This being the season of extravagant hope and rampant good will, let me propose as an exchange of gifts that we pretend, at least for a time, that we are not a nation of warring factions but a family.
It wouldn't mean that our differences, which are real and serious, would evaporate, but it might give us a better chance to resolve them.
I said resolve, not win. There are no winners in family fights, a fact that took me an embarrassingly long time to learn.
In the early days of our marriage, I devoted an enormous amount of energy to winning arguments with my wife. I used to argue as though we were lawyers and there was, on the other side of some invisible curtain, a wise and fair judge who would hear what we said and award one of us a judgment. And, because I enjoyed arguing, and had learned to do it well, I was racking up an impressive string of victories. And my marriage was getting shakier and shakier.
It finally occurred to me that all the victories I thought I was winning weren't worth a thing to anybody. My wife might stop arguing, because she knew I was comfortably ahead on points, but she didn't stop being unhappy. And because she was unhappy, she didn't concern herself with making me happy. She was miserable, I was miserable, and my forensic victories were ashes in my mouth.
Then one day I looked at Sondra and recognized what any idiot would have recognized years earlier: she wasn't the enemy. She was my strongest ally, and it served no purpose to defeat her. The smart thing, I finally learned, was to stop trying to win and to try instead to resolve the problem that prompted the argument. I commend the technique to the family we call America.
What are the arguments to which it might be applied? Start with these two: affirmative action and comparable worth.
It's perfectly easy to win an argument against either of them. You simply ask the proponent whether he seriously believes that jobs or promotions or college seats should be parceled out on the basis of race, or that some statistician's weighted numbers are a better mechanism than the market itself in determining the relative worth of a job.
Whether the response is a sophisticated rejoinder or mere angry sputtering, it won't settle the dispute. One side or the other might get the better of the argument, leaving the loser frustrated and bitter, but the issue will remain unresolved.
But where is it written that we have to behave like warring lawyers? If we addressed the matter as members of a family, we might try understanding, rather than defeating, each other.
We might agree, for instance, that minorities and women are still shortchanged when it comes to opportunity. It doesn't follow that we would all agree on affirmative action or comparable worth, but we might admit that these awkward ideas represent attempts to address real problems. We might not agree, even as family members, on whether the principal cause is prejudice, habit, or lack of access to the networks that work for the already advantaged, but we might acknowledge that there is a problem to be resolved.
And if one side acknowledges that the grievance has a basis in reality, the other might admit its own contribution to the problem: whether inadequate preparation, insufficient ambition and commitment, or inappropriate attitudes. If we got that far, we would have a pretty good chance of resolving the matter.
And not just on issues of race and sex. The same approach might help us resolve family squabbles ranging from education and welfare to the environment and nuclear disarmament.
It wouldn't resolve everything; on some issues we really are enemies. But a good many of the things that divide us are nothing more than different approaches toward compatible goals.
We'd have a much better chance of reaching those goals if we could see each other as members of a family rather than as enemies to be defeated.