On my way back from Australia I finished a good book by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled "The Idea That Is America." Dr. Slaughter is the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and is the former president of the American Society of International Law. Her book was inspired by a letter written by Captain Ian Fishback (a officer in the U.S. Army) to Senator John McCain about the abuse of prisoners that he was witnessing in Afghanistan and Iraq. The spirit of Captain Fishback's letter, and the book, is captured in a very powerful statement that he makes in the letter:
"My response is simple: if we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is America."
What Dr. Slaughter's book tries to do is trace through American history the long, troubled, bloody, and ever unfinished development of what she argues are the core American ideals of liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith, and how we have begun to disturbingly depart from these ideals in the name of "security" by (among other things) condoning torture, detaining people without legal recourse or knowledge of the grounds of imprisoment, and ignoring or openly defying international laws (many of which we helped to author). These are hot topics that have inspired a lot of heated, even vitriolic, debate within our society. I would recommend the book as one good starting point for taking this debate further, inviting you to form your own opinions. Anyhow, in the section on "tolerance" she makes the following comment at the end of a section on Arthur Vandenberg, a powerful World War II era Senator who underwent (in his own words) a "dramatic conversion" in his views on the contemporary issues of the day. Her comment is something that I thought was worth noting both as a commentary on our current society and as a reminder about living together as human beings in general (I say this even though I think the concept of hospitality, of truly welcoming and receiving others, is far stronger and richer than simply tolerance):
"When people believe strongly in their ideas and defend them fiercely in the public square, democracies prosper. But for that kind of dialogue to occur, the participants on both sides must actually be prepared not only to persuade but to be persuaded, to accept the possibility of actually shifting position or even, like Vandeberg, completely changing their minds. When is the last time anyone in Congress, or any president, for that matter, admitted being persuaded not simply to compromise, but actually to think differently about an issue?
In the current political climate, intolerance masquerades as conviction, while tolerance is ridiculed as relativism. Yet tolerance is the indispensable first step toward even the possibility of persuasion. As in our earliest days, it is a vital source of strength, both as the precondition for unity and for the innovation and energy that results from the clash of ideas. Where are the Vandenbergs of today?"