CHAPTER THREE (Draft)
Peggy Noonan made a heartfelt call to the American people in 2008, urging 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 history of the United States when it has been more important 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 writes: “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 say that it is too late. Some may think their principles are too important to be compromised. Most of us, however, believe that the American Republic is worth keeping, and that it is time for Americans to rise to the next level.
In fact, history and reason tell us that national strength does not require compromising 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 freedom and are committed to defending the right of each to freedom of opinion and belief, we will recognize our differences as natural to democratic order. 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. Political or 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 requires collaborative problem-solving.
A public basis for societal understanding is of course essential in a democratic society, and this is can only be provided by citizen commitment and the reasonableness of political and social institutions. We depend on this. From time to time institutions will lose their footing and must be brought to account. And a reasonable accounting in the balance of civil order depends on justice and fairness, 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 diverse, 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. 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
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 unity and can, indeed, only be founded upon diversity.
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.
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 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? Our nerves are shattered. We are on edge.
Stability cannot be imposed from above in a free and vibrant society. It cannot be supplied by law-enforcement and policing. The strength of the nation is defined by the hearts and souls of its’ people. It reveals itself in virtues we all recognize and believe in: dignity, civility, responsibility, cooperation, and trustworthiness.
My endeavor on these pages will attempt far more than to offer a potential path to “recovery” from crisis. Rather, I submit to you that we stand at the threshold of an unprecedented turning point, a historic transition that offers us a rare window of opportunity to reaffirm and assert a dynamic, multifaceted national identity that emerges from the crucible of crisis.
In considering our response to new and unexpected challenges in a rapidly changing world, we are positioned to make positive changes, both pragmatic and ethical, that would not otherwise have been 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 and perfectibility, if we allow it.
A Hidden Wisdom
Before continuing to address the challenges of living and working with diversity, let’s first examine the reasons that diversity has contributed to American strength, not as a nice idea but as a pragmatic reality.
Clearly the American identity has been formed amid the controversies of divergent and sometimes competing ideas, views, beliefs, and perspectives. How can the clash of differing opinions contribute to strength? The idea that unity is strengthened by diversity may sound counter-intuitive at first, but it is measurable and irrefutable.
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.
At the beginning of his Introduction in The Wisdom of Crowds, 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 the 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 applying this wisdom on a smaller scale – in our personal lives, and in our efforts to build secure communities and to reconstruct a healthy civil society.
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 resourcefulness made available by diversity is the same wherever we focus our personal energy. But the challenges of making them work for us in the intimacy of small groups requires a combination of learned skills, malleable attitudes, and creative imagination.
America has lost the flourishing civil society that characterized the first century of our history. And, Americans no longer know how to live in community. Yet, it was on the foundation of communities that the identity of the United States first began to be formed.
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 lessons from the American past and to begin rebuilding from a position of stability. Community is that one place where we have some degree of control, where each of us can contribute personally, and, indeed, where our personal security and well-being are on the line.
The strategy proposed here is extremely challenging. Unfortunately, I do not think we have a choice.
We are forced by painful circumstances to relearn the lessons that have made this country great, and will make it greater still. And there is no better place to learn those lessons than in the place where earlier generations learned them — in the process of forming communities that are safe, dependable, and rewarding places to live.
We will consider the practical means for pursuing our goals and seeking the necessary resources for community-building later in the book. First, however, we will consider the values and spirit we wish to recover from the past. Only then can we begin to think about the justice, stability, and self-respect we wish to build into our future – a future that we can all respect and be proud of.
This great endeavor will be undertaken with our feet planted firmly on the rich soil of diversity that has given strength and resilience to generations of Americans for more than 200 years. This is the ground we are given. It has long served as the foundation for American prosperity and progress, both social and material.
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 with a shared vision and clearly identified goals.
What will this require?
American society has become increasingly fragmented over time. There are many reasons for this, which will be reviewed in the next chapter. 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.
In a free and democratic society, there is positive creative energy and a sense of responsibility. Citizens are engaged with one another without regard for the distinctions of personal identities, meeting needs and addressing shared concerns.
The citizens of a healthy democracy do not expect to agree on very much. But, agree we must, in the words of political theorist Sheldon Wolin, 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]
Is there a way to halt the long 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.
The most essential democratic principle in my view, is the basic presumption that our neighbors are people of good will who would greatly value the opportunity to work together constructively, rather than to hide behind the barriers of race or class or ideology.
While there will always be difficult people to challenge our social skills and patience, this is a safe presumption regarding the vast majority of Americans.
Once we are convinced of the good will and honest intentions of our fellow citizens, a world of safety, stability, and opportunity opens up. Neither cooperation or building the joint ventures of civil society require agreement beyond limited consensual requirements. As we travel the rough and ready path to constructive problem-solving we will stumble into genuine friendships and discover valuable colleagues and allies.
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 in the past century.
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. The defensiveness is often understandable, but inflexible attitudes and combative rhetoric prevents constructive resolution in a just and inclusive 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 society, which would gain from engagement and is instead held at arms-length by the totalist intransigence and defensiveness of the 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.
The Most Challenging Issue
In the United States there is one extraordinary exception among the demographic groups immersed in identity politics. It embodies a problem that has festered throughout American history. This is the problem of race, and it may be most insidious and morally corrupting problem we face.
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 culture and 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 us, the vast majority of African-Americans want little more than to be accepted as the committed citizens they are.
Black Americans experience mainstream American society as an explicitly white society. And it is obvious to them that white Americans have almost no consciousness of this. The dominant reality of white society, sometimes coupled with a non-verbal air of disrespect, is an immediate and unavoidable experience for people of color every day of their lives.
This writer, who is white, has found it helpful in understanding the everyday experience of black Americans, 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 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 Baha’i Faith, a growing world religion based in Israel, has issued an explicit warning regarding the problem of racism in the United States. Readers may find the document useful in its’ clearly worded analysis. The statement 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 possible that it will be African-Americans, together with our indigenous American Indian citizens, who will have the resilient strength and emotional maturity to carry white America through to a civilized and genuinely American recovery.
These people who have suffered grievously will in the end step forward with the grace, the backbone, and the firmly ingrained vision of the American ideal that will ensure a proud American future.
An Existential Crisis
America faces an existential crisis. At the present hour, the nation needs the creative energy and devotion of every loyal citizen. Many Americans who have long faced 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 with a welcoming 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 is often based on our 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 minds. Rather, diversity challenges us in ways that stimulate our minds, sometimes in ways we can ill afford to do without.
Aristotle said that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”[ix]
The healthy functioning of a free society requires that we accept our differences and recognize their potential value, however strange or wrong-headed some ideas or views may seem to us. This attitude cannot be legislated. It must be considered and worked out by each of us individually.
However attractive this argument might be, I know it will be hard for the thoughtful reader to imagine how it can be realized in the midst of the extreme divisiveness and hostility we are experiencing.
This book is part of a strategic endeavor to answer this question.
In Part Two of the book I will present a coherent strategy and propose practical 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.
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 you will often be surprised by the common ground you discover in your shared humanity. You 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 this can be immensely challenging. Pushing through feelings of hostility and alienation is the key to the present historic turning point. Our future depends on it. A unity of vision and commitment that transcends the diversity of views, faiths, and ethnicities is a national imperative.
Peggy Noonan put it bluntly: This is the crucial area in which we must prevail if America is to prevail.
Yet, make no mistake; the rewards are great. The opportunity to explore the world through the eyes of others is a blessing and a gift. A life filled with a diversity of people, places, and experiences is an education that never stops giving.
[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.
[ix] Aristotle, Metaphysics.