Sunday, February 05, 2006

All Or Nothing

That fragment describes Americans. That's what we are: an all or nothing people. We choose extremes, only extremes, nothing in between will do. We will have something one way or not at all. I propose that we have not always been this way. That we, in fact, once allowed compromise and partial agreement to win the day. Some may not have liked the compromises, but they understood the fact that such things had to be. Now, however, we accept no compromises and thus none of us are content with the way things are. Perhaps a few examples would clarify the discussion.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 brought enormous disagreements to the forefront of American politics. Delegates from different regions wanted the new country to be shaped according to their own agendas. Thus, it was only through discussion, debate and eventual compromise that anything could be accomplished. One common example of this would be the issue of representation in the legislature. Large states wanted to be represented by delegates chosen according to population, while small states wanted each state to have one or two representatives. In the end they agreed upon a bicameral legislature that chose representatives in both of the desired means of choosing.

Another example, that is not often given much weight, would be that of slavery. Northern delegates to the Convention did not want slavery (I do think it was an unconscionable wrong, so don't bother me about slavery, okay) in the Constitution at all, period, nada. Some southernors like James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Washington and (yes, even) Thomas Jefferson agreed. However, many delegates felt slighted that they would not have representation for part of their population. These men would have refused to vote for a Constitution at all without some recognition of their region's way of life. In the end a way was found to mention slavery, give representation to that segment of the population and still not put the words "slaves" or "Negroes" into the document itself. There are three compromises on the issue of slavery within the Constitution. First, the Three Fifths clause allows each state to include "three fifths of all other Persons." (Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3). Many people assume that this clause means the founders believed an African American was three fifths of a person. It does not. It means they were acknowledging without acknowledging because they hoped that this part of the Constitution would become obselete before long. The second compromise on slavery can be found in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1. Here the Constitution states that the slave trade cannot be stopped until after 1808. This was simply to reassure southernors. Congress did outlaw the slave trade upon January 1, 1808. The third compromise on slavery is that of the Fugitive Slave Clause from Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3. This, as we probably all know, provided that a person could not escape "Service or Labour" in one state, by moving to another state that did not have the same laws. Many believe that these compromises show the framers' unwavering support for the institution of slavery (these many not being students of history). However, they show that the framers knew they had to compromise on a terrible injustice which existed in America. If not for those compromises our country would not be one country today. The founders chose between union or an end to slavery. Since many of them believed that slavery was utterly wrong, they assumed that people would grow wiser and would allow it to die out over the next 50 years or so. While this prediction turned out wrong, there was no way for them to know that. Thus, you can see that on a very serious matter the founders were willing to agree on some things so that much good could be done in one way and perhaps more good could be done further down the road. They took a small step by not including the word "slave" in the Constitution, in the hopes that a larger step could be taken without bloodshed. Furthermore, they built a country with the belief that they could make that country better as they went along. Rather than do things the "all or nothing" way, they chose to take important issues one at a time.

Major polarization over the issue of slavery led up to the Civil War. You could read entire books on the sectionalism that preceded the Civil War, so I will let you do that. Suffice it to say that things got ugly. In the meantime, the great compromisers died. One of the most well known of these great thinkers was Henry Clay. An eccentric southernor with much influence and eloquence, he presented the Compromise of 1850 which took a lot of debate to pass. Not long after that Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun died. The three of them were, to my mind, the last great thinkers and compromisers left in the United States Congress. Their death left no men of influence who had been alive long enough to have witnessed and fully understood the birth of our country and the principles set up at that time (not that Calhoun understood that stuff anyway). Then we had the Civil War and since that time compromise has been a thing of the past.

Today we are faced with many important issues upon which neither of the debate can we find a willingness for compromise. Two explosive domestic issues are abortion and homosexual marriage. One polarizing foreign policy issue is our response to terrorists and rogue nations who harbor terrorists. On each side of these issues we find people who want all or nothing. Preferably all. But we cannot have all. That is the way of it. We must either destroy one another and our own country or agree upon a compromise. No amount of agreeing to disagree will solve the problems at hand. Only a concerted effort to agree upon a midway point will have any effect. And yet we will not do that, because we no longer understand the art of compromise.

Perhaps some more concrete example would help you understand my meaning. Pro-lifers want no abortion whatsoever. They want Roe v. Wade overturned, although many of us never stop to realize that since states have changed their laws to allow for abortion now, overturning Roe would have little effect. On the other side, pro-choicers (or pro-abortionists) want a woman to have the full right to choose up until the day her child is coming through the birth canal. America actually has liberal abortion laws compared with most of Europe because we are unwilling to accept small changes in the laws. By we, I mean, especially pro-lifers. We try to push for the big change, the one that's going to be the magic wand to solve all of our problems. We do not recognize those who make small victories in our case because that's not what we want. But the fact is, small steps are the best way to change this. Small steps are the best way to show people that the unborn child's right to life is more important than anyone's right to choose. It sounds radical when phrased thus because my words do not express that small change nor the passage of time that gives the small change weight. First, make people understand that an unborn child is a human being. Then move on to change some minor laws, finally, watch the big laws become unpopular and die out. That is the way we should think about this issue. Killing one another over the issue will not solve the problem, it will only make us hate the other side more.

Next, consider the problem of homosexual marriage. It has come before the national spotlight and will not go away if we ignore it. On either side compromises could be made. What is wrong with civil unions? Homosexuals consider them to signify a sort of second class citizenship. On the other side, many against homosexual marriage revile civil unions. They see homosexual marriage as an affront to their beliefs and faith. You notice I have not given my opinion on this issue yet. That is because no one can understand compromise anymore, so if I state my full opinion, everyone will be insulted. It sucks, doesn't it? I'm going to lose no matter what I say, so I will just go for it. I believe that God intended marriage as something to exist between a man and a woman for many reasons. I believe that it makes the most sense biologically speaking because the procreation of the species is important. I also believe that civil unions would give homosexuals the legal benefit of marriage which is all the government can really do. Marriage itself is something beyond the laws made by man, thus it cannot be redefined or cheapened in God's eyes no matter what we do. The real issue is legal recognition, and that can be compromised on. Or at least, at one time it could be. There, I said it, shoot me.

Third and finally, I pointed out the issue of terrorism and our response to rogue nations. I have talked long enough, so I will not digress too deeply into this point. We seem to believe that we can either destroy all those who stand in our way or hide under tables waiting for them to bomb our cities. A greater emphasis on defense and collaboration with other nations facing this threat might be an excellent compromise here.
One side of the dialogue (for it is not a debate) wants to destroy all threats, the other side wants to allow the UN to do everything for us (these are just examples and may not represent all views on the matter). And each side wants everything to be their own way, but there are no two ways to do this. Not now, not ever.

In conclusion, I realize that I have said some shocking things in the eyes of both conservatives and liberals. I have expressed opinions that undoubtedly offend. Many will misunderstand my words. "How can she be a conservative?" you will ask. And I will answer in the immortal words of Daniel Webster, "Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" If the man who could say that could see his way to compromise then so can I.

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