Saturday, November 8, 2008


The crisp, sun-filtered air of November is in sharp conflict with my skin as I stepped out this morning to run a Saturday morning errand. The cold bite against my warm skin woke me up a little bit. The sunlight of the fall morning had a blinding clarity. I have a rental car, since my car lost a fender bender conflict with a Jeep. The tire of the jeep was above my bumper and managed to smash my hood and radiator back into my car’s engine. The rental car is new, less than five hundred miles and free of much of the debris and detritus that accumulates through living with a car. My imprint, in fact no human imprint, is present other than the thoughtful design. How do I know that holding down a number button on the radio will set that station? Yet I know it and I set about to program the stations off of the static the buttons are currently attached to.

I hit the search button. There is an interview with a Muslim women, who is stating that the West is incorrect if the West thinks that change in the Muslim world will come from the women. She said you don’t ask the prisoner for liberation. I thought I’d found NPR. I hadn’t. I had found a Christian talk station that was broadcasting its Friends of Israel program.

After the interview, the answer began with a news story about the Simon Wisenthal Museum of Tolerance that was being planned in Jerusalem that had temporarily been blocked by Muslim groups who had objected to the site of the museum when Muslim graves had been found on the construction site. The case had gone to the Israeli Supreme Court. The Center for Tolerance was embroiled in litigation. The irony resonated with me, bouncing off the ceilings of current events, personal discussions, politics, work, and relationships.

I’m afraid that most of our Museums of Tolerance are just like the Museum in Jerusalem – a Museum where we place our tolerance to look at and admire and a good place to battle to show just how tolerant we are. Tolerance is not passive. Tolerance requires a discipline of thought. You simply can’t tolerate, you also have to understand. True tolerance must include compassion and empathy for the opposing viewpoint. Tolerance requires looking for active solutions for the resolution of conflict. You can’t be tolerant when you are fighting. When the fight breaks out, tolerance has left the building.

The entire country has been living in conflict over the past few months during the Presidential elections. The conflicts have not dissolved with the election. Discourse has failed to be productive. Conciliation and cooperation have been lacking. I was encouraged by President-elect Obama’s appeal to find solutions and for cooperation. My impression is that the issues we need to deal with today – war, the economy, health care, energy and living wages – cannot be solved by ideological banter, but only by solutions outside traditional political thought and more complex than believed by the punditry.

A huge complication in this mix is the inability to resolve the most divisive issues, which are also not the most important. I find much of the concern over so-called moral issues or family values in politics to be counter productive and a colossal waste of time. The argument devolves into a discussion of what is right and what is wrong and completely avoids the areas in which the dispute could be resolved. Inevitably both sides fall into the conflict and dialogue breaks down. Conflict resolution requires patience and conviction. Anger simply cannot resolve conflict absent violence of the sword, the pen or the word. I find my words lapse into abstraction that would be better served by the concrete example.

The obvious choice for this discussion is the same sex marriage dispute that is raging on the front pages of the paper today. To me this isn’t even a discussion about marriage. The tolerant view is to allow everyone to hold their own belief in marriage. The real conflict and the arena for solution is not two diametrically opposed viewpoints, but a solution that allows equal protection for everyone under the laws of the land and also allows for the free exercise of religion. Much of the confusion lies in how religious morality is equated with civil enforcement. Laws that are necessary for an orderly society often coincide and overlap with religious doctrine and confusion ensues. Thou shalt not kill is punishable by prison, but is this dictated by religious belief? At this stage in our history, I think it is safe to say that the proscription against murder is accepted by believers and non-believers alike.

The State should exist to provide an environment that promotes diversity and peace, while protecting individual rights. As was echoed in Barak Obama’s acceptance speech, we need to work to create a "more perfect union." A union symbolizes inclusion, not exclusion. The moral standard I hold out for a government is the one that can be the most inclusive, a more perfect union. The arguments on divisive issues should start at this juncture and be argued from this viewpoint. The tenor and the effectiveness of the argument changes if both sides are arguing from common ground.

I know I make an assumption that everyone believes that the United States should work towards a secular Zion. (I mix my religious and political metaphors, partly as an illustration of how easy it is to confuse the two.) My experience in dealing with conflict is that you need to begin from a common belief. There is no resolution to "marriage is only between a man and a woman" versus "marriage is between two consenting adults regardless of gender." No amount of argument can resolve that dispute. The argument only becomes resolvable if you start from common ground and agreement.

Another problem in conflict resolution is the issue of power versus powerlessness. If a result is imposed on you by those who hold power, the instinct is to rebel and fight back, increasing the exercise of power against you. Power can come in the form of the police, the majority, money or simply the imposition of an opposing view. I happen to believe that the human spirit thrives more in an environment where it does not feel oppressed.

I’ve been thinking about power this morning, because I’ve always been anti-death penalty. This isn’t intended to be a discourse on the death penalty, but almost all defense lawyers I know are anti-death penalty, partly because they know that despite the procedural and Constitutional protections that create a phenomenal system, the flaws are numerous and profound. The headline in the paper this morning is that the Utah Supreme Court issued a ruling that the death penalty in Utah was in jeopardy because there isn’t competent legal counsel to represent the indigent defendants. My first thought was I should get qualified so I can handle such cases. My second and more lasting thought was of a defense attorney boycott. What would happen if the defense bar refused to defend death penalty cases? My idea was a power move, trying to grab power in a dispute in which argument and persuasion had failed. I like the idea still, because I’ve felt so powerless to stop State sanctioned killing. You win the death penalty cases by refusing to fight. It could be accomplished if like minded attorneys decided that it was time to make a stand.

To Be Continued . . .

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