Elise Patkotak: In a democracy, lively debate shouldn't be a blood feud

By ELISE PATKOTAKNovember 20, 2013 

I can still vaguely remember saying, with fervent conviction, "Never trust anyone over 30." Based on that theory, I should have packed it in a long, long time ago. But I didn't. Instead, I wake up each day amazed at how much of my life has passed while I am still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up.

The passage of time is ground further into my consciousness when I get calls from friends who callously announce that my 50th high school reunion is on the horizon and want to know what month works best for me to go East to attend. My first reaction is to hang up because clearly this is nothing but a cruel prank. Then I look in the mirror and it occurs to me that perhaps the years have passed. Either that or I have aged amazingly badly for a 29-year- old.

One of the things that seems to be occurring more frequently as the span between graduations and today lengthens is that I find myself thinking of the people I was young with, the friends I dreamed with when the horizon was limitless and the future held nothing but the fulfillment of our wildest hopes. I wonder what happened to them and how their dreams matched their reality.

I recently contacted my college roommate, someone I hadn't seen in over 40 years, to find how life turned out for her versus how she dreamed it would. Before even meeting we agreed that no matter how horrified we were with how old the other person looked, we would both insist that neither of us had aged a day since graduation. Then we would get on with the delicate task of exploring just how things had gone versus what we'd hoped for in those long ago late night conversations.

The first thing you need to understand is that, from the get go, our friendship was an odd coupling. She was engaged to a Marine ROTC officer. I was fully engaged in the anti-war movement. It being the Vietnam years, that should have created a wide chasm. But it didn't. Now, all these years later, her husband is a retired Marine and college administrator enjoying golf and Fox News. She is clearly passionate about wildlife conservation, environmental issues and possibly politics.

Given her husband's favorite TV channel, it was inevitable that we'd get into quite an animated discussion of politics and politicians. Our viewpoints were, for the most part, universes apart. Our "discussion" was loud and lively, punctuated by looks of exasperation, surprise, shock and lots of laughter. That's right, folks, laughter. You see, when you have a basic affection and respect for the person sitting opposite you, you can have disagreements that are kept civil, lively, stimulating and non-lethal. This is clearly a lesson our politicians have forgotten, assuming they ever knew it.

Democracy can survive only if we are willing to work together, compromise when necessary and keep in mind that all parties have the best interests of the country at heart. And that's where I think modern politics fails greatly. The opposition is not treated as the "loyal" opposition but as a cabal of freaks bent on destroying the country. Coming to the table to work out differences with this viewpoint foremost in mind clearly dooms the negotiations before they have the chance to start.

I know my roommate's husband loves his country. He knows I love it too. We could argue and debate all the ins and outs of what is the best way for America to proceed without ever doubting that love. This gave me the incentive to really listen to what he had to say and the ability to acknowledge when he was occasionally correct. (Since I'm the one writing this, he's the one who gets to be only occasionally correct.) And it gave him the incentive to give my ideas a respectful ear even when he thought I was this side of bat---- crazy.

So maybe our politicians could take a lesson from this. The other side may be passionate about its ideas but approach them with the supposition that they are not passionate about destroying America. Maybe if everyone starts from that point, a common ground can someday be found again.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City, " is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

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