Sunday, November 21, 2010
In a letter to the editor in today's paper, some citizen wrote: "We should bear in mind that an essential ingredient of a free, democratic society is the ability and willingness to balance competing principles."
An essential ingredient? Maybe. But we've been making apple pie without the apples for a while now. Balancing competing principles may be salutary, even necessary, but it does not allow one to savor one's self-righteousness, nor does it allow one to construct the pleasant us-vs.-them, Empire-vs.-Rebel Alliance narratives to which Hollywood has so thoroughly addicted us.
Compromise? Balance? These have become epithets, replaced by feel-good movie catch phrases like "true patriot," "standing fast," and "fighting for what you believe in." Look out, folks! We've compromised compromise!
The competing principles to which the letter writer was referring were security and privacy, as represented by TSA patdowns and the people who resent them. I confess I can't work up much of a lather on this issue. In general I think safety trumps privacy, but it's easy to underestimate the invasiveness of uninvited touch. Years ago, on a trip to France, I walked past a group of shouting, whistling young men. I ignored them, but as I walked past, one of them grabbed my ass. I was surprised -almost shocked- by how violated I felt, by the week or so it took me to stop feeling disturbed. In the airport, I've been patted down twice, both times by polite female officers. I was momentarily unsettled. But imagine if I'd been a sexual assault survivor, or if the officers had abused their power?
A rational policy would, yes, balance these competing principles.
But do I believe this because it's true, or because I'm a complication junkie? I like my music conflicted, my relationships fraught, my literature nuanced. Just as a steady diet of Independence Day has inured the Sarah Palins of this world to the fine art of compromise, has my adolescent cultural snobbery rendered me unfit for modern-day American life? If I can't ascend to the soapbox which is my birthright, what have I got left? A couple of William Styron novels and a bad film by Richard Linklatter?
We need to get everyone on the same page. Or, more precisely, we need to acknowledge that other pages exist. National book book club, anyone?