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.
I come to you with an awareness of historical context, and with pivotal questions concerning the meaning of civilizational progress that are confronting the world with increasing disruptive effect.
Like Athenian democracy in ancient Greece, America is an example of the way societies can erupt into history rather suddenly, distinguishing themselves conceptually with new ideas and new narratives of symbolic meaning. The United States came into being at the culmination of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. Our history and national consciousness have been influenced profoundly by the radical transition in social, political, and scientific perspective brought about by Enlightenment thinking, and by its’ still unfolding consequences. For some 200 years American society has been an evolving expression of this way of thinking. Do we understand this?
Without passing judgement, I believe it essential that we consider our present challenges and conundrums with an awareness of this context and its’ attendant questions. Among the most critical, in my view, are questions arising from the wholesale rejection of religion and spiritual reason by the dominant culture. The foundational religiosity of political order in the Middle Ages was secularized by the Enlightenment, and yet survived to embed itself in the new social and political models of the modern age, including especially the totalitarian despotism of communism and national socialism.
How has the human need for meaning reconfigured itself in a society bereft of spiritual grounding? What happens when spiritual needs and religious forms of thinking are subjected to manipulation by extremist ideologues?
These are the kinds of questions we must be aware of as we face the future, whether we have answers or not. It is important to have a realistic understanding of how things came to be the way they presently are.
The intentions of this small book are not grand. It does not represent a particular political philosophy or religious faith. After honoring our strengths as a nation and outlining certain unavoidable questions and concerns in Part 1, I will propose a course of constructive action in Part 2 which calls for us to rise above our differences, to engage meaningfully with our neighbors in addressing shared problems and local needs.
The strategy proposed in Part 2 is a response to the challenging conditions of the 21st century. It focuses on the need to engage with one another more meaningfully as self-possessed, responsible and trustworthy human beings. And, it is geared to the unique capacity of local community to serve as the locus for security and cooperation amidst societal disorder and economic disarray. It is only in collaboration with our neighbors that we can create a safe, mutually supportive environment. Those with whom we work closely 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 ultimately 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. As a free and united democratic society these things will get us nowhere.
Neither will we find safety or ultimate prosperity by retreating in fear behind the walls of a self-imposed state of siege. Nothing will change if we insist on confrontation rather than understanding, if we are unwilling to take on the hard work of building genuine peace in a diverse, pluralistic society. A secure community depends on our learning how to listen effectively, to encourage and attract, and to forge unity in diversity.
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 – will depend entirely 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, 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 move forward as a nation to build a 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 two sections.
Part 1 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 deeply about how we came to where we are in the context of history, and about the true meaning of freedom, responsibility, and personal integrity. I go on to explain how and why community is the basic unit in the foundation of all human societies.
Part 2 offers pragmatic means for seeking safety and security in communities, and introduces an approach to shared leadership that can provide stability and forward progress as we make our way through the storm. Food security, civil defense, and decentralized regional economics are among the crucial issues. Certain practical tools and approaches for working well in communities will be highlighted. Small group decision-making, organizing and managing projects, and transforming conflict into unified strength are covered briefly. References to practical resources 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 master plan, 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.