American Crucible


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 from throughout the world have been attracted to the vision that it represents.  Yet, the extraordinary challenges confronting the American people today mark a decisive turning point and present a definitive test of America’s place in history.

Confronted with economic instability and social disorder 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 weakened, 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 turn despair into courage and failure into dignity and self-respect.

None of us thinks America is perfect.  Indeed, we are well aware of the current disarray in the civil, social, and economic conditions around us.  However, we are 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 Constitution lies in a flexibility that has accommodated constructive change without compromising the principled order envisioned by the Founders.  There have been painful struggles along the way.  However, American history since the Civil War has reflected an uneven but unmistakable trend toward democratic inclusivity – in legislation, in the courts, and in civil society.

A confluence of emerging crises is now posing unavoidable questions. Will civil order be torn further by the anger and frustration we feel? Will the nation survive as the constitutional union created by its founders? Or, will we have the fortitude and grit necessary to learn the lessons and reaffirm the vision 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 do what is necessary to make the United States of America stronger and more mature than ever before, learning what must be learned 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.  Disorder prevails on numerous fronts.  Lean times and financial hardship dominate the lives of many.  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 question.  Not to answer it, or to defer commitment, is in fact to answer it.

Failure to rise to necessity is to accept defeat.

Whatever ones’ personality, political philosophy or religious belief, we have a choice to make.  Either we retreat into ourselves, accepting the world as beyond our control, or we step forward to engage hardship and purpose with constructive intent.

It is a personal choice, but at a time of existential crisis for America it takes on great significance – for ourselves, for the nation and for the world.

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. 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.

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.  Patience, civility, and self-control will be essential if we are to create safe community-based venues for self-expression and truth-seeking dialog.

Those who foster antagonism or propose sedition weaken their own arguments as well as the strength of the nation.  They undermine their ability to influence and educate, discrediting their own position.  And, they deny the structure and purpose of the Constitution.

The nation has been built on the legal foundation of the Constitution.  The future must not be compromised by irresponsibility and disintegration.  Now is the time to pull ourselves together and summon the courage to build anew.

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

We can only influence others if we possess accurate information and insight.  Without genuine communication, words and actions will be misinterpreted.  Influencing people and opening them to new 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 confused perceptions and thinking can never take place.  In this way the downward spiral will only accelerate into a social and political nightmare.  You all know what I am talking about.

It is neither practical nor civilized to go to war with one another when our principles require effective communication and education; when security and shared needs depend on the ability to engage in rational problem-solving.  Are we prepared to accept significant differences while uniting to defend the nation, to secure the safety of our communities and to build a stable society?

As individuals we are challenged to hold on to our personal views with a self-confidence that prepares us to effectively engage with, influence and educate those around us.  Surely we are also capable of recognizing shared perspectives and the possibility of values held in common, however limited this might be.

Our differences are not new, and Americans have always been contentious.  In my view, we have no choice but to develop a vision that accepts differences, that allows ongoing debate, clear thinking, and the ongoing potential to influence the future.

As individuals we are challenged to hold on to our personal views with a self-confidence that prepares us to effectively engage with, influence and educate those around us.  Surely, we are also capable of recognizing shared perspectives and the possibility of values held in common, however limited this might be.

We will not come to agreement on many basic differences.  We would do well, however, to remain open to the possibility that severe crises can be transformative.  Sometimes human beings have to be forced to learn their lessons the hard way.  Harsh circumstances can make us more receptive to new ideas and unexpected ways of thinking – if we are not beating up on each other.

Effective Communication

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 are continuing 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 my concerns are invited to read on.

The first part of this book provides historical context for what follows.  A strategic proposal is outlined in the second half of the book, which you will, no doubt, find challenging.

I will present a course of constructive action and a consideration of the spirit, mental attitude, and practical tools that it will require.  These ideas are imposing, but I do not believe a viable alternative exists.  It will be necessary for Americans to rise above our differences to the extent necessary to secure the safety of our communities, as well as to preserve the core vision of United States through a long and potentially destructive sequence of crises.

I offer a challenge that requires genuine communication.  And here lies our greatest challenge.  At the present time this seems 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.

The communication of which I speak has a certain quality and intent, which is conditioned by the purpose it serves.  Superficial talk will not be useful.  The urge to argue and debate will have to be restrained.  Berating and demonizing one another will harden prejudices and carry us backward.  Because misperceptions need to be sorted out, we will have to reach across barriers to actually hear and understand one another.

To understand differing views without altering our own is the measure of a mature person.  It will be necessary to understand the reasons for individual perspectives – the experience we come with and the ethics we value.

I believe there to be only one place where all this can be made possible, and only one frame of mind, or “attitude”, which will allow it.  And, this is genuine, self-reliant community.  I do not speak here of the concept of “intentional community” which is an association of like-minded people.  Rather, I speak of authentic American community, organized in place, where we are already at home, where we can gather our friends and neighbors around us.

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 that provides resources of experience, knowledge, and practical 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.

The Crucible of Community

Local communities and regional networks of communities, organized with a constructive and inclusive attitude, 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 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?

The future security and stability of the United States to which I refer can only be made real through civic responsibility and compassionate citizenship.  No freedom can be imposed by force.  The practice of learned skills necessary for governance on a wide scale can best be learned in the crucible of community.

This 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.

Working with people is probably the most challenging thing we do in life.  Choosing to work together requires perseverance and forbearance – a readiness to exercise tolerance, patience, self-control.  There will always be difficult people to test us.

Our job is not to be heroes or caretakers or managers, although these roles may call upon us at times.  Our job is to win over hearts and minds to the honor of responsibility and mutual respect. 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.

The Choice Is Ours

The United States has gained its vitality from a broad diversity of perspective, from 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 vital 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.

Panic neither serves nor becomes us, and subversion promises destruction and shame. With loyalty, discipline and determination, 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 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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