American Crucible

CHAPTER ONE  (Draft)

For more than two hundred years the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope, as a source of creative vibrancy, and as an evolving expression of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality. People everywhere have been attracted to the vision that it represents.  Yet, the extraordinary challenges that confront the American people today mark a turning point and present a definitive test of America’s place in history.

Confronted with economic instability, social disorder, and widespread domestic distrust it can be easy to forget the unique stature of the United States and the unfolding role it has played in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization.  Our economic well-being and social coherence as a nation have been weakening for decades, and the generosity of spirit for which we have long been known appears dimmed. Confidence in the future is shaken.

My message is brief. It will be short on analytical detail and will avoid blame. There is more than enough blame to go around and we all know about it. Rather, it will focus on the essentials of mind and attitude, of moral character, and of our relationships with one another that will be required to turn things around, to convert despair into courage and failure into dignity and self-respect.

None of us think America is as we would wish to see it.  Indeed, in recent decades we have become increasingly aware of the disarray in the civil, social, and economic conditions around us.  And a global pandemic has unleashed untold economic and emotional damage, altering the future in unimaginable ways.

However, America is blessed with a governing structure that respects the individual, seeks to protect both minorities and majorities, and makes room for diversity, innovation and creativity.  The genius of the United States Constitution lies in a simplicity that allows maximum freedom while requiring cooperation and moral responsibility.  It is a legal document, carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

The Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is anchored in the wisdom of its legislative order, the protections it provides, and the power to seek constructive change.  These are among the essential elements of a civil order that provides Americans with stability and the opportunity to forge a rational future.

There have been painful struggles along the way.  However, American history since the Civil War has reflected an uneven but unmistakable trend toward democratic inclusiveness—in legislation, in the courts, and in civil society.

A confluence of emerging crises in the 21st century is bringing immense pressures to bear, and posing unavoidable questions. Will civil order be torn further by growing anger and frustration? Will the nation survive as the constitutional republic created by its founders? Will we have the fortitude and grit necessary to learn the lessons and reaffirm the vision that will lead to a genuine American renewal?

The nation has entered a pivotal moment, a rare opportunity for Americans to affirm our principles and rise to our calling.  Will we embrace the future bequeathed to us by the Founders, which alone can lead to unity of purpose?  Or will we succumb to a rigidity born of custom and fear?  This question hovers over us, calling every American to the responsibilities and dignity required by the special character of this constitutional republic.

Neither philosophical convictions nor the correction of mistakes can be addressed effectively until this question is answered.  And, continuing civic and social degradation will remain with us until it is.

If civility and the integrity of civil order are to prevail under extreme conditions, how can we manage it? Do we have the patience and wisdom to engage with one another in good faith, to rebuild a national unity that transcends the differences that will assuredly continue to divide us? Or, to put the question in another way, will we do what is necessary to make the United States of America whole and to prepare it for the future we deserve?

Early in the present century Peggy Noonan, a widely read conservative columnist and one-time aide to President Ronald Reagan, addressed this question eloquently in her collection of essays, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now. She wrote during a season of bitter political back-biting, and, as we all know, things soon became very much worse:

“I believe we have to assume that something bad is going to happen, someday, to us.  Maybe it will be ten years from now, but maybe not, maybe sooner, much sooner.  We have to assume, I think, that it will be a 9/11 times ten, or a hundred, or more, and that it will have a deeply destabilizing effect on our country; that it will test our unity and our endurance, our resourcefulness and faith.

“We all know this, I think, deep down.  I don’t know a major political figure in America to whom all this has not occurred, and often…. And yet in some deep way our politics do not reflect our knowledge.  It’s odd.  Stunning, actually.  We keep going through the same old motions in the bitter old ways.  Even our cynics are not being realistic!

“Man has never developed a weapon he didn’t ultimately use,” Ronald Reagan once said in a conversation in the Oval Office.  He spoke, in his soft voice, of the great horror of modern warfare, that civilians are now targets.  Once they weren’t.  Now they are.  It worried him.  It worries me.

“And that is only the external threat.  The domestic ones are all around us, in the air, and we know them well: Will the banks fail, is the system built on anything but faith, and will the faith hold?  Will we keep our coherence as a country, will we hold together, can we continue as a sovereign nation at peace with itself?”[i]

Most of us never expected to see the United States in the condition in which we find it today.  Let’s be clear: Growing disorder was apparent long before the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Lean times and financial hardship have been dominating the lives of millions of Americans.  You know who you are.

We face a uniquely American crisis, yet one that is unfolding in the midst of an extraordinary global turning point.  An oncoming confluence of crises challenges us to rise to a new level.  Do we imagine that a superhero will rescue us?  Or will we pick ourselves up, reach out to our neighbors, and do what needs to be done?

This is an uncompromising personal question.  Whatever ones’ personality, political philosophy or religious belief, we have a choice to make.  Not to respond, or to defer commitment, is in fact to answer the question.  Failure to rise to necessity is to accept defeat.  Either we will retreat into ourselves, accepting the world as beyond our control, or we will step forward to engage hardship and purpose with constructive intent.

The first half of this book reviews the historical context of our present difficulties with observations that might assist the reader to reflect on this question.  The second half offers a path to a civilized future, a course of constructive action based on the genuine engagement of Americans with one another.

While the choice is personal, it comes at a time of existential crisis for America.  To hesitate would be to act as victims rather than as Americans.  It would be to choose loss over promise, helplessness over responsibility.  We may be temporarily intimidated by difficult circumstances.  But we must never give in, and never lose sight of the dawn of a new day that even now lightens the horizon.  Without the personal courage to begin anew, we will join the slide into turmoil.

Differences That Divide Us

The differences that divide the American people in the early decades of the twenty-first century are unquestionably the deepest we have seen since the Civil War. Our differing views are based on many things: political opinion, economic circumstances, personal experience, ethical and religious values, and our understanding of history and of one another.  We must ascertain the true reality of genuine disagreements and recognize dishonest and misleading manipulation.

The vitality of the nation has always been rooted in the dynamic fertile engagement of differing ideas, often intense differences that reflect a wide range of perspective and experience.  And, I will not minimize our differences here.  Nor will I ask that you alter your values or views.  However, the opportunity for understanding (and influencing) one another will depend on a stable and sustainable forum for genuine engagement.  Truth-seeking requires steadfast objectivity.  Patience, civility, and self-control will be essential if we are to create safe community-based venues for self-expression and inquisitive dialog.

Those who foster hostility or propose sedition will ultimately damage their own position and impoverish the nation.  Their words and actions will be met with distrust.  Few Americans will respond favorably to force and coercion, which strike blows against the Constitution and subvert civil order.  A future compromised by fear or moral degradation can only fail us.  Now is the time to pull ourselves together and summon the courage to build anew.

If we are concerned about the motives or intentions of our fellow citizens, it is only practical that we seek a genuine understanding of what they are thinking—the basis for their ideas and where they think they are going.  Otherwise, we are flying blind.

We can only influence a constructive future if we possess accurate information and insight.  Without truthfulness and effective communication, we are sinking in quicksand.  Influencing people and opening them to ideas and knowledge requires getting at their underlying assumptions.  If this is not our purpose, then what are we doing?

Security depends on factual knowledge, and governance depends on honest engagement free of manipulation.  Without willing consideration of differing perspectives, the effort to correct misperceptions and confused thinking can never take place.  In this way the downward spiral can only accelerate.  You all know what I am talking about.

It is neither practical or civilized to go to war with one another when our principles, security, and shared needs all depend on an ability to engage in rational problem-solving.  Are we prepared to give priority to defending the nation, to securing the safety of our communities, to building a stable society?

Our differences are not new.  Americans have always been contentious.  In my view, we have no choice but to develop a vision that seeks the practical benefits of diversity, that facilitates ongoing debate, our own clear thinking, and an ability to influence the future.

It is important that we hold on to our personal views with a self-confidence that allows us to engage with, influence and educate those around us.  Debate and consultation need not threaten our intelligence or personal integrity.  Personal perspective is always subject to personal judgment.  And surely we are capable of recognizing shared understandings and the possibility of values held in common, however limited this might be.

A readiness to entertain differing views without altering ones’ own is the measure of a mature person.  And, this becomes necessary if we are to engage the reasoning behind differing perspectives—the experiences that shape thinking, values and ethics.  We cannot influence change without fully understanding what needs to be changed.

We will not come to agreement on many things.  However, we would do well to remain open to the possibility that when conflict is handled effectively, it can lead to greater security and collaboration.  Sometimes we pay a price for fear or defensiveness, when courage is only one step away.  Harsh circumstances can make us more receptive to new ideas and unexpected ways of thinking—when we are not beating up on each other.

Strategy and Purpose

The strategy proposed in this book is a pragmatic response to two concerns.  First, I believe that the present circumstances are dangerous—socially, politically, and materially—and that conditions will continue to deteriorate.  Second, it is my conviction that the preservation of the United States as a constitutional republic is essential, and that the integrity of the American idea must survive the deepening crisis.  Those who share these concerns are invited to read on.

The strategic proposal offered in this book assumes that Americans are willing and able to rise above our differences to the extent necessary to secure the safety of our communities and to preserve the core vision of United States.  The strategy is designed to carry us through a long and potentially destructive sequence of oncoming crises, some of which will be unexpected.  It presents a challenge that calls for meaningful communication.  And here lies our greatest impediment.  At the present time this might seem all but impossible.  Undisciplined words fly about, amounting either to foolishness or dishonest manipulation.  There are even those who claim allegiance to liberty while purposely fostering the opposite.  Understanding true liberty and the conditions upon which it depends is the central theme of this book.

The communication of which I speak has a quality and intent which is conditioned by the purpose it serves.  Superficial talk will not be useful.  If we have strong beliefs and genuine concerns, let’s get real:  To berate and demonize one another will harden prejudices and carry us backward.  Because substantial misperceptions need to be corrected, we will have to reach across the barriers that obstruct the ability of people to listen and understand.

I believe there to be only one place where this can be made possible, and only one frame of mind, or “attitude”, which will allow it.  The condition I speak of can only be created in self-reliant, locally constituted communities.  It is not to be confused with the concept of “intentional community”, which is an association of like-minded people.  Rather, I speak of authentic American communities, organized in place, where we are already at home, and where we can develop trust and security with dependable neighbors.

Communication must have an honesty of purpose.  It must serve the needs of family and community life, to facilitate the resolving of problems and the meeting of shared needs.  And, community will benefit from a diversity providing practical resources: experience, knowledge, and learned skills.  Well-organized and seriously constituted local communities will alone under extreme conditions, possess the capacity and conditions for preserving the core principles of the United States.

What is immediately essential is not that we agree, but that we work together constructively to resolve pressing material problems and, in so doing, begin to listen and learn, and ultimately to envision a middle ground and shared future that we can live with.  Local communities and regional networks of communities, organized with a constructive and inclusive mindset, will ensure that the American identity is held in trust through a long dark night and into a new day beyond. This is the conceptual basis for the strategy proposed in this book.

We are presented with a formidable task.  Without trustworthy neighbors and cohesive communities, how will we engage constructively with America as a whole—a people uprooted and disorganized in the wasteland of a broken society?  There will be no alternative to building dependable relationships, a stable civil order, and a safe future for our children and grandchildren.  On the following pages I will offer this strategy and the context that gives it birth, as a personal challenge to my readers as thinking, caring, self-respecting adults.

The learned skills and practices necessary for democratic governance on a broad scale can best be learned in the crucible of community.  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?  Are we willing to learn and grow?

Community will not protect us from uncertainty.  What it can do, however, and will do if we are determined, is to open the door for practical potential — dependable neighbors, mutual assistance, food security, and economic renewal on a human scale.  It positions us to best keep our balance mentally and spiritually.  And, most important, it keeps the future alive.

The Choice Is Ours

Some have said that the United States Constitution has made us vulnerable by its extraordinary simplicity.  Yet, it is this purity of motive and form that make liberty possible.  The Founders had no illusions.  They made it very clear that the success and survival of the nation would depend on moral integrity and mature behavior of citizens.  Liberty can only be won through truthfulness and moral responsibility.  No other nation on earth has risen to such a challenge

America has gained its vitality from a broad diversity of perspective, productive energy, and creative imagination.  Above all, we have gained from the clash of differing opinions. However, our differences must never be permitted to subvert the unity of purpose that secures the nation. This immense energy and vitality of spirit can only be productive if disciplined by civil discourse and steadfast loyalty to a shared vision.  We have entered the fiery test of a crucible in which the forces of crisis will burn away self-centered thinking and expose dishonest intent.

In an extraordinary time of existential danger, we are confronted with a stark choice. Will we apply the founding principles of these United States as we build the foundation for a free, ethical, and prosperous future? Will we defend and protect two hundred years of commitment, hard work, and sacrifice by generations of Americans who have given their lives to this unprecedented vision?

Or, will we give way to the emotions of uncompromising partisanship—and allow a great trust to shatter and vanish?

On the following pages I will cut through the emotions and complexity of a monumental moment in history to urge that we join with one another to preserve and renew the United States as a unique and compelling model for a free, stable, and prosperous world.  Is this really possible? Yes, but only with great patience and the ability to envision the end in the beginning.  It will not be easy.  Responsibility never is.

With loyalty, discipline and determination, I submit to you that something far better, far nobler, something perhaps beyond our present ability to imagine, will emerge from the present turmoil.

If, however, we cannot work together effectively to build safe communities with people we are not in complete agreement with, then we will be condemned to the only possible alternative: a collapsing civilization characterized by fear and violence, a nightmare for our children, and a land where no principles, no values, no stable order can be realized.


[i]   Peggy Noonan, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now, HarperCollins (2008), pp 36-7.

 

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