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What We Talk About When We Talk About Mosques

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Law became sexy in the mid-1980s. I still find this a bewildering transformation in American society. At the time, I thought that there could be nothing quite so boring as a court case or a legal brief. But then the TV show L.A. Law debuted in 1986, and lawyers never looked so good. The following year, Scott Turow published Presumed Innocent, and several years after that John Grisham brought out his second novel, The Firm. U.S. publishing was never the same.

Since then, law has thoroughly permeated our popular culture. But I wonder whether it has also taken over the way we think. I'm not talking about how litigious we are in the United States. I'm talking about how we talk.

In the courtroom, the truth is arrived at in an adversarial manner. There are two sides. They present their cases. They examine and cross-examine. They challenge and dispute and argue. And then the judge or the jury decides which side wins. The prosecutor and the defense don't help each other. They don't try to arrive at the truth together. They are matter and anti-matter -- and if the two sides were to somehow touch, the legal system would explode. There are other legal models -- the consensus of the jury, the more congenial atmosphere of alternative dispute resolution. But the essential confrontation between two frequently irreconcilable versions of the truth has had a powerful influence over the way we interact.

The controversy du jour is whether an Islamic cultural center should be built a couple blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center in New York City. One side says that such a building would desecrate the memory of those who died on 9/11. The other side says that freedom of religion is a core value in this country. For me, the issue is a no-brainer. The center promotes inter-religious and intercultural dialogue, which is precisely what we need more of to prevent future attacks. As Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) rightly points out, "I appreciate the depth of emotions at play, but respectfully suggest that the presence of a mosque is only inappropriate near ground zero if we unfairly associate Muslim Americans with the atrocities of the foreign al-Qaida terrorists who attacked our nation." The opponents of the center -- with their "Islam is the enemy" posters -- are as fundamentalist in their outlook as the jihadists they oppose.

Can I persuade the other side of my views? Can they convince me? We are as far apart as prosecution and defense.

"What's the likelihood of changing anyone's opinion, especially a couple of strangers?" David Sedaris asks in a recent New Yorker piece. "If my own little mind is nailed shut, why wouldn't theirs be?" Why stop at strangers? Really, what's the likelihood of changing the opinions of our friends or our families? In America, we put politics into the same category as religion and sex: conversation stoppers. Because we're not in the habit of conversing reasonably on these topics, they burst out of us in uncontrolled spasms, as repressed urges do in our dreams and nightmares.

In an intriguing serendipity, the Sedaris article appears a few pages away from George Packer's in-depth article on the deterioration of our country's premier talking shop: the Senate. Democrats and Republicans no longer talk to one another, professionally or casually. The same Jeff Merkley was shocked to discover the lack of debate across party lines. "The amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited," he says. Perhaps the Senate has simply become more honest, since Washington has always been more about power than ideas.

Our two-party system -- and the red state/blue state divisions that it engendered -- looks more and more like a divided courtroom. There are only two political positions; third parties have no place in the system. Bipartisanship, moreover, has become an endangered species. I don't want to romanticize any golden age of bipartisanship. We had a bipartisan consensus on invading Iraq, supporting Israel right or wrong, and many other misguided foreign policies. I don't want a stifling consensus to replace a sterile confrontation. I want to see informed discussion on how we can deal with the obvious problems the country faces: the economic crisis, the disastrous wars, the impending energy-environmental apocalypse. Instead, we have flame and counter-flame about the mosque at ground zero that is neither a mosque nor at ground zero.

In his novel The Dean's December, Saul Bellow writes: "Tocqueville was dead right when he said that Americans (democrats everywhere) had no aptitude for conversation, they lectured. Bombast, clichés, chewed-up newsprint, naturally made the other party tune out." In the court room, the two sides know that at least they have an audience. But in all the invective that we unleash on ourselves -- and I am part of this incessant outpouring of opinion -- we are either preaching to the choir or reaching deaf ears. Unlike Tocqueville, I believe that democracy depends on political conversations. These days we get lots of talk -- on talk radio, on TV, in the halls of Congress, at our dining room tables -- but not a lot of the authentic back-and-forth.

In the 1960s, the slogan was "tune in, turn on, drop out." Nearly a half-century later, in the angrier times in which we live, we're more likely to embrace the slogan "tune out, turn off, drop dead."

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