Oskar Schlemmer, Dinner Party, 1935. Public domain.

I think most people like to walk away from a dinner party saying, “What a lovely evening.” I do. But I don’t feel compelled to do that. I know it’s not always possible. Also, I prefer people who don’t necessarily regard the warm glow of candlelight or the sound of a thirty-seven-dollar bottle of listán negro being poured into a glass as an automatic call for politeness, regardless of what is being said, or happening in the world. It’s commendable to walk into a dinner party assuming you’ll have a nice time but wise to prepare yourself for the wrong-thinking of your fellow guests.

There are people who never become openly enraged at dinner parties but I am probably not interested in knowing them. I love telling people stories about me getting upset at dinner parties. Here is one: I was at a small dinner party recently where my companions started talking about what they perceived as the huge problem of anti-Semitism on college campuses. While I do not doubt anti-Semitism exists on college campuses, I would not classify resisting and protesting Israel’s seventy-five-year occupation of Palestine, near twenty-year blockade of Gaza, and killing of tens of thousands of people as anti-Semitism. 

All I could manage in this situation was a dismissive snort. I was asked to explain my snort, but I knew that if I did I would be beaten to death with facts from one newspaper, which I also read and with whose arguments I have become numbly familiar, so I just snorted again, left the table, and went to bed. Now, the hosts of this dinner party were my own parents. I got lucky in this instance. Most dinner-party invitations do not include a bed and an en suite bathroom. Whatever you are willing to say you must also be willing to stew in.

I have a friend who is a film critic who was at a dinner party several years ago when another guest proclaimed, “If Walt Whitman were alive today, he would definitely be writing for television.” No one has ever said to me that if so-and-so dead writer were alive today they would definitely be writing for television. But my friend, because of his job, has similar observations made to him “about every eighteen months.” So he was prepared with a response: “That’s a ridiculous thing to say. You don’t know what you’re talking about. What makes you think that Walt Whitman would ever write for television?”   

The person had no answer. 

I asked him if this was awkward and he said, “Yeah, it was awkward. But I mean, there’s nothing we know about Walt Whitman that would lead us to believe he would write for television if he were alive today. This type of comment began with Shakespeare, which I don’t really buy, but at least makes some sense because he’s a playwright, but then it’s spread to just any great author of the past. The only purpose of a remark like this is to elevate the medium of television writing.” 

Another friend of mine, who is not a mother, tagged along to a dinner party with a close friend of hers who is. Motherhood was in fact what bound all the women at this gathering; it was explicitly a mothers’ group. Perhaps my friend, destined from birth to a life of making sharp observations about children and mothers, should not have been there in the first place. But she had only a short visit with her friend, and she went, promising to be cheerful.

It came to pass that one of the mothers present began to make observations about her children’s birth order and artistic and intellectual talent relative to each other, observations she had gotten from Instagram and had presented to her own children, and now to the dinner party, as science. My friend is not a scientist, but she did attend high school. And though she is not a mother, she had been a child, and a sibling, who was while growing up forced to hear her own parents speak openly about which sibling was better at what. Her adrenaline kicked in, she could no longer protect herself from unsolicited input on what she was good or not good at and what her brother was good and not good at, but she felt she had to protect this total stranger’s children.

Now I, also not a mother, and someone who considers the act of throwing down at a dinner party a virtuous one, would be goddamned before I told a mother surrounded by other mothers anything about mothering unless I felt that a child was at risk. These kids seemed mostly at risk of having a mother who took advice from Instagram. I didn’t envy them, but they didn’t seem to be in immediate danger.

My friend was not similarly deterred. She led with her firm belief that what the woman was saying was not true and more importantly, should not be shared with her children. This did not go well. The woman told my friend that she had learned to trust her intuition, that being a mother had taught her that. My friend said that albeit not from being a mother she had learned not only to follow her intuition but also to believe in reality and not to work out your own anxieties on children. 

There is nothing anyone remembers from this event other than my friend shouting down this woman. When I asked her what drove her, she said, “I had ambivalent feelings about speaking up. On the one hand, I felt it was the right thing to do. On the other hand, I felt ashamed. What if I was being cruel? What if I was only being self-righteous? As long as I kept going, that shame was kept at bay. But mostly I can’t stand people who talk about Instagram at parties.”

As I was writing this piece, dinner parties were in the news and going viral. In early April, the student Malak Afaneh stood up, microphone in hand, at a celebratory dinner for Berkeley Law students, and made a speech about the genocide in Palestine. The host, the Berkeley law professor Catherine Fisk, tried to wrestle the microphone out of her hands. Afaneh and some fellow protesters left under threat of trespassing charges. A few weeks later, the author Qian Julie Wang wrote a Twitter thread, retweeted over two thousand times, about her husband hosting Passover for his largely Zionist family, and how he marked the occasion by reading from a Haggadah statements like “Ethnic cleansing is being performed in our name” and “Israel has held the keys to Gaza’s water supply since 1967.” He added “unprepared remarks about today’s discovery of 300 bodies in mass graves,” and kept reading even as some guests walked out. I am pleased to see the dinner party as an occasion to intensify dissent rather than merely react to it.

As of now, the world still generally favors those who stay silent, who shut up and eat. Pass me the listán negro, let me drink to a better world, one where the righteous fight at dinner parties and everywhere else, with ever-increasing imagination and force.

 Sarah Miller is a writer who lives in California. She writes a Substack.

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