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Bob Dickson: Can this fabric be sewn back together?

Posted: June 4, 2009 9:37 p.m.
Updated: June 5, 2009 4:55 a.m.
If you ever visit the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, you will probably make your way to the Battle Monument.

It's hard to miss - a 46-foot-long column of polished granite rising from the ground and encircled by outward-pointing cannons that bear the names of the major battles of the Civil War.

The monument was commissioned to honor the regular army soldiers who fell in the Civil War. It bears the names of some 2,230 men.

Emanating even farther from the column is a strange-looking second circle of cannons. They are half buried, muzzle down in the grass, their breeches jutting several feet above the earth and pointing skyward.

Their disabled posture makes their meaning clear: Never again will we turn our cannons against ourselves.

It has been 112 years since the Battle Monument was dedicated, and that promise holds fast. In the literal sense, at least, one Civil War was more than enough for these United States.

I wonder, though, if the present political climate might suggest that while we have kept that promise literally, we are guilty of breaking it in spirit.

No cannons fire, yet we find ourselves very much in the throes of a political and ideological war.

The battlegrounds are numerous: taxes and government spending, national security and the definition of terror, immigration, abortion, gun control, gay rights, health care, the environment and public education.

Mention any of those subjects in mixed company and just watch the metaphorical bullets fly.

There's nothing inherently wrong with healthy political debate. We Americans have engaged vigorously in such skirmishes since our first Constitutional Congress.

George Washington was still president when political parties were forming over the role of the federal government versus the rights of the 13 states.

The difference is that, during much of our nation's history, the vigor of those debates stemmed from commonly held principles.

Like parents arguing over the raising of their children, we may have disagreed over the method of pursuing a goal, but never on the goal itself.

Our shared sense of purpose allowed us to air our differences, weigh them, and then determine together the surest route to our desired end.

Today, though, we no longer seem to share principles. We disagree on key definitions like right and wrong, liberty, freedom and life.

In practice, at least, we do not even share a commitment to virtues such as sacrifice and charity, duty and honor, honesty and fairness.

There's no genuine exchange of ideas because nobody is pursuing the best course for the country. We are all in it for ourselves.

It was President Kennedy who exhorted us to ask what we can do for our country. But that sentiment has been lost.

Today, the questions we ask are much more personal. What lowers my taxes? What guarantees my health benefits? What protects home prices in my neighborhood? What safeguards my job? What provides me with a comfortable retirement?

From that perspective, what is the purpose of argument? Far from being the means by which we arrive at a solution, it becomes mere banter or - worse - entertainment.

In truth, we aren't even arguing. We're bickering.

Such bickering does our nation and our community no good. It clogs our ears with sound bytes and muddies our minds with conspiracy theories.

It stalemates our state Legislature and it threatens our Senate with filibuster. It turns us into a nation of nitpickers.

The way out of our present political and economic mess begins with a step back from this new form of civil warfare.

To do that, we must take an even bigger step - the one that leads away from "What's in it for me?"

Bob Dickson, a 12-year Santa Clarita resident, is an award-winning journalist and former sports writer for The Signal. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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