Finding Our Strength

We have choices to make.  They might differ from the choices we are used to thinking about, but these are not normal times.  Indeed, it appears the challenges before us are likely to worsen before they get better.  Faced with crises and instability we turn our attention to safety. And, our local community is where that needs to happen.  Shall we strengthen dependability with our neighbors and build supportive relationships, or pretend that every day will be like the last?

When the world is breaking down and hardship grows, we can always find common cause with our neighbors.  We need people in our lives who have the practical knowledge and skills to help resolve local problems – whatever their politics or religion or the color of their skin.  This is a choice that calls for wisdom and initiative.   Common sense, really, but the first step is always ours to take.  The road to security is built with civility and paved with trust.

Conflict is natural in relationships, yet differences can only be fully understood and surmounted in and through relationships. It is in the work on interpersonal relations that direct and honest communication can take place.  Building community can be hard work, but it is the only certain protection from calamity.

Making this fractious process possible and effective in America will not succeed unless we believe it is worth the effort.

Some may say it’s too late.  I say that Americans are courageous, resourceful, resilient.  The United States was conceived in controversy; and the vision of the Founders came with recognition that wisdom and strength are found in diversity.  Indeed, it is argued here that diversity is the foundation for strength, and that the United States Constitution is a visionary assertion of this belief.

The Founders gave us a structure.  It is our responsibility to make it work.

We are confronted today by one of the great tests of American history, a challenge to the intent embodied in the Constitution and the coherence of a vision that has been gradually maturing for more than two hundred years.  Perhaps we have lost our way at times, stumbled, gotten sloppy.  But now it is time to pull together.  It is argued here that we must begin in our local communities – the historic home to democracy and the seat of civilization.

Stability cannot be imposed from above in a free society.  The kind of strength we seek is grounded in trust and dependability in personal relations.  This is the nature of genuine community.

I am not talking about a “recovery” from crisis in the normal sense.  Rather, I submit that we stand at the threshold of an unprecedented turning point – a crossroads that offers a unique window of opportunity for Americans to affirm and uphold our exceptional and multifaceted identity as a nation.  In navigating through an extraordinary confluence of crises we will be forced to renew our values, think on our feet, and make both pragmatic and ethical adjustments.  A creative process is now underway that would not be possible otherwise.

Differences are a given in America.  Our success at rising above our differences to build a vibrant and cohesive society is the dominant expression of the American character.  Why is this of pragmatic importance to Americans?  Why has it produced such exceptional results?  And, why is it questioned?  To understand these concerns is of particular importance at the time of this writing.  The answers can be missed, but they are not hidden.

I turn again to conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, who made a heartfelt call to the American people in 2008 urging that we rise above our differences, however significant they may be, to reaffirm “what it is to be an American.”

 “Politics is a great fight and must be a fight; that is its purpose,” Peggy Noonan wrote: “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 little, key area in which we have to prevail if the whole enterprise is to succeed.  The challenge we must rise to.”[i]

I know many readers will question the suggestion that these are “small things that divide us.”  Some of us feel strongly that there are very substantial issues dividing us.  Certain issues are, indeed, very significant, and I am quite sure that Peggy Noonan would not wish to minimize the significance of our concerns.

But, she has a point.  We actually do have a choice.  We can acknowledge the things that divide us, address them respectfully, and unite to strengthen the nation and the civil order that allows us to defend our freedom to differ.  Or, we can let the vision and the treasure slip between our fingers like sand.

Some may think their principles are too important to be compromised.  Most of us, however, believe that the American Republic is very much worth defending and that it is time for Americans to rise to the next level.

In fact, both history and reason tell us that national strength does not require that we compromise our beliefs.  America has always been known for the clash of differing opinions.  Social, political, and religious pluralism is what America is all about.  That is who we are.

If we believe in liberty and are committed to defending the right to freedom of opinion and belief, we will recognize our differences as natural to a free society.  A constitutional democracy will not, and cannot by definition, force its citizens to embrace in single comprehensive doctrine.  That would be the intention of a totalitarian regime.

The concept of unity within diversity did not exist prior to the founding of the United States.  In the European consciousness political and religious divisions had always been seen as disastrous.  The American Founders set humankind on a new course with a constitutional structure that accommodates diversity and necessitates collaborative problem-solving.

A public basis for general understanding is of course essential in a democratic society, and this is can only be provided with citizen commitment and the reasonableness of political order.  We depend on this, and it is not possible without a degree of pragmatic cooperation.  From time to time institutions will lose their footing and must be brought to account. And a reasonable accounting in the balance of order depends on justice and fairness, a unity of purpose but not of philosophy.

In Chapter 4, Freedom and Order, I will briefly discuss the vision and structure with which the American Founders brought order to an already divided and contentious polity.  But first I wish to offer some perspective concerning the strength provided by diversity, a just and resilient durability that has brought the United States to the forefront of human progress.  I will argue here that diversity is the foundation of strength.  The United States Constitution is a pioneering assertion of this principle, and history has confirmed its’ truth.

Conceived in Controversy

Given our national diversity what exactly does it mean to be American?  The answer that we choose will determine the shape of our future, and we will return to this question again and again on the following pages.

The United States was conceived in controversy.  I submit that the visionary audacity of the Founders was not a desperate effort to control an extremely divisive and contentious populace.  Rather, it grew out of shrewd insight and a recognition that strength depends on a unity that can only be founded upon diversity.

We find ourselves confronted today by one of the great tests of history, a challenge to both the intent enshrined in the Constitution and the coherence of the American vision that has been gradually maturing for more than two hundred years.

Perhaps we have lost our way for periods of time, stumbled, gotten sloppy. Even now it can be argued that the reality is less than perfect.  However, now it is time for the American people to pull together in the coming years and step forward to rise to the best that we can be.

Finding fault does nothing to defend the Constitution or to secure safety and stability in our communities. Indeed, it sends us careening toward catastrophe.

How can we maintain the integrity of our personal values and views in a complex society?  How can we build stability and a civil order that allows for a diversity of values and identities, and facilitates the free exchange of ideas, knowledge, and practical skills?  Most importantly, how can we reach out to one another in such a way that we can hear and understand one another?  Today our nerves are shattered.  We are on the edge.

In considering our response to new and unexpected challenges in a rapidly changing world, we are in a position to make positive changes, both pragmatic and ethical, that would not otherwise be possible.  A tough lesson can correct weaknesses and imbalances that have led to these crises, but success can only be built on the time-tested principles that have made America a visionary model for the world – a model capable of continuing refinement, if we allow it.

A Hidden Wisdom

How has the American identity formed itself during the past 200 years – from amidst an immense diversity of conflicting ideas and beliefs?  Why has the clash of differing opinions led to patriotism and strength?  What is going on?

The idea that unity is strengthened by diversity may seem counter-intuitive at first, yet we have many examples of how this works.

In the book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki writes of the compelling evidence that large groups of people possess an extraordinary power to solve problems when their judgment is aggregated, and that the more diverse the crowd, the more efficient the solutions. Citing a variety of dramatic examples, and referencing the long history of intellectual resistance to this idea, author Surowiecki presents a fascinating description of the conditions in which collective decision-making works and does not work.

Near the beginning of his book we hear about the surprise of the British scientist Francis Galton when 787 participants in a raffle at a country fair submitted guesses at what the weight of a large ox would be after it had been slaughtered and dressed.

“The analogy to a democracy, in which people of radically different abilities and interests each get one vote, had suggested itself to Galton immediately. ‘The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of an ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,’ he wrote.” [ii]

Galton, who wished to support his view that “the average voter” was capable of very little good judgment, borrowed the tickets from the organizers following the competition. He then ran a series of statistical tests on them. Among other things, he added all the contestants’ estimates and calculated the mean. The crowd had guessed that the ox, after it had been slaughtered and dressed, would weigh 1,197 pounds. In fact, it weighed 1,198 pounds.

Another of the fascinating examples described by James Surowiecki, also in his Introduction, is the story of the 1968 loss of the U.S. submarine Scorpion, which disappeared in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The navy had no idea what happened to the vessel, where it was, or how fast it had been traveling. Mr. Surowiecki recounts the story as told by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew in their book Blind Man’s Bluff, about how a naval officer named John Craven assembled a group of people – mathematicians, submarine specialists, and salvage men – provided them with a number of varied scenarios, and asked them to offer their best guesses without benefit of discussion among themselves.  All they knew was the sub’s last reported location.

Craven’s group laid wagers on why the submarine ran into trouble, on its speed as it headed for the ocean floor and on the steepness of descent, among other things. Craven built a composite picture of what happened and calculated the group’s collective estimate of where the submarine was. The location he came up with was not a spot suggested by any individual member of the group. But, that is where it was.

The navy found the wreck 220 yards from where Craven’s people said it would be.[iii]

Mr. Surowiecki proceeds to demonstrate the astonishing consistency of this outcome in widely varied circumstances. And, he explains how groups work well in some circumstances better than others. As we all know, there are times when aggregating individual decisions produces a collective decision that is disastrous; a riot, for example, or a stock market bubble. Interestingly, he writes:

“Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms – like market prices, or intelligent voting systems – to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think. Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.”[iv]

Conflict and Community

I recommend this book highly.  But, let me be clear.  James Surowiecki observes diversity on a broad scale and from an elevated perspective.  The challenge for most of us will be in translating this wisdom in our personal lives.  How can this inform and strengthen our efforts to build secure communities and to construct a promising future?

Learning how to live and work together in small groups, and when initiating the many necessary elements of a healthy civil order, is precisely the challenge addressed on these pages.  The potential resourcefulness made available by diversity is the same wherever we focus our personal energy.  But the challenges of making it work for us in the intimacy of small groups requires a combination of learned skills, malleable attitudes, and creative imagination.

As we witness the degeneration of civil order and the collapsed remnants of effective governance, it becomes apparent that local community is the logical place, and perhaps the only place, to relearn the richest lessons from the American past and to begin rebuilding our society from a position of stability.  Community is that one place where we have a degree of control, where each of us can contribute personally, and, indeed, where our personal security and well-being are on the line.

American society has become increasingly fragmented over time.  There are many reasons for this.  The incessant battering of incoherent mass media has certainly contributed.  The loss of community and the retreat into identity-based politics are surely involved.  Whatever the causes, we have found ourselves living with deep-seated political cynicism and mistrust.

The strategy proposed here is extremely challenging.  Unfortunately, I do not think we have a choice.  If we wish for the survival and success of the United States as a constitutional republic, it will be necessary to rise above our differences to find a shared vision.

What will this require?

The citizens of a healthy democracy do not expect to agree on much.  But, in the words of political theorist Sheldon Wolin, we must agree on “some broad measure of similarity if only to support the notion of membership that entails equality of rights, responsibilities, and treatment.”[v]

Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Professor of Ethics at the University of Chicago, goes on to observe that the “ideologues of difference embrace their own version of sameness – an exclusionist sameness…. There is no apparent end to this process, as identities get shaved off into more and more minute slivers.”[vi]

Those who refuse to relate to society except from within the confines of identity politics or a totalist ideology will never participate fully as citizens. These two road blocks are closely related.

Ideologies build walls around themselves.  Ideologues imagine a pure, utopian society in which everyone approves of their lifestyle or adheres to a strictly defined social vision, often insisted upon as a just social and economic ideal.  They are totalist in their views and blind to the validity of diverse values and perspectives.  We are either on the inside or the outside of an ideology, which often degenerates first into overbearing social pressure and then into the violence of a police state.  The world has seen this many times before.

Identity politics have paralyzed American political life in more recent decades.  Identity politics are uniquely disruptive.  They are frozen in personal experience and perception.  They lead to social and political isolation and fragmentation that precludes genuine communication.  Defensiveness is often understandable, but inflexible attitudes and combative rhetoric prevents constructive outcomes in a just civil order.

Identity politics taken to their natural extreme, quickly morph into a kind of ideology that is strangely similar to other examples of totalist politics. It resists constructive engagement and is hostile to ideas that are not focused entirely on its’ own goals.  And, it is oblivious to the value of inclusive participation in the larger social and political construct.  This often results in a great loss to a free society, which can only gain from engagement with diversity.  Dynamic strength is instead neutralized by the totalist intransigence and defensiveness of a group.  The world is in fact filled with all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of predispositions.  No one can justly ask us to abandon our points of view.  In the face of existential crisis, it’s time to open our minds and be practical.

Is there a way to halt the degenerating slide into mistrust and cynicism?  Yes, but only with a determined effort by citizens who recognize what is at stake.  The solution will not turn magically into unity and agreement.  Rather, it will grow with the recognition of what we hold in common even as we disagree.

While there will always be difficult people to challenge our patience, most Americans are people of good will who would greatly value the opportunity to work together constructively, rather than hide behind the barriers of race or class or ideology.  As we travel the rough and ready path to constructive problem-solving, we will stumble into many genuine friendships and discover precious allies.

The Most Challenging Issue

We cannot leave the subject of diversity without mention of the still open wounds left by the legacy of chattel slavery in America.  When viewed in terms of identity politics, the problem of race is truly an exception. The difference is that African-Americans do not wish to be separated or excluded from mainstream society. They ask that their ethnicity be respected, as do all groups that have experienced serious prejudice in the American past: the Irish, Chinese, Italians, and others.  But, like all the rest of us, the vast majority of African-Americans want little more than to be accepted as the committed American citizens that they are.

Black Americans experience mainstream American society as an explicitly white society.  And it is apparent to them that white Americans have almost no consciousness of this fact.  The dominant expressions of white society, sometimes coupled with a non-verbal air of dismissal or disrespect, is an unavoidable experience for people of color every day of their lives.

This writer, who is white, has found it helpful to read the sometimes painfully direct commentary of Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and an ordained minister.  Dr. Dyson articulates the black experience in a way that is immediately clear and intelligible.

“It is distressing,” he writes, addressing white people like myself, “that so few of you have more than a token black friend, maybe two. Every open-minded white person should set out immediately to find and make friends with black folk who share their interests. It’s not as hard as it seems. Black folk come in every variety of belief, ideology, and politics, just as any other American does, and the vast majority of us are morally upright.

“Honestly, the fact that you do not know real, ordinary, splendid black folk is astonishing. The more black folk you know, the less likely you are to stereotype us. The less you stereotype us, the less likely you are to fear us. The less you fear us, the less likely you are to want to hurt us, or to accept our hurt as the price of your safekeeping. The safer you feel, the safer we’ll be.”[vii]

The most articulate commentary I have seen addressing this concern comes from the American Baha’is.  The Baha’i Faith is a wide-spread religious community headquartered in Israel.  Readers may find the statement as useful as I have.  It begins with these words:

“Racism is the most challenging issue confronting America. A nation whose ancestry includes every people on earth, whose motto is E pluribus unum, whose ideals of freedom under law have inspired millions throughout the world, cannot continue to harbor prejudice against any racial or ethnic group without betraying itself. Racism is an affront to human dignity, a cause of hatred and division, a disease that devastates society.

“Notwithstanding the efforts already expended for its elimination, racism continues to work its evil upon this nation. Progress toward tolerance, mutual respect, and unity has been painfully slow and marked with repeated setbacks. The recent resurgence of divisive racial attitudes, the increased number of racial incidents, and the deepening despair of minorities and the poor make the need for solutions ever more pressing and urgent. To ignore the problem is to expose the country to physical, moral and spiritual danger.”[viii]

In the event that the United States faces a severe “confluence of crises” in our future, one that threatens social and economic collapse, I believe it quite possible that it will be African-Americans, together with indigenous American Indian citizens, who will have the resilient strength and emotional maturity to carry white America through to a safe, civilized and genuinely American recovery.  These communities, who have known generations of grievous suffering, can be expected to step forward with a grace and internal strength that will ensure a solidly American future.

An Existential Crisis

At the present time the nation needs the creative energy and devotion of every citizen. Americans who have survived indignities are capable of bringing courage and a resilient spirit to our cause, as well as much needed knowledge and skills.  Theirs is a strength born of hardship, yet they welcome us into their homes and communities with a warm hospitality we would do well to match.  When, as individuals or groups, we address a problem or plan an endeavor, the more varied the perspective and experience that is brought to bear the more effective will be the resolution.

Our resistance to diversity can arise from discomfort with those we perceive as “outsiders”, who look or think differently than we do, or who come from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds.  Yet, no one is asking us to change our views or preferences.  Rather, I encourage everyone to take advantage of the knowledge, perspective, and skills of Americans who come to the table with varied of experiences.  Diversity stimulate our minds, sometimes in ways we can ill afford to do without.

The healthy functioning of a free society requires that we accept our differences and recognize the potential for value.  Yet, a constructive attitude cannot be legislated.  It must be considered and worked out by each of us individually.  A failure of nerve, a loss of courage would be inconsistent with the American character.  Worse, it could tip us into the splintered chaos of a fragmented future.

If we wish to see these United States come through the approaching storms with our principles and values intact, such a unity is a national imperative.  However rational this argument might be, I know it will be hard for thoughtful readers to imagine how it can be realized in the midst of extreme divisiveness and hostility.

Later in the book I will propose practical tools and methods with which communities with a diversity of members can engage in effective problem-solving and decision-making.  If we are to find any semblance of security in a time of crisis, communities will depend on a diversity of knowledge and as many practical skills and points of view as we are fortunate enough to assemble.  It will be necessary to gain the skills and alter the thinking that will make this possible.

I encourage readers to engage purposefully with friends and neighbors, including those who are recognizably different from themselves.  Seek to become fully acquainted, to experience the humanity of the other, and to understand something of the background and sources of their views and perspective.  Friendship does not require agreement.  I would suggest, however, that we will often be surprised by the common ground we discover in shared humanity.  We will also be blessed by the ways that friendship with very different people can enrich our lives.

I do not need to tell you that the effort will be immensely challenging.  Pushing through feelings of antipathy and alienation is the key to the present historic turning point.  Our future depends on it.  Peggy Noonan put it bluntly:  This is the crucial area in which we must prevail if America is to prevail.  The rewards are great.  If American communities are to emerge into a vibrant matrix of local and regional networks, we will depend on citizens with diverse skills and varied perspectives, people who are capable of teamwork and practical problem-solving.

The opportunity to explore the world through the eyes of others is a blessing and a gift.  There is no need to give up our own values and views.  A life filled with a diversity of people, places, and experiences is an education that never stops giving.  In the event of social collapse it may also be the key to survival.

[i]  Peggy Noonan, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now, HarperCollins (2008), pp. 41-43.

[ii]  James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds, Random House (2004), Introduction p. xii.

[iii]  Ibid., Introduction, pp. xx-xxi.

[iv]  Ibid., Introduction, pp. xix-xx.

[v]  Sheldon Wolin, “Democracy, Difference and Re-Cognition,” Political Theory 21, no.3 (1993), p.466.

[vi]  Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy on Trial (1995), Basic Books, pp.74-5.

[vii] Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop, St. Martin’s Press (2017), pp.206-7.

[viii] The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. The Vision of Race Unity, America’s Most Challenging Issue, p.1.