Can We Talk?

Posted January 7, 2010

Categories: Articles

Law became sexy in the mid-1980s. I still find this a bewildering transformation in American society. At the time, I thought that there could be nothing quite so boring as a court case or a legal brief. But then the TV show L.A. Law debuted in 1986, and lawyers never looked so good. The following year, Scott Turow published Presumed Innocent, and several years after that John Grisham brought out his second novel, The Firm. U.S. publishing was never the same.

Since then, law has thoroughly permeated our popular culture. But I wonder whether it has also taken over the way we think. I’m not talking about the how litigious we are in the United States. I’m talking about how we talk.

In the courtroom, the truth is arrived at in an adversarial manner. There are two sides. They present their cases. They examine and cross-examine. They challenge and dispute and argue. And then the judge or the jury decides which side wins. The prosecutor and the defense don’t help each other. They don’t try to arrive at the truth together. They are matter and anti-matter — and if the two sides were to somehow touch, the legal system would explode. There are other models present — the consensus of the jury, the more congenial atmosphere of alternative dispute resolution. But the essential confrontation between two frequently irreconcilable versions of the truth has had a powerful influence over the way we interact.

The controversy du jour is whether an Islamic cultural center should be built a couple blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center in New York City. One side says that such a building would desecrate the memory of those who died on 9/11. The other side says that freedom of religion is a core value in this country. For me, the issue is a no-brainer. The center promotes inter-religious and intercultural dialogue, which is precisely what we need more of to prevent future attacks. As Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) rightly points out, “I appreciate the depth of emotions at play, but respectfully suggest that the presence of a mosque is only inappropriate near ground zero if we unfairly associate Muslim Americans with the atrocities of the foreign al-Qaida terrorists who attacked our nation.” The opponents of the center — with their “Islam is the enemy” posters — are as fundamentalist in their outlook as the jihadists they oppose.

Can I persuade the other side of my views? Can they convince me? We are as far apart as prosecution and defense.

“What’s the likelihood of changing anyone’s opinion, especially a couple of strangers?” David Sedaris asks in a recent New Yorker piece. “If my own little mind is nailed shut, why wouldn’t theirs be?” Why stop at strangers? Really, what’s the likelihood of changing the opinions of our friends or our families? In America, we put politics into the same category as religion and sex: conversation stoppers. Because we’re not in the habit of conversing reasonably on these topics, they burst out of us in uncontrolled spasms, as repressed urges do in our dreams and nightmares.

In an intriguing serendipity, the Sedaris article appears a few pages away from George Packer’s in-depth article on the deterioration of our country’s premier talking shop: the Senate. Democrats and Republicans no longer talk to one another, professionally or casually. The same Jeff Merkley was shocked to discover the lack of debate across party lines. “The amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited,” he says. Perhaps the Senate has simply become more honest, since Washington has always been more about power than ideas.

Our two-party system — and the red state/blue state divisions that it engendered — looks more and more like a divided courtroom. There are only two political positions; third parties have no place in the system. Bipartisanship, moreover, has become an endangered species. I don’t want to romanticize any golden age of bipartisanship. We had a bipartisan consensus on invading Iraq, supporting Israel right or wrong, and many other misguided foreign policies. I don’t want a stifling consensus to replace a sterile confrontation. I want to see informed discussion on how we can deal with the obvious problems the country faces: the economic crisis, the disastrous wars, the impending energy-environmental apocalypse. Instead, we have flame and counter-flame about the mosque at ground zero that is neither a mosque nor at ground zero.

In his novel The Dean’s December, Saul Bellow writes: “[Alexis de] Tocqueville was dead right when he said that Americans (democrats everywhere) had no aptitude for conversation, they lectured. Bombast, clichés, chewed-up newsprint, naturally made the other party tune out.” In the court room, the two sides know that at least they have an audience. But in all the invective that we unleash on ourselves — and I am part of this incessant outpouring of opinion — we are either preaching to the choir or reaching deaf ears. Unlike de Tocqueville, I believe that democracy depends on political conversations. We get lots of talk — on talk radio, on TV, in the halls of Congress, at our dining room tables — but not a lot of the authentic back-and-forth.

In the 1960s, the slogan was “tune in, turn on, drop out.” Nearly a half-century later, in the angrier times in which we live, we’re more likely to embrace the slogan “tune out, turn off, drop dead.”

The Things We Leave Behind

U.S. combat troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by the end of this month, and President Obama will mark the occasion with a speech next week. There will be no “mission accomplished” mistakes on the part of this president. Iraq, after all, is a mess.

“Iraq has between 25 and 50 percent unemployment, a dysfunctional parliament, rampant disease, an epidemic of mental illness, and sprawling slums,” writes FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo in What You Will Not Hear about Iraq. “The killing of innocent people has become part of daily life. What a havoc the United States has wreaked in Iraq.”

The havoc the United States wreaked on Vietnam continues to this day. The U.S. military exposed 3 million Vietnamese to Agent Orange defoliant, and 150,000 of the children of these victims have suffered birth defects. “Since 2007, Congress has earmarked $3 million annually for Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange,” writes FPIF contributor Hannah Gurman in Beating Swords into Ploughshares. “This is, in the words of Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), ‘a pittance.’ The Ford Foundation has developed a $300 million dollar clean-up plan underwritten mainly by the U.S. government. But, to nobody’s surprise, the check has yet to arrive.”

Nor has the war really ended for Cambodians. The trials of the Khmer Rouge have recently produced a 35-year sentence handed down for the head of S-21, a notorious torture and extermination center. “This landmark decision came only days after the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh celebrated the 60th anniversary of the restoration of U.S.-Cambodian relations,” writes FPIF contributor Tom Fawthrop in Wrestling with the Khmer Rouge Legacy. “U.S. officials made no mention of their critical role in helping Pol Pot’s forces come to power.”

What’s Up with North Korea?

Jimmy Carter, according to the latest political rumors, will be heading off to North Korea to try to win release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who illegally crossed the border into the country and received an eight-year prison sentence for his efforts. Carter visited Pyongyang in 1994 and averted a major crisis that might have escalated very quickly into war. Perhaps Carter, who will no doubt speak publically only about a very narrow mandate, can quietly stake out room for compromise.

After all, it’s not as if the current situation — U.S. ratcheting up sanctions, North Korea holding on to its nukes — is helping anyone. “Contrary to U.S. assurances that the North Korean people will not suffer, U.S. and international sanctions have already taken a toll on the development of the country and the people,” write FPIF columnist Christine Ahn and FPIF contributor Haeyoung Kim in Sixty Years of Failed Sanctions. Sanctions have already impeded foreign investment into North Korea and adversely affected business and humanitarian aid efforts of those who venture there. Perhaps most alarming to U.S. policymakers is how sanctions have served to push North Korea further under China’s influence.”

Also, check out Ahn’s blog post on the flaws of South Korea’s latest reunification plan.

A Report and Two Books

A recent report from a disgruntled UN official retiring from the top job at the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services has recently made headlines. Inga-Britt Ahlenius’s “rambling, chiding, and scolding diatribe directed at Ban Ki Moon,” writes FPIF senior analyst Ian Williams, “immediately joined Foreign Policy’s neo-con lament that Ban had failed to live up to John Bolton’s expectations and a frustrated UN-job-seeking Norwegian diplomat’s bilious critique of the UN secretary general.” Read more of this critique of the critique in Waste at the UN?

Finally, in the first of two book reviews up this week, FPIF contributor Andrew Feldman praises Tom Engelhardt’s new book The American Way of War. “People in the United States are blind, perhaps intentionally, to the empire their country has assembled,” Feldman writes in his review. Such a reminder of its true nature and cost, both to people in the United States and to those affected by it around the world, is invaluable.”

FPIF contributor Anna Kalinina, meanwhile, looks at a new book on the tribal areas of Pakistan. “The material presented in The Most Dangerous Place is of critical importance, for it educates readers about a region vital to U.S. and global interests,” she writes in her review. “Through this book, Imtiaz Gul reveals the conditions that have allowed radical ideology to take root in these tribal areas as a result of sociopolitical neglect and relative geographic isolation.”

FPIF, August 24, 2010

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