One of the most frightening facts of this election has been the media blackout around Sarah Palin. Reporters have been allowed a minimum of contact with her, and as a result have not been able to ask the many critical questions that our democratic citizenry need to have answered.

It is easy to assume, as Campbell Brown did on CNN, that John McCain’s campaign is treating her in sexist fashion like “a delicate flower that will wilt at any moment.” The fact is, though, that we simply don’t know. Not as long as the public is denied a dialogue with her. We need to get to know our candidates, especially in potentially hostile situations. Dialogue is essential to democracy.

On Friday we were given the opportunity to hear the candidates opposing viewpoints side by side in the first presidential debate. This sort of dialogue is what we need. Of course, 95 percent of the debate was nothing but blatant politicking, name calling and pandering, but in that remaining 5 percent we got to view some honest give and take between two widely differing philosophies, and this is critical in getting comfortable with one of the candidates.

This tiny bite of real political dialogue, though, is not nearly enough. While events like the debates are probably capable of honestly swaying a few minds one way or the other, most of us are much more entrenched in our stances on the issues. But we can’t consider any of our beliefs to be remotely authentic until they have been authentically challenged. And like it or not, there are intelligent people on all sides of the aisle.

This came to the forefront of my attention a few weeks ago when I was talking to a friend from India. I was arguing, rather effectively, about what I saw as John McCain’s complete lack of concern for the middle class. But his response had nothing to do with the cohesiveness of my arguments. He said, “In America, you think these things are black and white. There is one side or another, and everyone is divided.”

It is easy for me, and I suspect many others, to feel that there is really only one reasonable, informed approach to take on each major issue. Deregulation allows Wall Street to fall to greed, and regulation is needed to check that deadly sin. Passing modest tax increases to promote social justice is a more valuable goal than tax cuts simply for the sake of decreasing the size of government. A president should not automatically rule out the possibility of meeting with certain foreign leaders if there is any hope of fostering a world community.

But among the great numbers of people whose opinions differ from mine, many do so for valid reasons.

The problem is not that half of the population is wrong; it is that our history of two-party politics has made every issue into an either/or. This is an absolute fallacy. One is not either left or right, Democrat or a Republican; very few people subscribe to the entirety of either party line.

People fear the sheer liberal or conservativeness of the “other side.” What is often ignored, though, is that policies do not flip instantly from one pole to the other. They exist along a continuum. For instance, there would be disastrous consequences if we suddenly switched to socialized medicine overnight. But we never will. If it happens at all (please, God), it will happen very slowly. We have to choose between a candidate who will push the issue, gradually, one way or the other.

If we conceive of the candidates’ positions as pinpoints along a spectrum of possible outcomes, then we can find greater value in comparing their positions to our own. And as students at the University of Michigan, we have the additional opportunity to compare our beliefs with those of some of the brightest people in the country. If we accept the challenge and seek out dialogue, I think we will all find it much easier to conceive of realist, bipartisan solutions.

Otherwise, we are simply blacking out. And that is not an option.

Bryan Kolk can be reached at beakerk@umich.edu.

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