The socialist at the dinner table
How to survive a holiday gathering when your daughter invites Karl Marx to the party
For a long time, I thought the biggest — and most troubling — difference between my eldest daughter and me was how we feel about horses.
I’ve been obsessed with them since childhood. She asked, “Do I have to?” when offered riding lessons. But we worked it out — meaning she doesn’t ride and never will and I’m over it. A mother’s love overcomes most everything, especially if it saves her some money.
Lately there’s an even more distressing divide between us: My daughter, now 27, doesn’t like capitalism. These days, she prefers socialism. This is a shocking development in my parenting career.
She came home at the start of the pandemic, toting, among her other possessions, “The Marx-Engels Reader.” For Christmas last year, she gave everyone in the family a copy of “The Communist Manifesto” — ordered from Amazon with unintentional irony. Everyone was excited but me, and they would have all cracked them open and started reading right there under the Christmas tree had I not distracted them by presenting everyone with holiday gnome socks.
I have no idea what became of the other three copies once the gifts were organized and put away. My manifesto sits now on the bookshelf, smirking at me. Even unread, I feel like it’s winning. Although it’s anathema to me, I can’t get rid of it any more than I can get rid of my children’s kindergarten artwork.
Recently, another daughter, a freshman in college, came home and said, “No one likes capitalism anymore.” She says this in a house paid for by capitalism, filled with things bought by a capitalist. Between you and me, it hurts. But I go ahead and open up the conversation.
“Under capitalism, it’s every man for himself,” she says when I try to engage her. “Capitalism dehumanizes everyone because money is more important than human beings. It legit comes down to human greed.”
I point out gently that her transactions with her favorite restaurant down the street — a sushi spot run by a local family — represent capitalism in its simplest form: voluntary exchanges between individuals that improve the lives of each party. For this she has an answer that is a one-size-fits-all rebuke to every argument in favor of capitalism: “Jeff Bezos.” Kid’s got a point.
To be fair, my mother and I haven’t agreed on nearly anything since I turned 16. We belong to different political parties and different religious denominations, and she prefers Estée Lauder while I like Clinique. Still, we never once had a disagreement about whether the underpinnings of the nation’s economic system were moral and sound. Unlike my children, I have not once uttered the phrase “Eat the rich.”
There is much to be admired about the zeal of youth, and the determination of every generation to overthrow the assorted idiocies of their parents and improve their own lot. The baby boomers have been there and done that. In fact, the baby boomers practically invented teenage rebellion with their shocking rock ’n’ roll music, long hair and hot pants. They, too, were rebels with causes: civil rights, Vietnam and free speech. Moreover, the anti-capitalist impulse is nothing new, and it’s just as likely to be inspired by Henry David Thoreau as by Karl Marx.
Thoreau was the age of my oldest daughter when he first went to Walden Pond to live in a 10-by-15-foot hut. He, too, decried the hamster wheel of the capitalist workweek, believing that people should order their lives so that they work one day each week and take six off.
His first foray into transcendentalism began with him moving into the spacious house of a friend (Ralph Waldo Emerson) and ended with him moving back in with his mom and dad, who’d been chugging along on the capitalist train, making the finest pencils in New England while their boy was thinking deep thoughts in the woods. (The pencil trade would eventually provide Thoreau with the funds to self-publish his first book.)
Truth is, most of us eventually turn out alarmingly like our parents, which is why the Progressive Insurance “Dr. Rick” advertising campaign is so funny. In the commercial, Dr. Rick coaches young people on how not to do things their parents do — like texting with one finger or planning to leave a football game in the third quarter. “Do we really need a sign that tells us to ‘Live, laugh, and love’?” he asks, taking a wall sign from a young woman and putting it in the trash.
The company’s chief marketing officer, Jeff Charney, told The Washington Post that he built the campaign around a psychological concept called “introjection,” which is the human tendency to adopt the ideas and values of people around us. Psychologists used to believe that kids started becoming more like their parents when they have children, but now they think it starts when they buy their first house. Which is something my kids have yet to do because of, you know, Jeff Bezos.
While I wait, I may not be able to talk my children out of socialism, but I know how to make a deal. I’ll tell my daughters that I will read every word of “The Communist Manifesto” — twice — if they will read Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom.”
If all else fails, I’ll take them shopping.