By AG Moore
Hans Kohlase, Author Unknown
Compromise is getting a bad rap these days. John Boehner refused to utter the word in a Sixty Minutes interview and Ralph Nader, in another venue, dismissively referred to Barack Obama as a “harmony ideology type”. It seems that whatever else one might be guilty of in politics, the charge of being a compromiser is unsurvivable.
Of course, the uneasy tension between principle and practice, which compromise straddles, is not new to our time. One of the most powerful treatments of the compromise dilemma can be found in an 1811 novella written by the German author, Heinrich Von Kleist. Kleist’s book, Michael Kohlhaas, is today regarded as a masterpiece; the spare narrative describes the quest for justice of a horse trader, the eponymous Michael Kohlhaas.
In the course of his business, Kohlhass is inappropriately assessed a duty when he crosses the land of a powerful Junker prince. As surety for the Junker’s tax, Kohlhaas leaves two horses and a servant behind. Upon his return to collect the servant and livestock, he discovers the horses have been badly treated and the servant beaten. Kohlhaas sues the prince, but the suit is thrown out by a corrupt magistrate. Inflamed by this further injustice, the horse trader presses his case. Eventually, frustrated at every juncture, he goes to war. In the end, he loses not only his horses, but also his land, his family and his life.
Several months after publication of the starkly written tale, Heinrich Von Kleist ended his own life in an apparent murder/suicide pact. The conclusion I draw from this fact and from Kleist’s writing, is that here was a man who did not take easily to compromise.
In recent years, especially since the last election, I have from time to time thought about Kleist and his principled hero. Kohlhaas (who was modeled after an historic figure) is a sympathetic character. Of course he is in the right; but at some point, doesn’t that cease to matter and the practical consequences of his actions become more important?
As unpalatable as the term may be to John Boehner and as unthinkable as the alternative is to the fictional Michael Kohlhaas, compromise is with us every day. It is intrinsic to existence. The most insignificant choices involve negotiation: food, clothing, recreation …Whatever it is that we decide upon, we are considering options and making concessions. The concessions may only be about price or color, but concession is, by its nature, compromise.
Perhaps, though, as we move away from mundane considerations and onto the higher plane of principle, compromise assumes a different complexion. If something is really important, if it goes to the heart of our values, maybe compromise is not tenable. I submit that this is a false premise. All things, especially really important things, have concrete consequences: there is nothing abstract about flesh and blood, about joy and pain. And the more significant an issue – that is, the greater the principle – the more likely it is to impact people’s lives.
An agreement to negotiate is not necessarily an abdication of position; it is merely the beginning of an understanding that rational debate is possible. To refuse to engage, to refuse to entertain alternatives, is to abandon our critical faculties.
Because of his unwavering allegiance to principle, the horse trader Kohlhaas traveled a path that led inevitably to his own destruction. We, the readers, are left to ask: did Kohlhaas do good? And, when a political leader like John Boehner flatly refuses to entertain the possibility of compromise, we as voters are left to similarly ask: is he doing good?
I know my answer. What is yours?