Whenever my family gathers together—usually at Thanksgiving or New Year’s, and nearly always in the rambling old home belonging to my wife and me in Waynesville, North Carolina—the conversation commences before the engines of the arriving cars have cooled in the driveway. This talk, which I have come privately to regard as the Great Conversation, inevitably takes place around our kitchen table. The Great Conversation is loose, flowing, intense; like one of the nearby Smoky Mountain streams, it moves swiftly, takes unexpected courses, and occasionally smacks against a rock. In half an hour, we can touch on topics ranging from Bill Clinton’s bombing of Kosovo to the meaning of sacramental grace in everyday life, delving deep here, skimming the surface there, pausing only to fill coffee cups, pop open beer cans, or settle affairs between our children. Throughout the day and late into the night, the Great Conversation rolls, a weekend-long marathon during which breaks occur only for sleep and the participants come and go as they please. During the past two decades, our poor kitchen table has absorbed a few beatings, scores of tears, thousands of laughs, and hundreds of thousands of words.
Six of us are siblings—three brothers and three sisters. Along with our spouses, all of whom leap into these verbal brawls without a moment’s hesitation, we form a diverse group. Religiously, Protestants predominate, though one brother has converted to Judaism (Reformed) and I became Roman Catholic about six years ago. Politically, the last 12 years have seen us cast ballots for the Republicans, the Democrats, the Libertarians, the Reform Party, and possibly the Communists (my brother is vague about that one). Our occupations are as diverse as our politics, running the social and economic gamut from Episcopalian priest, banker, and chemist to bookseller, auto-parts salesman, and pizza deliveryman. Each of the six families has at least two children. Each family is involved in a particular church or temple. Each adult volunteers in church or community organizations in some capacity. And each of us is highly opinionated.
Only once in a long while do we agree on anything. One such extraordinary event occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 1999, during a lull in the conversation. My sister Penny looked around the quiet table and asked with perfect innocence: “So does everyone think O.J. was guilty?” There was a silence short as a breath while we tried to summon up O.J. after these several years, and then simultaneously we burst into laughter. Guilty? O.J.? Did anyone doubt it? Not at that table—not the theologically liberal Episcopalian priest, not the Catholic bookseller, not any of the other five people. Of course, we disagreed on why he escaped justice —he was black, he was wealthy, he was a celebrity. “But at least,” Penny said, “we agreed on something.”
Our rare consensus, garnered from so jumbled a set of religious and political opinions, led me into a reflective mood that lasted the rest of the day. Listening to the kitchen table talk, participating in a half-dozen other conversations —the presidential election, homosexuality’ in the Christian churches, problems in public schools, and so on—I was struck by our acceptance of certain events and practices that would once have shocked most Americans. No one appeared dismayed at O.J.’s return to society. We expressed no sense of outrage at the deaths of his victims. Later in the conversation, several relatives stated firmly that Christianity needed to accept homosexuality. Two of them defended both the silly The Last Temptation Of Christ and the Brooklyn Museum’s portrait of the Virgin Mary, caked with elephant dung and surrounded by renditions of various sexual organs, against what they called “attacks by fundamentalists.”
What we had done, I realized after several hours of listening, was to confuse a willingness to tolerate with a willingness to accept. Tolerance, which does not bind its bestower in any way except to turn a blind eye, is no longer enough for our custodians; the grinding machinery of our society, the media, and the courts now demands that all of us embrace beliefs which we once might have spurned or intently questioned, behavior which many formerly regarded as morally corrupting or obscene. To buck this prevailing trend is to be regarded as a hater of humanity and as a possible candidate for social and public excommunication or, depending on the case, for jail.
That day, I also understood for the first time how these demands for tolerance and acceptance are intimately connected with the impotence which so many feel regarding our government and society at large. My relatives center their lives on their families, their work, their churches, their communities. We didn’t need Colin Powell to tell us to volunteer; all of us at that kitchen table, inspired by the examples of parents and teachers when we were children, work as Sunday School teachers, soccer and basketball coaches, soup-kitchen workers, scout leaders. But the dominant feeling at the table was that our national government no longer listens to us, that our cities will sprawl no matter what we do, that our education system is broken and can’t be fixed. A niece commented offhandedly that, in 50 years, white people would be a minority in our country.
“Do you know why they’ll be a minority?” I asked her. When she shook her head, I said, “It’s immigration. Legal and illegal immigration. Your own government is the cause.”
Everyone at the table sat quietly for just a moment, then switched to another subject. So maybe it’s not just helplessness. Maybe toleration and acceptance lead to a willed blindness, a closing of the eyes, a turning away from truth.
Such insights may be collected by anyone who reads certain magazines. What was new for me that day was that the lessons were being taught to me by my own flesh and blood. We seemed to have lost our foundations. Years of exposure to the media, to foolish professors and lying politicians and sarcastic comedians in all walks of life, had visibly impaired our critical abilities and damaged our belief in our capacity to make a difference in the world.
Were we powerless? Could we no longer make a difference? The lineaments of my own life certainly seemed to preclude me from affecting wider debates in our society. I am a husband and a father of four, an independent bookseller, always strapped for cash and for time, a hard worker, a man who sits on occasion at a kitchen table in a little town mulling over the problems of the big world. Should I resign myself to the forces of false toleration and bitter resignation that seem to possess so many of our citizens these days?
Not at all. After mulling over my holiday observations and my own peculiar involvement in the world, I realized that there are many weapons at the disposal of what we might call “Kitchen Table Warriors.” The following are my personal recommendations for a “Kitchen Table Warrior’s Manifesto.”
Read, read, read. Read solid books. Read magazines like the one you hold in your hands right now. Read magazine articles in which you disagree with the author. Make connections. It is appalling how little professionals, particularly men, read. They may talk a great game, but a few questions reveal their empty-headedness; they live by opinion rather than by fact, by prejudice rather than by knowledge.
Think. Consider seriously what you believe and why you believe it. If you are going to be a defender of a cause, then you need to articulate your defense. Why do you support the Second Amendment? Why do you oppose abortion? Where do you stand on censorship? These questions deserve your grave consideration. Knee-jerk conservatives deserve the same contempt as knee-jerk liberals.
Speak out and encourage others to do the same. Write a letter to a politician or an editor, but don’t stop there. Call a friend —call five friends, for that matter —and ask each to dash off a note as well. Every additional letter adds amazing power to the punch of your protest. Truth will out, the adage runs, but truth needs voices to speak it.
Ask questions. Last year, I heard a college student at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, ask author Os Guiness how students could combat the leftwing political agenda that dominates their classes. “Ask questions,” Mr. Guiness replied. “Ask serious questions. And keep asking them.” If your parish priest begins tinkering with the Mass, ask him why. If you object to the language or morality of a book assigned to your highschooler in English class, make an appointment with the teacher and ask questions. Leave your anger out of the discussion; simply ask.
Use humor. Humor can reveal the ridiculous attitude of our opponents. My brother Chris once took his daughters to see Ringling Brothers in nearby Asheville. As he approached the entrance, an animal-rights protester stepped toward him and said, “Don’t go inside—they’re tormenting those animals.” My brother pointed to the man’s leather sandals, and said, “You’re wearing animals on your feet,” and then slipped past the speechless protester.
Humor may also help make our point in a civilized way. One of my former college professors—a pacifist, a supporter of liberal causes, an outspoken homosexual—remained my good friend until his recent death. Both of us eventually realized that our shared sense of humor allowed us to keep alive both our friendship and an ongoing political discussion that was healthy for each of us.
Pick your battles. Pace yourself Focus your efforts. Limited by time, talent, and financial considerations, kitchen-table warriors need to husband their resources. Some issues are too trivial for pursuit. By arguing at every juncture, you risk exchanging your reputation as a sincere and thoughtful advocate for that of neighborhood crank. Furthermore, involvement in some situations is a waste of time. If Uncle Billy voted twice for Bill Clinton—after all, someone voted for him—you’re probably wasting your breath trying to convince Uncle Billy that the former president will someday rank among the worst of our presidents. (You will, however, have many opportunities to practice your sense of humor, as in: “Look, Uncle Billy! It’s Bob Dole! Hey, I wonder if Bill Clinton will do Viagra ads, too. He’d be a natural!”) In most cases, though, you’ll want to follow some advice from a real Master of the Universe regarding those who will not listen: Shake the dust off your sandals and move on.
Commit yourself to one street fight beyond the kitchen table. If you oppose more gun control, join the National Rifle Association. If you oppose abortion, join your local pro-life group. If you like what you hear from a certain politician, call his office, explain clearly what resources you may offer, and join the fray. You may find that you will derive immense satisfaction from such commitment. You may also find that this commitment enhances your life in terms of friendship, personal growth, and knowledge of the human mind and heart. Talk without action is cheap; commit and add some gold to your words.
Take a cue from Hubert Humphrey and become a happy warrior. Two of the most dour men known to me are conservatives. Both have money, status, fine educations, and loving families, yet one of these men laughs as if laughter were an act of pain while the other one has literally never smiled in mv presence. Becoming a happy warrior is tough on conservatives. We’re the ones who usually have to keep order when the teacher leaves the room; who must constantly dash water over optimistic, grinning fools; who find our blood pressure rising over the insanity portrayed on television or the latest robbery by the federal government. When confronted by clown pastors or cocktail liberals, we usually feel the corners of our mouths tugging downward. But if we want to win friends, influence people, and keep our sanity and enthusiasm intact, we need to lift up both our hearts and the corners of our mouths.
Do these recommendations sound trite? Of course they do. But many other phrases—”God is love,” “Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” and “Don’t talk with your mouth full”—also sound trite, yet they are true. Do these recommendations sound simplistic? Try putting just two or three of them into action, and you will find them less simple than they seem.
Let me close with a best-case scenario of how change may be effected. I know a doctor in the Midwest who purchased a flag to fly from the front porch of his suburban home. His eight-year-old son and some friends from school were playing nearby, and Eric called them over to say the Pledge of Allegiance while he raised the flag. He was astounded to find that none of the boys knew the pledge. He was further astounded to find that they never said it in school. He contacted the teacher and offered to teach the class the Pledge of Allegiance. He brought a small flag, hung it in front of the classroom, and taught the Pledge of Allegiance. They enjoyed the presentation so much that the school asked him to do an assembly program. Following the assembly, Eric found flags for each classroom. Now, every class in the school begins the day with the Pledge.
Two things should be clear from this example. First, well-prepared and enthusiastic espousal of our causes will make a difference in this world—a difference which we ourselves may never see, but which will happen nonetheless. By spending a little time, a little effort, and perhaps a little money, we can make a big difference in the world. And second: O.J. was guilty. You can take that one to the bank.