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Quarrelsome Nation: The Thirteen American Arguments

By Heather Wilhelm


The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country
By Howard Fineman
Random House, April 2008 (320 pp)

Read a Q&A with Author Howard Fineman about his new book.


Silence, the old saying goes, is golden. In twenty-first century America, however, silence is a rare commodity--so much so that it makes many of us twitchy and uncomfortable. Modern Americans are literally surrounded by chatter: public argument, campaign spin, unrelenting soundtracks, piped-in media, and the ever-present blue glow of television and computer screens. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion, and a growing proportion are more than happy to share those opinions with friends, family, and, increasingly on the Internet, the world.

In his new book, "The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country," Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman maintains that this great American cacophony is all for the best. "We are an Arguing Country," he writes, "born in, and born to, debate. The habit of doing so--the urgent, almost neurotic need to do so--makes us unique and gives us our freedom, creativity, and strength." Rather than arguing too much, which is "the conventional wisdom's critique," he notes, "we in fact do not argue enough about the fundamentals." Our never-ending, evolving disputes shape the very essence of America, he points out, serving as a blessing rather than a burden.

"The Thirteen American Arguments" takes a sweeping look at the fundamental debates that, Fineman argues, have shaped America from its seventeenth-century colonial roots. Who, for instance, is a person? Who, for that matter, is an American? What is the role of faith in public life, or the role of the individual vis as vis an expansive, growing state? How, ultimately, can we make sure our system is equitable and "fair"?

Fineman's years as a high-level political reporter have armed him with a library of up-close-and-personal anecdotes that give the book its flavor, but the real meat of each chapter comes from the condensed--in some cases, one wishes they were less so--historical perspective offered on each debate. Whether it comes to the Supreme Court's many contradictory rulings on race or the long history of squelching free speech in America, each major argument serves as a useful reminder that many things held sacred as "quintessentially American" are actually modern evolutions, produced by years of painful debate.

The primary goal of the book, Fineman writes, is to "cut through the noise of the day," unveiling the core themes and arguments that simmer under our various public debates. "The earthquakes and lava eruptions we see and hear every day, whether at Daily Kos or the Drudge Report, whether on O'Reilly or NPR, are merely visible expression of deeper forces," he writes. However, if you know your political and historic turf, he argues, "you can separate what is useful from what is mere bombast and entertainment." In the midst of the rather bombastic and always entertaining 2008 presidential campaigns, where many debates devolve into "he said," "she said," and various denials, dissembling, and vituperation regarding what he or she said, this would be a useful skill indeed.

Several of Fineman's thirteen American arguments, including "Debt and the Dollar," "The Terms of Trade," and "War and Diplomacy," have, at least on the surface, been hashed and rehashed into near-oblivion this year. The deeper, more prevalent debate, however, dances around the last of Fineman's thirteen arguments: the quest for a "fair, 'more perfect' union," fueled by an effort to "dismantle the power of the elites who have rigged the system against the little guy." Sound familiar, campaign watchers? This particular American argument, Fineman writes, is held "between Main Street and Wall Street, grass roots and powers that be...The Argument lures us down byways of hatred, fear, and division, but mostly it has led to a fairer, more open America." Today, of course, this argument is best seen in Democratic class-warfare rhetoric. Whether it will continue to lead to a more open America, however, is certainly worth questioning--particularly if the argument centers on imaginary grievances or constructed identities rather than the real, more daunting problems at hand.

Fineman is a highly skilled writer, not to mention taxonomist--taking the great American debate and dividing it into thirteen neat, cohesive arguments is no easy task--but he occasionally fumbles. He punts on some issues (abortion), breezes over important elements of others (immigration), and occasionally falls into snippets of knee-jerk liberalism (subtle shots at Reagan and Rush Limbaugh; a few tired paragraphs about religious fundamentalism). His assertion that political labels are often "functionally meaningless," given that they shift over time, is a somewhat fair point, but to disregard them altogether clouds out some instructive differences in today's debate. "For every American who believes in the overall "fairness" of the system," Fineman writes, "there is another who thinks that he or she is being trampled by power beyond control, seen or unseen, or simply ignored." Based on this year's campaign speeches alone, these respective groups, it could be argued, are also known as "Republicans" and "Democrats."

Quibbles (or, I should say, arguments) aside, "The Thirteen American Arguments" is a thought-provoking, engaging study of the great American debate, and a highly worthwhile read. Fineman's most important point is one that can't be heard enough: "Argument is strength, not weakness...As long as we argue, there is hope, and as long as there is hope, we will argue." In America, our fundamental arguments stem from freedom, and as such, they should never be taken for granted--or, for that matter, squelched. The danger and unrest that rises from critical arguments in much of the Islamic world serves as just one sobering reminder of that fact.

With its historical analysis, "The Thirteen American Arguments" also serves as a useful antidote towards another wonderfully American trait: the tendency to dramatize. The current trend towards apocalyptic alarmism in certain sectors (Malthusian panic regarding the environment being the most notable) greatly needs a sense of perspective. The book offers that perspective, along with a reminder that, as Fineman puts it, "We have been here before." And odds are, he suggests, we will make it through again.

Some readers of "The Thirteen American Arguments" will find sections that they wish were longer, more developed or more fleshed out. Some will find elements within the thirteen arguments that they think are given short shrift. Yet others will disagree with the fundamental ingredients of a particular "American Argument" as laid out in the book. That, of course, is the point of Fineman's whole enterprise--not only to chronicle and diagram the debate, but, in the long run, to keep it going. As such, his book, packed full of potential disagreements, is a valuable contribution to that long, lasting, and noisy American tradition.

Copyright 2008, Real Clear Politics

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