Certainty and Certitude

Richard C. Harwood, President, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation Last night the Republicans got off to a fast start. They defined key issues they will run on, and how they will run against Senator John Kerry and his Democrats. Both parties have now clearly staked out leadership and character as one of the master narratives in this race. Iraq, the war on terror and the middle class squeeze will provide the substance. When it comes to leadership and character, "courage" has become the central thrust of these campaigns. Senator Kerry has positioned himself in relationship to his "service"; the president, in terms of 9/11 and the war on terror. On Monday night, the Republicans consistently sounded the notion that the president exhibits certainty and certitude, while Senator Kerry flip-flops in his unending uncertainty. In a nation that reflects on its unity in response to 9/11, and which now faces a number of challenges at home and abroad, what does certainty and certitude mean? In this presidential campaign, when does it turn into hubris and arrogance? And what role does humility play in all this -- and how might humility be exhibited in these uncertain times? For me, courage is the ability to put a stake in the ground -- to have the willingness to articulate one's convictions clearly and concisely. This is the opposite of heated or angry rhetoric; of false bravado; of beating one's breasts in a show of strength. It is in opposition to obfuscating one's positions through double-talk and half truths, of trying to skirt responsibility for decisions and actions of the past. A person must show their face. Pretending is not part of the package. But there is another part of this. Importantly, it seems to me, courage without humility is almost impossible. And yet, so often when people seek to exercise humility it is in the form of lip service – a kind of feigned attempt at humility, one filled with practiced posturing and empty rhetoric. But humility requires a certain kind of openness: to see that one individual or party (or nation?) does not have all of the answers; that one cannot go it alone; that one must work with others. It calls upon people to demonstrate that they have learned insights in the course of their experience, and that they are willing to apply those insights in their lives, even if that means changing course or position in public. So, what does certainty and certitude mean these days? How should we think about them in terms of how our nation struggles with issues and looks upon these candidates and their campaigns? When does it serve to divide us, and how can it be used to unite us?