Whether our ancestors came to this continent by choice or in slavery, or were forcibly separated from their indigenous American roots, all of us are estranged from the lands and lives of our forbears.
Cut off from the cultural foundations that provided previous generations with the basis for social stability and moral integrity, we refined our values and forged new standards.
For some the escape from oppression or deprivation has taken great determination and willpower. With a strength rooted in the individualism of the survivor, Americans reconstructed human society on the basis of association, reciprocity, and principle: freedom of thought, economic independence, and a new sense of belonging that often transcended social and religious differences.
Early on our communities formed on the basis of cultural commonalities. But our naturally inquisitive nature and the inclination to range far and wide across the North American continent took us away from our physical roots and led to a society characterized by mobility, homogeneity, and economies of scale.
First railways, and then a proliferation of highways, industrial enterprises, and shopping malls facilitated unrestrained pursuit of economic productivity and material comfort. Cheap energy made many things possible. Big always seemed better, or at least more profitable.
Somehow we lost any sense of proportion or real purpose. A society once anchored by small businesses and community cohesion soon fell apart, morphing into urban sprawl, broken families, and lost dreams.
Unfortunately, and paradoxically, the resulting loss of social coherence and community has led to diminishing independence and self-sufficiency among ordinary Americans.
Many of us have a haunting awareness of this loss of social integrity. Others have responded more inchoately and angrily, with less comprehension of the historical context or economic forces that contribute to their sense of unease.
Mostly we have accepted our dependence on centralized corporate power to manage our lives for us. We are now only dimly aware of the tenuous commercial supply chain stretching thousands of miles across the continent for the benefit of profitable efficiencies. Do we understand the extraordinary social and economic change we are experiencing?
Most of us have little knowledge of the vast size and immense interlocking complexity of the financial markets. Even the financial power-brokers appear oblivious to the systemic risk embedded in the complexity they themselves have created.
Cut off from dependable information and unaware of the larger picture, we assume that every day will be like the last.
Do we accept this state of loss? Do we understand our heritage?
How carefully have we thought through the principles of justice, the respect for diversity, the distinctive balance the founders envisioned? How confident are we in the ideas and values that give validity to our ideals?
In recent months this blog has explored some of the elements of a national character that is deeply rooted in our history. We now find ourselves at a turning point where the original ideals that brought us here are partly veiled from memory, and the need to reconsider and clarify the American identity has become clear.
The foundations of the American past remain firm and valid. Yet, we find ourselves today with little concept of community – that foundation of civil society that we must depend upon for a sure footing.
Community is the single context and condition that offers us control over our destiny. Yet, we know very little about how to make it work.
This presents us with a formidable task. Without trustworthy communities, how are we to engage with others, uprooted and disorganized in the wasteland of a broken society? How will we build dependable relationships, a stable civil order, and security for our children and grandchildren?
I do not address this question to America as a whole, in all its pain and dysfunction. Rather, I address it to my readers directly, as thinking, caring, self-respecting individuals.
Do we have the vision and patience to work with our neighbors, meeting needs and resolving problems? Will we rise above our differences, to find security in the diversity of our experience, knowledge, and practical skills?
Are we prepared to rethink our concept of community, and to build together from the ground up?
It won’t be easy.
In the coming weeks: Community; the home we have the freedom to build.
A note to readers: This is the first post to be adapted from Chapter Nine: The Individual and Society.