CARROLL: We've always bickered [1]

[ Mon. Dec. 31. 2007 ]

"The partisan bickering that ensued throughout the 1790s suggested . . ."

Hold it right there. The 1790s? Does the historian Joseph J. Ellis, who wrote those words in his fine 2007 book American Creation, mean to say that "partisan bickering" dates almost from the founding of the American republic, when political parties themselves were still looked upon as divisive embarrassments?

He certainly does.

Partisan bickering - sometimes mild but often shockingly vicious - has characterized every decade of this nation's history, although you'd hardly know it to hear the many complaints about partisanship today. It's worth keeping this history in mind as the election season unfolds and presidential candidates once again pledge to end the rancor in Washington, restore civility and respect, and stop the political squabbling.

Barack Obama is most associated with this superficially pleasing theme. He promises to "change politics," uniting Americans around a "politics of purpose" that transcends "partisan calculation."

Alas for Obama, he has set himself an impossible task - however appealing it might seem to many Americans fed up with the routine nastiness of Washington debates. The "bickering" reflects not only a struggle for power, after all, but also real policy differences. And no, it won't end, ever, unless one side manages to silence the other - presumably not what Obama or anyone else running for the White House actually has in mind.

Science snubbed

The Western world has split into "two cultures," the British scientist C.P. Snow declared nearly half a century ago, in which scientists and literary intellectuals no longer know how to speak to each other.

Snow's lengthy thesis was sloppy and attracted well-aimed barbs. Yet the cliche "The Two Cultures" has survived, I suspect, in part because it does help to explain the oblivious attitude toward science exhibited by so many otherwise educated people.

Take the fact that The New York Times' "100 Notable Books of the Year" from its Book Review includes no science books. The reader who pointed this out to me saw it reported on John Brockman's Edge Web site. Brockman's indignant assessment: "Given the well-documented challenges and issues we are facing as a nation, as a culture, how can it be that there are no science books (and hardly any books on ideas) on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year list; no science category in the Economist Books of the Year 2007; only Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker's list of Books From Our Pages?"

Since Brockman wrote those words nearly two weeks ago, the Times' three daily reviewers have published lists of their favorite books, too. Only one is about science - although science decades old (Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science).

Brockman argues that "Elite universities have nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum" and thus produce graduates "who don't even know that they don't know." Maybe so, but those graduates, if they work at a paper like the Times, must know this much: Their readers include many people trained in the sciences who might prefer a book on what scientists think, about our future, say, to a book on what Tina Brown thinks about Princess Diana.

Yes, The Diana Chronicles actually made the Times' "notable" list.