Finding Our Balance in the Storm

We live in a world of unprecedented complexity.  Add to this a sense of moral responsibility, and life can be imposing!  The conditions we will face in a serious social and economic crisis will create unexpected challenges.  It will be easy to stumble and fall

So, let’s think about how we can respond to extreme conditions with courage and fortitude.  How can we meet adversity in a way that can actually serve as a springboard for constructive action and community-building?

All of us sometimes feel inadequate.  Courage fails us.  It can be difficult to find our footing and focus our energy productively, especially when we are confused or surprised.  And, it can sometimes feel impossible to be supportive of others, many of whom we seem to have little in common with.

Preparing ourselves will be important as we navigate through one of history’s great turning points.  Our ability to function responsibly under difficult circumstances will be challenged again and again.

I believe we have entered a period of upheaval that will be unparalleled in character and global in its dimensions.  I will explain in my forthcoming book why we can expect to experience “a confluence of crises” in the coming years, an extraordinary convergence of inevitable and seemingly unrelated crises.

It is imperative that we meet our tests with dignity, and above all not to give in to fear.  Democracy is by nature unpredictable, and it will be severely tested in the coming years.  Our future will depend on steadfast patience and forbearance if we are to preserve the open discourse and cooperation that liberty requires.

The American Republic is and always was founded on core human values and a positive, constructive attitude.  We cannot stand by and watch our future descend into chaos.

Those who are alive today have been chosen by history to bring America through this critical passage in time.  Preserving the essential qualities of the American Idea will be our great responsibility as we transit the upheavals of a great storm.

We must keep our balance, keep our hearts and minds focused on our ultimate purpose and not allow ourselves to be dragged down by rancor and bitterness.

We will prevail if the means we employ are harmonious with the ends that we seek.

I offer you symbolic imagery below for our place in history – a metaphor for freedom’s truth.  What follows are the final lines of a eulogy I delivered for my father at his memorial service, and a testimony to what I learned from him.  Please think about it:

“He gave me one truly great thing above all else…. And, this he did by teaching me the ways of sailing boats.  He taught me to fly on the wind.  He taught me to sail, to ride high on the blustery gale!

“Without fear we ventured out on the running tide, suspended between liquid and ether, to know the snap of the rigging, the sting of salt spray, and the unyielding rush of a steady keel straining against the wild.  Together we embraced the untamed and raced across the sky.  He was my Dad.”

Throughout life we are subject to the vagaries of a capricious human world, just as we can be subject to the vicissitudes of the wind and sea.  Yet, core principles and steadfast standards remain firmly in place in both worlds if we have the eyes to see.

Understanding the requirements of this truth, we can then spread our wings and learn to fly.

As with a sailing vessel at sea, our identity as human beings can only be realized in action.  It is through action alone that we free ourselves to discover the world we are given, learning as the sailor learns – to engage a fluid and often unpredictable reality with wisdom and flexibility.

Failing this, we will beat ourselves against an implacable and merciless resistance.  An unwillingness to learn will expose us to the storms of life in a rudderless ship and with our rigging in disarray.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about August 25.

A note to new readers:  Blog entries adapted from the forthcoming book are posted on most Fridays here and on the Facebook page.  A project description, an introduction to the book (in draft), and several chapter drafts are available on this page.  Reader engagement on the FB page is substantial.  To receive alerts by email you may click “Follow”.

America at a Tipping Point

To speak of rebuilding the foundations of the American Republic is certainly not to suggest deficiencies in the Constitution.  On the contrary, the founders created a structural bulwark for stability that must be defended vigorously.

The foundation that concerns us today is built with the integrity the Constitution requires of us: The responsibility, trustworthiness, and cooperation that transcends differences among citizens.

A reader commented that, “America is at a tipping point because every tenet [and] moral fiber of this nation has been diminished, so that no one is held accountable.  [There is] no moral compass because the foundations are removed.”

We do not have to agree on the details to recognize the truth in this view.  And, we cannot wait for somebody else to fix it.  It is time to stop complaining and join with those around us to secure the safety and well-being of our local communities.

Changing our attitude about this does not mean changing our opinions or compromising our principles.  Not at all!  To address people with dignity and kindliness will win their respect and loyalty.  Harsh and derogatory words will estrange and alienate.

If we wish to be heard – to share our views and represent our principles – we need to work with others in a way that makes this possible.  Communication will not be easy until we are ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder, to meet the needs we have in common and make things right.

No, this will not be easy. Many of us have serious differences. But addressing shared problems is the way mutual respect begins and interest in listening becomes genuine.

We will talk more about this later, but the important thing to recognize is that when the going gets tough, relationships count.  I don’t just mean with our next-door neighbors, as important as they are.  If we find ourselves under threat, directly or indirectly, the last thing we need is neighbors down the road or over the hill who are an unknown quantity.

And, we are not simply talking about making acquaintances here.  This is not about borrowing a cup of sugar over the back fence.  To make our communities safe and to rebuild the nation we need dependability. And that means trust.

Yes, well, in the midst of this crisis we find that trust is not something that Americans know much about.  Mostly we do not believe in it any more.  This is a big problem.

We cannot simply start trusting people because we wish for it.  The reality we live in is decidedly untrustworthy.  Most of the people around us do not have a clear concept of what trust means, much less an understanding of why it is important or what to do about it.

Change will take time.  The effort begins with the courage to be patient and accept differences. Let us not deny ourselves the maturity of forbearance and kindliness.

If we wish to be heard it is usually necessary to first convince others that we are actually hearing them.  Only then will we be heard.  In his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“, Stephen Covey wrote:

“If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across.  And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely.  So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand.”

Building dependable relationships with our neighbors requires grit and determination. We will win a few and lose a few, but the ones we win will move the nation forward – and might save lives.

The loss of trust has accompanied the loss of civil order and security in this country.  Solutions to these most serious and fundamental problems begin on the path back to trust.

Trustworthiness is the foundation of security.  Without trust America faces existential danger.  And, without forbearance and cooperation no trust – or progress – will be possible.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about August 12: Finding our balance in the storm.

Liberty, Responsibility, Integrity

I have suggested here that liberty is the outgrowth and result of justice.  I believe true liberty is found when we bring ourselves into alignment with justice.  And, this can only be accomplished through moral responsibility and accountability.

The implications of this proposition are profound.  Let’s unpack it.

I understand moral responsibility to be the ability to respond on the basis of conscience, using personal judgment regarding our responses to the world around us.  And, I hope we will act with moderation, and base our actions on careful consideration of the principles of justice to the best of our ability.

We will not agree on many things, but moral responsibility requires that we think and act carefully with regard for our fellow human beings and the well-being of our communities.

A friend once pointed out to me that the meaning of “responsibility” is suggested in the compound word, “response-ability.”  Without this ability, justice cannot be realized and liberty has no purpose.

We heard from Viktor Frankl several weeks ago in a blog post entitled “The Resilience of Inner Freedom.”  Dr. Frankl emerged from his World War II ordeal in a Nazi death camp with the firm conviction that freedom can only be secured through responsibility.

Freedom,” he wrote, “is not the last word.  Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth.  Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness.  In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

For many of us, seeking freedom in our lives is a gradual process of maturing, letting go of dependencies, and trying to make a go at life with what resources we can gather or create.

This much is meaningful for a time.  However, we soon begin to realize that the society in which we live, and the material limitations in our lives, impose themselves on us in uncomfortable ways.

Do we then give in to rebellion – or feeling sorry for ourselves?  Or, do we seek dignity in the face of limitation, assert control over our personal shortcomings, and engage constructively with the world around us?

Many of us find it necessary to construct the lives we wish for from the wreckage of past mistakes, our own and those of others, and are grateful simply for the opportunity to do so.  Even cleaning up a mess can offer a certain satisfaction.

Still, self-respect cannot wait for things to change.  We are each capable of responding to the world around us with dignity and creativity, and we must.  This requires initiative and constructive action.

Seeking to accept responsibility depends on our circumstances.  What I am suggesting here, however, is that a core responsibility underlies all others: This is the imperative to build and protect trust.

Why is this critically important?  Because ultimately all complex problem-solving depends on trust.

This is because, fundamentally, justice depends on trust.

Without trust, justice (and liberty) will remain elusive, and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.  Trust is the substance of integrity.  It will be essential for building the future.

A principled integrity gains primacy in our very identity, our character and way of being.  But, it can easily be squandered in a moment of carelessness.

So, there you have it: Integrity is the necessary quality of being; trustworthiness is the substance of that quality; and, responsibility provides the constructive action with which we make it so.

Finally, justice is the beginning and the end, the matrix that holds it all together.

To put this in another way, responsibility follows immediately from personal integrity and is the expression of it.  Social order and stability depend on this.  When responsibility is understood and applied to the challenges we face, progress is possible.  Otherwise the integrity of intention is lost.

There is no middle ground.  Either integrity and responsibility are wholly present or they are compromised.  Without them no civilization is possible.

Tom

A note to readers:  I wish to express my gratitude to regular readers, particularly on the Facebook page, for your active engagement and constructive feedback.  I could not reasonably proceed otherwise.  Please look for the next post on or about July 28.

The Challenge of Inner Freedom

At a time of deepening social disorder and economic disarray, I am concerned about the potential for overreaction – by the power elite, by police agencies and by citizens.  We are experiencing circumstances in which terrible things can happen.

I will share a story with you that illuminates our capacity as human beings to assert our dignity and inner freedom even amid the most terrible circumstances.

Responding to injustices and irrational behavior is difficult.  And yet, facing the world rationally and responsibly can be a personal statement of transcendent freedom.

This is possible regardless of the conditions around us, however difficult they may be.

To be free we must seek to be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves, and then to actualize our identity with dignity and perseverance.

We may not like the reality in which we find ourselves.  Indeed, it could become nightmarish.  But, possessing free will necessitates a commitment to be free in oneself and to engage proactively with the circumstances we face.

If there is a primary requirement for attaining the integrity of inner freedom, it is the personal determination to do so with moral responsibility and ethical discipline.

In my view, this choice has never been described more eloquently than by Viktor Frankl in the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, his testimony of four terrible years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.

Because his response to those circumstances is so revealing, I will devote most of this post to his words:

“I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings.  (In this case the surroundings being the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain set pattern.)  But, what about human liberty?

“Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? …Do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?  Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

“We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle.

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.  There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“And there were always choices to make.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom….

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

“Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

As we face our own personal tests, which we hope will not be so daunting as Dr. Frankl’s, how can we find this strength within ourselves?

Here is a freedom reached through personal empowerment, compassion and responsibility, as we respond to the turmoil of a transformative age.

No one can do this for us.  As we turn our attention to the distress and confusion of those around us, we are preparing for both the coming hardship and the new day beyond.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 16.

Illusion Over Liberty?

Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable.  Some truths are not pretty.  But, revitalizing our core values and the restoration of a once vibrant civic spirit will require that we recognize what has been lost and why.

The current difficulties have developed over a long period of time.  The gradual loss of a spirited civic life has left most Americans without a shared sense of purpose or the interwoven fabric of community relationships.

Americans have become obsessed with immediacy.  We want what we want and we want it now.  We seek to be entertained with melodrama and spectacle, or violence and degraded behavior.

We find ourselves dominated by materialism and immersed in a homogenized culture with little conscious identity.

Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on material appearances.  Even the once humiliating liabilities personal debt seems to be of no concern.  We live on false appearances bought with future income.

Strange as it may seem, we have essentially abandoned the future. Where is there a purposeful commitment to neighborhood, to responsibility for local needs?

The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic represented by this posture have influenced almost every aspect of our national life.  An undisciplined attitude has led us to the brink of financial disaster, and our insistence on freedom from institutional and cultural restraints is fraught with contradictions.

For example, our respect for the individual requires that we honor the independent integrity and privacy of each individual, and yet we have readily abandoned this principle out of fear for our own safety.

Similarly, we fail to see that privacy and integrity are sacrificed when we welcome obscenity and titillation into our lives on television, in film and web-based media.

Personal integrity is lost to gossip, backbiting, and fascination with “the raw stuff of life,” in the words of the conservative American philosopher Richard Weaver:

The extremes of passion and suffering are served up to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home.  The area of privacy has been abandoned because the definition of person has been lost; there is no longer a standard by which to judge what belongs to the individual man.  Behind the offense lies the repudiation of sentiment in favor of immediacy.

Richard Weaver wrote these words in the late 1940s, before television existed.  And he was not the first to make such an observation.  A quarter of a century earlier the renown Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw commented that an American has no sense of privacy.  He does not know what it means.  There is no such thing in the country.”

Weaver warned Americans of a self-destructive streak that would ultimately lead to crisis.

He pointed out our fascination with specialization, with the parts of things at the expense of understanding and respecting the whole.  He argued that an obsession with fragmentary parts without regard for their function necessarily leads to instability.

Such instability is insidious, penetrating all relationships and institutions.  In Weaver’s words, “It is not to be anticipated that rational self-control will flourish in the presence of fixation upon parts.”

Until we understand how things function as a whole we will have no capacity for good judgment and no control over outcomes.

This is not the fault of government – except to the extent that government, managed by people like ourselves, has joined wholeheartedly in the party.  In a democracy it is tragically easy for government policy to degenerate until it serves the worst inclinations of a self-interested electorate.

Consequently we have descended into the financial profligacy of recent decades and are now the most indebted nation in history by a wide margin.

Ours has been a twisted path with a clearly visible end.  Yet, the inevitable outcome remains ignored.

If we are to recover our balance, it is essential that we recognize the attitudes and thoughtlessness that got us here.  Will we continue to choose illusion over liberty?  Would we rather be ruined than to think?

It will never be too late to turn the corner – to clear our minds, to straighten up and step forward with purpose.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 7: Responsibility with dignity, or apathy and paralysis?

A note to new readers: A project description, an introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts are available on this page.

Individual, Community, and the State

For much of the nation’s first 100 years, Americans gave meaning to their values and expressed their creative energy in a diverse array of civic activity.  As we saw in the previous post, Americans overcame constraints to their freedom through their own inspiration and sense of community.

Today, action has been replaced by inaction.  A once spirited culture of engagement has been replaced by an increasingly self-centered attitude and the loss of initiative, cooperation, trust, and moral responsibility.

While it is easy the see how technology – the automobile, television, and internet – can limit as well as enhance human interaction, historian Niall Ferguson argues that it is “not technology, but the state – with its seductive promise of ‘security from the cradle to the grave’ – [which is] the real enemy of civil society.”

Ferguson cites the prophetic vision of Tocqueville, who we met in the previous blog post, when he imagined a future America in which the spirit of community has been co-opted by government:

“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men,” Tocqueville wrote in 1840, “who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.

“Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone….

“Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild.

“It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood….

“Thus, …the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

Elsewhere Tocqueville added an explicit warning:

“But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of association?…

“The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and industry if government came to take the place of associations everywhere.

“Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”

I do believe that government has had a part in the deadening of the American spirit.  But, I do not think we can attribute the present condition solely to government.

In my view, the degeneration of behavior and attitudes cannot be divorced from the paralyzing effect of corporate domination and the corrupting influence of mass culture and advertising.

I also believe the long slide toward alienation and apathy has come with our personal acquiescence.  For several generations Americans have gradually descended into a materialistic passivity and embraced an obsessive passion for entertainment and spectacle.

This is something we can only fault ourselves for accepting.

Our government began, after all, as a creature of our own invention.  And it is now served by people who have been subjected to the same degraded values and demoralized sense of responsibility as the rest of us.

Real change will depend on each of us – taking initiative as individual citizens, accepting responsibility for the well-being of our communities, and by renewing the foundations of society with civility, cooperation, and constructive action.

Tom

Coming posts:  Living our values into the future– What do we care about; what do we wish to do better or differently?  Look for the next post on or about March 24.

Justice, Balance in Governance

The structure of the Constitution is simple yet profound.  It carefully restrains the passions of factionalism, however intense, from imposing destructively on either minority or majority.  It limits the potential for regional conflict and ensures the strength to confront external threats.

It is the antagonistic divisiveness current among Americans that concerns us here.  “Give all the power to the many,” wrote Alexander Hamilton, “they will oppress the few.  Give all the power to the few, they will oppress the many.”

To understand how and why we depend on the Constitution as we navigate through crises, it will be useful to consider both the reasoned manner in which it was conceived and the negative reaction that it at first inspired.

It can be instructive to review some of the numerous essays and polemics that were published in the American colonies during the period when the proposed document was being considered for ratification.  Among these, a series of 85 commentaries was published in 1787 and 1788 by three members of the Constitutional Convention for the purpose of supporting ratification.

The three writers, who originally shared the pseudonym, “Publius”, were Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.

Later consolidated into a single volume as The Federalist, the assembled papers were said by Thomas Jefferson, another participant at the Convention, to be “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written,”[i]  a view many legal scholars agree with today.

The Federalist is often cited in major court cases and has appeared in the debates surrounding virtually every constitutional crisis.  Another collection entitled The Anti-Federalist Papers and edited by Ralph Ketcham is also available.

In the end, the outcome turned out not to be in question except in New York, where the State Constitutional Convention passed it by only three votes. But, the issues remain instructive and have a similarity to some we find ourselves engaged in today.

As an example, I refer here to the way the framers addressed a familiar challenge to both basic freedoms and effective governance.

In The Federalist, Number 10, James Madison argues that there is no more important purpose in structuring a sound government than that of limiting the “violence” of factionalism.

Responding to the issues prevalent in the colonies immediately following the Revolutionary War, Madison writes:

“Complaints are everywhere heard…, that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

 Madison continues:

“As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.

“The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society…. So strong is this propensity of mankind, to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and to excite their most violent conflicts.

“But the most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property.  Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.  Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination.  A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a monied interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.

“The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government….

“The inference to which we are brought,” Madison concludes, “is that the causes of faction cannot be removed; and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”

Tom

Please look for the next blog post, “A different kind of nation,” to appear on or about Friday, October 28.


[i]  Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, November 18, 1788, in Thomas Jefferson, The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826, 3 vols., ed. by James Morton Smith (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), vol. 1, p.567.

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 (www.freedomstruth.net), 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.

Tom

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.

Unexpected Wisdom

How has the American identity developed amidst such a diversity of conflicting ideas and beliefs?  And, how has the clash of differing opinions contributed to strength?

The idea that unity is strengthened by diversity may at first sound counter-intuitive, but it is measurable and irrefutable.

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki describes 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 examples Surowiecki presents a fascinating description of the conditions in which democratic decision-making does and does not work.

In his introduction to the book we hear of the surprise of scientist Francis Galton when 787 participants in a raffle at a county 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.”

Galton, who expected to confirm 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.  Adding all the contestants’ estimates, he calculated the average.

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 example described by Surowiecki is the story of the 1968 loss of the United States submarine Scorpion, which disappeared in 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 diverse 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 contact with each other. All they knew was the sub’s last reported location.

The group laid wagers on why the submarine ran into trouble, on its speed as it headed for the ocean floor and 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 location specifically suggested by any members of the group. But, that is where it was.

The Navy found the wreck 220 yards from where Craven’s group said it would be.

Mr. Surowiecki proceeds to demonstrate the surprising 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 judgments 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.”

Later in the present project, we will look at practical methods by which groups with diverse viewpoints can engage in creative problem-solving and decision-making in a manner that goes beyond consensus, even when face-to-face, to reach unexpected and mutually satisfying outcomes.

Tom

In two weeks: The challenge we must rise to.

To believe absurdities…

Police 2 (BradWSutton)

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”  –Voltaire

(Photo credit: Brad W Sutton)

 

Endurance, Resourcefulness and Faith

The severity of a deepening crisis raises unavoidable questions. Will the country be torn apart by anger and frustration?  Will the nation survive as the Republic created by its founders? Or, will the American people have the vision, fortitude, and grit to learn the lessons and reaffirm the vision and principles that will lead to a genuine renewal?

If the Republic is to prevail, how will we pull it off?  Do we have the patience and wisdom to give priority first to the stability that makes problem-solving possible, to rebuild a national unity that transcends the very real differences that divide us?

Early in 2008 Peggy Noonan, a widely read conservative commentator and one-time aide to President Ronald Reagan, addressed this question eloquently in a collection of essays, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now.  She wrote during a season of bitter political back-biting, and, as we all know, things soon became very much worse:

“I believe we have to assume that something bad is going to happen, someday, to us.  Maybe it will be ten years from now, but maybe not, maybe sooner, much sooner.  We have to assume, I think, that it will be a 9/11 times ten, or a hundred, or more, and that it will have a deeply destabilizing effect on our country; that it will test our unity and our endurance, our resourcefulness and faith.

“We all know this, I think, deep down.  I don’t know a major political figure in America to whom all this has not occurred, and often…. And yet in some deep way our politics do not reflect our knowledge.  It’s odd.  Stunning, actually.  We keep going through the same old motions in the bitter old ways.  Even our cynics are not being realistic!

“…Will the banks fail, is the system built on anything but faith, and will the faith hold?  Will we keep our coherence as a country, will we hold together, can we continue as a sovereign nation at peace with itself?”

Peggy Noonan’s little book radiates a much needed spirit.  I recommend it.  Most of us never expected to see the United States in the condition in which we find it today.  Many of us never expected to face the personal hardship in which we increasingly find ourselves.

Ultimately we face a uniquely American crisis, yet one that is unfolding in the midst of an extraordinary global turning point.  I will attempt to cut through the emotions and complexity of a monumental moment in history to argue that we must unite to regenerate and rebuild the United States as a living model for a free, stable, and prosperous world.

This nation has progressed gradually toward maturity for 200 years, dedicated to the cause of responsible liberty and built upon the foundation of unity within diversity – diversity of nationality, religion, ethnicity, and, most of all, political philosophy.  We possess wide ranging distinctions and differences, but together we share an essential inviolable common ground.

We are all Americans.  The promise we all hold dear can only prevail if we have the courage and forbearance to rise above our differences, to address our problems shoulder to shoulder, and to do what must be done to make our children safe and our communities secure.

We have the inherent capacity to move forward despite the mistakes and tragedies of the past – and the mysteries of the future.

Our future hangs in the balance.  Let’s pull together, reassert our common ground in the vision with which the nation was built, and step forward to forge a future shaped by fairness, trustworthiness, and moral responsibility.

I submit to you that something far better, far nobler, something perhaps beyond our present ability to imagine, will emerge from the present turmoil.

If, however, we cannot work effectively to build safe communities with people we are not in complete agreement with, then we will be condemned to the only possible alternative: a collapsing civilization defined by fear and violence, a nightmare for our children, and a land where no principles, no values, no stable order can be realized.

Tom

Next post: Cooperation or collapse?

A note to regular readers:  As I announced in late June, I have shifted to a new schedule and will now post every two weeks.  This will allow me more time for completing the book.  I will continue to post on Fridays and hope to publish the next blog entry on or about July 22.

Someplace else…

Background 11 YogiBerra

“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”

–Yogi Berra