In 1938—of all years, the year of Munich—the English novelist E. M. Forster wrote: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” In 2024, the choice is often between betraying my politics and retaining a friendship.

That’s not exactly it. I mean that the choice may be between: 1) offending my friend’s politics (which, in line with twenty-first-century practice, are apt to be uncompromising, unforgiving, and alert to doctrinal deviations); and 2) saying something shamingly noncommittal. I often choose Option Two.

I’m talking about old friends, whom I have known since the Reagan or even the Carter administration. If they were real friends, of course, they might respect my right to have an opinion—but that’s not the way things work these days. With such friends, I use what I call the Foreign Editor’s Evasion, named for a scene in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop. In Waugh’s scene, Lord Copper, the idiot publishing magnate, asks his underling, the craven foreign editor of the Beast: “What’s the capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?” The foreign editor replies: “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

I take this approach not only because the friendship is dear to me but also because I find that most political discussion in this misbegotten election year has become useless. Undecided voters will determine the outcome, even if they stay home; it’s still worthwhile to talk politics with them. Forget other voters. They are either Sunni or Shi’ite. Their views are as fixed as sharia—and divinely ordained.

I have lost several friends—one a feral heartland Trumpist and two more who were equally ferocious stalwarts of the Martha’s Vineyard Woke. I became estranged from all three because of conversations—pleasantly enough begun—in which my attitude toward their man (Biden or Trump) and hence, by rapid extrapolation, my cultural and political ideas, came under suspicion midway through the meal.

Suddenly, I beheld an animal vigilance in my friend’s gaze, like that of a browsing deer that abruptly raises its head. The startled buck is on alert. He eyes me with an angry suspicion, like that of a wife who has found a cache of love letters hidden in her husband’s underwear drawer: What’s this?!

And so, thinking fast, like a guilty husband, I have learned to improvise (these techniques work well, whether your friend’s politics are Woke or Trumpy). The most effective approach is Nullification by Zen. When your friend says something provocatively partisan (about abortion, say, or Trump-as-Hitler), you gaze abstractedly into the middle distance, and then, as if waking from a dream, say, “I was trying to remember something that Herbert Hoover said . . . something about ‘fear itself.’ ” Your friend will look at you in amazement and reply, “Good Lord, you mean Franklin Roosevelt . . . First inaugural address, in March 1933 . . . Herbert Hoover, indeed!” His tiny triumph, and his incredulity at your error, make him forget the earlier moment. Now the conversation is off in a different zone entirely, and your friend feels even a little friendlier toward you, having exposed your stupidity.

Zen is always the best policy. The most hilarious case of such evasion that I have witnessed involved Teddy Kennedy during the 1991 Anita Hill hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Clarence Thomas, up for confirmation as Supreme Court justice, stood accused, by Hill, of forms of sexual harassment infinitely milder than ones of which Kennedy was assumed to be guilty. (If you are talking sexual harassment, who could beat Chappaquiddick?) The Massachusetts senator got through the hearings with a magnificent display of Zen, in which he managed to look as though he were hovering thousands of feet above the Himalayas. That is the tactic that the wise friend will adopt in conversations with friends between now and November 5.

Unfortunately, whichever way the election goes, the friendship v. politics problem is only going to get worse starting on November 6.

Photo: Westend61 via Getty Images


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