Americans today face a critical moment in time, arguably as profound as any in our history. The list of concerns is long: Economic instability, social disorder, belligerent partisan antipathies, extremist violence, failing infrastructure, environmental degradation, and growing threats from cyber-crime and microbial diseases, among others. Each seems to suggest the possibility of oncoming disaster.
The fear of social disorder and violent extremism is troubling everyone, but at this writing the economy continues to have the most immediate, personal and painful impact for almost all of us. It is not an exaggeration to say that the most vulnerable among us, those who put the rubber to the road in the real world, have been feeling the deterioration of the economy for a long time.
For Americans of all persuasions, expectations for the future have been steadily eroding. Freedom of opportunity, social justice, a comfortable retirement, and the preservation of our ability to seek personal goals are all now in question. To many the character of the nation appears to be in question. Insecurity gnaws at self-confidence.
We are experiencing the present adversity as an American crisis, and it is. But it is taking place in the context of a great turning point in the human story, a transitional period when an unprecedented number of monumental crises are converging across the globe. Our own crisis is inextricably intertwined with the affairs of the world.
Never has there been a greater need for the stability of the American vision.
The intentions of this small book are not grand. It does not represent a particular political philosophy or religious faith. Rather, I propose a course of constructive action that calls for us to rise above our differences to engage meaningfully with our neighbors in addressing shared problems and meeting local needs.
The strategy proposed here is geared to the unique capacity of local community to serve as the locus for security and cooperation in a time of social disorder and economic disarray. It is only with our neighbors that we can collaborate to create a secure environment. And those who we work with on common concerns are those with whom we can build mutual trust and genuine dependability.
This is an extremely challenging proposition, and the effort to bring it fully to fruition will require decades of effort. However, I do not believe we have a choice. It may be the only viable path to restoring a stability we can depend on.
It must be clear from the beginning that our concept of community has to change. This is a plan of action that can go nowhere unless and until we agree on a realistic understanding of what will be required. Too often “community” in America means a group of like-minded people intent on preaching, asserting, admonishing, or proclaiming. This will get us nowhere.
Neither will retreating in fear to a self-imposed state of siege furnish true safety. Nothing will change if we insist on confrontation rather than compassion, if we are short-tempered rather than patient. A secure community depends on our learning to listen, to encourage and attract, and to forge unity from diversity.
Likewise, a loose-knit association of friends cannot possibly provide the safety we will depend on in the dark time ahead. We have entered an extremely difficult period of history, when responsibility for our families, friends and neighbors – and for the survival of the United States as a constitutional republic – and will all depend on how we think, act, and manage our affairs.
Local community represents that unique geography where the safety and security of our families can be addressed, and where building trust, resolving local problems, and sharing our values and visions for the future can become immediately possible. And, it is here that we will learn the skills of civility, cooperation, and decision-making that will be essential if we are to build a national future we can all respect and feel good about.
We must not abandon our values and views, but rather discipline the manner in which we utilize them. Each of us carries an important personal perspective that will contribute to the character and wisdom of the whole – as long as we refrain from allowing ego or emotion to overwhelm the context in which we find ourselves.
The greatest challenges involved in building genuine communities in a disintegrating society will be trust and the diversity of our values. Trust is built gradually through the experience of working together to meet shared needs. Tools are available to help us do this effectively. But, it will require the courage to engage with one another to make this happen.
Values are another matter. We each have numerous values, perhaps more than we realize. Values are not random ideas or choices; many are deeply rooted in our interests and needs. If we are to live together, certain essential values must be shared; others will challenge our patience, but not our personal integrity. We will never agree on all our values. This is a reality of the human condition. We must learn how to work with this, to influence one another when it is possible, and to live together with grace and charity.
We will explore the dimensions of civility and dynamics of civilization at length on the pages that follow. The future will depend on our maturing process as human beings: emotional discipline, a more even temperament and generous attitude. Elitist presumptions, partisan blugeoning, and authoritarian force won’t fly. Our own comfort, and possibly our survival, will depend on the recognition that diversity among our neighbors will be essential – diversity of experience, of knowledge, perspective, and problem-solving skills.
There will be things we need to learn how to do and we must support one another in this. We will learn how to work together to meet critical needs, how to master group decision-making, and how to understand the concept of conflict transformation, all of which we will consider later in the book. The necessary resources are available for those ready to extend themselves.
I challenge you with the conviction that we can do this together. History is a process of learning from tests, rethinking our questions, and when our ways of living are no longer adequate, we trade them in for better ones. We will come through a dark time and out the other side stronger and wiser than we went in.
My emphasis on local needs and community safety does not ignore the larger picture. I do not discourage engagement in the broader society or its partisan dramas. On the contrary, I view the challenges of building genuine community to be the sole means for regaining a civility that can lead, ultimately, to effective governance, reconstructed institutions, and a coherent vision for the future.
We must find our way in the coming years with both grit and grace, navigating through complex and interacting crises. We have entered a transition that can be expected to dominate the first half of the 21st century and possibly longer. The outcome will depend on our character as a people and our ability to quickly recognize the unprecedented structural changes in social, economic, and environmental realities that will confront us each step of the way.
Necessity presents us with stark, uncomfortable choices. We can give free reign to anger and disillusionment, allowing ourselves to be dragged down to a demoralized helplessness. Or we can determine to stand firmly together as a people, rising above our differences to meet the challenges that confront us.
Are we prepared to preserve core values, even as we forge a genuinely American response to the evolving conditions of an unparalleled historical transition? Will we have the vision, courage, and fortitude to commit ourselves to principled means and constructive ends?
I will not offer partisan views, nor will I speak of ultimate goals. Fundamental values and a shared purpose must be determined by the American people. Rather, I will suggest the qualities of character, attitude, and responsibility that can bring us through a profound turning point in our national experience.
The ideas you will find here are grounded in basic values that I believe we can all embrace. I do have personal opinions and points of view, but will limit myself to proposing fundamental principles and constructive action. I am a ninth generation American with a deep love for this country. I do happen to be a religious person. However, I make you a promise here and now: As an American it is my intention to present propositions and arguments in a form that every American might find compelling and practical.
I seek to engage the broadest possible diversity of views and perspectives in the conviction that however immense the tests we face, however the world changes around us, however varied our circumstances, this nation must not be permitted to abandon its founding vision and ultimate purpose.
The structure of the forthcoming book is organized in three sections.
The first section outlines what I consider to be the most significant issues and concerns relevant to our commitment to “the American idea.” It challenges Americans to think more clearly about the meaning of freedom, and about how we came to where we are in the context of history. I go on to argue that community is the basic unit in the foundation of all human societies.
The second offers a pragmatic approach to safety and security in the context of community, and goes on to outline principles and an approach to shared leadership that can provide stability and forward progress as we make our way through the storm. Food security and decentralized regional economics are among the crucial issues.
The third section focuses on practical skills and approaches for working well in communities. Working in groups, consultative decision-making, organizing and managing projects, and dealing with conflict are covered briefly. References to useful resources for further study will be provided.
The framework I offer consists of a way of seeing and being that we can each interpret independently and comprehend with our own minds. Rather than presenting a masterplan, the book provides a springboard for inspired thinking and constructive action. Readers are encouraged to use the book as a starting point, to investigate further and to engage in dialog with friends and neighbors.
Finally, I greet you with a very personal appeal. Will we accept the destruction of civil order, a rending of the very fabric of the Republic, and retreat into a state of siege? Or, will we stand bravely together in the face of danger and loss, to recover the vision of dynamic governance and creative potential that Americans have struggled valiantly to realize?
Do we imagine that politicians can possibly have the knowledge, wisdom, and creative vision to fix a monumental mess? Or shall we accept responsibility for ourselves as citizens – and seek a means of working together, collaborating across our differences as we must?
As individuals we could easily allow our spirits to be dragged down by the missteps and misdeeds of the past. We might easily feel overwhelmed by the fearsome challenges and unexpected shocks of the future. Let us instead rise above all the uncertainties and fears, honorably and courageously, and step forward to rebuild the foundations of this very special nation.