History

ArtSunday: "The Thirteen American Arguments"

The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country
by Howard Fineman
Random House, 320 pp.

Americans love to argue. In fact, we would not be Americans if we didn’t.

So says journalist Howard Fineman in his new book, The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates that Define and Inspire Our Country. Arguing, Fineman says, is what we do and who we are. “We are the arguing country, born in and born to debate,” he writes. “We are an endless argument.”

The Thirteen American ArgumentsFineman is Newsweek’s senior Washington correspondent and columnist, and he’s a news analyst for NBC and MSNBC. By his own description, he has covered every presidential campaign and major candidate since 1983.

In The Thirteen American Arguments, Fineman taps into his decades of experience to find perspective on the American experiment. He looks not at petty partisan bickering and political posturing but rather at the larger, fundamental questions Americans have wrestled over since the country’s founding.

“To understand our nature, and to sustain it, we need to appreciate the lucky mix of accident and intention that made us who we are,” he writes. “We have been debating our very identity from the first days of our existence. Was this to be a Christian New Jerusalem, a Dutch speculation, or an English shire?” Those competing views in many ways still jockey for dominance, he says, but the most important thing is the tug-of-war balance that has resulted.

In that same way, America has defined itself through thirteen ongoing arguments that, in various combinations, pit the State, Church, Tribe, Market, and Academy against one another—with individuals caught in the middle. The tug-of-war balance that results from the arguments themselves “define, inspire, and ultimately unite us by bestowing legitimacy on hard-fought deals,” Fineman says. “Arguing keep us moving fitfully forward.”

Fineman arranges his arguments into what he calls “concentric circles” that ripple out from the individual to the world itself and, finally, to the abstract ideal.

For instance, who is a person, who is an American, and what responsibilities do Americans have toward each other? What can Americans be told to believe in matters of faith?

As a country, how do we define money and manage debt? How do we balance centralized versus decentralized government? What is the relative strength of the president “in a federal scheme dedicated to find the midpoint between monarch and mob?”

What is our place in the world and what is out relationship with other countries? What role do trade, diplomacy, and war play in those relationships?

Does the environment belong to the current generation to use and exploit or is the environment something we hold in trust for future generations?

And what does it mean to have—and what do we have to do to achieve—that “more perfect Union” our Founding Fathers envisioned?

Don’t expect to find the arguments articulated in a civics book. As packaged neatly here in a convenient and catchy list of thirteen, they are Fineman’s creations, but the debates themselves are certainly as old and as vital as Fineman suggests.

Fineman explores each question from historical as well as modern perspectives, taking great care to first ground each question by drawing on contemporary events. As he explores “Who is a person,” for instance, he starts on the steps of the Illinois state capital as Barack Obama launched his presidential bid. Fineman draws parallels between Obama and Lincoln, “the Great Emancipator,” and from there examines a number of facets to the question of personhood.

He looks at the old debate over slavery (were slaves people or property), the current debate over abortion (when does a fetus qualify for “personhood”) and the not-too-distant questions that will arise in the future over genetic experimentation.

If Fineman had his way, Americans would argue more. “Rather than argue too much, which is the conventional wisdom’s critique, we in fact do not argue enough about the fundamentals,” he says. The Thirteen American Arguments, he hopes, is one more way to encourage continued dialogue—a dialogue in which everyone has a role.

“If arguing is our saving grace, everyone must feel they have a voice and a chance to be heard,” he writes. “Do they?”

And the argument goes on.

3 replies »

  1. An exceptional review. I wish the daily press would provide some of this as context behind current political controversies. Or is the 14th argument really “which candidate can out-snark the others”?

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  3. Benjamin Franklin started the Junto, a group where ideas of the day were examined, defined, debated, and improved upon. Civility reigned at the Junto meetings, despite the vigorous debate. It’s wishful thinking to believe that we could ever return to that height of civilization.

    Jeff