Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Intellectual Blood Sport

When I was a boy, my father used to lecture me. They were pull-up-a-chair-and-get-comfortable-this-is-going-to last-for-a-while events. He would repeat himself over and over, as if I were deaf or insensible (which, a short time into the ordeal, I usually was), or as if by sheer repetition I could be made to see the wisdom of his point of view. I don't think I ever did--see the wisdom of his views--which is my loss, to some extent. He died when he was fifty, and I twenty eight, and still, decades later, not many days go by when I don't wish I could revisit some of those debates. I don't know whether I want to say "I understand better now, Dad" or "You understand better now, don't you Dad?" Probably both. It's likely we would pick up right where we left off.

In fairness to Dad, his lectures, the real stem-winders, were usually saved for my teenage-boy transgressions, not politics. He was a brilliant doctor and a libertarian. When he died, he hadn't managed to pay a good amount of back taxes. I don't think he thought he government was really entitled to them. Those were the ninety-percent-marginal-tax-rate days, and at those rates, he was probably right. But whatever your father's politics, most boys have to go the other way. At least ones like me. It's all part of breaking free.

I went to law school at Vanderbilt and we kept up our debates until he died, not long after I graduated. He told me once (the nicest compliment he ever paid me) that he wanted to go to law school so he could better argue with me. He may have admired my sophistry, but I don't think I ever convinced him of anything. Except maybe that it was fun to spar around about big issues.

Flash forward. I'm at dinner recently with my father. A kind of second-coming of him, anyway. Same boyishness. Same charm. Same good humor and parrying wit. Same bedrock conservatism. This friend and I have been going round and round for a few dinner parties on the usual political flash points. He's socially liberal, like Dad was, so it's mainly fiscal issues and the proper role of government that we wrestle over, just like Dad and I. And like Dad, this friend is polite enough that from time to time I actually think I'm bringing him around. The dinner table is no place for a fight and the wine lubricates the discussion, but then I send him an email link to a column by Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman or some other redistributionist and my friend bares his teeth. Oh, dear! He does have big teeth.

He thanked me recently for not giving up on him, which was a charming way to ask why the hell I am so stubborn. Good question. Why indeed? I told him I learned persistence from my father. My father's political views don't live on in me, but his ability to cling to them doggedly, to rationalize them, to see the facts that support them and not the ones that don't, to say the same thing over and over, certain that the cretin to whom I am speaking will eventually have an intellectual epiphany, does.

Talking to my friend is enough like talking to Dad that I love it. Occasionally hate it. Love it. It's sport. And not. When I was a boy, when my father was alive, the issues we discussed were still abstractions to me. Now that I see the consequences, in human terms, of the choices we make as a society, it's getting harder to to enjoy the sport. I feel an increasing need to slay my gladiatorial opponent. The trouble is, he's as fit and well armored as I. What does that mean? Am I doomed to ceaseless combat, or should I exit the coliseum and just let everyone else get hopelessly bloody in what seems to be a never-ending conflict, our country's version of a religious war?


  1. Very nice Mac. But don't be so sure Dad's beliefs were beyond conversion. Dad died at age fifty one. You yourself were very close to that age before the pull of liberalism. Who knows, he may have eventually come around. Fortunately, I've already been there, but had to bow out when I saw how many of today's liberals were really just leftists in disguise.

    1. You're the only one who knows, David. That's why I love you, but may have to kill you. :)

  2. Mac - This is a wonderful essay. My dad is 91 years old and lives in the neighborhood. We have breakfast together on Saturdays at Ann's in Menlo Park. At this point, every conversation, every shared moment, is full of meaning and bonds built over a lifetime. Your essay reminds me how fortunate I am in this life. - MikeG

  3. It is so hard to become a parent especially a dad. There are things that our parents cannot do for their children.
    Daddy Knows Too