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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 44 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 (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #435,961 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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
"Who is a person?"
"Local vs National Power"

This is a thematic look at American History. Each chapter poses a question that we have left unanswered through our history. I am now on my third reading in the last six months as events in the news trigger a return to the text for a historical perspective.
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Format: Paperback
The idea of explaining the American personality through a series of extended debates is a good one, but this book does not live up to the promise of the idea. The author is biased and just plain sloppy. He cannot resist glorifying democratic politicians like Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama as "inspiring" without giving sustained argument for the merits of their accomplishments. Populist rhetoric suffices to impress Mr. Fineman. He also makes frequent use of trite statements like "these debates may divide us, but they also unite us." Oh, please. These are the words of a shallow person trying to sound deep, like a Freshman in his first philosophy class.

The chapter on personhood exemplifies the kind of sloppiness throughout this book. Under personhood, he lumps the abortion debate together with abolitionism, women's suffrage and gay marriage. The first two genuinely have to do with personhood (although some pro-lifer philosophers like Don Marquis deny that fetuses are persons, but still think they are deserving of moral consideration a wrinkle that never shows up in this book.) The second two clearly do not have much to do with personhood. Conservatives don't deny that gay people are, well, people-- they have a different conception of what the institution of marriage is. Agree or not, this should at least be acknowledged and given some amount of discussion.

Also, no one ever denied that women were persons, even as they were denied voting rights. The connection between voting rights and personhood is far from obvious, but Fineman thinks the two are essentially identical. There were actually women who opposed women's suffrage. Their argument was not "we are not persons, so we shouldn't vote.
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