The Freedom Within

Our freedom to make choices, however limited, gives us the ability to determine who we are.  Without freedom of choice there can be no morality and no capacity for personal integrity.  Yet many of our choices in life restrict later opportunities.

The choice of career, of a love-mate, and the decisions to have a family, to stand by a friend, or to embrace a religious faith, all limit future choices.  And if we are caring human beings, we find our choices further constrained by our sense of responsibility as members of family and community.

Most of us are mature enough to recognize that freedom is impossible if we abandon responsibility.  So, where do we find freedom?  What is freedom, really?

The integrity of political, economic, and religious freedoms should always be a concern, and particularly so in times of crisis.  However, the difficulties confronting the individual are paramount.  We each find ourselves facing our own tests, and each must respond on the basis of our own sense of integrity.

In the blog and forthcoming book I will explore the difficulties we experience when seeking personal integrity in the face of civil disorder or political repression.  In a time of hardship and distrust this is a vital matter.

We could try to walk away from the human crisis, but even then we would be confronted by the immediate necessities of material circumstances.

Any attempt to walk away comes at great cost, limiting our personal opportunity to grow and mature through the challenges and vitality of human relationships.  Indeed, most of us find meaning in our commitments to family and friends.

Whatever our decisions, when we think about what is most important to us – in addition to our loved ones – many of us would place value on self-respect and the freedom “to be ourselves”.  We prefer to explore opportunities for ourselves without interference, to have autonomy in making our own decisions, and to seek goals that we have chosen for ourselves.

Let us reflect then on what freedom means when we seek it as self-possessed individuals, and on the attitude with which we can best respond to the social fragmentation and dysfunction that confront us daily.

It may sound strange at first, but economic hardship and social disruption can actually open the way to personal honor and self-esteem, inviting us to rise to the best that we can be.

Strength of character is not delivered in a recliner.  It is in meeting tests and difficulties that our identity as human beings comes more sharply into focus.

Some of you are not committed to a religious tradition.  But all of us are surely able to understand this reasoning.  The received guidance of religious teachings, while concerned with personal and social development and our need to hold steady in the face of crises, also sets limits to appropriate behavior and constraints on free choice.

I expect those of you who are principled but not religious will, if you value self-respect, find yourselves similarly constrained by ethical principles and your sense of dignity.

Religious or otherwise, I think it fair to say that our responses are influenced by our attitude toward life: our sense of belonging, our capacity to appreciate others, and our efforts to remain balanced and unperturbed amid the confusion and negativity that life often brings our way.

We may care about human suffering; we may wish to avoid negativity and calamity; yet our personal freedom depends upon our ability to think clearly and function effectively when the going gets tough.

This can be a daunting task.

To be free we must seek to be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves, and then to actualize our responsibility as caring people in the real world.

We may not like the reality in which we find ourselves.  Indeed, life can sometimes be nightmarish.  But, free will necessitates the commitment to be free in oneself, and to respond actively, morally, rationally.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about May 19.

First Steps to Self-Reliance

The struggle for freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty set citizens against autocratic or totalitarian authority.  Resistance to unrestrained power and the self-serving motivations of governments is a natural response of the human spirit.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should function in the interests of their citizens, and to believe that political leadership should only be elected on a short-term basis.

This raises an interesting question for those of us living in a democratic republic.

If we require that elected officials should identify directly with the people who elected them, it follows that such a nation should not need to be protected from itself.  A democracy would not exercise tyranny over itself, right?

As Americans well know, however, the notion that citizens have no reason to limit their power over themselves only seems reasonable to those who have no experience with popular government.

Fortunately the Founders recognized the danger and designed a decision-making structure that limits the ability of one faction to oppress another.  Neither a large majority nor a powerful minority can form an oppressive regime like those we see elsewhere in the world.

Even so, the Constitution is only a document and a legal structure.  It cannot provide effective governance without the understanding, civility and cooperation of an educated electorate.

After two hundred years of experience we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

“The will of the people” often turns out to be the will of the most dominant portion of the citizenry, usually the majority, but quite possibly those with overbearing economic and financial firepower.

The Founders took pains to control potential abuses of power.  As I have written in a chapter entitled “Freedom and Order”, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized the importance of limiting such dangers in an uncertain future.

Liberty has come to mean the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others.

This is an attractive ideal, but is not so simple in practice.  It was controversial in 1787 and it is controversial now.

Finding ourselves facing the tensions and complexities of the present turning point, I believe we would do well to step back and reassess the principles with which we can best regain our poise and sense of self as a nation.

Throughout our history the world has recognized a generosity of spirit that is fundamental to the American character.  This is an attitude – a way of thinking and being – and it is important.

To actualize this spirit will require both courage and patience.  The path to self-reliance and personal empowerment begins with problem-solving and cooperation with our neighbors.  And, this will be hard work.

When we tackle our local needs and challenges together we will learn by doing.

Let’s start by doing first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to get past misperceptions, and then to rise above our differences to resolve problems and address local needs.

2) To identify the diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among our neighbors – to do what needs to be done.  Survival might depend on it.

3) To listen to one another; determine and clarify our share values, and explore the extent to which we can pursue constructive action.  Confronting basic needs together, shoulder-to-shoulder, will prepare the foundations for trust and dependability.

We should not wait.  All these steps will quickly become critical when the going gets tough.  And, the effort to learn the skills of living together will give us a more realistic and coherent vision for the future.

It is within our own souls that we will first build the confidence to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we reach out with a generous attitude to friend and stranger alike.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about May 5:  The resilience of inner freedom.

Freedom or Paralysis

We often think of freedom as a principle without consideration for its requirements or even of what it actually means.  Impediments to freedom are experienced in many forms.  Personal obstacles can be oppressive.  The constraints and obligations imposed by our workplace, our families, and society in general are familiar to everyone.

Freedom for the individual, it seems, is conditional.  Yet, we can choose to respond with maturity and self-control.  We generally understand and accept the limitations we experience, however much they chafe.  And there are principles we cherish despite the challenges they present.

There is much to talk about here.  But, I wish to focus on our response to life’s inevitable constraints, especially in the context of crises, and the choices we can make if we wish to work effectively with others.

Most of us cooperate with most of what society asks of us most of the time.  We accept the rules that regulate athletic contests, vehicular traffic, and commerce.

Rules make it possible to ensure fairness, to strategize and compete.  It is the relative certainty of fairness and predictability that allows businesses to plan and invest in the future, an economy to be productive, and our personal lives to be sane.

Similarly, it is honesty, candor, and civility that are most conducive to constructive dialog and decision-making in any organization or community.  These may not be “rules”, but they are values we cannot do without.  They are shared norms that lead to trust.

When we are confronted with chaotic and unpredictable conditions, our first step can always be to address the need for conditions that allow effective communication and encourage practical dialogue.

Progress toward social and economic reconstruction will require that we work together in a civil manner, regardless of our differences.  Problem-solving cannot take place otherwise.

Some folks think organized cooperation as impossible.  But, it will be impossible to ensure safety or meet basic needs in our communities if our differences preclude collaboration.

The iconic conservative philosopher Richard Weaver, who we heard from in the previous post, would say this goal represents a formidable task; that it would require us to confront a national character uncomfortable with form, resistant to leadership, and impatient with any systematic process.  He called America “a nation which egotism has paralyzed.”

We have seen how egotism has diverted our attention from serious purpose in our infatuation with expensive toys, in our descent into personal and public indebtedness, and in a sordid media voyeurism that forgoes all pretensions of privacy.

Weaver called it “the spirit of self, which has made the [citizen] lose sight of the calling of his task and to think only of aggrandizement.”

Is it this “spirit of self” that has led us to the meaningless disorder in which we now find ourselves, where self-indulgence overwhelms rational judgment, motivation and foresight?

I see some truth in this, but I believe we must look more deeply into the character of a people who have risen to every test in the past.

Americans are smart, resilient, and creative.  In the difficult years ahead I expect we will gain a deeper understanding of freedom and will respond with a maturity imposed by necessity.

All form has structural limits and all limits provide the means for leverage.  It is the consistent dependability of this reality that allows us to launch ourselves into new frontiers of learning and experience, to control the direction of our efforts, to instigate, organize, create.

Without the constraints of necessity, (which include our own values), we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

Our ability to exercise discipline overcomes the limitations imposed by nature and society.  Surely the discipline to leverage inspiration against the constraints we encounter in life provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material difficulties in life.

We cannot leap without a firm foundation beneath our feet.  We cannot fly without wings.

It is in the encounter between discipline and necessity that we find the ground of freedom.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 21:  The Freedom Within.

Illusion Over Liberty?

Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable.  Some truths are not pretty.  But, revitalizing our core values and the restoration of a once vibrant civic spirit will require that we recognize what has been lost and why.

The current difficulties have developed over a long period of time.  The gradual loss of a spirited civic life has left most Americans without a shared sense of purpose or the interwoven fabric of community relationships.

Americans have become obsessed with immediacy.  We want what we want and we want it now.  We seek to be entertained with melodrama and spectacle, or violence and degraded behavior.

We find ourselves dominated by materialism and immersed in a homogenized culture with little conscious identity.

Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on material appearances.  Even the once humiliating liabilities personal debt seems to be of no concern.  We live on false appearances bought with future income.

Strange as it may seem, we have essentially abandoned the future. Where is there a purposeful commitment to neighborhood, to responsibility for local needs?

The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic represented by this posture have influenced almost every aspect of our national life.  An undisciplined attitude has led us to the brink of financial disaster, and our insistence on freedom from institutional and cultural restraints is fraught with contradictions.

For example, our respect for the individual requires that we honor the independent integrity and privacy of each individual, and yet we have readily abandoned this principle out of fear for our own safety.

Similarly, we fail to see that privacy and integrity are sacrificed when we welcome obscenity and titillation into our lives on television, in film and web-based media.

Personal integrity is lost to gossip, backbiting, and fascination with “the raw stuff of life,” in the words of the conservative American philosopher Richard Weaver:

The extremes of passion and suffering are served up to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home.  The area of privacy has been abandoned because the definition of person has been lost; there is no longer a standard by which to judge what belongs to the individual man.  Behind the offense lies the repudiation of sentiment in favor of immediacy.

Richard Weaver wrote these words in the late 1940s, before television existed.  And he was not the first to make such an observation.  A quarter of a century earlier the renown Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw commented that an American has no sense of privacy.  He does not know what it means.  There is no such thing in the country.”

Weaver warned Americans of a self-destructive streak that would ultimately lead to crisis.

He pointed out our fascination with specialization, with the parts of things at the expense of understanding and respecting the whole.  He argued that an obsession with fragmentary parts without regard for their function necessarily leads to instability.

Such instability is insidious, penetrating all relationships and institutions.  In Weaver’s words, “It is not to be anticipated that rational self-control will flourish in the presence of fixation upon parts.”

Until we understand how things function as a whole we will have no capacity for good judgment and no control over outcomes.

This is not the fault of government – except to the extent that government, managed by people like ourselves, has joined wholeheartedly in the party.  In a democracy it is tragically easy for government policy to degenerate until it serves the worst inclinations of a self-interested electorate.

Consequently we have descended into the financial profligacy of recent decades and are now the most indebted nation in history by a wide margin.

Ours has been a twisted path with a clearly visible end.  Yet, the inevitable outcome remains ignored.

If we are to recover our balance, it is essential that we recognize the attitudes and thoughtlessness that got us here.  Will we continue to choose illusion over liberty?  Would we rather be ruined than to think?

It will never be too late to turn the corner – to clear our minds, to straighten up and step forward with purpose.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 7: Responsibility with dignity, or apathy and paralysis?

A note to new readers: A project description, an introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts are available on this page.

Individual, Community, and the State

For much of the nation’s first 100 years, Americans gave meaning to their values and expressed their creative energy in a diverse array of civic activity.  As we saw in the previous post, Americans overcame constraints to their freedom through their own inspiration and sense of community.

Today, action has been replaced by inaction.  A once spirited culture of engagement has been replaced by an increasingly self-centered attitude and the loss of initiative, cooperation, trust, and moral responsibility.

While it is easy the see how technology – the automobile, television, and internet – can limit as well as enhance human interaction, historian Niall Ferguson argues that it is “not technology, but the state – with its seductive promise of ‘security from the cradle to the grave’ – [which is] the real enemy of civil society.”

Ferguson cites the prophetic vision of Tocqueville, who we met in the previous blog post, when he imagined a future America in which the spirit of community has been co-opted by government:

“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men,” Tocqueville wrote in 1840, “who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.

“Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone….

“Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild.

“It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood….

“Thus, …the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

Elsewhere Tocqueville added an explicit warning:

“But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of association?…

“The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and industry if government came to take the place of associations everywhere.

“Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”

I do believe that government has had a part in the deadening of the American spirit.  But, I do not think we can attribute the present condition solely to government.

In my view, the degeneration of behavior and attitudes cannot be divorced from the paralyzing effect of corporate domination and the corrupting influence of mass culture and advertising.

I also believe the long slide toward alienation and apathy has come with our personal acquiescence.  For several generations Americans have gradually descended into a materialistic passivity and embraced an obsessive passion for entertainment and spectacle.

This is something we can only fault ourselves for accepting.

Our government began, after all, as a creature of our own invention.  And it is now served by people who have been subjected to the same degraded values and demoralized sense of responsibility as the rest of us.

Real change will depend on each of us – taking initiative as individual citizens, accepting responsibility for the well-being of our communities, and by renewing the foundations of society with civility, cooperation, and constructive action.

Tom

Coming posts:  Living our values into the future– What do we care about; what do we wish to do better or differently?  Look for the next post on or about March 24.

Civil Society and American History

We find ourselves now at a turning point, confronted by the consequences of the past and the anger and confusion of the present.  Yet, this is an opportunity – a time that calls for clarity of purpose, and for coming to terms with the history that brought us here.

It is not political change that I speak of, but a far more profound transition.  We are confronted with questions of principle, of values, of the meaning of moral responsibility.

Such concerns often come into sharper focus amidst disruption and conflict.

Answers do not come easily, but history leaves silent lessons etched in our national experience.

In my view, we have lost a sense of purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.  This has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.

We have indulged ourselves increasingly over time in our attraction to meaningless spectacle and thoughtless voyeurism – a wasteland of sex, violence, greed and materialism.

In his recent book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson provides a persuasive view of what has come to pass in the United States.  He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and loss of social stability have had devastating consequences.

In my own words these are: 1) the loss of personal and social responsibility, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.

Dr. Ferguson reminds us of past strengths, and in particular the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America.

“I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted?  I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.”

He goes on to cite Alexis de Tocqueville from his famous commentary, Democracy in America, published in 1840:

“America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.

“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.

“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it….

“In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion.  There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

Dr. Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy.  But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him.”

Consider Tocqueville’s description:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.  Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of great example, they associate.”

What happened?  Once upon a time Americans succeeded in overcoming the constraints to freedom through their own initiative and a sense of community.

Today inaction has replaced action.  A once vibrant culture of engagement has been replaced by a self-centered attitude and the isolating influences of technology, mass media, and corporate society.

Will we recreate what we once did so well?  Shall we rebuild the American spirit and character to meet the challenges ahead?

Tom

A Note to Readers: A project description and a draft introduction to the book can be found on this page.  Please look for the next post on or about March 10.

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

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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.

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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.