How to Be Friends With an Antiwar Nut.
First, an announcement: The Lamet Vali, and all of my wannabees, have formed into one squadron- "The Lamet Vov." Some day, when I make a public appearance again at one of those so-called Saturday afternoon "editorial meetings" I will show proof of my being the original Lamet Vali. Hint: it is from a certain novel. Enjoy!
Near the anniversary of Sept. 11, a friend of mine told me the most upsetting thing I'd heard all year--but also the most clarifying.
We were talking politics, or rather we were shouting politics. He was laying into me for getting into bed with racists, murderers and hypocrites, people who had committed the equivalent of Sept. 11 countless times--which is to say, conservatives. Meanwhile, I was telling him through my teeth that Noam Chomsky, the source of my buddy's picturesque worldview, was a shameless liar and distorter.
We kept at for almost an hour. Then, as he got off the phone, out of breath and close to tears, he said it: "I don't know how to be your friend anymore."
I fell into a chair, shaking. For the past 10 years, I thought, I've shared every joke, every secret, every fear, with this guy, and this is how it's going to end? I spent a long time wondering how he could feel that way about me. Then I realized I'd been feeling that way about him, too--him and a good chunk of my closest buddies. He'd articulated a feeling that had been nagging at me ever since I started hearing what my friends thought about the attacks. If I had heard a stranger voice those opinions, I'd dismiss him as a crank, someone as monstrously wrong-headed as Gore Vidal or Michael Moore. So how do I stay friends with people who hold those views? Or, more bluntly: Is politics an important enough issue to kill a friendship?
There are days when I'd say yes in a second--migraine days, when my in-box is filled with widely cc'ed e-mails telling me America is imperialist (for selling Big Macs outside our borders), America is a rogue state (for steering clear of Kyoto and Durban)--and, oh yeah, George Bush is an idiot. (Unless you believe the other e-mail, about how he's the evil genius who masterminded the death of Paul Wellstone.) Not to mention the days when everybody's throwing around John Ashcroft jokes or enthusing over CEO scandals.
Sometimes I want to grab people by the collar and start shouting. "You have a degree from a major university. You have a serious, responsible job. You've lived in the world, as an adult, for some time now. Do you really believe that the attorney general is going to round people up and send them to Christian re-education camps? Do you really believe Israeli soldiers are the moral equivalent of suicide bombers? Do you really believe any of this craziness will get solved by sitting across a table from a lunatic dictator and pretending he's not wearing a .45 on his belt?"
For years, I managed to juggle politics and friendship without a hitch. Every so often one of my friends would call Rudy Giuliani a Nazi, or groan about threatened cuts at the National Endowment for the Arts, but I found a way to smile and feel baffled instead of steamed--as if he were talking about a movie he loved but I hated. Then, as soon as I saw an opening, I'd steer the conversation somewhere I could vent blamelessly, like the front office of the New York Mets or the musical quintessence that is Steely Dan.
Then the attacks happened--and the old compromises got a lot tougher to sustain. I found myself getting frustrated with accommodation and whose-fault-is-it-anyway politics. If there were ever a moment for moral clarity, and decisive action, this was it. How can you be a dove in your personal life, and spare people's feelings, when you're playing the hawk on a global scale?
So I started to let my beliefs slip out, and the results weren't pretty. After a few poorly considered e-mails, and some overly salty comebacks around the dinner table, my friends were desperate to move the subject away from politics. I felt worse than ever. The argument with my one buddy, which I related above, crystallized things. It seemed like I'd have to make a choice between my friends, whom I'd known for years, and my politics, which I was still testing out.
Then my wife found a third way.
The solution was born, appropriately enough, in a political argument. Last October, a couple of weeks after we were married, Nancy made a passing sardonic comment about how we were in danger of an angry mob if we didn't have a flag in our window. I was taken aback. Both of us had worked across the street from the World Trade Center, and both of us spent much of Sept. 11 fearing the other was dead. Showing the flag didn't mean joining a mob; it expressed solidarity and resolve in the face of horror.
But I didn't say that. Instead, I launched into 10 minutes of high-pitched apologetics, starting just about every sentence with "How can you possibly . . ." and ending them with an exclamation point, if not several. The result was a household of one mind, but not about the war; both of us were now sure we'd married a mental patient.
I made my mea culpas, but the argument didn't go away. In fact, it branched out, spreading into Palestine and Pinochet and a dozen other issues, all the way down to what radio station we'd listen to in the car. (Her choice was NPR; mine was anything but, and right now, please.) After a few weeks, we were walking on eggshells. Neither of us wanted to bring up politics, and soon enough we weren't bringing up much else, either.
It was Nancy, as usual, who finally found a way to settle things--or, rather, allow us to disagree without rancor. "I love you," she said, "but I'm not going to think like you."
A small idea, an obvious idea, but it turned my world on its head. I don't agree with my wife's take on politics--but she's my wife. We've sworn an oath to stay together. I think we can cut each other a little slack.
And the same goes for my friends. I'd understood for a long time that my friends didn't think like me--but I'd forgotten the more important part of it. We're friends. We love each other. To me, they're the smartest, funniest folks you could ask for, and they're a pleasure to have in my life. For as long as I can remember, we've been a group--standing in line for movies and shows, getting tossed out of restaurants or stuck in a far corner at wedding receptions, sharing any high and low you can talk about in mixed company, and quite a few you can't.
Friends talking, I realized, are not an army on a field, politicians on the stump, diplomats in a conference room--or even, God forbid, op-ed pundits. I believe, as strongly as anything, that as a nation we need to be unswerving in this war--there can't be any compromise with our enemies. But on a personal level, where there's a bond of friendship and love, there's room for concession. I can disagree with what my friends are saying, so strongly that I'll argue myself red in the face, but I don't have to give up on them.
So, as frustrated as I get with my buddy, and his dark assertions about American foreign policy, I remember everything we've shared over the years--every Elvis Costello show we camped out to see, every girlfriend he told me about breathlessly, then moaned about later. I remember that on Sept. 11 he was the only person I could reach by phone as I made my way to a Hudson River ferry--and he became a hub for my wife and me, making calls all morning to family and friends.
I still think he's a nut for listening to Noam Chomsky, and I'll tell him so. But I love him anyway. That's how I can be his friend.
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