Sunday, July 20, 2008

Virtues in open debate

Former US Senator Jesse Helms died this month.  He was an arch-conservative senator representing North Carolina, and was the most vocal critic of progressive social causes in the Senate.  His opinions were often bigoted, his inflexibility was infuriating, his campaigns were a model for everything that is wrong with American politics.  I can't imagine anyone who embodied the pole of the political spectrum most distant from me.

Still, I appreciated having his voice (if not his style) in the public discourse.

Governmental policy should always be based on accurate understanding and fair solutions.  Accurate understanding, knowledge, doesn't rest simply on data, but also on how that data is interpreted.  Assumptions and context must also be considered.  Fair solutions are arrived at when a plurality of voices craft a policy.  The process gives each side a chance to take a stand, present their evidence, and participate in finding a solution.

The Bush administration's insistence on internal secrecy and suppression of dissenting voices run wholly counter to these principals, and have resulted in terrible public policy.  They may be expedient, but they have failed to grasp essential facts or to enlist wide support.  In turn, the Congress, the press, and the public failed to defend an opinion or to demand a voice alongside this Administration.  When each looks back and tries to draw their lessons, I hope that it will be to press for greater transparency and inclusion, not further partisan exclusion.

Jesse Helm's obituary reminds me of how much I disagreed with his stands over the years. But it also reminds me that his arguments forced balance into my stances and compassion into the policies that I advocated.  And, appropriately embraced, that is one of the true advantages of governing by representative democracy.

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