At heart of good political discussion: the idea

A year of living verbally with a French roommate's insistent 'whys' suggests how polarized Americans could fill their divide with light

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We are, as polls tell us and pundits reinforce, Polarized Nation.

En route to the election, states are divided blue-red. Voters are lodged in niches. Discourse is driven by labels and venom, not only in the public sphere - the vice president fires profanity at a Democratic senator in Congress, filmmaker Michael Moore fires polemic at the Republican president in "Fahrenheit 9/11" - but also in our backyards. Friends are falling out left and right over "left" and "right."

A positive development, however, can be seen in this polarization: Partisanship at the grass roots can be seen, after a long sleep of apathy, as a political awakening. The wake-up call, of course, was 9/11. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves - newly awake politically, yet beset with complexities of mortal urgency - not in a debate but a brawl.

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How do we even talk?

We might take a cue from ... the French.

The French way of conversation - fueled by a love of ideas - might ease the present impasse and lead to a more nuanced way of thinking necessary in today's volatile world.

While some Republicans mock Democratic nominee John Kerry for "looking French" and the "surrender monkeys" in Paris for refusing to join our Iraq war, the French way can instruct.

My own instruction, year-long and total-immersion, came in grad school at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Italy when I roomed with a young woman from Lyon. As we ventured into ideas, opinions, just shooting the breeze, I noticed Florence invariably responded to my input with: "That's interesting. Why do you think that?"

Not to be rude, and because conversation suddenly got fascinating (the ego adores attention), I'd return the favor and ask Florence the evolution of her thought. Et voilà, we were off - to a Year of Living Verbally (as our landlady could attest).

Thought, thinking, the idea: As Florence explained, French conversation stresses the idea, not the speaker or the feelings in play ("It's safer that way"). Though when we got a good volley going, feeling crept in - to animating effect, not derailing.

Premises were questioned, counterarguments posed (to avoid a false either/or choice): The point being that an idea's inner logic was to be pursued, rigorously, no matter where it led - ideally to a synthesis - nor how long it took, for it was time bien rempli, well filled.

In pursuit, we'd search for le mot juste. Terms and labels were examined (I can hear Florence now: "Please, what does it mean, 'surrender monkey'?"). Any idée fixe was flagged.

In this idea-fest, my contribution was the American idea of individualism and fighting Fate. In sum, it was a year well filled.

Too cerebral for americans? I'll confess I faded occasionally at yet another "Why?" from Florence, especially if late at night.

But for 35 years, our friendship has proved knowing and warm, because it began with - and is maintained by - those crucial words: "That's interesting. Why do you think that?"

Respectful of thought and thinker, the French way is complexity made pleasurable, fun - in a word, it's so inviting.

We polarized Americans might adopt it to our benefit - and so might our politicians. Because, think about it: When was the last time your polar opposite asked the evolution of your thought and, fair's fair, when did the reverse occur? (Time's up.) "That's interesting," focusing on the idea, is far more inviting than the conversation-stopping "That's stupid," which focuses on the person, i.e., idiot.

Who knows, that "idiot" might pose a good counterargument.

To find out, let's assume each other's patriotism and intelligence, drop the idiotic name-calling and the meaningless labels - what does "latte-drinking liberal" or "right-wing wacko" mean, except lazy thinking? - and ask the scary but key question, "Why do you think that?" (If only our Vietnam veterans, wounded again in the swift-boat "war," could ask one another this question.)

In turn we need to ask ourselves: Why do I think what I do? Are my opinions received unexamined - from family, peers, political party, the media, the Internet, because "it's cool"? Because of fear? Or do I examine them, rigorously, from premise to conclusion? Doing so, we'd acquire the habit of self-critique (fine French word) - a habit the entire world needs to learn.

Were we to reach a neutral place, beyond blue-red, we'd engage better the questions of this election and could reexamine our post-9/11 premises: What constitutes "strong" leadership? What is our role in the world - domination or cooperation? How do we combat terrorism - by muscle, preemptive war, diplomacy?

"Debated" in our present polarized state, however, these matters - vital to our survival - have become inflamed.

The importance of rationally engaging policy and premises in a time of fear is clear enough.

What's also at issue is how we relate to each other - countryman to countryman - and to the world, including notably France. In defense of our old ally I'll note: Antipathy toward the French "surrender monkeys," taken to its logical conclusion, is a killing idea.

America, the 9/11 commission states, is in a war of ideas with Islamic extremism. We're also in a nasty war of ideas with ourselves.

In these struggles we Americans, a people compelled more by energy than logic, could learn from the French, a people compelled by ideas - and history.

Because: To avert tragedy, we need every clear-thinking American head. And the idea we need to address is the greater good.

What do you think?

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of 'The Washington-Sarajevo Talks' and the new play 'Prodigal.'

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