Talk Newspaper: The question on the table is whether we're up to the task of governing ourselves.

It's not just that every one of us has a huge stake in the outcome of this summer's health care debate (if debate is the right word). This is bigger than that. The question on the table is whether we're up to the task of governing ourselves.

So let's look at this again. None of the four readers who responded to last week's column share my conviction that we'd get more bang for the buck if we followed the lead of other countries with standardized public health insurance, and one, who actually posted four times, burns with passion about what a horrible idea that is. I could fire shells back his way and he could fire back again, both of us amazed at what the other says he believes, both revved up by how right we are and how wrong the other guy is, until we were the only two people on the planet still reading.

Maybe how much we disagree isn't amazing at all "As for the Florida recount," he says, "even with all the commotion, at least they got it right. Let's hope we get the same results with this health care fiasco being presented by Congress." He goes there because last week I compared the current town hall shouting to a key moment when a screaming crowd, pounding wildly on glass doors, shut down the 2000 Florida vote recount at a crucial moment.

Here's what seems true: Someone who believes George Bush legitimately won Florida and therefore the 2000 election and went on to serve this country well, and someone who believes the exact opposite on both counts, will bring completely different filters to health care and pretty much every other big issue and will be deeply unimpressed with one another's "facts." I'll quote the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to him ("You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts"), he'll think the same back at me, and if in the end we've made any progress I can't tell you what it is.

So, my prolific friend, I suggest we drop our puny efforts to straighten each other out on health care and see if can come together for something at least as important: keeping (or making) this country safe for the conversations self-government needs. You write, probably in response to charges that these semi-riots are orchestrated, that "As for the town hall meetings, people are genuinely upset." Yes, I get that. I'm pretty upset about what's going on, and you seem to be, too. "Now we have our own president sending goons to these meeting, for the sole purpose of disrupting the meetings, to make sure that the voice of the people is either not heard, or that it can later be dismissed as a bunch of radicals, with no regard for peaceful public redress." Senator Moynihan's rolling in his grave here. How about a deal: If you can back your charge up with halfway credible data, I'll carefully rethink this whole mess; if you can't, don't make the charge.

Still, there's a ray of light here. If undisrupted public meetings and "peaceful public redress" really matter to you, let's stand up and fight for them. And while we're at it, let's bring in another reader who weighed in on the forum: "Ya sure Jeff," he wrote. "Silence is Golden, just ask Act Up and Code Pink. Hypocrite!"

Except that Act Up and Code Pink, as far as I know, don't incite people to shut down public debate. They've been rude, true, and loud when there was no other way to get their voice into the conversation, as were some protestors at Senator Max Baucus' hearings when they discovered that no one would be allowed to propose a single-payer alternative. Shouting to get into the debate is very different than shouting to shut it down, and far less toxic to democracy. If you find Act Up, Code Pink or anyone else trying to shut down public meetings, I'll be standing right with you to condemn them. In the meantime, are you willing to stand up to those who won't let others be heard right now?

At the end of every column, I've invited you to read excerpts from my novel "Unafraid." I chose that title from something John F. Kennedy said in 1962: "We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."

Was he right? Is he still?

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com).