Is 'pluribus' standing in the way of 'unum'?

Murray Saltzman

October 30, 1990|By Murray Saltzman

IS AMERICA'S diversity, the one thing everyone agrees helps make it a great nation, leading to its decline?

The long stalemate over the federal budget suggested to some observers that the nation is susceptible to the diverse interests of too many segments divided by race, ethnicity, class, sex and age. Each group demands satisfaction of its self-interest no matter what best serves the common good.

When the nation was largely under the political control of the white middle class, a unified public policy was possible. Now every group has learned how to exert political influence, and with appropriate pressure, including enormous lobbying efforts in Washington, can block the formation of a national consensus.

One observer who believes this to be the case points to the continuing abortion controversy and the havoc it has aroused in the political process. The point is that this democracy business is dangerous. In fact, it may no longer function in a reasonable and effective manner because of the nation's diversity.

And just when we were patting ourselves on the back over our supposed victory over totalitarian communism!

I think we have a lot yet to learn about how a free nation with a diverse population can creatively and peacefully survive its internal pressures and conflicts. But there are already in place some very special safeguards.

We have learned how to transfer power. This is one of the precious legacies of American democracy. The inauguration of a new U.S. president is history's most sublime and majestic event.

By and large, we have preserved the right of free speech. A Jeffersonian respect for individual rights is a crucial ingredient of democracy. The recent victory of a museum over censorship sustains our high regard for the sanctity of the First Amendment.

The two factors we must still address to assure that diversity will benefit instead of stalemate government have to do with self-discipline and leadership.

Too often the right to be different and the right to voice one's opinion are idolatrous glorifications of the self. Independence has been perverted to mean total autonomy and absolute self-interest. Good common sense as well as the preamble to the Constitution dictate that independence is the child of interdependence. The ideal of individual rights is of benefit to the general welfare of the nation. Unbridled individualism distorts the ideal and ruptures responsibility. It is simply selfishness; it brings chaos, not democracy.

Self-discipline, in a democracy, requires us to pursue personal goals without appealing to violent conflict. Self-discipline allows for controversy on a civilized level. Self-discipline fosters obedience to law over divisive factionalism pandered to by ambitious demagogues.

And in a democracy, leadership must command popular respect. Above political self-interest and the preservation of power must come a leader's ethical standards. Ethical standards must be clearly articulated by a true leader. And a true leader's behavior and decisions must conform to the standards for which that individual stands.

A leader does not bend to the winds of popular fads. A leader does not determine policy on the basis of polls and the advice of pundits. A leader assumes the responsibility for living a personal life that reflects moral values. We have had too much self-aggrandizement by our so-called leaders. We have succumbed to the leadership of TV personalities and public relations-shaped images in the place of those whose lives command admiration and whose ideals inspire loyalty.

So the problem of stalemated government is not the result of diversity. Diversity has been the engine of our strength and creativity. The public passion for an extreme individualism produces irreconcilable polarities and unraveling pressures. The greed of political leadership for power has brought us to the verge of political bankruptcy, where winning an election supersedes making decisions for the general welfare of the entire nation.

Democracy can work. Democracy has worked. Especially does democracy work when a great ideal commands the public conscience. Democracy is given life by a public figure whose integrity is above reproach. Democracy survives because at its center is respect for human dignity. The people who cherish diversity deserve and preserve democracy.

Murray Saltzman is rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

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