The cocktail party philosophy
The Cocktail Party is not a movement but an anti-movement, a philosophical call for people to remember that politics need not stand at the center of our lives the way it so often does today. Of course we wish in part to needle the Tea Party for its inflated sense of itself and its obsession with political issues. We also wish to drink excellent cocktails. But the core of our anti-mission runs deeper. We exist to recognize and celebrate a less instrumentalized existence, a break from the world’s constant pressure to turn every occasion into an opportunity for achievement, improvement or growth. We share an appreciation for the great beauty the world has to offer and which we so often miss.
What does cocktail drinking symbolize for us? It symbolizes the place of leisure in human life. In a world where humans have become the slaves of electronic devices, where we are too often working toward some future goal, the cocktail party asks us to pay attention to the here and now, to engage in the ritual of shaking a martini, of choosing a nice cocktail napkin, and sitting down with someone else at the end of a day. It is easy not to make room for leisure, to pack our lives so full of activities that all we can do in the evening is fix dinner and fall into bed. But this is uncivilized. Civilized men and women are conversationalists, and conversation presupposes both leisure and something interesting to say.
In evoking the cocktail we recover what for many of us is a memory from youth. Parents, grandparents and other adult friends would sit down together every evening right around the time dinner (in our view) should have been served. During that time all the tensions of the day evaporated. The adults engaged with each other, talking lightly about whatever presented itself for discussion, while the kids ran around eating bowl after bowl of peanuts and asking for the cherries and olives from the drinks. Sometimes cocktail hour stretched into several hours, which of course we thought was too long. We were thus never fond of cocktail hour, but then again it taught us some virtues such as patience and, more importantly, an understanding that life is not exhausted by the tensions and disagreements of the day, that civilized conversation rejuvenates and reunites.
Cocktail drinking, in addition, symbolizes a certain kind of mature restraint. Of course, it presupposes that one has learned how to drink in a civilized way; the game is off if people cannot hold their liquor or if they refuse to drink at all. But to drink as an adult, slowly, finds a certain political parallel in slow and mature deliberation. To refuse a refresher when you have had enough finds its equivalent in the political refusal to go for the jugular. In fact, the interruption to our flow of words that occurs necessarily when we sip a cocktail finds its parallel in those rare interruptions of debate, when one party actually listens to the other. Listening, according to the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, is the task that is incumbent on any participant in a conversation, and hearing is the achievement. People these days, especially in politics, seldom listen and almost never hear.
And here is the third inspiration for the cocktail party: recognition of the limits of politics. It is not that the Cocktail Party thinks there is no place for politics, or that political issues are not important. But the political realm should not dominate human life in the way it increasingly does in the modern world. What we see is a marked fragmentation of people along political lines and interest groups; so liberals associate only with liberals; Catholics with Catholics; conservatives with their particular brand of conservatives. And this is exacerbated by all the forms of new media we enjoy today; the unlimited choice that lies before us when we use our computers encourages us to go only to places we find naturally congenial. We find websites and blogs that encourage us in our established prejudices.
But this yields an increasing polarization in politics, especially among the educated elite class. And so the educated elites of differing views don’t associate with each other much anymore. It is easy to see why this is so; we are often more comfortable with people who are like us. But it is also an isolated existence that fails to enjoy the full diversity of the world. Everyone needs to step back and have a drink—together.
To associate with others of differing views, though, requires that we not be dogmatic, strident and certain: it is to cultivate a willingness to be refuted as well as to enter into the views of others who differ from us; it is to not insist that one is always right; and perhaps above all to have a sense of humor about oneself. In all this, cocktails tend to help.
In many ways we are inspired by those political philosophers who most understood the limits of politics. Michael Oakeshott, for instance, recognized that the rejuvenation of a society comes not from those engaged in politics but from artists, poets and philosophers – people whose distance from ‘the world’ is not merely accidental but essential to their work: the ‘emotional and intellectual integrity and insight for which they stand is something foreign to the political world’. Politics requires not just immersion in the practical world, as one would expect, but even spiritual callousness, an inability to see the subtleties of various positions, and an unwillingness to re-examine one’s own positions once they have been formed. A ‘limitation of view’, Oakeshott writes, ‘which appears so clear and practical, but which amounts to little more than a mental fog, is inseparable from political activity’.
Human experience is rich, diverse and poetic; and the only way we have to enter into this is to appreciate art, poetry, learning and conversation. The essence of being human is to converse with others. Modern politics has put itself at odds with this. Conversation is replaced by debate. Recognition is replaced by hate. A recovery is needed, and our prescription is a cocktail. Cheers.