"Both sides" -- let us call it "both sidesism" and acknowledge what a fitting theme it is for this year's holiday season, even though it has its origin in our politics, not our religion. It's just that it has become something of a religion -- a secular one. I first noticed the phenomenon at about the 1,251st broadcast (or was it a newspaper story?) reference to how both sides in the Iranian conflict were hardening their positions. Or was it that both sides remained adamant . . . or that both sides seemed to have moved somewhat off their previously hardened positions . . . or that both sides would have to give a little . . . or . . .? Never mind. The point is that both sides-ism had taken over. We no longer had a doer and a done-to, let alone a right and a wrong or an us and a them. We had both sides -- and once again that left the rest of us (whoever we may really be) in the comfortable role of referees at somebody else's brawl.

How do you think the gospel of the nativity would be played out in America today? "Well, or course no one likes what Herod is doing. But you have to be realistic: What choices do we have? And besides, you have to try to see how it must look from his side. He is probably trying to make the best deal he can, but he's not a free agent, you know; it's really Caesar Augustus calling the shots . . ." And so forth, coming down finally to how the dispute isn't "black and white" and how -- yes -- both sides are going to have to yield some to reach an understanding.

Before you conclude that I am trying to invest out side (I insist there is one) in this dispute with nativity-scene virtue and holiness, let me add that there's hardly a drama or a conflict in history or literature that wouldn't in time be transformed by this dominant mental habit of ours into the exact same configuration of gray-shaded antagonists, none of whom, we feel, deserves to win or to allowed (oh, degradation and future revenge) to lose. Will you children stop that fighting right now! I don't care WHO started it!

I am not bemoaning a lack of pugnacity or military adventurousness on our part. I am bemoaning our resolute failure -- the most resolute thing we do -- to judge, decide, make choices, make commitments. Somehow, for me, the images are all marine: a squid squirting ink all over an area of danger, or a tiny, spidery beach creature that is programmed only to make the same perfect pattern over and over again in the sand. We blob up conflict; or we redraw it so that it always looks the same -- two equally culpable combatants in dire need of the ministrations of Kurt Waldheim.

Merely to entertain these dismal thoughts is at once to feel a compelling need to explain that one is not a zealot or a crusader, a Savonarola or John Foster Dulles in drag. Dulles said, in another context, that neutralism is "immoral." Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. But as a philosphy or a psychological reflex, as distinct from a specific decision made in a specific case, it is surely neurotic -- especially when you are yourself one of the participants in the conflict you are being neutral about.

The virtue of the Iranian case as an illustration of this has been that it taxes -- or should, anyway -- the both sides-ism impulse beyond endurance, crossing easily over the borders from possibility and sense to parody. Suppose an American Embassy were seized and its staff bound, blindfolded and held hostage for (fill in the current number of) days. Suppose a melange of terrorists, mullahs and unidentifieds led by a secret revolutionary council spent that time sulking, threatening, hiring and firing each other as foreign ministers and appearing on American TV to announce the beneficence of the Christmas meal they had promised the hostages.

Suppose -- further -- that they were simultaneously demanding that at a minimum the U.S. make some kind of official finding of quilt of their previous ruler and letting it be known that their -- get this -- chief judge (who would presumably preside over any trials of the hostages) had, in his separate capacity as executioner, dispatched a band of gunmen to murder that former ruler and his family. I mean: it really is a sick joke, and yet from depths of that need, whatever it is, to balance the thing out, to convert it into an exasperating tangle of obduracy and unreasonableness on both sides, we have heard the look-at-it-from-poor-old -Herod's-point-of-view line.

In my judgement all the concurrent talk about how the Iranian conflict and its impact on the public mark the end of the post-Vietnam mind set is not quite right. To the extent that the Vietnamese experience taught us something about the true limits of our military power and the perils of faking a consensus where there is none, these hard-won perceptions should not be repudiated or forgoten. Nor can we exactly take comfort in the idea that the country is on some kind of political/military rubber band, simply snapping from one mood (non-interventionist) to another (Charge!). In fact, in some way, despite the clear anger and frustration so widely felt about the embassy seizure in Tehran, the reigning wisdom of the country isn't so different from that which prevailed when we were all supposed to be learning the "lessons" of Vietnam.

It is, once again, a kind of paralysis by understanding, a belief in the virture of detaching and distancing oneself from such vulgar and untrustworthy considerations as who is more right and who more wrong in a dispute, or which side should prevail. Yes, I know that it is jingoistic and thuggish and generally just plain dumb to see things only from the side of the Beloved Homeland and that the beginning of sense of sophistication and also the ability to have a say in events is a capacity to perceive what is on the other side's collective mind. But that is the beginning. Where is the end? Is it anywhere? Is there one? Or are we to reason and understand and sympathize and appreciate and respond ouselves to utter immobility?

I mentioned the holiday season. It's not just Christmas but also the New Year that is upon us -- and with the New Year another heavy political season. Our candidates reflect us, both our better and worse features, and surely looming large on the negative side is this very reluctance to choose. Putting the negative in its most positive, or positively negative aspect, you could call it not a reluctance to choose so much as an eagerness to divert, digress and avoid. ("I'm glad you asked that question. This is a very complicated subject. While I don't think any of us likes the idea of . . .")

If I were in charge of getting the country to make just one New Year's resolution, it would be to break out of this mold, to reject the lazy pattern-tracing (over and over again as, one might say, in a Persian rug), and to try to regain the capacity to see events individually as they are. Uncosmopolitan as it may be to say so, there is better and there is worse, there is yes and there is no, and all truth does not lie in between.