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.
With a strength rooted in the individualism of survivors, Americans have reconstructed human society on the basis of association, reciprocity, and principle: freedom of thought, economic independence, and a new sense of belonging that transcended social and religious differences.
Despite the hardships, European settlers formed communities and built a vibrant civil society that flourished through the first half of the 19th century.
However, our inquisitive nature and the inclination to range far and wide across the North American continent soon led to the society we know today – mobile, disconnected, alienated, and suspicious of differences.
Cut off from the cultural foundations that provided previous generations with the basis for social stability, personal identity, and moral integrity, our values have become less confident, our standards less clear.
Railways, highways, large-scale industries and shopping malls facilitated the unrestrained pursuit of economic productivity and material gain. Big always seemed better and was certainly more profitable for the few.
We soon lost any sense of proportion, purpose, or belonging. A society once anchored by small businesses and community cohesion soon fell apart, morphing into urban sprawl, broken families, and lost dreams.
What have we been thinking?
Our roots in community were lost, except in rural areas that found themselves increasingly on the defensive, both socially and economically.
For new arrivals the transition has always been rigorous. Hostility toward immigrants was greatest between 1880 and 1910.
First the Irish, then the Polish and Italians were treated as threats to American “purity”. And for people of color, especially blacks, the setbacks have never stopped coming.
New arrivals contributed economic strength and rich cultural diversity to the quality of American life. Many of us know the stories of our grandparents and their successes, which only came with sheer determination.
Today we have a haunting awareness of the deterioration and decay of American society.
The loss of local economic strength and social cohesiveness has led to diminishing independence and self-sufficiency for virtually everyone. The fears and suspicion that come with hard times has resurfaced.
The destruction of economic vitality that once provided us with the dignity of self-sufficiency, and the deterioration of the civil order we have depended on, have led many to look for something or someone to blame.
We now find ourselves at a turning point at which hard choices confront us.
The positive ideals that once gave us a feeling of dignity are partly veiled from memory. The need to clarify our identity as a nation has become clear.
The genius of our Constitution has allowed America to grow and mature for 200 years. Yet, we find ourselves in confusion today, without a vision for the future or a sense of community we can depend on.
Confronted with growing instability and uncertainty, I believe there is the only one place where we can gain control over our destiny.
This is in our local communities.
It is here that we can find safety and dependability in a social and economic crisis. And it is here that minds can be influenced, thinking can change and the future can be debated rationally.
We are presented with a formidable task. Without trustworthy neighbors and coherent communities, how are we to engage constructively with America as a whole – a people uprooted and disorganized in the wasteland of a broken society?
How will we build dependable relationships, a stable civil order, and a safe future for our children and grandchildren?
I do not voice this question as an intellectual exercise, but rather as a personal challenge to my readers as thinking, caring, self-respecting adults.
This is our turning point. Do we have the will to rise above our differences to engage with our neighbors, to resolve local problems and meet shared needs? It will not be easy.
I see no other way to influence one another or be cleansed of animosity and hatred – no other means than in the crucible of local community.
Do we have a choice?
I don’t think so.
Note to new readers: Links to a project description, a draft introduction and sample chapters from the coming book may be found at the top of the homepage.
Watch for the next post on or about August 7, and please join the conversation.