Friday, July 31, 2009

The Beer Summit

Once again we see the nation's mediator-in-chief at work in the White House, bringing together the two adversaries in a nasty little conflict, not necessarily to resolve the conflict, and definitely not to determine who was right and who was wrong, but simply to begin a dialogue and raise legitimate issues. I did a post on this today on my political blog, where I initially expressed annoyance that the Gates-Crowley incident was distracting our attention from the important policy issues that the nation needs to resolve this year, but then I ultimately decided that a conversation about racial profiling, police procedures, and whether the Gates arrest can be seen as a metaphor for changes happening in our society, might be a conversation worth having.

But here I think it's worth pointing out how the President's technique seems to have been effective in defusing a divisive situation. To do that, he first had to draw even more attention to an incident that was already distracting him and the nation from some important policy debates, which perhaps caused a slow-down in the progress of health insurance reform bills through Congress, and which perhaps allowed some commentators on both "sides" of the issue to make inflammatory statements that could have made the issue a little more heated. Then he gave the participants, and all of us, and himself, a chance to re-evaluate our initial judgments on this incident. Finally, he achieved reconciliation in the form of turning feuding parties arguing about who was right and who was wrong, into participants in a dialogue in which both are seriously trying to empathize with the other's point of view.

Ultimately, the value of mediation is not in assigning blame, and perhaps its highest value is not even in resolving disputes. Rather, mediation may sometimes be most valuable simply to provide an opportunity for participants in a conflict to try to understand the point of view of their adversaries. This seems to be the president's favorite technique for dealing with almost every situation, and it is irksome to a lot of people who are not interested in trying to understand opposing points of view, and who would prefer to fight and demolish their adversaries, whether foreign or domestic. But for more enlightened participants in the political process, the hope is that through mediation, we can at least have a civilized discourse, and perhaps achieve resolutions that all sides can at least understand.

I can't help but note, however, that at least some of the media's treatment of this incident, and even some of the participants' comments, reflect an unfair lack of appreciation of the important role of the mediator in facilitating these kinds of dialogues. From the New York Times report on the beer summit comes this quote from Officer Crowley:

"Asked about the president's contribution to the meeting, Crowley said: 'He provided the beer.'"

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