The winner in this year’s holiday book-selling bonanza has got to be “The Boys in the Boat.” In a world usually dominated by the pop culture mysteries of a handful of mega-writers (led by Maine’s own Stephen King and, more recently, the dystopian fantasies of a generation of young writers weaned on the goblins and wizards of Harry Potter), Daniel James Brown’s story of the plucky oarsmen from the Pacific Northwest is a Seabiscuit-like surprise.

At one level, Brown’s recounting of the unlikely run to the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by the University of Washington’s eight-man crew is just the latest in a series of adulatory accounts of “The Greatest Generation.” It’s the heart-warming story of a gang of otherwise ordinary, working and formerly middle-class white guys who overcame adversity and pulled together to first defeat their upper class opponents at Penn, Princeton and Oxford, and then the would-be pillars of Aryan superiority at the Nazi spectacle of the Berlin Olympics. In this regard, the book is just the latest in a growing line of tributes to the virtues of those who endured the hardships of the Great Depression of the 1930s, rose up to save the free world in the 1940s and then returned home to usher in the greatest run of economic prosperity our nation has ever known – nice, but hardly insightful.

On another level, however, “The Boys” is a story of both the physics and psychology of social transformation. Hitting a baseball may be the hardest individual feat in sports, but propelling an eight-man shell is surely the most complicated. Blending various sizes and strengths of eight muscular giants under the strategic and emotional direction of a jockey-sized coxswain to move a delicate, 65-foot wooden shell across two miles of open water is a task rivaling rocket science.

The underlying, and to me more thought provoking theme of this book, was the parallel paths to social cohesion unfolding on either side of the Atlantic. On the western side – indeed far western – was an unlikely band of individually motivated immigrants and sons of immigrants, the working class English artisan dedicated to creating the perfect shell, the Danish-Welsh coach dedicated to bringing the thrill of his own Olympic success in the 1920s to his “boys,” and the irrepressible little coxswain who didn’t even know he was of Jewish descent until he opened a letter from his father on his way to Berlin. The narrative of how this rag-tag crew came gradually to trust one another, to become one with each other, with their boat and with the water was a striking picture of individual and collective transformation.

And interspersed with this narrative, was the parallel story of the Nazi version of transformation – herding up and hiding Gypsies, the homeless and the disabled, taking down all the “Jews not allowed” signs, whitewashing and putting flower boxes in the windows of the abandoned buildings along railroad tracks, giving carefully chosen movie producers free rein to film the spectacle from all angles and vantage points – all for the sake of conveying a picture of Nazi-driven Aryan uniformity as the ultimate “Crown of Creation,” the natural and inevitable culmination of human civilization begun in Greece during the original Olympics thousands of years earlier.

I was heartened and relieved to learn that in spite of several blatantly discriminatory financial and procedural rule changes, our American boys defeated their fascist Italian and German competitors by less than a second. But I was left pondering the book’s perhaps unintended but clearly central question: What is the difference between subjugating your individuality to an American version of social cohesion and a fascist version? Aren’t both – to use the oft-repeated ideal of the rowing crew – “getting your mind in the boat?” Don’t both amount to melding individuals into some higher collective whole?

Brown leaves this question unanswered. But to my mind, the answer that emerged is that the American ideal was based on the celebration rather than the elimination of diversity. In the American boat, all became one not by forcing all to become the same, but by allowing each to understand, affirm and adapt to the differences of the others, to see the whole as enhancing individuality.

The Washington Huskies succeeded when the wary, distrustful individuals so used to relying only on their own solitary power in the face of a hostile world came to recognize and appreciate the benefits deriving from the differences among their teammates.

The magic of the American version of social cohesion lies in its all-inclusive foundation and its commitment to the idea that all benefit from coming to understand and adapt to the unique talents of the others.

Amid the shrill cries of “Never compromise!” coming from the likes of Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren in our political leadership, it seems clear that the lesson to be learned from the boys in the boat is as important today as it was in 1936.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

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