Guest columnist Jonathan Kahane: Compromise is overrated


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Published: 10-18-2023 9:40 PM

I am constantly astonished, make that flabbergasted, upon reading the Gazette’s opinion page, at the extraordinary number of “experts” in every discipline under the sun residing in our “Happy Valley.” Some of the “solutions” proposed recently by these “authorities” claim to be able to calm the waters in the fields of city planning, education reform, gun control (or more importantly, the lack thereof), climate change, and international relations. I’ll leave it to you to assess how successful their opinions would be if put into practice.

Let me say from the get-go that this wordsmith is not one of these wizards who is able to provide you with a panacea. In fact, my history of solving problems is woefully lacking.

The highlight was stopping an argument between my two sons when they were toddlers over a piece of candy by proposing a compromise. I broke it in half. The detente lasted for 1 minute and 27 seconds, which serves as a segue to the topic of this essay — compromise is overrated.

This insight came to me while watching my 1½-year-old granddaughter solve the problem of fitting a rectangular block into its corresponding form on a board. She wasn’t satisfied with the compromise of only fitting part of the block in. She continued to twist and turn it until it fit. I generalized this lesson to other lines of reasoning. When a compromise is reached between parties, none of them are completely satisfied. This unrest can serve to arouse further disputes in the future.

Politics is an arena where leaders seek compromise and the result is often heralded as brilliant. Let’s look at some of the more famous compromises in American history.

In 1787, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth solved a dispute about how states should be represented in Congress known as “The Great Compromise.” It established a bicameral system where all states were to be equally represented in the Senate while representation in the House was to be determined by population. It works like a charm, doesn’t it?

I suppose it depends upon what kind of “charm” you’re referring to.

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Henry Clay was an American statesman known as “The Great Compromiser.” He was the architect of many “agreements” in the early half of the 19th century that kept the Union “intact.” Perhaps his most highly touted work was The Missouri Compromise (1820). Missouri was to be admitted into the Union as a “Slave State” and Maine as a “Free State.” We all know (or should know) what started 41 years later on April 12, 1861 — 624, 511 Americans killed during the ensuing four years.

At the Paris Peace Talks during the Vietnam War, it took three months between 1968 and 1969 to compromise about the shape of the table the delegates were to use. The war didn’t end until 1975. Men and women were being killed in the meantime.

Rumor has it that when President Joe Biden and Sen. Mitch McConnell were trying to come up with a compromise over lunch to keep the government open, it took them several hours to agree on the topping for their pizza.

As I said at the outset, I don’t have the answers, but perhaps my granddaughter should be invited to solve the problems of choosing the next speaker of the House and how to keep the government open.

Jonathan Kahane lives in Westhampton.