Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A long drive up the middle

I recently picked up a book by Howard Fineman entitled The Thirteen American Arguments. The premise of the book is that Americans are born to argue, and that there are thirteen various topics that will never be fully resolved, but whose debate has defined and shaped our nation since it's founding. Some of the arguments are very public, such as the role of religion. Others are more subtle, but no less fundamental, such as "who is a person?" and "who is an American?". As Fineman writes, as long as we have a lively, respectful debate on the various issues, America will continue to be at the forefront of democracy, human rights, and social innovation.

While somewhat dated now (the book was published in 2008), it remains a unique look at our public discourse, and brings up a key factor in how we as a nation tend to survive. While Fineman refrains from taking a side in the debates that are had over these issues, his point of view is that the center is the beating heart of America, with the extremes being something like the forces of gravity that challenge us to keep our system running.

While I tend to be a more left-leaning person, and fall into the trap of finger-pointing and labeling of the conservative side, my rational thought is that we as a country of united individuals need to return to more classical forms of discussion and debate, at least to incorporate a sense of mutual respect, honor, and civility to the whole system. We hear nothing today that is not a slander, slam, or reproach of a political opponent. Our discourse has been reduced to name-calling, thinly-veiled prejudices, and over simplified political positions. Part of the problem is that we as Americans have learned to be complacent, to take what is given without using our brains to process. Instead, we leave the analysis to our media, to politicians that we trust, and forget that they are part of the same system.

The point of Fineman's book, and the point of this post, is that neither side has all the answers, and neither side can operate effectively without debate. Our country depends on our ability to compromise, to be able to take another point of view, and to come up with solutions that satisfy everyone. Unfortunately, the center is not holding as more and more political influence is being felt from the extremes on both sides. There is no real debate on the issue of abortion rights, the roll of government in religious institutions, or the rights of women. Instead, lines are drawn in the sand, and the two sides battle over who is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. There is no compromise, because both sides have become convinced that they are the only ones with a workable solution. But the world does not work this way, and we have to embrace the art of compromise and diplomacy if we want our nation to come back from the brink of social idealism.

The only solution we have is to compromise. If we fail, and allow one extremist view to dictate the direction of our nation, there is no going back. We will have effectively shifted our frame of reference in a given direction, and there will be no going back from that. As much as I dislike the views of many conservatives, I remind myself that they are essential to the balance of power and opinion in America. I only hope that others will come to see this, and will stop the all-or-nothing policies that have been wreaking havoc in Washington.

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