Avenging aunt: When political bonds fracture families

A recent letter to Salon’s distinguished advice columnist Cary Tennis reads:

Like many extended families, ours has people who live and breathe Republican doctrine, and people who are liberal. Since the early Bush years, we have given each other a wide berth.

This week, someone sent out an e-mail talking about how Obama’s policies weren’t helping the economy and were probably killing it. Well, the floodgates on both sides opened. People felt personally attacked and were right to [feel that way]. …

What now? I do want the whole family to be able to be a family. … I don’t know how to walk it back, though. The rift that opened up. . . was shockingly deep and raw.

As demonstrated by writers from Homer to Shakespeare, families have been torn asunder by political differences for millennia. It’s only natural when you consider that, unlike social groupings, the family is not constructed of people of like minds who have gravitated towards each other.

At its worst in the United States, brothers fought against each other in the Civil War. More recently, family passions reached a peak during the sixties, when Baby Boomers rose up against both the Vietnam war and the presidents who waged it. Adding insult to injury, they slathered sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll on top of their political convictions.

In retrospect, TV character Archie Bunker might have seemed broadly drawn, but anyone who lived through that period knew people like him. As its popularity reflected, All in the Family was a surprisingly accurate representation of what family life was like for many then.

Today political alienation is no longer a matter of age, with children sometimes to the right of parents, especially with no draft to galvanize them. But you could make the case that it’s worse now because it can no longer be explained away by the generation gap. A decade ago, President Clinton’s extramarital dalliances provided those normally uninterested in politics with a chance to give full vent to the ferocity of their opinions in a political context.

Then, of course, during the Bush years, those who fall under the headings of liberal, Democrat, or progressive went on the offensive. Now, with Obama president, the right has brought its vitriol to full boil again. Meanwhile, those without proper outlets for their political views air them with family and friends. Feelings are bruised; rifts open.

How does Tennis recommend that families deal with their differences?

“Would you like something to eat?” is a nice beginning. “Can I come over and help you mow the lawn?” is another.

You also might ask your relatives questions such as these: . . . Are you worried about losing your job? . . . How do your own plans for retirement look? …

In other words, try to move from the conceptual to the concrete. Underneath “political” rhetoric are often real concerns. … These are things you can talk about regardless of political beliefs. …

Families. . . are made up of individuals. Those individuals may have opinions we consider misguided, but they also have lives that we care about. Concentrate on the lives, not the rhetoric..

That’s fine as far as it goes. But first let’s take a look at the content of the offending opinions. Try to recall your reaction the first time your otherwise warm and loving aunt said: “Abortion is murder. Doctors who perform them deserve what’s coming to them.” Or: “Muslims want to take over the world. We have to kill them before they kill us.”

We’re shocked at what’s really in a loved one’s heart. Does she have any idea how cruel she sounds — never mind liberals, Democrats, or progressives, but to most people in polite society?

What becomes of the relationship?

We can make excuses for our avenging aunt. After all, is she any less informed than most citizens? It’s just that we can’t understand how her generosity of spirit can give way, in a split second, to viciousness. Either ignorance is the breeding ground of evil or her warm, giving nature was just a façade.

In other words, we’re unable to draw solace from Cary Tennis’s words “but they also have lives that we care about.” Because, well, we don’t care any more. How can we “concentrate on the lives , not the rhetoric” when the life suddenly seems like a lie and the rhetoric the truth?

You may be one of those people who thinks it’s your responsibility to shine a light on the dark corners of their minds, but that’s a fool’s errand. For most, your future relationship will likely consist of exchanging small talk with your aunt or letting her bend your ear for a few moments about, say, the indignities of old age. If she goes off on a rant, you’ll nod politely and look for the first opportunity to excuse yourself.

Oh, did I mention the whole problem is compounded if, like most woman conservatives, she’s a cultural conservative, too? Never underestimate the enduring power of Britney Spears to serve as a lightning rod for everything that’s wrong with America.

Of course, if the family member with whom you have political differences is closer to you, like a parent or sibling, he or she can’t help but notice that you’re pulling away. That’s where it becomes sad. Not only she, but you, feel incapable of giving to her what you once might have because of the barrier between you that only you perceive.

There are many to whom politics is tangential (though nothing like a financial crisis to concentrate the mind). A relationship based on small talk is usually enough for them. But to those of us immersed in current events — anybody still use that term? — one’s political views are a window to the soul.

In the end, political differences between family members only reinforce a rueful truth: Family is just a random grouping of beings who, if fate hadn’t cast their lots together, would likely have never sought each other out.

17 replies »

  1. i too have one of those “just don’t discuss it/no politics for the holidays”families. The election of a BLACK man however has ripped open the north/south divide. Us yankees were shocked! we honestly thought we had moved on from there, and could be/and are democrats, republicans, and even libertarians, and still sit down together for the holidays. But our southern branch is so – there is no other word but – racist! One of my cousins danced on the head of a pin not to use the phrase “uppity nigra”. Yet other southern members of the family are fervent Obama supporters.
    go figure! Those of us who have discussed it privately, have concluded that invironment – ie: church
    and country club have more to do with it than how they were raised in the north. one cousin doing the
    family tree came across documents that one of our grandmother’s (and the most racist person i had
    ever known) grandfathers had owned slaves! When that news circulated, we were mortified! we
    always assumed we had always been too poor to own slaves! The shame! But it explained our grandmothers particular brand of rudeness. So now there are emails that are blocked, and second
    hand news of family members……so sad.

  2. Life is too short to make politics everything. I pray for the people who on the right and left that use politics as a litmus test for friendship. Most of my friends disagree with me politically, yet we still fish, surf, play squash, make music, and socialize. Politics is such a minor part of life, and should be relegated to the back burner. I’ll wager that the folks who I’ve had disagreements with on this site were to sit down with me foir a few beers, we’d probably have fun and become friends, Despite all of the spirited debate that goes on here, we’re still human and generally look for the good in people, because people are basically good. Since I’m moving up to new york city, I may have some new rules to learn, but for now, I accept people as they are, warts and all.


    Where is John Galt?

  3. I lost a ‘spouse’ because her entire family is republican scum, hateful jackasses with the intelligence quotients of common garden variety ‘toasters’ at best. They poisoned her mind so badly that it ultimately led to the end of our marriage. We couldn’t even chit chat without getting into a discussion about how the scum sucking republican filth were destroying the nation out from underneath us.

    though she was a kind and gentle person, her family is filth. and by association, they taint everything and everyone they touch, with their right wing hatred and illogical xenophobic “blame this on illegal immigrants and muslims” b.s. they spout incessantly.

    it’s sad they can’t be bred out of the gene pool. or sterilized so they can’t reproduce.

  4. Sorry to hear about that, Tired of Neocons. When your politics more or less align, it gives a marriage a nice base if your interests diverge otherwise. (My wife is actually more cynical than me about politicians.)

  5. Jeff’s right: we take it all far too seriously…and at the same time not seriously enough. That is, we boil complicated issues with enough shades of gray to be a half-tone scale into sets of simple, binary opposites. Our system was designed with disagreement in mind; the trouble is that we never use the disagreements to bring out the best in everyone and forge a consensus.

    Epithets instead of debate and focusing on the belief that political affiliation defines the totality of the person.

    We’re our own worst enemy.

  6. I’m not sure I understand the point of this post–are you saying that Tennis is wrong to suggest that the letter writer and others might be able to see past their political conflicts and still maintain good family relationships? Or are you just trying to point out that there are some cases when things get so bad that that’s just not possible? You say “first let’s take a look at the content of the offending opinions,” but you immediately invoke the straw woman of “avenging aunty,” whose murderous impulses bear no similarity to letter Tennis was responding to, which had to do with an argument about national economic policy. Maybe you have such an aunty, and I’m very sorry if you do, and can totally understand why you might need to cut her off if you did, but she’s hardly representative of all conservative family members–hell, even most dedicated opponents of abortion don’t advocate murdering doctors, and many political disagreements leave a lot of room for finding common ground, or at the very least for respecting the humanity of folks on the other side.

    Families are not “just random groupings of people”–they are people bound together by shared histories and experiences and intertwined relationships, and those things make them worth preserving if we can and painful to break (if not for us, for those mutual loved ones caught in the middle). Maybe *you* “just don’t care anymore” about whomever you’ve broken off ties with, but it makes no sense to say that “we” don’t. Because it’s pretty clear from the original article, and a lot of the comments here, that some of “us” do.

    Now I’m off to delete the mass emails from my mom’s cousin about how immigrants are destroying America, in order to hang on to the ones that are about how Aunt Mary’s surgery went and which of my second cousins just had a new baby.

  7. Tired of NeoCons,

    I’m sorry for your loss and for the attitude of your ex’s family but to label all republicans as scum and want them sterilized is both terrifyingly reactionary and very counterproductive. Many times on this site has the term repugnicans and less frequently demoncrats been used but both sides have extremists who earn those epitaphs. Personally I am a left wing republican who have some very left wing liberals as friends; djerride, Brian Angliss, Dr. Slammy to name a few. I doubt any of them would label me a repugnican but I guarantee we don’t always agree on politics but we do remain friends.

  8. Thanks for the careful reading of my piece, Pollyanna. My first impulse is to agree with you that my example of avenging aunt was extreme. But, in my experience, conservatives, aside perhaps from members of its brain trust, tend to be pretty cavalier about the lives of humans who not only threaten them but of those who don’t share their views.

    I simply can’t blind myself to what’s in the heart of a family member when I’m with he or she. Perhaps it’s partly because in some ways I’m a typical guy and lack the ability to be as rooted in family as many women are.

    FYI, this issue is a lot more personal to me than I’m letting on. Though those who’ve seen me return to it often might have guessed that. In other words, I’m very disappointed, to put it mildly, in certain members of my family and can’t get over it

    Again, thanks for your valuable comments.

  9. I still can’t imagine why politics would get in the way of personal relationships unless the person was in a fringe group like the KKK, Aryan Nation, Wobbles, or something like that. As committed of an objectivist as I am, my late wife was a card carrying communist for the first few years of our relationship. Her politics just didn’t matter, and I still stayed with her.


  10. Jeff, if she was a card-carrying communist, wasn’t she a threat to your way of life? Denying that would suggest that you didn’t take her convictions seriously. (Which I’m sure you did since you’ve shared with us your love and admiration for her.)

  11. Russ,

    She wasn’t an anarchist or anything like that, just a plain old garden variety communist, who studied in Moscow for a year. It’s not the communists that I fear, but the socialists. Although I loved her dearly, I knew, from her background, that she was going through a communist phase, much like my college age son was going through a liberal phase, until he decided that libertarianism was a more logical course of action(his words), I plan on introducing him to Ayn Rand, and letting him decide if objectivism is more of his forte. As far as my wife is concerned, I will admit that I was a bit condescending towards her philosophy.


  12. actually a ‘communist’ has redeeming qualities, just as long as they’re the ‘pure’, unadulterated commies that Marx wrote about. the only time a ‘communist’ gets to be something really bad, is when it adopts enough of the bad habits of greedy capitalists to the point where; “end justifies the means” thinking overrides the more socialistic; “we are all in this together, let’s share” aspects of being a real, true, verifiable ‘communist’, for sure. other than having a hammer and sicle tatooe’d on her forehead, did your now deceased wife ever recite the communist manifesto to you or insist on referring to everyone as comrade? what makes communists so bad, in 250 words or less?

  13. Remember the Pilgrims in Plymouth. They first had an idealized society where all would share the wealth. Remember, that didn’t work out too well with famine, etc until individuals were allowed to have some land to do what they pleased. Individual ownership provided bounty. Communism allows slackers to leech off the hard work of others, Communism obscures individual property rights. Communism attacks individuality , preferring the collective.

    Actually, my lovely wife went through all those stages(except the tattoo…which no self respecting southern belle in the 70’s would do), and more. I refer to them as stages as she was a college student, well off, who never had to work hard, or even have a job in her life at that time. In her case, everything was provided for her, so it was easy for her to have this ideology. Still, there was a spark in her eyes that attracted this uber Randian, pure Objectivist to her. I’m a better person for having known her.


  14. Russ, I really enjoyed my time with her and would do it all over again, even knowing the eventual outcome. That being said, about a month ago, I met a new friend. She lives in New York, so distance has been a problem. I’ve been making some trips up there and have even signed a lease on a place in Manhattan where I’ll spend only 40% of my time for tax reasons. My new friend is an accomplished writer, musician, best selling author, very brilliant, beautiful, and a nice person. There are possibilities….She’s definitely not a communist:)

    Someone should write a post on S&R about family dynamics of people who wish ill of their relations, and want them to be in a state of perpetual mourning and martyrdom. That’s what I’m facing right now.