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For Thanksgiving -- Pass the civility

It's bound to happen at Thanksgiving tables across America: A progressive liberal Democrat discovers he's sitting next to a conservative Republican.

There's no need for mashed potatoes to fly.

Harry Stein, an author, columnist and contributing editor to the political magazine City Journal, offers advice on how to navigate the situation.

Stein, an erstwhile '60's radical who evolved into a conservative, faced a similar dilemma at a dinner party a few years ago.

When the guest next to him discovered his conservative/libertarian thinking, the fellow said loudly, "I can't believe I'm sitting next to a Republican!"

"It was," says Stein, "as if I was wearing not only a white hood, but a Nazi armband."

So accustomed had Stein become to such broadsides -- common experiences for conservatives living in progressive bastions -- he wrote a humorous book on the subject: "I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican: A Survival Guide for Conservatives Marooned Among the Angry, Smug, and Terminally Self-Righteous."

So what to do when bipolar political philosophies are seated next to each other at the Thanksgiving table?

Make a concerted effort to get beyond "straw man" stereotypes.

"In theory, liberalism is predicated on openness to varied perspectives, but talk to lots of liberals and what you'll hear is that all conservatives are greedy, hardhearted knuckle draggers," says Stein. "To them, 'conservative' is another way of saying 'warmongering,' 'racist,' 'homophobic,' not to mention 'aching to wipe out every last polar bear for the sake of Big Oil.'"

Who wouldn't loathe a fellow with beliefs like that?

The truth is conservatives, just as liberals, come in all shapes and sizes; many are as nuanced, complex and thoughtful as anybody else.

The truth is progressives and conservatives agree with each other more than they are aware.

"Discovering the common ground can only occur when discussions proceed in a logical and factual manner," says Stein. "If you want to argue a point and demonstrate the truthfulness of your position, be sure to have your facts straight."

Stein gave one example pertaining to the health-care debate.

"Some progressives believe that conservatives are simply dupes of the insurance industry stampeded by phony propaganda, and, yes, that we are racists," he says. "The fact is, it's a lot easier to name-call than deal with our arguments, starting with the likelihood that not only will a government takeover of health care have devastating effects on the economy, but it will not be good for health care."

Another example: Some progressives believe that conservatives could not care less about the poor.

"What we believe is that conservative polices, such as tax incentives to hire, are a great deal more beneficial to the poor than the polices that came out of the Great Society," says Stein. "Such policies encouraged women to raise children without fathers. Today, in some communities, 70 percent of children are born to single mothers."

Stein used to think it best to avoid such discussions at the Thanksgiving table, but his position has changed over the years.

"We are facing a lot of challenges in our country and we really need to discuss them in a civil and thoughtful manner."

Still, if you're a conservative and fearful of being discovered, Stein says, you may want to plan ahead.

"You might want to sit beside a large liberal behind whom you can duck in case the mashed potatoes fly."

Tom Purcell, a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail him at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.