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 everywhere have been attracted to the vision that it represents.  Yet, the extraordinary challenges confronting 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 unleashed untold damage, altering the future in unimaginable ways.

However, America 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 simplicity that allows maximum freedom even while requiring moral responsibility, and a vision that accommodates flexibility without compromising the principled order conceived 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 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 the anger and frustration we feel? 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 its citizens to arise to our calling.  Will we embrace the future bequeathed to us by the American Founders, which alone can lead to unity of purpose and true prosperity?  Or will we succumb to a rigidity born of custom and fear?  This question hovers over us, calling every American to responsibility and honor.

Neither philosophical convictions nor the correction of mistakes can be addressed effectively until this question is answered.  And, the inevitability of ongoing civic and social degradation will continue until it is.

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 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 stronger and more mature than ever before?

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: Disorder prevailed on numerous fronts long before the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Lean times and financial hardship dominated the lives of millions.  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 retreat into ourselves, accepting the world as beyond our control, or we step forward to engage hardship and purpose with constructive intent.

The first half of this book offers a clear-eyed historical context and perspective in which to reflect on this question.  The second half offers a path to the future which may provide the only viable possibility for a civilized future.

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. 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 will weaken their own arguments and impoverish the strength of the nation.  Their ability to influence and educate is discredited.  Such action strikes at the integrity of the Constitution.

This nation has been built on the legal foundation of the Constitution.  A future compromised by fear or social 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 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 have influence if we possess accurate information and insight.  Without truthfulness and effective communication, words and actions will be misinterpreted.  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 into a 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, 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 and 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 accepts differences, that facilitates ongoing debate, clear thinking, and our ability to influence the future.

It is important 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 issues.  We would do well, however, to remain open to the possibility that conflict and crises can bring altered perspectives and constructive change.  Sometimes we have to be forced to learn our 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.

To Keep the Future Alive

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.

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 oncoming crises.  I offer a challenge that calls for meaningful communication.  And here lies our greatest challenge.  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 of central importance to this book.

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 will have to be restrained.  Berating and demonizing one another will harden prejudices and carry us backward.  Because substantial misperceptions need to be corrected, we will have to reach across barriers to actually hear and understand one another.  To understand differing views without necessarily altering our own is the measure of a mature person.  And, it will be important that we come to understand the reasons for individual perspectives—the experience that shapes our life-views 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 in self-reliant, locally constituted communities.  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 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 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.

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 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 assistance. 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

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 will not be won but through truthfulness and 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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