The unprecedented vision that came into being with the birth of the United States is today impaired by increasingly bitter and antagonistic rhetoric that precludes dialog. If Americans care to participate in a constructive process leading to renewal, we must navigate carefully through the currents of instability.
Violence begets violence in a downward spiral, rhetorical or otherwise. Words can ignite fierce, uncontrollable fires.
When the financial world came unraveled in 2007-08, Americans discovered that startling failures of foresight, responsibility, and common sense involved the very people and institutions we most depended on.
We were stunned by the foolishness that came to light in the very places where we were most vulnerable. Suddenly we recognized a profound disregard for the interests of both citizens and nation – by the same institutions we had previously regarded as models of dependability.
In retrospect, however, we can see that this crisis had long been coming, and that it revealed far more than political and financial irresponsibility.
We have seen the broad social deterioration that comes with unethical behavior and the loss of principled values. Respected national leaders have stained themselves. We have even seen immoral and deeply hurtful actions committed by religious leaders and clergy, the supposed exemplars of integrity.
Where will it stop? In addition to the material damage done to our lives, the rampant failure of responsibility appearing at the core of our society is demoralizing. Indeed, it strikes at the foundations of civilization.
It is easy to get caught up in our feelings at a time like this. It will be necessary to modulate our speech and better manage our emotions if we wish to reaffirm the ultimate purpose of this great nation. Times of peril require that we communicate carefully and avoid contributing to inflamed passions, however offended we may be.
Hurled accusations and inflamed rhetoric make it impossible to hear potentially valid reasoning behind the anger.
The trouble with blame is, first, that it tends to be indiscriminate. It blinds us to the plural identities of those who disagree with us, or who have just made some bad mistakes. We can sometimes fail to see that we share similar values and commitments with those who anger us.
Secondly, blaming will block our ability to respond to looming perils that endanger us all. A fierce storm has come upon us. We need to take responsibility for addressing immediate circumstances.
Make no mistake: A great storm like this will alter everyone’s perspective. So, let’s start with priorities we know to be essential, to ensure the safety and security of our communities. We will build from there.
In so doing we will learn much of what the future will require of us. It is essential that we transcend personal fear, resisting its attendant passions, and learn to work with those around us. Otherwise it will be impossible to respond effectively to the complex challenges of a rapidly changing world.
Some of you have expressed serious doubts that this is possible.
I never said it would be easy; I said we have no choice. If we are unable to confront crises shoulder-to-shoulder as loyal countrymen, freedom will be lost in the chaos of a deepening storm.
It will be helpful if we can see the end in the beginning – the vision of a civil society where respectfulness, fairness, and moral responsibility prevail and freedom of expression is nurtured and defended.
This is a vision and purpose that might just be worth our learning to get along, even for the most doubtful among us. And, it is something we can work on in our own communities.
Patience, composure, steadfast determination, and, most of all, the American generosity of spirit are among the virtues that will be called upon again and again in this day.
We will not escape this great turning point in human affairs. It will inflict tests upon us whether or not we respond with dignity and compassion, whether or not we take our rightful places at the forward edge of history.
Next week: Where to begin.
A note to new readers: Several chapter drafts for the forthcoming book are posted on this site. See especially Chapter Six: The Ground of Freedom, and Chapter Nine: The Individual in Society.