The Challenge We Must Rise To

Last week I introduced you to James Surowiecki’s observations regarding democratic decision-making in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Offering convincing evidence that wisdom can be found in large groups if we know how to look for it, Mr. Surowiecki challenges our understanding of democracy.

None of us would expect the citizens of a democratic republic to make objective decisions when they have individual interests at stake. However, he reports startling results when aggregating the thinking of unrelated groups of strangers.

Importantly, Mr. Surowiecki emphasizes the necessity for both diversity of viewpoints and independence in thinking.

I would suggest that wisdom can also be found more intentionally, and intelligently, when we are fully committed to seeking the greater good. And this is most effective when we are committed to the safety and well-being of our friends and neighbors.

Such commonality of intention has certain basic requirements of course. Local initiatives will always depend on shared purpose, and to a large extent on shared values. And, this can only happen when we rise above our differences to appreciate the diversity of our knowledge, our varied experience and unique ways of seeing things.

Unity cannot exist in a state of sameness. It only comes into being with the embrace of differences. Living with diversity presents us with the necessity for learning how to engage with one another in practical ways. Nothing will be possible otherwise.

In Chapter One, American Crucible, I quote Peggy Noonan’s heartfelt call to the American people in her little book, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now. In it she urges us to rise above our differences, however significant they may be, to reaffirm “what it is to be an American.”

Rarely has there been a time in the past of this extraordinary country when it has been more important to consider and to reaffirm what it is to be an American.

Peggy Noonan puts it to us like this:

“Politics is a great fight and must be a fight; that is its purpose. We are a great democratic republic, and we struggle with great questions. One group believes A must be law, the other Z. Each side must battle it through, and the answer will not always be in the middle. The answer is not always M.

“But we can approach things in a new way, see in a new way, speak in a new way. We can fight honorably and in good faith, while—and this is the hard one—both summoning and assuming good faith on the other side.

“To me it is not quite a matter of ‘rising above partisanship,’ though that can be a very good thing. It’s more a matter of remembering our responsibilities and reaffirming what it is to be an American.

“…And so I came to think this: What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace—a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we are in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. That admits affection and respect. That encourages them. That acknowledges the small things that divide us are not worthy of the moment; that agrees that the things that can be done to ease the stresses we feel as a nation should be encouraged, while those that encourage our cohesion as a nation should be supported.

“I’ve come to think that this really is our Normandy Beach, …the key area in which we have to prevail if the whole enterprise is to succeed. The challenge we must rise to.”

Some readers will recoil from the suggestion that “small things… divide us.” Some feel strongly that very substantial thing divide us. I am quite sure that Peggy Noonan would not want to minimize the significance of our concerns.

But, she has a point. We can acknowledge the things that divide us, address them in a respectful manner, and unite to strengthen the nation to protect the civil order that allows us our freedoms. Or, we can let it all come to naught.

I never said it would be easy. I said we have no choice.


Next week: A Disciplined Freedom