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Self-Criticism: A New Habit of Mind

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Once again we do the rigid Kabuki dance, leading once again to political stalemate -- this time over raising the federal debt ceiling. Even with the unthinkable looming -- defaulting on America's "full faith and credit" for the first time in our 235-year history -- our political system, rather than adapt, seizes up. It's sad, and alarming.

We could, right now, use a dose of the wisdom -- the heroic wisdom -- gained by a man who survived the siege of Sarajevo.

Vlado Azinovic ran one of the city's last non-nationalistic, independent radio stations, Radio Zid, "just trying to keep normal life alive" during what became a four-year siege, longest of the 20th century. In the siege's third year, I was put in touch with him, at my request. In a situation truly absurd -- being shot at by Serb snipers firing from the surrounding hills while U.N. "peacekeepers" stood by, not firing back, all while the world watched, "like at a sports event" (remember Sniper Alley?) -- Vlado needed a life-line, and I became it, quickly.

The heroic part: During our calls, I noticed Vlado did not indulge in hate speech against the Serbs (he referred to them only as "those people in the hills"). Instead, he engaged in a tough self-criticism, taking himself to task for various errors. Even when it looked like he might not make it out alive, when mortars were targeted at his neighborhood, he berated himself -- for relying on a cousin who worked as a driver for the American embassy as his "ace in the hole" to get him out (the cousin escaped without Vlado); for misjudging how long the airport would keep operating, enabling escape.

Finally I cut in: "Vlado, you are under siege -- you are being shelled, for God's sake -- you might go easier on yourself." To which he shot back:

"No! It's especially in craziness like this that you have to be self-critical. Otherwise, you start to believe stupid things."

I think of these words a lot lately. Because, while actual bullets are not flying here, it's America that seems under siege now, a siege from within. The solidarity felt in the aftermath of 9/11 too soon gave way to polarized positions on the questions of who we are as Americans, how best to defend ourselves and, more recently, how to save the economy. Now a decade on, that polarization is virtually Arctic.

It is perhaps this intellectual rigor mortis that explains why fully two-thirds of the public believe America is in decline. Normally a smart people, we Americans are not now acquitting ourselves intelligently; instead, a whole lot of stupid things are too frequently heard.

I will refrain from giving examples of those stupid things -- they clog the airwaves -- or from citing the political party that I believe generates the greater number of them; readers will supply their own examples. Because what I want to do here is not stoke more partisan struggle, but promote a new habit of mind.

(All right, one example, only because it's largely settled, finally: the "birther" issue. How so many Americans and their political representatives could believe so fervently and noisily the -- no other word for it -- stupid allegation that President Barack Obama is foreign-born and thus a usurper is, well, confidence-sapping. That faux-issue, which wasn't even about policy but credentials, transfixed huge swaths of the public square for months; meanwhile, the ship of state lurched downward...)

To reverse our decline, we need to cultivate the self-critical habit of mind. I don't mean whacking away at one's own psyche, but the habit of mind that, in addressing public issues, is nimble, open, creative. That can review one's own premises, tactics, objectives. That can dare to check for operational soundness and say, "Hold on, maybe we're going about this [name the issue] wrong, maybe there's a better way." That can, if necessary, do what has become the abhorrent thing to do: the "flip-flop."

The virtues of self-critique are many: Contrary to the popular belief that standing firm is strength, the self-critical mind is actually the more secure mind. Also contrary to popular belief, to critique America -- to argue for a return to our founding ideals -- is actually the height of patriotism. And who doesn't love the self-deprecating wit?

Of course the greatest virtue of self-critique is this: We rescue ourselves as a nation.

Instead, in our present self-created craziness, we "double-down" for each political battle by drawing "lines in the sand" and declaring issues "off the table," resulting in stalemate requiring a deadline to force one or the other party to "blink." Flip-floppers are crucified, patriotism is questioned -- broken record, broken record, it's enough to drive a sentient person screaming from the tent! We've overlearned the High Noon scenario of good guys versus bad guys.

After a decade of such craziness, we are approaching what in aviation is called "stall-speed." Logic (remember logic?) dictates that more of same is irrational, not logical, stupid. We know what happens when a species can't adapt: It dies. We must change or die. To pull out of our dive, we must -- all of us -- bend, rethink, critique ourselves.

Fat chance, you say? No doubt you're right, if only because, between the two parties, who'd go first with the self-critique? To use the current locution, maybe if both parties "joined hands and jumped off the cliff together..." I suspect President Obama is a practitioner, but in this toxic environment he's wise not to do it in public.

Pointing the way -- still -- is my friend Vlado. He did finally escape wartime Sarajevo, then landed a job in Prague as a reporter at Radio Free Europe, where he worked for over a decade while also completing his PhD. He has since returned to Sarajevo and is now a professor at the University, teaching his first love: history. Ever astute and even wiser now, Vlado notes he's a "recovering" historian, still practicing self-criticism.

Recovery through self-critique: Now there's a saving thought.

For more on solutions to America's polarization, see my earlier op-ed, here.

Carla Seaquist is author of the play "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and is working on a new play titled "Prodigal." She is also author of a book of commentary, titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character" (www.carlaseaquist.com).