Tuesday, November 01, 2005

House of Cards

Not exactly an argument from paradox, but nonetheless an instructive one against unanimity:

The U.S. Army marches at 120 two-and-a-half-foot steps per minute. We moved at 3.41 miles per hour, but our legs were not all the same length. When an army really wants to get somewhere, it uses the command route step, which means, "walk as you please, but keep up with the group."

In fact, Army regulations require that route step be ordered for any column marching across a bridge. Large groups, marching in step, can set up sympathetic vibrations in a structure. If conditions are right, those vibrations can bring down a bridge.

So there's mischief to being in step. And that comes back to us in another metaphor -- the metaphor of positive feedback. Any engineer who knows about control systems will tell you that positive feedback is extremely dangerous. It means an action to augment behavior that should, instead, be opposed.
Look at this another way. Ask yourself where a wise person would choose to build a house of cards: on a solid marble counter or on a shaky card table. The better place would actually be on the shaky card table. The house of cards will be much harder to build. But we succeed when we build a far more robust card house.

Now, these are troubled times. Yet have any times in our lives been untroubled? Never mind our private politics, let's take a page from our engineering handbook (or our army manual). Tory and Whig alike, let's march out of step, for unanimity threatens the structure. Baptist and Buddhist, let's all apply negative feedback: question our friends and listen to our enemies -- build our houses of cards right in front of the rowdy world out there.

We once had no way of reaching temperatures below the boiling point of liquid helium. Then we found that molecules of certain salts, placed in a magnetic field, fall into alignment and heat up. Cool such a magnetized salt to the temperature of liquid helium, release the magnetic field, and the molecules become disordered once more. The temperature drops far below that of the helium.

So let us take pleasure in our disorder. Let us lower the temperature and protect the bridge. Let us not all pull together.
The German Evangelical church had a saying, one developed from necessity. Christian churches for over 500 years split on the question of the eucharist, and the nature of the host and the wine. Is it changed? Is it symbolic? Is it half-n-half? They chose a middle way, expressed beautifully in this: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity."

It looks, at first, to be no advance at all, since surely we must agree on what the essentials are so that we can be unified on them, and grant diversity only after we've settled that issue. But the true insight comes in the last phrase, which takes all before and after in its wake: "in all things, charity." Essentials and non-essentials can be discussed, even argued over, but connecting all and arching over all and supporting all, first and foremost is: charity. In charity, essentials and non-essentials, unity and diversity, find their proper place.

There is much discussion abroad again about "American unity" and how "partisan politics" allegedly "divides" us, as if we were simply two partners in a bad marriage that threatens to break up with every new vicissitude of getting through the national day. Nothing could be more absurd, but it is a comforting illusion, especially for those who think they are in power. During the '60's the divisive force was the students protesting the war, or the civil rights marchers. The idea of a "threat" to "national unity" was a powerful one, and I think it arose after World War II, when America stepped fully onto the world stage and decided it had to be a player there, and had to act with unanimity against the "Red Menace."

Strange that a country which still remembers (and even celebrates, in some quarters) a massive Civil War, a country only recently stitched together (many states entered the Union after that war) and in which loyalty to family often outweighed loyalty to country ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home" was an anti-war song, a popular expression of exhaustion. Such expressions are unofficially verboten now, lest we fail sufficiently to "support the troops."), is so concerned with splitting apart again. Is the state of the union truly so fragile? If it was, why did Katrina bring us together, rather than shatter us like an egg? Is it lock-step and unanimity that binds us as a nation? Or our agreement to nationally disagree? Do we really want a nation where everyone thinks like we do?

I don't think so, either. The best part of our national heritage is the diversity which defines our unity.

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