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Howard Fineman’s The Thirteen American Arguments

Review by Ken ReynoldsTurned Pages
Do Americans have an innate national need to argue? Howard Fineman, author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country, says we do. Fineman contends the founder’s design of our government left it to be refined and improved through an endless series of arguments. He believes voicing our differences sustains our national identity and makes us an ever-renewing nation.

Whether the national design was deliberate, or an inevitable result of the need to meld thirteen separate and disparate governments into one nation, he leaves for academics to debate. Fineman bases his premise on more than thirty years of observing, reporting and commenting on national politics. He says there are issues that, under our form of government, will not be resolved.

Fineman says arguing essential to our survival. The United States of America is unique in that our government was founded on ideas. Since the beginning our nation has been a magnet for people who want to express their ideas and/or improve their economic status. We continue to be the world’s “best chance to live in the space created by the equipoise among the brute forces that forever vie for dominion over mankind in society.”

If the State, the Church, the Market, the Tribe or the Academy (Science) achieves untrammeled control, slavery is the inevitable result. Our essential national desire and freedom to argue is what maintains a balance between those five forces and protects us from “the fate of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Dickens’s London, the Mob’s Sicily, or Huxley’s Brave New World.”

The first continuing issue Fineman presents is: Who is a person? We are the first nation to be created by the people and our “first question: Who is entitled to be regarded as a full-fledged human being within the meaning of our law?” Each time we come to an agreement the issues rise in a new variation — and will continue to rise as the world changes.

Establishment of the personhood of slaves came only after a long and bloody argument. When John Adams was working towards the country’s independence his wife Abigail warned him, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Women did not win the right to vote until almost 150 years later. Although we have not moved completely beyond the traditions and customs that denied personhood to adult human beings, we are engaged in legal and moral arguments about when life (and personhood) begins. “Advances in science and genetics are raising an equally profound question: Who controls, and who should control, the genetic destiny of mankind?”

Today we are vociferously debating the question “Who is an American?” The inscription on the Statue of Liberty does not invite all the tired and poor to make their way to America. Economic history provides abundant evidence that we have encouraged immigration, and our social history is replete with our resistance to immigrants. Some “states and the federal government have barred or severely limited, by name or by implication, by statute or treaty: free blacks, Roman Catholics, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Italians, and Slavs.”

The aftermath of 9/11 caused us once again to raise barriers. All the barriers “could not be called hysteria. After all, none of the nineteen hijackers was American-born, or an American citizen.” Fifteen years before 9/11, an odd couple alliance of conservative Republicans and Democratic union bosses worked to stop the tide of immigrants. For the first time, it became a crime to be here without permission. Illegal immigration became a misdemeanor in 1986, but for the preceding 350 years the only punishment was immediate deportation — and it was rarely enforced.

Fineman delineates eleven more essential debates: the Role of Faith; What Can We Know and Say; the Limits of Individualism; Who Judges the Law; Debt and the Dollar; Local vs. National Authority; Presidential Power; the Terms of Trade; War and Diplomacy; The Environment; A Fair, “More Perfect Union”.

Each chapter begins with a contemporary example of the argument then fills in the historical evolution of the issues. His examples are lengthy, but Fineman has been covering national politics for over thirty years and he has experiences and knowledge that deserve the attention of any reader who takes the role of informed voter to heart. Fineman is a journalist — not a scholar — and his lively historical sections will not overburden readers who purport to have little interest in history.

There is reassurance in this book. Our nation is faced with enormous problems from external sources and increasingly heated internal differences. Fineman makes clear that we are not strangers to the issues. There is much to be learned from what we have argued about in our past, as well as from how we argued and how we cooled the arguments enough to move forward.

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