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The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country Hardcover – April 22, 2008

3.5 out of 5 stars 43 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

We are the Arguing Country, declares the author of this quirky book, the senior Washington correspondent and columnist for Newsweek. And he thinks that we should argue more, not less, about fundamental matters. The matters Fineman covers are indeed fundamental ones. Some—such as who judges the law and what the right balance is between local and national authority—are constitutional. Others—the role of faith, debt and the dollar, the environment—are social, political, even philosophical. But why does Fineman choose these particular 13 subjects? What of others, like the nature of an open society, the limits of freedom, and class and caste that he barely touches? One also wonders why America's argumentativeness is unique—don't people elsewhere, like the British or Italians, debate many of these issues? Fineman zips through his topics by focusing principally on current debates in the news, which is not a bad way to hold readers' attention, but it also means the book about enduring debates will date quickly. All in all, this is a frustrating and unsatisfying book. (Apr. 22)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

America is “The Arguing Country, born in, and born to, debate,” claims veteran journalist Fineman in this brisk look at 13 debates that have driven (and riven) the nation from its inception, and continue to do so today. Arising from fundamental questions like “Who is a person?” or “What can we know and say?” or “What does it mean to pursue a more perfect union?” these 13 debates are perennial, undergirding each of the nation’s political controversies, and they are constitutive, defining nothing less than America’s national identity. If American political discourse frequently runs hot, it is because Americans are as passionate about these fundamental questions as they are different in their answers. Knowing that Fineman is an occasional guest on MSNBC’s Hardball, it is perhaps tempting to read this book as a particularly eloquent and historically informed apologia for the fiery point-counterpoint duels often seen on cable news channels. Yet Fineman openly acknowledges that the media sometimes hinders open debate, and it would be more accurate to describe Fineman’s work as itself an argument, urging perspective and optimism amid today’s overheated debates. --Brendan Driscoll

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (April 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400065445
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400065448
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #441,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
As a high school government teacher, this book intrigued me as a vehicle to stir debate in my classroom. After the first couple of "arguments", I began thinking about contacting Mr. Fineman about the possibility of creating a textbook version (or at least a supplemental piece). However, once I got to the Presidential Power chapter, my enthusiasm for Fineman's work began to wane. I still like the concept and accept the thirteen selected arguments as important conversations our nation needs to undertake.
After overlooking the poor writing and author bias (even though he is a respected journalist supposedly reporting on arguments that are perpetual), what ultimately piqued me enough to write this review was the two glaring factual inaccuracies in Ch. 9.
First, the War Powers Resolution was a joint resolution, which requires the President's signature to become law, not, as Fineman asserts, a [simple or concurrent] resolution that merely expressing the opinion of the Congress. In fact, the War Powers Resolution was vetoed by the President and then passed over the President's veto with a 2/3 majority vote of Congress.
Second, Fineman continues his Nixon rant by saying that "For the first time in more than a hundred years, the Congress impeached a president..." This, too, is factually incorrect. The House Judiciary committee began the proceedings for impeachment, but Nixon resigned before the full House could vote to impeach, let alone move to the trial process in the Senate. The first time in more than a hundred years that the House did impeach a president was with Clinton in the 1990s, making him only the second to be impeached (the other was A. Johnson).
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Format: Paperback
Howard Fineman is a journalist, not a political scholar, and that means this is a lively and readable book. And he has done a remarkable job of honing in on what are -- or should be some of the most fundamental and critical issues that have divided Americans over the centuries since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. What is a person? What is free speech? Why is the West's most religious society also so focused on dividing religion from public life in a formal fashion? What makes someone an American? These are fascinating questions, worthy of intelligent debate, and from them flow most of the other issues that Americans quarrel over constantly, from abortion to health care or whether or not the government can tell us to wear seatbelts in our cars.

There are few surprises in this book, but that wasn't necessarily a problem for me. It's been long enough since I first read any American political history that it was interesting to follow Fineman's train of thought as to how these issues came to be so important, and the evidence he assembles as to where the debate stands at present. He's no de Toqueville, however, and any historian is liable to find fault either with the level of over-simplification or the (very) occasional error. (Nixon was never actually impeached -- he resigned.) But I suspect the audience Fineman is trying to reach aren't those individuals -- the people who already know about, think about and care about the issues he's trying to draw attention to. They are already out there in the public arena, arguing away. It's the rest of us that Fineman is trying to reach. Argue more, he urges readers in a cri du coeur.

The book's biggest problem is that, for a book about argument, Fineman pays little or not heed to the nature of public discourse -- or argument.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The publisher should have done a better job of loading information, such as the complete table of contents, using the Amazon Advantage features that I myself use when offering a book on Amazon.

Introduction: For the Sake of Argument
1. Who Is a Person?
2. Who is an American?
3. The Role of Faith
4. The Limits of Individualism
5. What Can We Know and Say?
6. Who Judges the Law?
7. Debt and Dollar
8. Local versus National Authority
9. Presidential Power
10. The Terms of Trade
11. War and Diplomacy
12. The Environment
13. A Fair, "More Perfect" Union

Some strategic reactions:

+ Conceived in 2005, executed since then, an incredible labor of love

+ As I went through I kept thinking "wow, what a mix of historical unraveling and comparison, current trials & tribulation, and philosophical commentary." This is Tocqueville 2.0, nothing less.

+ I read a lot, so my admiration for the chapters was mostly a reflection of how skillfully I thought this master author and thinker had mined and then hammered into elegant shape a plentitude of sources and perspectives.

The message of the book is revealed on page 243, and I quote:

"We need to calm down, get engaged, and look for leadership. We have been here before: the seeming gridlock; the sudden, uncharacteristic loss of faith in the future; the sense that we cannot produce leaders capable of dealing with real problems. Facing despair and danger, we have always found in our storehouse of conflicting paradoxical traditions a way forward."

The author's bottom line from earlier in the book: never-ending argument is who we are, how we are. It defines us, this never-ending back and forth.
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