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The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring…

The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire…

by Howard Fineman

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Fineman, a journalist and political commentator, believes that the things we argue about as a society, and our First Amendment right to do so, are what make our country resilient. In looking at the major areas of disagreement which have motivated opponents and political movements throughout American history, he encourages us to see such patterns as essential to our future and as a source for hope, even when the arguments swing to one extreme or another, which they have done many times in the last 500 years.

Very interesting and, indeed, reassuring, especially as I make my way through the US Presidents Challenge. ( )
  auntmarge64 | Dec 26, 2009 |
In a few weeks most of us will enter the privacy of a voting booth and cast a vote that simultaneously reveals our hopes and expresses our concerns about the direction those who want to lead us will chart for the next four years. The issues that dominate the campaign --- the war in Iraq, the crisis in the mortgage lending business, global climate change --- weren’t the subject of cocktail party conversation (or, for that matter, serious debate) even a decade ago. But as journalist and television commentator Howard Fineman describes in his informative new book, each of these issues is merely the latest iteration of some aspect of an enduring American “argument” that’s likely to continue long after the final ballot has been counted.

In this, his first book, Fineman sets for himself the task of sketching out a “comprehensible and nonpartisan overview of our public life and how it works.” For his intellectual scaffold he’s identified thirteen “American Arguments;” what he defines as “a clash between at least two people (or regions, political parties, candidates, or economic interests) over facts and ideas in the search for answers…to questions about the future and fate of America.” And although the facts underlying each argument take a different form each time they arise (the definition of a “person” in the debate over slavery in the nineteenth century or abortion today, to cite but one example) these passionate and enduring arguments have shaped the history of this country from its founding to the present.

In each chapter, Fineman focuses on one argument, from the role of faith in public life, to the power of the judicial branch, to the circumstances under which our leaders will make the decision to go to war. Blending historical analysis and contemporary journalism, and supported by extensive research and interviews with more than 60 prominent Americans, he offers an intelligent and lively summary of the clashing views on each issue.

Walk into any bookstore today and you’ll see the front tables stacked high with polemics from ideologues of the right (Ann Coulter) and left (Michael Moore). It seems most people pick up these books solely to reinforce their prejudices. Fineman plays it pretty much down the middle, although more conservative readers can be forgiven if they detect an ever so slight leftward tilt, especially when it comes to discussing the growth of executive power under the Bush Administration or the conservative leaning of the Supreme Court illustrated in decisions like Bush v. Gore. Still, someone seeking an objective presentation of decidedly hot button issues like freedom of speech or the conflict between economic growth and environmental preservation would be hard pressed to find a more objective place to start.

Apart from length and cost of our presidential campaigns, what’s most troubling is that in the end they somehow devolve into contests in which we’re asked to make judgments about the candidates’ “character,” by choosing between images carefully burnished by skilled public relations professionals. In sketching the boundaries of the debates that have raged over more than two centuries, Fineman reminds us that our country will be shaped less by shallow and highly subjective choices based on the perceived personas of the candidates (“Which candidate would you prefer to have a beer with?” one of the most pathetic) than by their approach to these persisting clashes. “Our best presidents are those who embrace and embody the contradictions and paradoxes of our country,” he writes. “Fate and fortitude allow them to see and even feel both (all) sides of the Thirteen American Arguments. The gift enables them to assemble pieces of enduring ideas and traditions in new ways to meet new challenges.”

By offering this book on the eve of a critical national election, Fineman reveals his essentially optimistic take on our current predicament, even as we face issues like Social Security and Medicare seemingly so intractable as to defy solution: “We need to calm down, get engaged, and look for leadership. We have been here before: the seeming gridlock; the sudden, uncharacteristic loss of faith in the future; the sense that we cannot produce leaders capable of dealing with real problems.” In the end, he observes, “History is hope, the evidence shows.” So do yourself and your country a favor between now and November 4: turn off the television for a couple of evenings, power down the computer and pick up Fineman’s book. If you do, you’ll be a more informed citizen, a wiser voter, and a better American. ( )
2 vote HarvReviewer | Feb 22, 2009 |
This book makes we want to go to law school! It is organized and written in such a way to all the reader to understand the issues, but does not talk down to the reader. The ideas presented are often alluded to in our daily lives, but this is a joy to have the opportunity to consider the history of the concept, who was a protagonist and who was against, and how over the years, the country's reactions to these philosophies, theories, and policies has shaped who we are as a people. If we'd had more reading and discussion like this in our history classes, we would be a more informed nation today. ( )
1 vote tututhefirst | Nov 1, 2008 |
This book is essential reading at a time when conflicts between racial, ethinic, regional, religious, political, and every other kind of group seem to be more shrill and out of control than ever before. Fineman believes that arguing -- debate -- is the key reason why our country has progressed so far and so well over the last 400 years. He sees it as the glue that holds us together, not the divisive force it so often seems. And he defines thirteen fundamental topics where the arguments have been going on for our entire history, areas that have historically and continue today to define us as a people and a nation and challenge our democracy. I found his analysis eye-opening and optimistic, and it give me more hope for the future than I've felt in a long time. ( )
  Librarian0511 | Aug 14, 2008 |
I have enjoyed reading and seeing Howard Fineman for many years in Newsweek and on MSNBC and others. So, I was pleased to check out his first book: The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring debates that define and inspire our country. I was not disappointed. The basic premise of the book, as I see it, is that the whole American experience is based on a series of arguments, with much participation and involvement in the debates, with different sides of the essential arguments, through the years addressing the issues of the day. Who is a person? What is an American? How much power should reside in the Presidency? Are we for international trade or not? What is the role of faith? Who judges the law? What are the limits of individualism? What can we know and say? What about debt?

Each argument is well researched, with examples from the founding of our nation up to the current time, including the current presidential election campaign. Fineman has been a political reporter since the 1970s. His personal insights into particular events that he has covered are especially useful. He developed the concepts of “the arguments” from his political reporting. He urges each of us to insist that the debates continue, in an open manner, in order to preserve our way of life and government. Open debate of the various arguments is what moves the country forward; and, will move us beyond the current partisanship that tends to stifle debate and communications between the various sides of the important arguments of today.

I fear the “thirteen” may be a little arbitrary as a marketing ploy, but, overall, this is a book I would recommend to anyone – but, especially to those who care and understand what is going on in our country at this point in our history. It is also a relative easy read. I’m happy to say this about a book of substance. ( )
  smithwil | May 31, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812976355, Paperback)

Howard Fineman, one of our most trusted political journalists, shows that every debate, from our nation’s founding to the present day, is rooted in one of thirteen arguments that–thankfully–defy resolution. It is the very process of never-ending argument, Fineman explains, that defines us, inspires us, and keeps us free. At a time when most public disagreement seems shrill and meaningless, Fineman makes a cogent case for nurturing the real American dialogue. The Thirteen American Arguments runs the gamut, including

Who Is a Person? The Declaration of Independence says “everyone,” but it took a Civil War, the Civil Rights Act, and other movements to make that a reality. Now, what about human embryos and prisoners in Guantanamo?
The Role of Faith No country is more legally secular yet more avowedly prayerful. From Thomas Jefferson to James Dobson, the issue persists: Where does God fit in government?
America in the World In Iraq and everywhere else, we ask ourselves whether we must change the world in order to survive and honor our values–or whether the best way to do both is to deal with the world as it is.

Whether it’s the nomination of judges or the limits of free speech, presidential power or public debt, the issues that galvanized the Founding Fathers should still inspire our leaders, thinkers, and fellow citizens. If we cease to argue about these things, we cease to be. “Argument is strength, not weakness,” says Fineman. “As long as we argue, there is hope, and as long as there is hope, we will argue.”

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:58 -0400)

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Political journalist Howard Fineman mixes scenes from the campaign trail with forays into 400 years of American history, to show that every debate, from our nation's founding to the present day, is rooted in one of thirteen arguments that--thankfully--defy resolution. It is the very process of never-ending argument, he explains, that defines us, inspires us, and keeps us free. At a time when most public disagreement seems shrill and meaningless, Fineman makes a cogent case for nurturing the real American dialogue. Whether it's the environment, international trade, interpreting law, Congress vs. the president, or reformers vs. elites, these are the issues that galvanized the Founding Fathers and should still inspire our leaders, thinkers, and citizens. "Argument is strength, not weakness," says Fineman. "As long as we argue, there is hope, and as long as there is hope, we will argue."--From publisher description.… (more)

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