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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country by Howard Fineman

The Thirteen American Arguments offers a lot of potential but doesn't deliver
Howard Fineman
I heard Howard Fineman on the radio discussing The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country one day and scribbled the book title down in my little notepad as I was driving down the road. The idea behind this book is truly great - find 13 central arguments that have been passed down over time and look how different eras of Americans have addressed them.

Fineman's 13 arguments are:

1. Who is a person?
2. Who is an American?
3. The role of faith
4. What can we know and say?
5. The limits of Individualism
6. Who judges the law?
7. Debt and the Dollar
8. Local v. National Authority
9. Presidential Power
10. The terms of trade
11. War and Diplomacy
12. The environment
13. A fair, "more perfect" union

He adds to these by noting 5 groups that often have competing visions about what to do with each of these: the State, the Church, the Market, the Tribe and the Academy (Science). (pg. 18)

So far, so good. Sounds like an interesting book.

But, Fineman's desire to apply each of these arguments to the modern world provides the opportunity for him to interject his own personal (liberal) biases into the mix. It was sort of like reading a serious piece of historical interpretation intermixed with a modern-day blame game analysis book like the sort that is written by Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Sean Hannity or Alan Colmes. It is not a good mix and quickly I grew very tired of the author's biases (gun control - p. 105; cheap, snotty shots at Dick Cheney - pp. 213, 214, 225 and so on) and sometimes outright fabrications, such as when he asserted that everyone running for the Republican nomination was pro-life - despite the fact that Giuliani is pro-choice.

Sometimes his own personal "stories from the road" were supportive (although biased), but other times they meandered around and had very little to do with what he was supposed to be talking about. He spends 5 pages talking about a campaign manager in the "A Fair, 'More Perfect' Union" section. While sort of interesting, I failed to see the relevance, unless it is that we would have been a more perfect union had we elected Howard Dean in 2004.

In one thing Fineman is dead-on correct - in politics, "arguing is good - in fact, indispensable." (p. 14) The arguments must continue on, just be aware that Fineman is not neutral in his presentation - he is arguing strongly for his views throughout.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on September 26, 2008.

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