Thursday, July 06, 2006

Civil Discourse

My family traditionally gathers for a barbecue sometime during the 4th of July weekend. This year was no different, except that the gathering was smaller than usual--a lot of the "regulars" were out of town. I was pleasantly surprised that DS#1 and DD#1 made a special effort to come for at least part of the day, especially since they both had to be at work that evening.

Conversation has never been a problem, even though we represent many different points of view. Most of it was personal: "How was your trip?" "How is work?" "How are you feeling?" "When is the baby due?" Some of it was more political, especially when my mother began discussing the Value-Added Tax in U.K. and their nationalized health care.

"Well, of course, they can get surgery if they really need it," one cousin remarked. This particular cousin is very much a liberal.

My mother shook her head. "The waiting list is long."

"One of the complaints I've heard about both Britain and Canada is that an operation, say for breast cancer, that would be a simple lumpectomy here becomes a radical mastectomy there because of they have to wait so long," I added as clarification.

My cousin looked thoughtful. The conversation moved on to taxes in general.

"Of course, here we give tax cuts to the rich," my liberal cousin stated.

"According to the IRS, the top 5% of the income earners pay something like 50% of the taxes," I replied.

She snorted. "Then those people must not have very good tax accountants."

I was rather surprised, but I dropped it. She did not see anything contradictory in her reply. I was tempted to ask her how she defined "the rich," but decided on familial harmony instead.

Later I was telling another cousin about our decision to send DS#2 to a high school out of our district this next school year, which lead to the California High School Exit Exam. DD#1 is the only one who has taken it so far. In her opinion, DD#2 (who is in 8th Grade) could pass the exam, especially since the exam requires only a 10th Grade level in English and a 9th Grade level in math (basically Algebra I).

"I think it's a good thing to require a minimum level of competence," this cousin said. She then told a story about asking a co-worker to look over a presentation she was making, especially the percentages, just to make sure there were no obvious mistakes.

"And the guy told me, 'I don't know how to do percentages.' Can you believe it?"

"You mean he needed a calculator?" asked my mother.

"No. I mean he couldn't tell me that 10 out of 100 was 10%!" She also went on to share her first work experience--a summer job at an office. "I remember coming home and telling my parents that people actually did things there. I was so surprised! I'm sure Mom and Dad got a big kick out of my reaction. But in real life you don't get paid just for showing up. So you shouldn't get a diploma for just showing up for four years at high school."

I've been mulling these conversations--and a few others we had--over for the last few days. My differences with my cousins, my mother, my siblings, and others isn't over goals. We want children to be educated. We don't want people to live on the street or to go hungry. It's just that we differ in the best way our society can achieve these goals.

Neal Boortz has a "Freedom Quiz" archived on his website. Mr. Boortz is very much a Libertarian and is very much in favor of personal responsibility. I am not quite as stark as he is on some of his answers: I am in favor of personal responsibility, but I also think that we, as humans, have social bonds and obligations and our government acts in recognition of those. People do make poor choices; bad things happen to good people, sometimes in spite of our best and most prudent plans.

For example, while it is true that the decision to have children is most private and presonal, it is also in the best interest of society that children are born. It is also in the best interest of society that those children are raised under the most optimal conditions possible: with their biological parents and siblings, adequately fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated. Formalizing marriage is one of the ways. Assuring women that their jobs, or a comparable one, will be there 12 weeks after their baby is born is another. Providing equality of opportunity to find a job, to receive a good education, to buy a house is another. However, when the government stops pursuing equality of opportunity and tries to ensure equality of results, then the government has overstepped its bounds. (Any parent who has more than one child understands the impossibility of this ideal!)

Lately, however, I've noticed it has become more difficult to discuss these issues. Both sides resort to straw men and ad hominem attacks. Issues are discussed with passion, but not necessarily with enlightenment. We, the American people, have become disoriented. We fail to see that we are arguing about what methods are best to achieve our common goals, not necessarily the goals themselves. (Although there is also disagreement about priorities as well.)

I can understand why public figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Neal Boortz, Ann Coulter, Molly Ivins, Janeane Garofolo, Michael Moore, and Al Franken take extreme positions. Their job is to create controversy, to make people tune in to hear or to read what outrageous things they'll say next. They would all be unemployed otherwise. That doesn't mean that the rest of us--the 50% who pay 90% of the income taxes, for example--can't have a civil conversation with our spouses, our friends, our families, within our communities, recognizing our common purpose and goals, while acknowledging we have different ideas of how to get there.

Just wait until Labor Day...