Then we can atone, we can burn off the self satisfaction, the self interest and the selfishness and return to being the people we once were and are no longer– people with a surplus of soul. And when that happens, the world will see it, and the world will respond.

If doodahman despairs of such a project because of problems with us, EarlyBird rejects it because of problems with them: “Every thing we do, either with good or bad intentions will backfire. You can’t even try to help or ‘win over’ such a sick, hate-filled, self-hating person without being held in contempt and dragged down.”

Jack_cerf notes that the cultural gulf between America and the Islamic world lies in a whole different ocean than the one which divided us from Eastern Europe:

Communism is/was a bastard child of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. It promised to produce the same things liberal capitalism promised – a world of prosperous, free and equal people – only better. We could attack it, and did, by showing that it didn’t deliver the goods as well. Jazz, rock and roll, and the individual hedonism that went with them were something that people raised in a communist society could recognize as part of a better material existence.Islam isn’t vulnerable to the same attack because, unlike Communism, it isn’t purely materialistic. Like all serious revealed religion, it has the great fudge factor of Heaven and Hell to make up for its worldly failures and to keep the faithful in line. As long as conformity to the will of God is the most important thing, mere prosperity and material well being aren’t enough, and individual liberty is positively pernicious.

Perhaps the most trenchant criticism comes from endorendil, who rejects both the essentialism and the exceptionalism of Kaplan’s premise:

US culture had an outsized influence when US technological advantage meant that most widely available cultural products (recorded music, movies) were American. With mass culture products mature (and their effects known to those in power), and the technology to produce them widely available, local products now compete more or less effectively with American ones. Since most US cultural products reinforce negative stereotypes of the US, it’s not even clear that better access to US cultural products would help. When was the last time you saw a movie, or listened to a song that made you proud to live in the US, and that could not have been about another country?The US shares cultural values with the rest of the world. Things like the power of the individual, the importance of religion in public life, dedication to science and education, free enterprise, secularism and the fight for equality are (in varying degrees) worldwide recognized values. But everyone has a different idea of their relative importance, and many of these values stand in opposition. The US doesn’t have a clear message to broadcast in the first place. Moreover, almost every country has historical advocates for all of these values, some much older, some much more eloquent, than the US’s.

What is the state of American culture today? What about our society is worth fighting for? In what sense is American culture truly unique and an example to the world? As we return from a weekend dedicated to the honor of our veterans, these questions could use some answers. Please take a moment to share your thoughts with us in the Fray. G.A.… 4:45 a.m. PST

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Is it easy to be funny or not? Reacting to Ron Rosenbaum’s article on Seinfeld vs. Shapiro, “A Tale of Two Comics“, JohnLee said,  “I rant in Shapiro’s style every day, it’s as easy as pie,” whereas chance20-m  said that Shapiro’s “funnier than me, but so are most people.”  ClubhouseCancer decided to prove he was funny:

What if I went down to Rosenbaum’s office and criticized him? He’d throw me out! You know, people don’t throw each other out as much as they used to, do they? The old-fashioned throw-out? You don’t see much of that anymore. I mean, are guys grabbing other guys by the scruff of the neck and just tossing them out? Not so much, I think. By the way, do you really need “of the neck” after “scruff?” Does any other body part even have a scruff? What is a scruff? What genius came up with this concept?

VTBiker posted a thoughtful analysis of Shapiro’s take on the world:

Shapiro becomes disturbing, which, actually is in a way, beautiful and repulsive. It is beautiful to witness someone so willing, so open to communicating the demons in his head (which face it, are all in our head at some point to), and to openly discuss it with us. Perhaps it is therapy for him, which helps him deal with them. And hey, if you are going to have psychological issues, at least profit from them, no? But the other side of the coin is that you really feel that this man will never truly be happy.

Several Fraysters agreed that the best post title, from Amble, was “And you know who else sucks…Mozart!”—opening words, “Oh please, Salieri!”—while the line most in keeping with the Shapiro ethos was probably this from Rjamesyork: “I’m glad Shapiro no longer has to give sexual favors for heroin. However, he may have been more talented at that than he ever will be at comedy.” M.R.10 a.m. GMT