America: Identity, Direction, Ultimate Purpose

Americans have been watching change accelerate.  These are not normal times.  I have been thinking about what has changed and why.  I’m especially interested in the ways our identity and character as a people have unfolded over time.

Is the change we have been experiencing in recent years all bad?  Can there be both positive and negative dimensions to events that force us to focus our minds and rethink our vision, direction, and values?

The inevitability of plural and conflicting values tests character.  While it is natural for values to be influenced by social conditions or challenged by events, it is when we stop paying attention that we are caught by surprise.

Living in a pluralistic society is a challenge and a responsibility.

It is with this concern that I wish to review some historical viewpoints.  I have no intention of passing judgment in this forum.  But, I think it is important to consider how we came to be where we are, and this is one dimension of my forthcoming book.

The American story is one of visionary hopefulness, realized in fits and starts over the course of more than two centuries.  It has been part courageous and inspiring, and in other aspects both baffling and troubling.  It is a work in progress.

Two concerns that I think are pivotal in any consideration of our national identity include our understanding of the vision and principles of the Founders, and, secondly, our mutual respect as citizens who respect that vision.

Personal independence and acceptance of individual differences are concerns of great significance to Americans.

Yet, there has been a clear divergence between the vibrant and spontaneous civic life that characterized much of early American history, and during the same period a record of violence and brutality revealing an arrogance that defied accountability.

Who are we, really?  Who do we want to be?

Anti-social behavior will evoke revulsion in most of us.  But, historically the dark side of individualistic egotism has been socially acceptable, even conspicuous, in racist attitudes and practices toward American Indians, African-Americans and other minorities.  We have an painful legacy of violence, accentuated by the degradation of slavery, drugs and prostitution.

And, the destruction we are seeing today is very great.  We have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent decades.

We live in a time of extremes.  Consider: Mass murder and sexual violence are escalating at an appalling rate.  Prior to 1960 mass murder in the United States was rare, with no more than several incidences per decade.  This has changed steadily since then.

In 2015 there were 333 mass shootings in the United States and 13,485 deaths by gunshot, with 697 children and 2,694 teens killed or injured.  In 2016 there were 385 mass shootings and 15,054 deaths by gunshot, with 670 children and 3,114 teens killed or injured. (Source: shootertracker.com)

This is but one example among many of the social degradation and abasement we can see all around us.

The current break down of social order has been complicated process.  The economic abandonment of working Americans and the destruction of the middle class has been taking place over several decades with little notice.  I believe parenting is also a factor.

A lack of perceptiveness and foresight among our political leadership and financial professionals has undermined social and economic stability on a broad scale.  Institutions we have depended upon are facing financial bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

How is it that we have so completely lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world?

We now find ourselves confronted by the practical consequences of material loss, fear and anger.  Most importantly, we have lost our sense of direction and ultimate purpose – and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.

The spirit is wounded.

If we wish to regain a civil society in which we join one another to resolve problems, we will need to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences – to face the complex dangers that now confront us.

Tom

Note to readers:  In the coming weeks we will consider implications suggested by our national past through the eyes of historian Niall Ferguson, political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, and conservative commentator Richard Weaver.  Please look for the next post on or about February 24.

Freedom and Limitation

Questions about the meaning of liberty and freedom have been with us for centuries. Even now, we are confronted by contradictions and constraints.

In the coming months we will ponder the challenges of transcending our limitations – and keeping a positive attitude in difficult circumstances.

As we proceed, I will refer the implications of religious faith to individual judgment. Certainly belief in an all-knowing God imposes constraints on our decisions and behavior.  It can also liberate the heart and mind in entirely transcendent ways.

Here we will focus instead on the spirit of freedom as it can be experienced by thoughtful people of every stripe, religious and non-religious alike, as we engage and prevail over the obstacles and strictures that present themselves in our personal, social, and material lives.

Of particular significance in our present circumstances, our relationship with nature looms large. Many Americans have a great love for the extraordinary beauty of this land.  And, our future depends on it.  This is our home and source of sustenance, yet we sometimes seem to forget our dependence on it.

Two hundred years ago scientists, philosophers, and politicians all expected that nature would ultimately come under human control.  Human beings certainly do have a unique capacity to manipulate nature.  But, as science has begun to understand the complexity of natural systems, it has become clear that the balanced order of nature must be sustained to ensure the survival of life on earth.

Setting aside the controversy surrounding climate change for the moment, the idea that nature has limits when it is sufficiently disrupted seems to make sense.

When I was a child there were two billion people alive on this planet.  Now, having recently reached retirement age, I understand the number is seven billion and growing rapidly.  This has taken place in a single lifetime.  My lifetime.

I cannot see how seven billion human beings, along with a massive agricultural and industrial footprint, can fail to impose a strain on the capacity of nature to provide the clean air and water we all depend on.

I believe this question is worth thinking about.  Yet, any suggestion that absolute freedom has collided with limits in the real world seems to cause a violently negative reaction.

What is this about?

If freedom appears to be threatened by science, this would be no small matter.  And so a disagreement that appeared at first to simply raise questions as to material fact has instead descended into bitter accusations of conspiracy, treason, and dishonor.

Am I wrong to think that this reaction is about more than climate change?  The emotional climate suggests that freedom itself must be under attack.

There are many aspects of our lives that impose on our freedom.  Physical reality is just one.

Today we find ourselves colliding with limitations on many levels, personal, social, economic: the loss of privacy and economic freedom, violence on our streets, aging infrastructure, conflicts over land and water rights, insolvent financial institutions, and massively indebted governments.

Shall I go on?  It gets to be crazy-making, you know?

Emotion coalesces into a rage focused on those who may have effectively driven us off a cliff.  Who is responsible for all this, we ask?  Bankers?  Politicians?  Corporate executives?  Are these not people who are supposed to understand what they are doing?

Whether it is the limits to nature that are in question or a deteriorating social and economic order, clearly the cherished expectations of ultimate human prosperity are no longer assured.

The prospects for peace do not look so great either.

We are confronted by crises that appear to be approaching from every direction.  It is a time for each of us to begin adjusting to new conditions, new questions, and new ways of thinking. We owe it to our children to keep our wits about us.

We are Americans.  We are capable, imaginative, constructive.  Coming to understand freedom in a way that transcends human limitations has become very important.

We each have the capacity to think for ourselves.  We must commit ourselves to the independent investigation of truth, and not allow ourselves to be overly influenced by others.

The future and the responsibility are ours to claim.

Tom

Next post: The Loss of Ultimate Purpose

Note to regular readers: I have been rewriting the draft introduction for the book and would appreciate your feedback.  You can find it on this page.  Please watch for the next post on or about January 27.

The Will to Freedom

When America was first being settled by Europeans, the emerging identity of the new nation was characterized by a hopeful confidence in the future and a belief that freedom would lead ultimately to general prosperity and peace.

A new understanding of history had, in the words of political scientist and philosopher Michael Allen Gillespie, “opened up the possibility that human beings need not merely accommodate themselves to the natural world.  Instead they could become masters of nature and reshape it to meet their needs through the methodological application of will and intelligence. This new understanding of the relation of man and nature had profound implications for man’s own understanding of his place in time.”

The “will to freedom” as conceived by philosophers and treasured by American settlers and colonists, thus became the dominant theme on a continent that seemed unlimited, but for the noble peoples it displaced.

We have not been willing to tolerate anything that stands in our way, including those once proud and independent indigenous American peoples who, despite heroic resistance, were forced to give ground to the relentless advance of western expansion.

The contradictions hidden in the vision of absolute freedom and unlimited prosperity have remained largely unconscious and unresolved, whether they be social, economic, or physical.

Forced by extraordinary circumstances, our attachment to illogical assumptions and inflexible absolutes is today pitching us into a confusion of emotionally charged philosophical and political conflicts.

Several related questions were raised in previous posts.

Do we still think we can make ourselves “master and possessor of nature” without regard for the coherent balance that physical life depends upon?

Is absolute freedom even possible, given the complexity and destructive potential that science and technology have introduced into our lives?

What do we expect of technology?  What of the vulnerability of aging infrastructure we depend on for electricity and water every day, or the steadily growing impact of robotics on the economy and jobs, or swiftly advancing surveillance technologies that are capable of prying into every corner of our lives?

Finally, what do the changing realities we face today suggest about the practical meaning of freedom and responsibility – and the necessity for cooperative problem-solving?  Can we collaborate with one another to address these questions and retake control of our destiny as wise, creative, and courageous people?

The historic questions have taken on a contemporary quality, but they are essentially the same questions.  Earlier generations evaded these questions by exalting science and materialism above all else.  Consequently, the denial of a rational God and the suppression of a religious perspective diverted attention from a logical contradiction that transcended philosophy and belief.

When the constraints and limitations imposed by belief in an all-knowing and all-powerful God were disposed of with the cry of “God is dead!” they were immediately replaced by constraints and limitations imposed by belief in a supposedly mechanical natural world.

It was, of course, assumed that science would soon master nature, human beings would succeed in perfecting rational governance, and humankind would realize absolute freedom.

But, nature proved to be far more complex and unpredictable than was expected.  And, having rejected the God of traditional religion, humankind has found itself confronted with a severe discipline imposed by nature, and without the grace or guidance of a loving Teacher.

And “rational governance”?  Well, we have certainly witnessed in graphic terms the manner in which self-appointed leaders of “rational thought” led us into the totalitarian nightmares of communism, fascism, and Nazism.

Please make no mistake: This past is not far behind us.

If we are to reconsider the cataclysms of the first half of the twentieth century and the horrific consequences of the many bungled attempts to control human destiny – politically, economically, and scientifically – we might start to see the future more clearly.  Indeed, we might then avoid potential disasters before they befall us.

We cannot neatly sidestep such fundamental unresolved questions, which I would suggest have embedded themselves deeply in the American psyche.

Agreement concerning the details is not required, but taking responsibility for the practical consequences of our actions in the real world is of immense significance.

Tom

Next post: Transcending Our Limitations

A note to readers:  Please watch for the next post on or about January 13.  Regular readers can register for email alerts by clicking “Follow” on this page.

A Conflicted Legacy

What makes America different?  During the formative years of colonial America something extraordinary was happening in the world.  Beginning in Europe, new ways of thinking were breaking free from authoritarian institutions and belief systems.  A creative energy was released that came to America with a rising flood of immigration.

The new ethos was grounded in the belief that a rational humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, must be capable of discovering effectual truth.

From this conviction there arose a faith that humankind would, in the words of philosopher and political scientist Michael Allen Gillespie, ultimately secure “universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.”

The idea of a promising future for humankind was powerful, inspiring confidence in the potential to free ourselves from the shackles of an oppressive past.  And, for the thousands of immigrants disembarking in the New World, a working knowledge of philosophy was not required.

Everyone knew what America represented, and the promise, however primal and unformed it might be, came to root itself deeply in the emerging American identity.

Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American character, and Americans were energized by their freedom from the fetters of an autocratic culture and restrictive social norms.

There were abundant crises and controversies, of course, to arouse and vitalize the new nation as it struggled to find its feet.  We did not agree on much.  The country was saddled with the unfinished business of its European past: the scar of slavery, the tensions between moneyed and working classes, and the prejudices of religion, race, and nationality.

Yet, a potent hopefulness prevailed as wave after wave of European arrivals powered the growth of a seemingly insatiable industrial economy.  Despite apparent contradictions, the new ideas continued to generate a confident vision on both sides of the Atlantic through most of the nineteenth century.

While much of the brutality perpetrated against Black and Native American people was ignored by Americans of European descent, the horrific violence of the Civil War shocked the Nation.  And then came the twentieth century.

Professor Gillespie describes what happened next:

“The view of history as progress was severely shaken by the cataclysmic events of the first half of the twentieth century, the World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the Holocaust.  What had gone wrong?  Modernity, which had seemed on the verge of providing universal security, liberating human beings from all forms of oppression, and producing an unprecedented human thriving, had in fact ended in a barbarism almost unknown in previous human experience. 

“The tools that had been universally regarded as the source of human flourishing had been the source of unparalleled human destruction.  And finally, the politics of human liberation had proved to be the means to human enslavement and degradation.  The horror evoked by these cataclysmic events was so overwhelming that it called into question not merely the idea of progress and enlightenment but also the idea of modernity and the conception of Western civilization itself.”

We have admired the generation of Americans who prevailed during the Great Depression and fought in World War II.  We like to call them “The Greatest Generation.”  They did not forget.

They remained proud and frugal for the rest of their lives, though many of their children failed to understand.

Most are gone now.  How many of us today know what they knew…?  We who have drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt.

What happened?

I believe we have tried to walk away from the past with little understanding of what happened.  Both the fear of debt and the destruction of global war have been largely repressed and lost to memory.

The long history of degrading abuses suffered by immigrants and people of color is often forgotten and rarely addressed.  The promises of equality and freedom remain, but are only apparent through a haze of inconsistency and uncertainty.

The practical limits of freedom in a complex world have started to close in on our lives, unforgiving in the absence of clear thinking and moral responsibility.

Are we ready to reflect on where we have come from and to confront the oncoming confluence of crises with responsibility, and with our eyes wide open?

Tom

On New Years’ weekend:  The Will to Freedom

Note to regular readers: The blog will take a break until the end of the month.  To receive emailed alerts, please click the Follow button.

A Different Kind of Nation

The United States Constitution holds a unique place in history.  The framers stepped away from the customs and tyrannies of the past to devise a new model for governance envisioned for a free and civilized people.  It has endured for more than two hundred years.

Are we willing to overlook the subsequent missteps and mistakes, the rude and selfish behavior, to consider what is truly of value to us?  Are we prepared to step forward to defend what we wish to preserve?

If we let this inheritance die, what will we have lost?

The record has been rough-hewn, but how could we expect anything like perfection when we have gathered the human race together from across the world into the managed chaos of a democratic republic?

We are blessed with a brilliantly conceived structure for governance that has channeled the energies and creative genius of the world’s people into a dynamic force for capacity-building and prosperity.

As I tried to illustrate in the previous post, the founders made an effort to see the end in the beginning.  We now stand at another profound turning point in history, a moment requiring a visionary maturity from Americans of all colors, stripes, and viewpoints.

I do not suggest the impending election is such a turning point. I speak of something far greater and more profound, a shift in attitudes and thinking that will require at least a generation to comprehend and internalize.

In the coming years we must find our way through a sequence of social and material crises that transcend partisan politics.  These troubles are the consequence of foolishness, mistaken assumptions and a lack of responsibility and foresight over the course of many decades.

Shamelessness and iniquity have walked together on this land.

There are those who think 200 years is a reasonable age for a democratic republic to reach its’ natural demise.  However, the United States of America remains an extraordinary model of spirit and governance, despite the blemishes.

I think it more reasonable to understand 200 years as the age of maturity, shaped by experience and illuminated by the affairs of a disturbed world, when this nation must necessarily come of age.

We have responsibility for a trust grounded in the heritage of the American idea.  Indeed, it is the responsibility to provide a faltering world with the vision and stability to support the next surge forward by the human race.

This is a trust that no other nation has the vision, the strength of will or the generosity of spirit, to embrace.  Brought into focus by the creativity of the American founders, it shines even now from the darkness, a beacon amid dangers and hardship.

Human imperfections remain.  Those who point to the evils and injustices of the past and present are serving a necessary role.  Certainly we must not forget the ignoble or wrongly conceived.  It is not useful, however, to condemn the vision and good will that give character to what the world has admired.

Questions also remain.  Thoughtful citizens will reconsider the requirements that liberty imposes in the way we handle our civil discourse, our disagreements and decision-making.

Surely there can be no freedom for thought, for creativity, for social and economic advancement in the absence of the civility and self-discipline that allows us to engage freely and without fear.

Recognizing the necessity for the social stability upon which all else depends, a practical reality confronts each of us every day.  Have we matured to the degree that we can represent our personal views patiently, listen with understanding, and, when necessary, live with our differences?

The crisis-fueled tensions of the early 21st century leave us wondering.

Ultimately, stability and prosperity depend on our ability to engage in meaningful problem-solving, and to accept our differences within the supporting constraints of shared principles.

If we fail we could lose everything.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about November 11: Standing together for the American idea.

A note to new readers: To receive email alerts when posts are published click the Follow button.

Justice, Balance in Governance

The structure of the Constitution is simple yet profound.  It carefully restrains the passions of factionalism, however intense, from imposing destructively on either minority or majority.  It limits the potential for regional conflict and ensures the strength to confront external threats.

It is the antagonistic divisiveness current among Americans that concerns us here.  “Give all the power to the many,” wrote Alexander Hamilton, “they will oppress the few.  Give all the power to the few, they will oppress the many.”

To understand how and why we depend on the Constitution as we navigate through crises, it will be useful to consider both the reasoned manner in which it was conceived and the negative reaction that it at first inspired.

It can be instructive to review some of the numerous essays and polemics that were published in the American colonies during the period when the proposed document was being considered for ratification.  Among these, a series of 85 commentaries was published in 1787 and 1788 by three members of the Constitutional Convention for the purpose of supporting ratification.

The three writers, who originally shared the pseudonym, “Publius”, were Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.

Later consolidated into a single volume as The Federalist, the assembled papers were said by Thomas Jefferson, another participant at the Convention, to be “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written,”[i]  a view many legal scholars agree with today.

The Federalist is often cited in major court cases and has appeared in the debates surrounding virtually every constitutional crisis.  Another collection entitled The Anti-Federalist Papers and edited by Ralph Ketcham is also available.

In the end, the outcome turned out not to be in question except in New York, where the State Constitutional Convention passed it by only three votes. But, the issues remain instructive and have a similarity to some we find ourselves engaged in today.

As an example, I refer here to the way the framers addressed a familiar challenge to both basic freedoms and effective governance.

In The Federalist, Number 10, James Madison argues that there is no more important purpose in structuring a sound government than that of limiting the “violence” of factionalism.

Responding to the issues prevalent in the colonies immediately following the Revolutionary War, Madison writes:

“Complaints are everywhere heard…, that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

 Madison continues:

“As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.

“The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society…. So strong is this propensity of mankind, to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and to excite their most violent conflicts.

“But the most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property.  Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.  Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination.  A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a monied interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.

“The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government….

“The inference to which we are brought,” Madison concludes, “is that the causes of faction cannot be removed; and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”

Tom

Please look for the next blog post, “A different kind of nation,” to appear on or about Friday, October 28.


[i]  Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, November 18, 1788, in Thomas Jefferson, The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826, 3 vols., ed. by James Morton Smith (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), vol. 1, p.567.

Freedom and Stability

When the first European settlers came to North America and dispersed into the forests and across the open plains, they had only their own initiative, ingenuity, and self-reliance to depend upon.

No one was there to counsel them about the requirements for survival.  Freedom and responsibility were defined by harsh realities.

Intrepid settlers also relied on one another as neighbors, so long as each took responsibility for themselves.  Self-reliance and the acceptance of personal responsibility are sources of self-respect and lead to mutual respect among neighbors.  Whining and complaint don’t fly, however tough the circumstances.

I believe we will soon find ourselves coming full circle to a time when some of the requirements of frontier life may become necessary once again.

The physical circumstances are different and our independence as self-sufficient individuals is generally gone, but the challenges will increasingly resemble those of an earlier time when we were forced to stand on our own feet, depending on inventiveness, cooperation, and reliability.

In the early years of European settlement, American frontier life required little organization other than that prescribed by the traditions of English common law, and common decency.  But, as populations became more concentrated, it was not long before undisciplined enthusiasm and competitiveness roiled civil order.

Thinking people soon found themselves responding to growing contentiousness – and the dangers of majority rule, which threatened to suppress individual initiative and minority liberties.

Democracy was a new idea 200 years ago.  The Constitutional Convention of 1787 struggled with concerns about the growing intensity of divisiveness in the civil order, and recognition that the future Republic would see changes and stresses that were hard to imagine.

Libertarian sentiments were strong among Americans in the 18th century.  There was a natural fear of the social and political oppressiveness colonists had so recently fled from in their European past.  Many had strong feelings about protecting the freedom they experienced in their daily lives.

Despite deep personal sympathies with this viewpoint, the Founders recognized that majority factions had no compunctions against suppressing the interests or rejecting the needs of anyone who differed with them.  Given a perspective inherited from European history it was easy to imagine a violent and tumultuous future.

The Constitution of the United States is the product of this tension and a determination to create a dynamic framework capable of protecting freedoms and yet absorbing the forces of conflict and change that would surely come.

The Constitution is a legal document, not a guide to rational behavior.  It is designed to provide the stability upon which liberty depends, a structure for governance and a set of practical rules.

It does not supply the values and attitudes, or the crucial necessity for cooperation among equals, upon which its’ effectiveness must depend.

The forthcoming book, on which this blog is based, is largely devoted to this challenge.  Before addressing the future, however, let us first place our current challenges in historical context, and consider the foundational principles and visionary institutions Americans already possess.

How do we understand our role in allowing the Constitution to function according to its’ design and purpose?

How do we understand the true meaning of freedom, and what are the practical constraints required by freedom if it is to survive in an orderly, civilized context?

How did the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 formulate a structure for governance that would preserve a balance between freedom and stability?  How did they endeavor to encourage a role for civic responsibility that it might prevail into a future they could only barely imagine?

Structural stability is written into the formation of the Republic.  The rest depends on us.  Instability begins with a lack of foresight and an inability to compromise.  Solutions will only be found through moral responsibility, emotional restraint, and cooperative problem-solving.

We stand today at an extraordinary turning point.  Let’s not throw away our inheritance and attempt to start over from nothing.

Tom

Next on the Blog!  The United States Constitution depends on mutual respect and a strong sense of moral and social responsibility, a careful balance that requires commitment to citizenship and readiness to compromise.  Please watch for the next post on or about Friday, October 14.

Knowing Our Strength

The first step is ours to take.  We can address one another with dignity and join with our neighbors to resolve problems and address local needs.  Or, we can accept a world of hostility, disorder, and ultimate collapse as our children’s inheritance – and let the vision and the treasure of the American idea slip away.

The road to security is built with civility and paved with trust.  To make it so will be difficult.  It is, however, the only alternative to disaster.

The argument that the future can only be built on the foundation of dependable communities is as old as history.  It follows from the rational perception that conflict is a condition in human relationships and can only be understood and transcended in and through human relationships.

It is in the struggle with interpersonal relationships that direct and honest communication can take place.  The means for making this fractious process effective in the context of American history is the subject of this blog and forthcoming book.

Some may say that it is too late.  I say that Americans are courageous, resourceful, resilient.  The United States was conceived in controversy, and the pragmatic vision of the Founders came with recognition that wisdom and strength are found in diversity.

Indeed, it will be argued here that diversity is the foundation for strength, and that the United States Constitution is a visionary assertion of this belief.  The Founders gave us structure.  It is our responsibility to make it work.

Our answer to crisis will determine the shape of our future.  We find ourselves confronted today by one of the great tests of history, a challenge to the intent embodied in the Constitution and the coherence of the American vision that has been gradually maturing for more than two hundred years.

Perhaps we have lost our way for periods of time, stumbled, gotten sloppy.  But now it is time to pull together.  It is argued here that this must begin in our local communities – the historic home to pure democracy and the seat of civilization.

In a free society stability cannot be imposed from above. The kind of strength we seek is grounded in trust and the dependability of personal relationships.

I am not writing about a “recovery” from crisis in the normal sense.  Rather, I submit that we stand at the threshold of an unprecedented turning point – a dangerous crossroads, yet one that offers us a unique window of opportunity to affirm and uphold our exceptional and multifaceted identity as a nation.

In navigating through an extraordinary confluence of sequential crises we will be forced to renew our values, think on our feet, and make both pragmatic and ethical adjustments.  A creative process is now underway that would not be possible otherwise.

An assessment of shared values is in order, and reconsideration of the generosity of spirit that once made America so attractive to the world.

In September we will consider the foresight of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that led to the system of protections, checks and balances that make the American structure of governance what it is.  First, however, we will examine the reasons why diversity has given America a dynamic strength – not as a nice idea, but as a pragmatic imperative.

If American communities are to emerge into a vibrant matrix of local and regional networks, they will depend on citizens with diverse skills and varied perspectives who are capable of teamwork and practical problem-solving.

Resistance to diversity often involves our discomfort with those we perceive as “outsiders”, people who look or think differently than we do, or who come from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds.  Yet, in crises, many differences will allow critical problem-solving that we can ill afford to do without.

It is important to feel confidence in our own ideas and values.  Yes, but why should we be afraid of different ways of thinking?

Aristotle said that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

The opportunity to explore the world through the eyes of others different from ourselves is a blessing and a gift.  And, in the event of social and economic collapse – it may be the key to survival.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about August 19:  The unexpected wisdom in diversity – how it happens and what makes it work.

Cooperation or Collapse?

And what of our differences?  The diversity of views and perspectives that divide Americans in the early years of the 21st century are unquestionably the deepest that have existed since the Civil War.

Our differences are based on many things today: ethical and religious values, economic disparities and personal experience with hardship, our understanding of history, and our perceptions of the very real dangers facing the world.

The vitality of the American Republic has always been energized by the clash of differing opinions.  The national character is rooted in the fertile engagement of divergent ideas that test and expand our wide-ranging perspectives.  America has flourished on the principle of pluralism.

Our opinions, values, perceptions all deserve respect; yet we disagree vehemently on matters of fundamental importance. We have good reasons for holding our views. This is the way it is supposed to be in a healthy civil society.

And this begs a critical question: How can we find a way to live and work together in a time of maximum stress?

As sequential crises take hold, is the security of our families and communities important enough that we are willing to do what is necessary to build trust and dependability, meeting life-sustaining needs and working effectively with our neighbors – many of whom we have substantial differences with?

Are we prepared to struggle for this country shoulder-to-shoulder, indeed to be truly loyal to one another as Americans?

And, what is it really that makes this a cause worth fighting for?

I believe that such questions lead to the pivotal question I have described on this blog as a “severe choice” (June 24).

Many readers have expressed concerns about the imposing challenges these questions represent.  Indeed, we stand at a monumental turning point in the nation’s history.

The survival of the Republic will require certain virtues that Americans are not generally known for—moral responsibility, dependability, trustworthiness.  Our most fundamental challenge will be learning to view others – especially our opponents – in essentially ethical rather than political terms.

This is not about charity.  A level of civility is required that goes far beyond kindness and common decency.  If Americans are to turn the corner, it will be with a civilized and responsible attitude that appears unfamiliar at present.

Cooperation does not require compromising our principles.  Indeed, unexpected opportunities for influencing one another will surely come with working together to address common needs, especially in the face of crises.

Times of danger tend to open ones’ personal perspective, allowing us to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.

It is neither practical nor civilized to go to war with one another when our common interests depend on our ability to communicate clearly and to engage in rational problem-solving.  What is essential is not that we agree, but that we seek dependable cooperation in the face of serious threats.

Naturally, this will require more than a right attitude.  Practical skills will be necessary to help us work effectively in small groups, ensure food security, make consultative decisions and manage conflict, organize projects and start small businesses.

Together we will share and develop the necessary skills.

Under the present conditions of social disintegration, strident divisiveness, and dysfunctional institutions, I have encouraged Americans to turn aside from partisan politics, at least temporarily, to focus primary attention on practical needs in our local communities.

I am not at all opposed to effecting change by traditional means. However, as the crisis deepens I believe we will gain far more safety and control over our lives through community building. And, I believe this effort will impart many of the essential lessons that will lead to a decent future.

This is my message.  Dependable community is the ground of civilization.

However complex the problems we face, in the final analysis we are confronted by a single simple question.  Will we accept the destruction of civilized society, a rending of the very fabric of the Republic, and retreat into a state of siege?  Or, will we have the courage to begin anew?

Tom

A note to readers: Please watch for the next blog post on or about August 5.

A Severe Choice

The extraordinary depth and breadth of the many crises confronting the American people today represent a critical turning point and 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 and an unparalleled model of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality.  People from throughout the world have been attracted to the vision it represents.

In the midst of upheaval 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 its’ social coherence, its’ economic well-being and generosity of spirit has faltered.

This blog, and the forthcoming book it represents, is addressed to those who are interested in understanding lessons from the past, and who recognize that failures of responsibility and foresight have led us to the brink of disaster.

Do we possess the resolve to join with one another in rebuilding the United States based on its core values and ultimate meaning?

In redirecting our attention and redoubling our commitment, it might be wise to consider those aspects of the American character and cultural attitude that have influenced the downward slide from responsibility to turmoil.

A self-indulgent materialism and thoughtless disregard for the consequences of our actions has placed the future in jeopardy.

The fragmented way we have perceived the world and led our lives may have origins in our immigrant past, but it will not serve us well in reconstructing a stable, coherent, and economically viable future.

There is much to think about.

However, my message is brief.  It will be short on analysis and will forego blame.  There is more than enough blame to go around and we all know about it.  Rather, I will focus on the essentials of mind and attitude, of human character, and of our relationships to one another that will be required if we are to turn despair into courage and failure into triumph.

We will address areas of concern that I believe to be central to realistic solutions.  Most importantly, we will consider the manner in which we relate to one another as individuals when we have very great personal differences.

I submit that the safety and security of our families and communities can only be assured if we unite around the structural order provided by the Constitution, which has anchored the American Republic from its inception, and to the principles of mutual respect and moral responsibility that give strength and resiliency to all civilized societies.

The United States has entered the fiery test of a crucible in which the forces of crisis will burn away the self-centeredness and sloppy thinking of the past to forge an American identity we can respect and feel good about.

If we fail to rise to our calling, however, the social violence generated by failing institutions and human suffering will threaten to incinerate our children’s future and turn a great vision to hopelessness and anguish.

At a time of extraordinary existential threat we are confronted with a severe choice.

Will we return to the founding ideals and principles of these United States as the bedrock on which to build a free and ethical 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?

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.  We will need to depend on one another in our local communities.

So, let’s set aside partisanship and sectarian differences when it becomes necessary in the interest of stabilizing and rebuilding the nation. Panic neither serves nor becomes us.

Tom

A note to regular readers:  Starting in July, I intend to post on alternate weeks.  This will allow me more time for completing the book.  I hope to post the next blog entry on or about July 8.  Have a good summer!

Principled Means, Principled Ends

These are precarious times.  We find ourselves confronted with growing social and economic instability and an uncertain future.  We do not want to sit on our hands.  Yet, unprecedented complexity and uncertainty make it impossible to know what to expect.

How easy it would be to let emotions rule, tipping the future into chaos and endangering the very goals we wish to secure.

It is with this in mind that I take up where I left off in the previous post (June 9).  I see two pragmatic reasons why political violence will not get Americans where we want to go.  One is tactical.  The second is strategic – and the more important.

Any patriot preparing today for armed resistance in the tradition of 1776 will pit himself against an extraordinary opponent.  He will be outmaneuvered and outgunned by fully militarized police possessing the most advanced surveillance technology and backed by massive firepower.

The mythic ideal of the citizen soldier remains deeply engrained in the American psyche.  But the plain fact is, if you imagine a heroic Star Wars scenario in defense of freedom and justice you are indulging in fantasy.

I am not interested in arguing about this because there is a much bigger problem, and it is this:  Who exactly do you intend to fight?

American law enforcement agencies and the United States military are served by loyal, committed Americans.   These are our people, our sons and daughters, friends and neighbors.  They are working people, they have families, and they care about the future.

It is our responsibility to win them over, not beat them up.  They should be approached respectfully, with persuasive argument and attractive example.

As I wrote here last week, violence committed by Americans against Americans would contradict the rationale behind the impetus to violence itself.   It would be self-contradictory, pitting us against one another and subverting the integrity and viability of the American Idea as a guiding force for the good.

Our views on politics or government, the integrity of the Constitution, or the corruption of principles, are all serious matters.  But, public servants, police officers and bureaucrats are not the problem.

We must respect these people, not just as a matter of principle, but because we need them. They are essential to a constructive solution.

Americans are not to be persuaded when we are attacked, not for some high-minded cause or anything else.  When faced with hostility we naturally close ranks, and clear thinking stops.

Even the misguided rebellion of tiny splinter groups will be destructive to the cause of liberty.  Any resort to force can easily lead to cascading consequences in which violence begets violence in a downward spiral, tearing the fabric of the republic and threatening the progress of constructive action.

Furthermore, it is simply not necessary.

Change is needed that is real, lasting, and built on the solid ground of dependable communities – not quicksand.  I never said this would be easy, so let me be clear – the skills, attitudes, and discipline that create and build community are at the heart of what we need to learn to create and build the future.

This is more than a matter of survival.  For thousands of years community has formed the foundation of civilization.  The essential concern in the present hour, and the basis by which to judge constructive action, must be the spirit and the quality of the future we wish for.  It is the means that determine the end.

This is not a theoretical nicety, but hard-nosed truth.  Understanding it will determine success or failure.

We are capable of being decent, patient and forbearing, of cooperating to resolve practical problems and even saving each others’ lives.  Personal principles, values and views must certainly be respected.  But, rising above our differences will be essential if we are to identify shared values, ensure comprehensive security, and begin to build a stable social economy for the future.

Going to war with our fellow citizens would make no sense.  Indeed, the ends we seek could be delayed by decades and possibly destroyed by impractical or intemperate courses of action.

Tom

Next week: A Foundation Based on Values

A note to regular readers: Thank you for all the comments, ideas, and perspectives shared in recent weeks, especially on the Facebook page.  You are a valuable “reality test” for me as a writer.  This project would be impossible without you.

Doing the impossible…

Leaves 3

“There is nothing wrong with America that faith, love of freedom, intelligence, and the energy of her citizens cannot cure.”

–Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

–Francis of Assisi