Friday, August 25, 2006

Virtue And Merit

A friend sent me the link to an interesting, educational, and non-judgemental treatise on the historic nature of the two main political parties in the United States, and how their traditional tendencies continue on today. Noah, at Gideon's Blog, looks at what he calls the "big picture identity" of the Republican and Democratic parties, and breaks down their basic belief systems into sets of three defining words:

Here are the two Iron Triangles of terms that define America's two major parties:


Nation === Liberty === Virtue


People === Equality === Merit

He proceeds from there to examine how each of those terms apply to the parties in question, historically as well as currently, focusing on the positive meanings behind the words, what the best intentions are of the parties in question. That's what I enjoyed most about the article, the way Noah focused on the positive, examining the root of the beliefs, not human weaknesses in carrying them out. He's got his own party affiliation, but doesn't argue that his is the "good" party, or that the qualities he attributes to it are superior to those of the other party. He simply acknowledges that he has an affinity for one set of values more than the other. It's quite refreshing, really. He doesn't examine the question of identity to gain victory over "the other side," or to gloat at the others' flaws, but because he believes such an examination will strengthen our society and help us grapple with the meaning of our nation as a whole:

I should stress that these identities are not absolute or exclusive. The things that each party stands for are good things; there is no party of light nor a party of darkness (nor, some might say, a party of life and a party of death). The differences between the parties are one way of framing an argument about the meaning of America, an argument that will never be concluded because both sides have a point, but that needs to be continued *as an argument* if our civilization is to remain vital. To the end of continuing the argument "for the sake of heaven" it is not a waste of time to investigate what, in the deepest sense, the parties stand for.

This is the kind of discourse we need more of in America--a look at the many sides of "us," rather than a drawing of battle lines, "us versus them." You may or may not agree with Noah's take on things, but we shouldn't fear to have the conversation. We need to stop looking at those who disagree with us politically as "evil," and engage in civil discourse for the sake of understanding one another, finding the good we can agree on, and trying to find the compromise between the various good intentions that may lead us to different conclusions and actions. The societies which squelch such discourse become the tyrannical regimes which smash satellite dishes and imprison bloggers for dissent. Have a look; it's worth your time.

I'm going to head off on a rabbit trail, here. You may or may not want to go there with me. I'm going to look at a classic example of the way we choose sides in America, where each side makes the other evil in our own minds--evil in intent, not just effect. Abortion is a dreadfully emotional topic. More than any other, I think this issue puts both sides into battle mode, and those who disagree with us are often perceived as the enemy. One side sees the other as wanting to control the lives of women, by making them bear an undue burden that will ruin their prospects for the future. They do not believe that an embryo is a baby, and do not believe that the potential for a baby should count as highly in a difficult situation as a living, breathing, suffering woman. They also often believe it is in the best interest of the child-that-could-have-been, since the baby could have been born into difficult circumstances that no child should face as life begins. The other side believes that an embryo is as fully human as the mother, and sees abortion as murder, the killing of innocent life, making one person suffer for the choices of another. They also believe that the mother will suffer just as much for having killed her child as she would for bearing the child and raising it, or letting someone else raise it.

I once heard abortion described as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I agree with that statement, and as my husband and I were never able to have children of our own, I, too, have an emotional reaction to abortion. However, I do not see the people who believe differently from me on this issue as evil. The fact these other people disagree with me does not negate the fact that they see themselves as doing right. I believe they are wrong, but that is not the same thing as being evil. I also believe that we share the same ultimate goal. We both want what is best for the mother, and on some level, the child. If we can stop pointing the finger long enough to address that common ground, we might be able to at least aid potential mothers more in their struggle, sharing in the provision of alternatives, and possibly eliminate such obvious (to all but the most militant abortion advocates) evils as partial birth abortion.

I bring this up, not because I want to debate abortion, but because I think it is a strong example of where the discourse in America breaks down. The parties have chosen their sides, and now it's all about pointing fingers. Neither side can see that the other has a root of compassion to their perspective. I realise that this is not universal; not everyone sees those who disagree with them on this issue as evil, but that is how it often plays out politically, and frequently personally, as well. Some of the people on both sides seem incapable of recognizing any good in the other. We need to remember the good. We need to see it, and let it make the people we disagree with politically human again. Making the other side the evil enemy is what terrorists do to justify their heinous crimes. It's what enables people to bomb school buses and nursing homes, and abortion clinics. We mustn't allow ourselves to become that. We need to keep talking, and listening, to each other. Our identity depends on it.