The Thirteen American Arguments

November 25, 2009

If Howard Fineman ever decides to give up his job as senior Washington correspondent and columnist for Newsweek magazine, and his work as an NBC and MSNBC news analyst, he can easily become a college professor. Reading his book, The Thirteen American Arguments, is like taking a really good political science course.

He begins by defining the word “argument” as he will use it throughout the book, and calls an argument a “clash” between two entities (people, political parties, regions, etc.) that happens “over facts and ideas.” America, as he tells it, is a land of ideas.

“We are an endless argument,” Mr. Fineman states. And, when you think about it, he is so right. Pick the first piece of American history that comes to mind. Let’s say, the Vietnam War. What do you immediately think of? You think of the argument. Should we have been in Vietnam? Should we have gotten out?

The book’s introduction includes a brief history of America, focusing on our country as a place where certain ideas vie for dominance. But, according to Mr. Fineman, the struggle is not just about which idea “wins,” but about what the idea represents in terms of the American identity. We argue, in other words, about who we are as a country.

I need only think about what happened on November 3, 2009 to know that Mr. Fineman’s thesis is true. New Jersey and Virginia decided to elect Republican governors, reflecting their desire for a different identity in their states.

As the health care reform debate goes on and on, we see another American argument unfolding before us. Actually, the health care issue involves two of Mr. Fineman’s thirteen arguments: “The Limits of Individualism” and “Local vs. National Authority.”

In the book, each argument is given a chapter, and each chapter is filled with examples from both past and recent political debates, showing Mr. Fineman’s great knowledge of history, as well as his ability to connect that history to a dissection of the argument at hand.

For example, in the first chapter, “Who Is a Person?”, Mr. Fineman takes the reader through the permutations of that question. Initially, in America, a person was a land-owning male. A slave became two-thirds of a person. A woman became a person (someone who could vote) in 1920. One of the debates ongoing now is whether a fetus is a person.

The Thirteen American Arguments is subtitled “Enduring Debates that Define and Inspire Our Country.” Now more than ever before, this book is necessary. It gives you a sense of the continuity of our habit of disagreeing, and makes you realize that, as Mr. Fineman writes, “Our disputes are not a burden, but a blessing,” as long as we argue with the goal of improving our country.


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