What would you have said?

When we are in Galveston, we stay in an apartment on the twentieth-floor; living below us are two people, husband and wife, who left Russia in 1980 and, after 17 years of hard work, built a successful engineering company.  Now in fact about two years ago one of our cats leapt off our balcony and onto theirs.  This caused great consternation on our floor, as we hunted and hunted for him, and great puzzlement on theirs, as they tried to figure out why a hitherto unknown cat was hiding in one of their bathrooms.

The story is jolly enough that I think every time I’ve seen him, we’ve discussed the great cat adventure.  It is wearing very thin.  So knowing I would see him and his wife at a dinner, I was determined to discuss something else.  And the obvious topic was Russia.  In response to my queries,  he was talking about how desperate they were to leave, and how they never wanted to go back.  But, he said, “what I never thought I’d see is that this country is becoming more and more like Russia was.”

So, after some thought, I’ve come to see that there were two very different ways I could have taken this remark.  In fact, either of the responses below would have fit conversationally, but they make very different suppositions about political beliefs.  And obviously, there are lots of substitutes for the two that retain their political position, if not the same content.

1.  I know just what you mean.  When I saw those nearly skin headed police marching around in Boston last week and dragging people off, I could have felt the scene was in Eastern Europe in the 1970″s.

2.  I know just what you mean.  Obama has read his Karl Marx and has learned the main lesson well:  turn the poor against the rich.  With that message, he can stay in power a long, long time.

The group of people at dinner are connected to the lovely women who acceded to a friend’s request and so do not swear around her for fear of lowering her spirits.   This is Texas, darlin’!

  So you would have said (1)?  Would anyone have foreseen (2) is what he had in mind?  He shared (2) with me just before he got up and walked away.  O dear.

6 thoughts on “What would you have said?

  1. Maybe you should have used a choice arsenal of obscene words in all the languages you know in the presence of the nice woman whom you play dominos with.

    That way you would not have gotten invited to eat dinner with people with whom you wonder whether you can speak your mind.

    If you continue being so polite and diplomatic, they are probably going to invite you to more and more dreadful social reunions where you have to wonder whether you can admit that you watch foreign films.

    I inevitably say something weird or I keep totally silent.

    My tendency to say something weird is so marked that when I accompanied my son, then about 12, to a parent-teacher social gathering he ordered me to say nothing to anyone except “hello,” “how are you?” and “good-bye”. I followed his instructions.

    I’m not autistic or without social abilities. I just have very little patience.

  2. The two responses aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be concerned about the police state and the negative consequences of class warfare.

  3. I wouldn’t necessarily have said either thing, though I might have asked him to share more about his thoughts.

    Nor would I have prefaced anything with “I know exactly what you mean”, since even if I had correctly anticipated what he was getting at, I wouldn’t want to 
    imply that I have the same insights into this as someone who actually lived under Soviet rule.
    I definitely wouldn’t have said #1, since any suggestion that police abuses in the United States, such as they may be, are remotely comparable to those under Soviet rule could well be insulting to anyone who actually had some up-close familiarity with the latter.  I recall ex-Soviet dissidents taking an extremely dim view of comparisons between Guantanamo Bay and the Gulag a few years back.

    Not because of any political sympathy, but simply because I’ve heard/read similar sentiments expressed by ex-Soviets in the West (we’ve seen this from former Soviets in Europe for a while), I would have guessed that he was alluding to an expansion of central government power, and a corresponding diminution of individual liberty, in various areas of human endeavour.
    For anyone who’s interested, there is a fascinating interview available on YouTube that covers some related ground (somewhat long, and in multiple parts, but worth the effort) with former Soviet dissident Yuri Yarim-Agaev.  Part 5 of 5, which I link below, is probably the most relevant part for this discussion.  However, Part 3 of 5, on the principles (human rights and others) that informed the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, is another highlight.

  4. In general, I think starting any response with “I know exactly what you mean”, especially when you’re not sure you do, is a very bad idea – particularly but not only when talking to someone who has had very different life experiences than you have. (I realize this is just a generalization of part of Nemo’s point, but it strikes me as really important from the point of view of feminist epistemology and political theory.)

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