If you’re ever in Boston, there’s a dingy little bar, nestled inside a Back Bay parking garage, named after the beatnik writer Charles Bukowski. It’s not uncommon to find young aspiring writers, unshaven and quaffing pints, sitting at the bar scrawling their thoughts on notepads and occasionally offering them to the patron on the next stool.
But several of the bartenders encouraged one restriction on this freewheeling discourse: “No politics in the pub.”
Don’t get me wrong. More than a few times, I’ve broken the no politics in the pub rule myself. As my choice of hobbies - and for that matter, jobs - makes plain, I enjoy political debate. I deplore what do-gooders have done to free political speech in the name of campaign finance reform. I don’t mind jousting with a well-informed opponent or mixing it up with interested friends across the ideological spectrum. But please, a man has got to have someplace for recreation that is free from angry exchanges on emotionally charged topics.
It doesn’t have to be the bar. Although circumstances may vary depending on my company, I don’t want to talk about the capital-gains tax on camping trips, the federal marriage amendment at weddings or the death tax at funerals. I don’t want to talk about the FCC while watching a sitcom or have my dinner interrupted by a lecture on the FDA or the latest Agriculture Department food pyramid.
Even a professional opinion-monger ought to have his limits. Everywhere I go, it seems that I am accosted by pamphleteers, protestors and partisans. They are upper-middle-class college students with axes to grind masquerading as unduly obnoxious panhandlers. I don’t think the government ought to wipe them off the face of the planet, McCain-Feingold style, but it wouldn’t hurt if they developed some manners.
It’s been said that politics is show business for ugly people. Not only is that a bit unkind, but in a deeply divided red-blue America, it is probably inaccurate. For some people, partisan politics is like professional sports. If they find out you are on the other team, you may begin to feel as at home as a Red Sox fan at Yankee Stadium.
Disclosing my place of employment encourages this kind of unwanted trash-talking. When you work for The American Conservative, people can adduce your standing on the left-right divide without much extra investigation. TAC differs from other publications on the right in fairly significant ways - on Iraq and so many other things, we are as far removed from the Limbaugh Letter as The New Republic - but explaining this only encourages further interrogation.
Things were uglier when I dabbled in Republican politics during the Clinton impeachment saga. A deranged local Democrat daily called the office to inquire of the receptionist if she was having sex. “If you guys can ask the president,” he would intone, “why can’t I ask you?” No word on whether he issued his own “Starr Report” on what he discovered about our office. Around the same time, a dentist asked me where I worked. “I’ll tell you,” I replied, “when you take that metal hook out of my mouth.”
Is it inconsistent of me to state my opinions on the printed page and all over the Internet yet want to put in earplugs when real-life political conversations ensue? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Mine is an old-fashioned conservatism where politics is a defensive action, an effort to carve out a place for normal life - faith, family, friendships—against stultifying, centralizing forces. Politics isn’t life itself, even though I find it more interesting than most people do.
Since coming to Washington, D.C., the seat of the leviathan, I’ve encountered many people whose perspective is diametrically opposed to mine. In the district, one man’s crusade is another man’s career.
Once I was trying to get to the airport to go to a wedding, flying out at the last possible minute to make it to the ceremony. On the subway, I was seated next to a woman who for no apparent reason tried to start a fight with me about education reform. Then I encountered a dozen or so young supporters of Lyndon LaRouche who were singing what could only be described as LaRouchie carols: “Cheney, Rove and Lewis Libby/Leaked a secret agent’s name.”
I missed my flight and went home - to write a review of a book about federal entitlement programs.
There are, of course, good reasons for the ubiquity of political talk. In a time of war, terror and social upheaval, the stakes of these debates are very high. But if we can’t transcend our differences at the waters’ edge, can we at least have a truce where the beer flows?