Daniel Menaker

For the Sake of Argument

Monday, October 25, 2010

I once was the editor for the late Pauline Kael, a film critic (“reviewer” is more like it, though her idolaters would probably object) for The New Yorker, and she once told me that if she and a friend disagreed more than three times about important movies in a given year, she found it hard to continue the friendship.  Movies are a particularly contentious subject because their impact is so visceral. So if you say you don’t like a movie I like, it’s not only an intellectual disagreement–it’s an emotional conflict. This is far truer of movies than of any other art form, I think–certainly than of books or visual art–because the effect of movies on our feelings is so immediate. (And if you say something like “I disagree with you, but we’re all entitled to our opinion,” it may even worsen the matter, because the person you’re talking to may take it as a dismissal.)

Still, any argument can cause a rift in a relationship. Religion, politics, art, the behavior of others, child raising–just about anything discussable is also arguable. If you value the friendship and generally like the character and values of the person you’re arguing with, and vice-versa, no argument should threaten that connection.  If the conversation is beginning to turn bitter, both parties should remind themselves of their underlying friendship. If you’re in greater command of yourself than your friend is, there are several ways to defuse this kind of situation. Find some aspect of the issue involved that you can agree on (“Well at least we can agree that Obama can play basketball”).  Make a  self-deprecating joke (“Well, no matter what, I sure wish I could play basketball as well as Obama does”). Take some aspect of the argument at hand and turn the conversation in another direction (“You know, you mentioned Obama playing basketball–what  do you make of LeBron’s traitorous decision to go to Miami?” Well, leave out the “traitorous”–that’s my own irascibility creeping in).  I’ve found that once a bitter argument is lightened or slightly diverted, it’s far easier to return to the central question involved with much less rancor later on.

Finally, if being “right” matters too much to us–enough to interfere with friendship, marriage, social life–then we have forgotten that in 99.99% of arguments, being right or wrong is not going to change anything.  Serenity, one of the benefits of age (if we’re lucky) will serve us well in almost every situation. Actually, forget the “almost.” Some contrarians and opinionated types are so entertaining that they can sustain connections with others.  Most will alienate everyone around them.  Either they will try to get some help or face a life of social isolation.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In private life, corporate life, social life, it is sometimes impossible, sometimes just very difficult to tell the complete truth all the time.   Any important job in a company usually requires a certain amount of mendacity or at the very least misrepresentation. “We have taken it into consideration” can be an equivocal way of saying “We read your letter and threw it away.”  Once, as a publisher, I offered $100,000 for each of two books, but evidently I said it such a way that the agent, on the phone, responded, “Well, if you mean $100,000 for both books, it’s a little low.” I said, “That’s what I meant, and that’s what I can do,” because I sensed the agent was about to accept that amount and I felt that my economic obligation to my company had to come before my obligation to be completely honest. “Well, all right,” the agent said. “Then it’s $50,000 for each book.” We made the deal. Did I do the “right” thing?

It’s also common in publishing to exaggerate. An agent once asked me if I wanted to publish the next in a distinguished anthology series. I asked how many the last edition had sold. He said, “Fifteen thousand copies.” I said, “Fifteen as in ten?” He said, “Fifteen as in 12,500.” I said “12,500 as in 11,000?” He said, “OK–it sold 11,450 copies, and that’s the truth.” We both laughed.

In everyday conversations, it’s not only possible but common to resort to equivocations. Oscar Wilde once said to an actress whose performance he had just seen and disliked, “My dear, ‘marvelous’ isn’t the word!”  Many people try to wiggle out of awkward questions and conversations by adopting legalistic answers. “Are you dating someone else?” “No,” because at that moment the responder isn’t dating someone else. A somewhat whiter lie: “I’m sorry–I can’t come to the party because I have another commitment,” we may say, the commitment being to oneself to watch “Jersey Shore” that night.

The question of “social” lies in conversation is a tricky one–to balance courtesy and self-interest against complete honesty. Is it a lie to say you like someone’s tie when he  has asked and when you don’t like it?  Is “stunning” or “amazing” a way out of this awkward situation?

Well, my answers to these questions are the same ones that have no doubt been given by a hundred other self-styled opinionators: It’s OK to dissemble when the dissembling can do no harm to another. It’s not OK to do it when another person can be hurt or begins to believe you’re someone you’re not. If you need to look at it from a selfish point of view, the chances are that no one in the long run will be more damaged by your personal dishonesty than you yourself.

This is why certain business transactions can be so corrosive to character. So many of us have been in business or work situations when we must be essentially dishonest, or at least misrepresentational.

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Excuses, Excuses

Monday, October 11, 2010

This, by Jay Bookman, from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

Rich Iott is the Republican candidate to represent Ohio’s Ninth Congressional District, a seat now held by Democrat Marcy Kaptur. But as Josh Green of the Atlantic points out, Iott has had a rather unusual hobby for someone with ambitions of serving his country in Congress.

He likes to dress up in the uniform of the Waffen SS.

For several years, in fact, Iott was a member of a group calling itself the Wikings, created to honor those who fought in World War II in the 5th SS Panzer Division…. Iott explains his former hobby by likening it to Civil War re-enacters, noting that “you couldn’t do Civil War re-enacting if somebody didn’t play the role of the Confederates.  I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that here was a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things,” Iott told Green. “I mean, they took over most of Europe and Russia, and it really took the combined effort of the free world to defeat them. From a purely historical military point of view, that’s incredible.”

So is the excuse, seems to me. And, by the way, dressing up in a Confederate uniform carries its own reprehensible implications, even if the wearer doesn’t mean it to.  Maybe it’s just better in general not to put on a Nazi uniform or a Confederate one.

Excuses for a mistake or an insult or an oversight seem to me always to be feeble unless they are absolutely true. This is why the public apologies by public figures often fall into lameness when the excuses start. Better to leave an apology as an apology, and, especially, in private life, to avoid saying things like “I’m sorry I didn’t return your call, but don’t forget that you didn’t return my call last time.”   That “but” after “I’m sorry” tends to undermine the apology. And those two proverbial wrongs continue not to make that proverbial right.  On the other hand, when you really are two hours late because you were caught in horrendous traffic, then there’s no need to manufacture any further excuses.

It’s extremely difficult to own up to the kind of deep psychological flaw that might lead one to put on a Nazi uniform. I’ve never put one on, myself, but I have dressed up as the evil monk Rasputin. No, I haven’t. But  like most of us (I believe), I have made some very serious  mistakes in judgment and behavior. The way to stop making those kinds of mistakes is to admit them and apologize for them to others, but mainly to face them directly yourself and not make excuses to yourself.

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At the Podium

Saturday, October 02, 2010

My copying and pasting this link and sharing the video below ranks high in the annals of narcissism, I realize, but those hardy few who follow this site, and newcomers, may find it of some interest–may even find crumbs of entertainment. It’s a video of a talk I gave at the Clinton School of Public Service, in Little Rock, last Wednesday, September 29th, about “A Good Talk.” Maybe others will come away with something useful, but what I got from it is that girl’s glasses look silly on me and I slouch and I shouldn’t scratch my head publicly and I should keep my hands away from my face. And in fact it could be that watching it, or some of it (much more advisable, if you care about your time) may provide a kind of primer on what works and looks OK in public presentations and what doesn’t, like taking some water and visibly swiggling it around in your mouth.

The Clinton School and the Clinton Library are most impressive. Clinton was so impressed by the library at Trinity College in Dublin that he asked that his library follow its handsome pattern. It’s light and airy ands very “green,” though the lightness poses some problems for preserving paper artifacts.

After the speech, in the evening, I found myself in the bar of the hotel where I was staying, having a beer and talking with a hair stylist named Wanda and her boyfriend DeWayne. They were voluble and funny, but had very thick Southern accents, and I often had to ask them to repeat what they’d just said. But I did ask them. And the only “tip” you’ll find in this post is: Don’t make believe you’ve heard something that someone else has said you when you haven’t. It can lead to misunderstanding and bafflement and even resentment.

Oh–another “tip”: Have some slight distrust of anyone who says that he “found himself” in a bar, as if he hadn’t walked into the place on purpose.

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