Monday, September 27, 2010

Compromising Positions

--In one of Maureen Dowd's latest columns, she talks about her sister-in-law, who voted for Obama but has turned against him because he "compromises too much," which makes him appear "weak."

--In the play, Lemon Sky, a father wants to buy his son a car. But he wants to pick the color. He wants to get the son a red car. The son wants a blue car. They go back and forth. Finally, in exasperation, the son says, "Compromise: purple."

--In Steve Earle's musical manifesto of rebellion, "The Other Kind," he screams with bravado, "There are those who break and bend/ I'm the other kind." Bruce Springsteen urges "no retreat, baby, no surrender."

Weakness? Foolishness? Cowardice? Is this really what compromise is? In our American psyche, we have developed a notion that compromise is bad. "I won't back down," Tom Petty tells us, and it becomes a slogan for the post-9/11 world. Folks with a bit of history like to point to the political compromises, like the Compromise of 1850, when the country was grappling with the spread of slavery as proof that compromising pleases no one and leads to greater trouble.

On the other hand, those of us who live in the every day world of small work problems, basic conflict avoidance, and the trivialities that can bring down a marriage or ruin a family night live and die by the compromise. And, let's be honest, live much more than die. Many of us probably pride ourselves on the ability to navigate the ship through rough waters towards an amicable solution. It may not be Montego Bay, but it is usually a place where the ship is safe, the provisions are dry, and the passengers benefit from making it to land.

So where's the disconnect? Why do literary lights like Henry David Thoreau and Holden Caufield hold absolute loyalty to principles in such high regard while the rest of us cave or throw in the towel on a regular basis in order to get through the day?

Sure, life is too short to drink cheap beer or bad wine, I get that, but is it really a big deal if you end up eating a mediocre hamburger because you and your friend finally agreed on a joint that both of you were okay with? Isn't the time with the friend more important?

The temptation is to suggest that the divide occurs between weighty national issues and personal relations. We're supposed to give in as needed to get through the day, but our politicians, if they have any backbone at all, are supposed to stand up for their stated values and ward off hypocrisy in all shapes and forms as it tries to undermine their resolve.


I am well aware that the history of the world is littered with poor compromises, but that is a reflection on those particular negotiations, not on the act of compromising.

Take the health care bill now taking effect. A flawed bill, perhaps, and certainly a problematic one, given the Republican-fueled public wrath that has risen up against it. And, probably even a flawed bit of compromise, given the devils that we had to get in bed with to get the damn thing passed. But you know what? I firmly believe that there was either going to be a flawed bill passed or no bill passed. Much as the naysayers gripe about the bill, in the 18 years since Hilary Clinton last spearheaded a health care effort, it isn't like the conservatives have offered they're own. So, I say, hey, we passed it, and now if you want to tweak it, be my guest.

The inner (false?) bravado that tells any of us that we can't support something unless it is exactly the way that we envision it is destroying our country, just as it almost did 150 years ago. I don't care what the issue is--abortion, gay marriage, what movie we should go see--there are ways to find common ground. And, if you wish you had seen the other movie, go see it. Don't bitch about how we should have gone to that one in the first place. After all, even the divisive issue of slavery ended up in compromise, however forced: "You can have a lot of states' rights, just not that one."

I think the songs and the idealists have got it wrong. Whether we compromise or don't compromise cannot be a hard and fast rule in itself. Indeed, we must even compromise at times our willingness or unwillingness to do so. The only thing that can really guide us is an awareness of what we're giving up and whether it's worth it.

In these latter days of America where I continue to fear for a strong, vibrant future, our ability as citizens not to get sucked into the black and white politico-religious whirlwind of hard and steadfast beliefs, especially those that we are not quite up to speed on, will probably be the major factor in determining whether we progress forward or continue to attempt to undo what has been done by those whom we disagree with.

As for me, I won't back down, unless I have to, or want to. Or my wife tells me to.

1 comment:

Sara C said...

I, too, see this issue as one of the greatest problems of our day. I preach about it in class (my students call these events tirades) and hope they will start to see the damage our political newscasts and debates are doing to the actual experience of true debate, negotiation, and compromise. Rather than some mashup of opinions that will satisfy no one, we need to hear more of these words in our public discourse: You're Right. Good Point. I Hadn't Thought of it That Way. Let Me Think About That Some More. Interesting Idea. That Could Work.

Then, we might start to understand what compromise actually is.