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How to Talk Politics and Still Be Friends

Times Staff Writer

To Santa Monica screenwriter Robin Love, the problem with Americans is they’re too timid in expressing their political views.

Love, who grew up in Australia, says she can’t think of anything better than to have a knockdown, drag-out battle in which guests are pounding the dinner table, rattling the crystal and getting red in the face. That, she says, is the way they do it Down Under.

But in America, she says, as soon as the discussion begins to get a little heated, people get embarrassed and “change the subject.”

“Americans ought to learn to loosen up and enjoy the argument, then go out and have a beer together,” Love says.

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The reason Americans don’t express political views more openly--even now in the height of a presidential election season--is that those views tend to be a reflection of their innermost needs and longings, says Walter Fisher, a USC professor of rhetorical theory. So when a person does express an opinion, Fisher says, “they take an incredible risk.”

Of course, Fisher says, there are people “who live for strife and only feel alive when they are in competition. . . . And if there isn’t any agitation going on, (they) create it.”

Movie critic Michael Medved knows such people. They don’t air their political views to get new information: “They (do) it to vent aggression.”

So how do you get along with someone whose political opinions are violently different from your own?

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It’s not always possible, Medved says. So unless you enjoy feeling “as if you are ripping someone’s heart out,” it may be best to let sleeping dogs lie.

“Most people in my industry . . . are liberal not as a matter of political belief but as religious belief,” he notes. “And questioning any of their orthodoxy is like telling a follower of (the Rev. Jerry) Falwell that you’re not so sure about Jesus. You can’t do it.” So in polite company, “I bite my tongue.”

Besides, Medved says, “most political conversations are not so much about political issues as about feelings or a view or the world.” Therefore, he says, getting into an argument is “a waste of time.”

The only really heated fights he gets into now, Medved says, are those he can’t avoid, those with his mother--"the only person in the country who thoroughly and unreservedly worships Michael Dukakis.”

Getting Upset

For many veterans of dinner table political wars, the only way to talk politics sensibly is to stick to the issues and stay away from the underlying ideology; people don’t change their minds on basic ideology, anyway, and if you start attacking their fundamental beliefs, all that happens is they really get upset.

Though he sometimes gets into major disagreements with colleagues, judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, says he never deludes himself that he will change their basic philosophy. “Past college,” he says, “your views are set.”

What he does instead, he says, is tell the other judge that “given your general philosophy, you should come out with me on this one.” The important thing, Kozinski says, is to build bridges and coalitions, not fight over differences. And to do that, “you take your allies everywhere you can get them.”

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In any event, Kozinski says, there’s no relation between a person’s politics and his qualities as a friend. And of all his colleagues on the bench, he says, “the person I get along best with” is the one person he disagrees with most often.

On the other hand, there is a type of person to be avoided: the ideologue, a person so stubborn and inflexible that he cannot conduct a civil conversation about anything.

“Ideologues tend to have rigid minds in areas other than politics,” Berkeley writer Michael Rossman says. “It’s not a political flaw. It’s a character flaw.”

It’s also destructive, says Ken Keley, former minister of information for the White Panther Party. “You can’t get crazed and say, ‘You are my enemy forever because you don’t support Albania.’ Life is too short for that stuff.”

Ruth Hirschman, general manager of KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, says her suspicions about dogmatic people date to when she was growing up in a communist family in the late 1930s.

‘Hearing Screams’

The Old Left was coming apart, and “I remember lying in bed at night and hearing screams (of political anguish) from the kitchen,” she says. The result was to leave her apolitical for years. Even now, she says, she is “wary of people who believe that your political opinions define your person-hood.”

This is not to say that she does not, on occasion, get carried away while talking politics, she says. At a dinner party several years ago, she got into a pitched battle with David Horowitz, a former radical (he was an editor of Ramparts) who in middle age became a Ronald Reagan fan.

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The fight between former colleagues was painful and intense. “It was unbelievable,” Hirschman says. “There were sparks flying, explosions. . . . It was a struggle to the death. We were bleeding and wounded. And it (took) weeks to recover.”

‘Staggering Around’

Sometimes people never do. When Horowitz switched from radical to conservative, he says he lost more than 80% of his friends, including some he had known for 40 years.

“On the day I buried my father,” he says, “I got a call from someone I had gone to nursery school with and before you know it we were shouting at each other.”

It is possible for people to get along with political opposites, providing they are well-informed, well-intentioned and keep the discussion on issues (as opposed to basic values), say those who talk politics regularly.

Although he personally disagrees with liberals, Horowitz, for example, says he has no trouble getting along with them: “They’re staggering around with the rest of us trying to find jerry-built solutions to . . . insoluble problems.”

Medved says he disagrees with Jeffrey Lyons (his co-host on “Sneak Previews”), on just about everything. But he likes talking to him because he “will listen and he is smart.”

The real problem in any case, Hirschman says, is not between liberals and conservatives but with people who see evil in everyone with whom they disagree.

These people, she says, are so narrow-minded that for them fraternization with a Republican is like consorting with the Nazi SS in Occupied France. “I know there are people who think of the conservative movement that way but I am not one of them.”

Besides, she says, there is an “inherent eroticism” in the attraction of political opposites. “And I believe you should seduce the opposition any way you can.”


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