CHAPTER ONE (Draft)
The extraordinary challenges confronting the American people early in the twenty-first century mark a decisive turning point and represent a definitive test of America’s place in history.
For more than two hundred years the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope, as a source of intellectual vibrancy and creative potential, and as a singular model of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality. People from throughout the world have been attracted to the vision that it represents.
In the crush of crises it can be easy to forget the unique stature of the United States and the role it has played and will continue to play in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization. Yet, our confidence in the future is shaken. Our economic well-being and social coherence as a nation have been weakened, and the generosity of spirit for which we have long been known appears dimmed.
I address those who wish to understand the lessons we can learn from the mistakes and foolishness of the past, who recognize the failures of responsibility and foresight that have led to disaster, and who possess the vision and resolve to join with one another to rebuild this nation in a manner consistent with its core values and ultimate potential.
I believe it is a time to consider our identity as a people, to build cohesive, dependable communities and a future we can be proud of.
This will require a serious conversation among ourselves to clarify who we are and what we want. Superficial talk will not be sufficient. Misperceptions need to be sorted out. We will have to reach across barriers to actually listen to one another, seeking to understand the reasons for our individual perspectives and the assembled wisdom this represents.
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 to one another that will be required to turn things around, to turn despair into courage and failure into honor and self-respect.
None of us thinks America is perfect. However, we are blessed with a governing structure that respects the individual, protects both minorities and majorities, and makes room for new ideas, innovation and creativity. The genius of the Constitution is in a flexibility that has accommodated constructive change. There have certainly been very painful struggles along the way. However, American history since the Civil War has reflected a slow but unmistakable trend toward inclusivity – in legislation, in the courts, and in civil society.
However, an oncoming confluence of sequential crises is posing unavoidable questions. Will the nation survive as the constitutional republic created by its founders? Will the country be torn apart by the anger, fear, and frustration Americans feel? Or, will we have the fortitude and grit necessary to learn the lessons and to reaffirm the vision and principles that will lead to a genuine American renewal?
If the American people are to prevail, how will we do it? Do we have the patience and wisdom to engage with one another in good faith, to rebuild a national unity that transcends the very real differences that divide us? Or, to put the question in another way, will we succeed in remaking the United States of America stronger and more mature than ever before — based on what we learn from the lessons of the past?
Early in 2008 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. Many of us never expected to be in the personal trouble in which we now find ourselves. Ultimately, we face a uniquely American crisis, yet one that is unfolding in the midst of an extraordinary global turning point.
I will attempt to address the primary questions on these pages, those questions we must be clear about deep in our own hearts if we are to stand up for America and fight the good fight. It is addressed to those of you who are ready to stand by your country, or who truly want to be ready.
Differences That Divide Us
I will attempt to cut through the emotions and complexity of a monumental moment in history to urge that we join with one another to renew the United States as a unique and compelling model for a free, stable, and prosperous world.
What about our differences? This is our great challenge.
The differences that divide the American people in the early years of the twenty-first century are unquestionably the deepest we have seen since the Civil War. Our differing views today are based on many things: political opinion, economic circumstances, personal experience, ethical and religious values, and our understanding of history and of one another. 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.
We will not minimize our differences here. That’s a promise! But, in the midst of extraordinary circumstances, we have no choice but to learn how to work together effectively in managing local problems.
This will require that we accept a difficult assignment: to listen well to one another, inquiring into the views, perspectives, core beliefs that might tear us apart—our real differences, and truly hear and understand one another.
It is neither practical nor civilized to go to war with one another when our common interests and security depend upon our ability to work together; when we need to share what we have learned and engage in rational problem-solving.
There is no need to compromise personal belief, and you will not be asked to do so here. The need is to preserve the nation we have been entrusted with and the vision of the future that it stands for.
Our challenge will be to hold our views confidently within ourselves while listening carefully, always seeking to recognize that locus of thought and potential interaction where values and principle are held in common.
We will not come to agreement on many of our most basic differences. However, we are living today at a time when harsh circumstances may open many to listen and comprehend what they could not understand before.
Our goal must be to determine a shared vision and purpose that transcends our differences and will ensure the safety and security of our local communities. What is essential is not that we agree, but that we work together constructively to resolve pressing material problems and create a forum for dialog in which we can begin to listen and learn and envision a future we can respect and be proud of.
Are we prepared to accept significant differences while uniting to defend the nation, to secure our communities and build a stable society? Is the security of our communities and the nation important enough to us that we are willing to work with our neighbors, many of whom we have substantial differences with? Are we prepared to fight for this country shoulder-to-shoulder with one another, indeed to be truly loyal to one another as Americans?
Those who foster antagonism or propose sedition will only weaken the cause and discredit their own position. The nation must be built with clear vision from the foundations we know and not damaged further by the forces of disintegration.
Now is the time to pull ourselves together and summon the courage to build anew. The present crisis has brought with it a rude awakening, pitching us into a demanding reality and forcing us to stand on our own two feet. However frightening it may be, we are called upon to determine our purpose and reconstruct our world.
Americans of every perspective and condition are being forced to engage in a critical assessment of what we wish our communities and our country to look like, and how we can join forces with one another in a determined effort to actualize that vision.
Rather than focus on the errors and foolishness of the past, I urge that we find steadfast patience within ourselves and engage with one another in open-minded problem-solving. While it is important to understand past mistakes, the present transition must be far more than a recovery from mistakes.
We face multiple tests and unprecedented complexities going forward. A wide range of problems will have to be solved in the coming years that will require entirely new approaches and unexpected solutions: material, intellectual, and spiritual.
Infrastructure, systems, and services we have long depended upon are going to fail in the coming years. Problems will have to be solved without many of the tools and supports to which we are accustomed. So, let us set aside partisanship and sectarian differences when necessary, in the interest of stabilizing and rebuilding the nation.
On the following pages we will consider the state of mind and range of vision that will be required if we are to respond effectively. No turning point of such magnitude and complexity can be met without intellectual and ethical integrity, nor will it be possible without an understanding of the interrelated character of the challenges confronting us.
I will address Americans in particular concerning the necessity for a commitment to the security and stability of our communities and the civil order made possible by the United States Constitution. I refer to a security and stability made real by our own civic responsibility and compassionate citizenship, not that which is imposed with unthinking force from above.
We all yearn for a less partisan and more civil national discourse. Let us accept that diverse views are needed, however divergent they may be, if we are to correctly identify effective solutions. Practical problem-solving best occurs with input from varied perspectives. And, I must point out that in the present dangerously fragile context, priority must go to ensuring the safety and well-being of our families and communities. This will depend on loyalty, cooperation, and teamwork – despite our differences.
There can be no freedom without trust. And, we cannot begin to address the larger issues in our future without first securing stable local forums in which to engage with civility.
Is this really possible? Yes, but only with great patience and a capacity to envision the end in the beginning.
The United States has gained its vitality from our diversity and the creative engagement found in the clash of differing opinions. Our differences must never be permitted to subvert the unity of purpose that secures the identity of the nation. This immense energy can only be productive if disciplined by civil discourse, steadfast commitment, and a shared vision.
The Choice Is Ours
The United States has entered the fiery test of a crucible in which the forces of crisis will burn away the myopic self-centeredness and sloppy thinking of the past to forge an American identity we can be proud of. Otherwise, if we fail to rise to our calling, the social violence arising from human suffering and failing institutions will incinerate our children’s future and turn a great vision to hopelessness and anguish.
At a time of extraordinary existential danger we are confronted with a stark choice. Will we apply to 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?
Panic neither serves nor becomes us. The United States has dedicated itself to the cause of liberty built upon the foundation of unity within diversity – diversity of nationality, religion, ethnicity, and, most of all, political philosophy. We possess wide ranging distinctions and differences, but together we share an essential inviolable common ground. Let us pull together, reorient ourselves to the originating principles upon which this country was built, and step forward to reassert the vision and secure our communities.
I submit to you that something far better, far nobler, something perhaps beyond our present capacity to imagine, will emerge from the present turmoil.
If, however, we cannot work 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.