American Meaning, American Challenge

Americans have placed great value on both national unity and our characteristic diversity.  We are a contentious lot, yet we are capable of showing fierce allegiance to one another.

In the book, The Wisdom of Crowds, introduced in my previous post, James Surowiecki offers convincing evidence that good judgment can be found in large groups, and challenges our assumptions about the wisdom of democratic decision-making.  He describes startling results when the independent thinking of unrelated strangers is aggregated.

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

But, what about small groups – and communities?

I would suggest that wisdom can also be found, intentionally and intelligently, when we are working face-to-face and committed to common interests.

A decision-making process that culminates in unified common purpose is a learned skill.  Effective solutions depend on a group’s ability to generate ideas that go beyond consensus.

This is only possible when we can rise above our differences to leverage our diversity of knowledge, experience, and problem-solving skills.

Unity is not sameness.  Unity can only come 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.  We can work together easily when we learn and accept certain common sense principles based on mutual respect.

In Chapter One, American Crucible (, I quoted 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 reaffirm what it is to be an American.

Peggy Noonan writes:

“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 at the suggestion that “small things… divide us,” feeling that very substantial things divide us.  I am quite sure that Peggy Noonan would not want to minimize the significance of our concerns.

However, she has a point.  We can acknowledge the things that divide us, address them in a respectful manner that allows practical debate, and unite to strengthen the nation to protect a civil order that allows us to preserve or recover the freedoms we cherish.

Or, we can let it all come to naught.

I never said it would be easy.  I have said that if we wish to recover the integrity of the nation we honor and respect – we have no choice.


A note to readers: The next blog post, appearing on or about September 16, will be a guest post by a recently retired police officer (and regular reader) on the importance of compassion in law enforcement.