Reaching for Resilience

The pursuit of freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty has set citizens against one another as well as against autocratic authority.  Reactions against insensitivity and unrestrained power in governance is a natural enough response.  Yet, we often find ourselves entangled with differing views about the meaning (and responsibilities) of liberty.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should be responsive to the needs and interests of the plurality their citizens. And this poses interesting questions for those living in a constitutional republic with a democratic spirit. 

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

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.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized this danger and designed a decision-making structure which 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.

While this provides a legal structure, however, a functional government is impossible in the absence of cooperation to meet common needs and interests.

When there is uncompromising denial of the validity of an opposing side, governance is essentially brought to a halt. After two hundred years of experience, we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

Throughout American history, liberty has generally implied the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others. The United States Constitution is exceptional in imposing almost no limitations on citizens—beyond responsibility and civility.

But, where does this leave us in the face of our present difficulties?  A multitude of converging crises has us all on edge.

The world has long admired the generosity of spirit in the American character.  This is an American attitude; a way of thinking and being.  Regaining this spirit will require courage and determination.  And, we can begin with our neighbors.

However—this will only be possible with a readiness to honor another American virtue: The respect for plurality embodied in the Constitution.

When we are ready to discover our shared values, and to assess our differences with accuracy, we can start with our neighbors.

What is it we want?  It is in local communities that safety, dependability, and problem-solving become essential realities. Only when we tackle local needs and challenges together, shoulder-to-shoulder, can we truly represent what we are made of.

We can start with first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to ensure we have accurate information about one another.  This will involve the effort to recognize both shared values and real differences. 

2) To identify and prioritize local needs and problems, and then to negotiate the means for undertaking collaborative action while accommodating personal differences.

3) To identify the knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among ourselves—to support the community and do what needs to be done.

If we are committed citizens and mature adults, there is no reason we cannot maintain an attitude of civility and respectfulness.  No one needs to alter their values or views.

Community problems can be multi-layered and complex.  But our purpose is simple: to investigate the extent to which we can pursue constructive action as neighbors.

Addressing basic needs shoulder-to-shoulder will strengthen a community with the foundations for trust and dependability. 

Safety and survival may well depend on this, and no one will do it for us.

The three steps outlined above will soon become critical as oncoming crises multiply and circumstances deteriorate.  And, engaging in working relationships can also open doors to the future and influence the emergence of a mutually acceptable vision.  

We all possess the capacity to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we meet friend and stranger alike with dignity, civility, and generosity of spirit.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about September 28.

Note to readers:  An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available at the top of the homepage.

What Have We Lost?

Americans are struggling in a sea of disruptions and a multitude of crises.  Many challenges confronted us before COVID, and most will remain with us long after the pandemic is behind us.

As a people, we have always been a contentious lot. We have an uneven past to learn from.  It is easy to forget the good and admirable that history has to tell, when injury demands attention.  And here there is a hidden cost. 

If we allow what has been positive and good to be lost from view—overcome by anger and confusion—we will lose our way on the road to justice and prosperity. 

Without knowledge of the past, both the good and the bad, we are unable to understand the story that brought us to this place—or to consider corrective change.

Clarity does not come easily.  History is often forgotten, but it can leave its’ influence etched indelibly in our national thinking.

The strength of our parents and grandparents in meeting hardship, in overcoming injustices or injury, is the foundation of our American heritage.  This is our honor.  And, it will be recreated ever anew as we navigate through the storms ahead.

More than ever today, we are confronted with questions of principle, of conflicting values, of the meaning of moral responsibility.  Such concerns come into focus amidst disruption and conflict. 

Human beings have never agreed on values.  This is natural and inevitable.  Yet, our personal principles are essential and inviolable.  Like the virtues spoken of by the founders (see June 5 post), principles keep us steady in the storm.

The modern era has never been easy, but until recently its’ tensions have been largely submerged from view. 

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.

Increasingly over time, we have indulged ourselves in meaningless spectacle and thoughtless voyeurism—a wasteland of sex, violence, greed and materialism.

This is not what the founders hoped for.

In his book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson presents 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.

I paraphrase his words here: 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 cites the historian Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous commentary, Democracy in America (1840):

“America is, among the countries of the world,” Tocqueville wrote, “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.”

Niall 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.”

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

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 step forward now with positive initiative and a constructive attitude?

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about July 5.

To Recover a Civilized Order

The vibrant community-based society of pre-revolutionary America continued to flourish following independence.  With self-generated order came a sense of identity and belonging.  But, a hundred years later the loss of community and degradation of society were becoming apparent.

This decline unfolded with the gradual disappearance of cultural organizations, interest associations, churches, and craft guilds.  Without the mediating influence of extended families and civic associations, little remained to support social identity and stability for individual or society.

In the absence of a stable foundation in local communities, the commitment to moral responsibility loosened.

Eventually Americans sought community wherever they could find it—within the protection of large labor unions, in the less personal corporate world, and in the functions of a growing central government.

The rise of individualism in European culture since the middle-ages had accompanied a gradual diminishment of the civil society that gives life to communities. In America this trend was halted briefly by a surge of community-based activism.  But, the blossoming of independent local and regional energy was lost in the faceless momentum of industrial society.

The results became clear following the First World War.  Measures intended to ensure uncompromising support for the war effort gave President Woodrow Wilson virtually total power.  Wilson intended a quick return to normal three years later, but the damage was done.

The widespread presence of government agents tasked with rooting out dissent led to pervasive distrust.  Social cohesion was severely weakened throughout the country.  The perceptions of the American people and the place of the federal government in the American mind were permanently altered.

What is to be learned?

Active involvement in community life does not limit individual freedom or self-fulfillment.  On the contrary, local communities are the foundation of traditional conservatism. If we are to recover a civilized order, an active community-based civil society needs to be cultivated.  Here it is that young people learn values and gain a sense of identity.

The spontaneous civic life that characterized early America degenerated over time into the isolation and materialism of suburbia, scattered families, and uninspiring employment. 

Americans have had a reputation the world over as generous, kind, big-hearted people–despite hardships and controversies.  Yet, the truth has been inconsistent. An uneven trend toward inclusiveness since the Civil War stands in contrast to an undercurrent of disharmony and an attitude that defies accountability.

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

Clearly, the humanity that embraces mutual respect and moral responsibility will remain ever vulnerable to self-centered interests. Failures of foresight and responsibility are visible across every social class, including the very wealthy.

Children are growing up without effective parenting or civilized values.  Every consecutive generation reaches maturity with less of the preparation needed to sustain a stable society. And, it does not end there.  Institutions we have depended upon are facing every form of bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

How is it that we have lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world? The answer is not simple, but it might be more personal than we realize.

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry – not gentility, but virtue. `No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure,’ James Madison famously observed at the Virginia ratifying convention. `To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

“No free government, or the blessings of liberty,” Patrick Henry insisted, “can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”

In their various ways,” Charles Murray has observed, “the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about June 22.

A Stormy American Heritage

What makes the United States special?  Americans have always been a contentious lot.  Many of the disagreements and differences we know today have been with us from the beginning. How does our history influence our understanding of ourselves and our views? 

Can we look beyond our disputes to see the extraordinary place of America in human history?

During the formative years of this nation something remarkable was taking place in the countries Americans were coming from.  Radically new ideas were breaking free from authoritarian institutions and traditional attitudes in Europe.

Thinking people were becoming convinced that humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, would be capable of securing universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.

And so, a rebellious spirit and immense creative energy came to America with a rising flood of immigration.  The idea of a promising future was powerful.

For the thousands of immigrants disembarking in the New World, however, a knowledge of political 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 American identity.

Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American spirit, 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 wealthy 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 vision of the future continued to inspire confidence on both sides of the Atlantic through most of the nineteenth century.

While the continuing brutality experienced by Black and Native American peoples was ignored by most Americans of European descent, the horrific violence of the Civil War shocked the nation. 

And then came the twentieth century.

Professor Michael Allen Gillespie at Duke University 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 survived 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 drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt?

Both the fear of debt and the destruction of total war have been repressed and lost to memory.

The long history of abuses suffered by immigrants and people of color is often forgotten as well.  And past promises of equality and freedom are remembered through a haze of inconsistency and uncertainty.

The material limitations caused by growing complexity and a multitude of crises have started to close in on our lives. 

An American future will be dark and unforgiving without moral responsibility and authentic community.  Such are the means for both survival and prosperity.

It is said that history does not repeat—but often rhymes.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about May 24.

Note to new readers: A project description and introduction to the coming book, along with several sample chapters, are linked at the top of the homepage.

American Challenges, Personal Choices

We have choices to make.  They might differ from the choices we are used to thinking about, but we are not living in normal times.  The challenges confronting us call for courage and clear thinking.  Social and economic instability raises concerns for safety.  And, our local communities are where this matters most.

Shall we build trust and dependability in our relationships with neighbors—or just pretend that every day will be like the last?

When the world is breaking down and hardship grows, we can always find common cause with neighbors.  But we can’t wait until we are already in trouble.

We need people in our lives who have the practical knowledge and skills to help resolve local problems—whatever their politics or religion or the color of their skin.

Interpersonal relationships take time and commitment.  They can only happen when we make them happen, and the first step is always ours to take.  The road to security begins with civility and is paved with trustworthiness.

Yes, we have differences.  Conflict is natural in relationships, yet differences can only be understood and negotiated in the immediacy and authenticity of working relationships.

Making this fractious process succeed in today’s America will depend on whether we think it’s worth the effort.  Creating community can be hard work, but it is the only defense against calamity.

Some may say it’s too hard or too late.

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

The Founders gave us a structure.  It is our responsibility to make it work.

We are confronted today by one of the great tests in American history, a challenge to an idealistic vision that has been slowly maturing for two hundred years.

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

Stability cannot be imposed from above in a free society.  The kind of strength we seek depends on courage, trust and dependability.  It can only be made real in active working relationships.

This is the meaning of genuine functional community.

We are confronted now with an unprecedented turning point, a unique window of opportunity to affirm and uphold our exceptional identity as a nation. 

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

We are a spirited and contentious people.  We have gradually, often painfully, built a vibrant and increasingly cohesive society.  And the work isn’t finished.

How has America produced such exceptional results?  Why is the world fascinated by us?  And why do we doubt ourselves?

To understand these questions is important.  The answers can be missed, but they are not hidden.

The concept of unity in diversity did not exist prior to the founding of the United States.  In our European past, political and religious divisiveness had been disastrous. 

The American Founders set humankind on a new course with a constitutional structure that supported diversity and facilitated collaborative problem-solving. 

If we love liberty and are committed to defending the freedom of opinion and belief, we will recognize that differences belong in a free society.  Diversity has been an essential factor in American strength.

Many of history’s greatest political and military disasters have been the consequences of “group-think” among like-minded people.

Diversity of experience, perspective, and practical skills is the foundation for strength in any society. 

The United States Constitution is a pioneering assertion of this principle.  History has confirmed its’ validity, however rocky the road.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about May 10.

Note to readers:  This essay is continued in Chapter 3 of the coming book, which can be found at the top of the homepage. Look for the link to “Finding Our Strength”. You might find these ideas unexpected and interesting.

The Ground of Freedom

We all have a yearning for freedom.  A part of us wants to do whatever we wish, and without interference.  The feeling is ever-present because, unlike any other creature, we possess free will.  The human experience of free will can make us aware of every imaginable possibility.  We can choose to be kind or mean, constructive or destructive, good or evil.

Whatever we choose to do, we could just as well choose not to do.  Without this choice, which is hard-wired in human nature, no morality could exist.

We are not animals.  There are things we care about—activities and relationships, intentions and goals that are important to each of us, and which call for thoughtful consideration.

If we wish to strengthen relationships or to succeed in any endeavor, we will act with “responsibility”.  Because our “ability to respond” will matter.

Without a sense of responsibility, we remain essentially isolated and alone—without the relational experience that develops our skills and measures personal integrity.

It is for this reason that thinking people have always recognized the interdependence of freedom and responsibility.

Genuine freedom is simply not possible in the absence of responsibility.

Understanding this allows us to live our lives intelligently.  And, it also informs us of the contours of justice that form the structure of human reality.

It is important to recognize that justice is relational.  Rational thinking alone cannot determine the foundations for justice.

For this reason, coming to an agreement on acceptable ethical guidelines needs to be a top priority for every functional community, large or small.

Clearly, we need to be talking.

Such agreements are only possible when pursued with a compassionate attitude and inquisitive interest, as we gradually learn of the life experience and personal struggles each individual labors with.

Personal views and opinions will always be present.  This is natural.  But, as long as we are listening and engaged, we can uphold personal freedom as a principle and demonstrate our humanity.

Without question, however, living and working together as neighbors depends on a shared understanding of justice and the negotiation of ethical standards.

Safety depends on this.  And it is a condition we can only arrive at by means of dialog and consultation.

Making morals and making community are, it has been said, a single dialectical process.  Living with others calls for commitment.

Let’s acknowledge that managing the balance between freedom and responsibility is easier for the individual to than for a group.

We need to learn how to do this if we are to bring a community to life and make it a safe and pleasant place to live.

It will require patience, learned skills and an extended learning curve.

If we wish to lead creative, productive lives, we will surely seek the freedom that is our birthright.  At the same time, we cannot avoid the purpose embedded in the finite limitations of existence.

We will need to find responsible means for putting this reality to work.

Finiteness is a structural characteristic of the universe.  All physical form is defined by limits, as it must be to serve its’ function.

This is the nature of physical reality and the functional ground of human freedom.  The social order of a civilized society serves a similar purpose.  These are givens.

It is the inherent dependability of this truth 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 structural limits, (which include our own moral values), as well as the civil constraints of an orderly society, we would have no capacity to exercise intelligence and direct our energy, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

For the individual, the ability to exercise discipline overcomes the limitations imposed by nature and society.

The discipline to leverage our inspiration against the constraints we encounter provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material challenges in our lives.

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

Discipline and limitation are, indeed, the ground of freedom.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about April 26.

America: Cohesive Strength by Design

In 1787 the American Founders at the Constitutional Convention could see the future but dimly, yet they provided us with a structure for governance and a process for problem-solving that allowed for the contentious people they knew us to be.

We are fortunate to have received such an inheritance.  As we look forward from the current state of disorder, how can we learn from and leverage this heritage?

If we can see little that appears dependable, where can we look for a realistic foundation?

Let’s not forget that local communities are the one place where we have the freedom and opportunity to meet shared needs and resolve local problems.

This is not the final solution, but it is the beginning of liberty.  Authentic community is within our power to make real.

Community is the seat of civilization, and it is personal.  It is here that we engage with one another face-to-face, building trust, tending to needs, learning patience and responsibility.

These things don’t just happen by coincidence.  They are learned in the trials of hardship and necessity.  They are born of loyalty, determination and purpose.

Like a family, the commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people—practically, emotionally, spiritually.  Perhaps this is why so many avoid participating fully.

There are also other reasons for committing ourselves to local responsibility.  Beyond the boundaries of family, community is the place to address the immediate needs we all face, to engage in respectful decision-making, and to solve shared problems.

Americans have abdicated personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time, and we have done so at our peril.

It was not always this way.  Prior to the American Revolution, and for close to 100 years afterward, Americans gravitated easily toward local governance and an independent frame of mind.

We managed our affairs in cooperation with our neighbors.  We accepted regional autonomy as a natural condition.

Civil society flourished in the nineteenth century, when Americans created an immense variety of civic associations to address every conceivable social need and activity.  We did this on our own initiative, inspired by a sense of belonging and the spirit of the times.

The rebirth of community spirit is more important today than it has ever been.  And this is a practical matter.

It is only by engaging with our neighbors in all spheres of problem-solving that we learn the skills for living and working productively as neighbors and citizens.

Americans have done this before and we can do it again.

There are those who argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal we should aspire to.  And this is an attractive vision.  Yet, I think it is plain to see that a balance must be struck between a fully engaged civil society and a competent, trustworthy and limited central government.

OK, it is difficult indeed to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are responsible for protecting both our freedoms and our security.  But that is what we need. 

Without law and a just governing structure there can be neither freedom nor safety.  And, I believe that a valid vision of limited government can only come from genuinely functional communities and networks of communities.

Those who understand the necessity for trust and moral responsibility—and who recognize the very high stakes involved—will strengthen these foundations with their neighbors.

It is here that Americans have the potential to affirm trustworthiness and negotiate the future.  Practical necessity can only be met with personal initiative and respectful dialog.

Building unity within communities is hard work, a process that takes time and depends on everyone.

Cohesive strength requires that we reach across our differences to influence the hearts and minds of neighbors, to form friendships and to truly know one another.

Cohesive strength does not come from uniformity.  It is the context of differences that gives solid reinforced consistency to the proven capability of American strength.

This is the principle at the heart of the American heritage.

What is essential is that we refocus our vision in such positive terms as no divisiveness can subvert.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about April 12.

Sample drafts of chapters from the book manuscript are available at the top of the homepage.

Truthfulness, the Test of Reason

Many of us fail to recognize the profound significance of truthfulness as a principle, whether in society or in our personal lives.  A failure of moral responsibility, this has caused a growing loss of trust in America that has persisted for decades.

We now find ourselves unwilling to believe anything we are not already prepared to believe.  Any conflicting evidence remains ignored.

While the practical value of truthfulness should be apparent, a consistent pattern of intentional manipulation and deceit can be difficult to recognize.

In my view, each of us is personally responsible for the investigation of truth.  As a first principle, this requires us to question what we are hearing—and to do so with resolute consistency.

A serious investigation of truth makes it necessary to re-evaluate our own assumptions on a regular basis.

Human beings are born with the capacity for reasoning.  Yet, we can be misled.  Reason is not a window to the truth.  Do we really understand this?

Reason is a tool that allows us to investigate the truth.  We have to do the work.

How can we distinguish truth from dishonesty and manipulation?  What signals or signposts can alert us that something is not adding up?

Please permit me to make a suggestion.

Let’s start by thinking about what trust is and what it depends on.

Opinion polls have reported deteriorating trust among Americans for more than half a century.  Mostly we don’t believe in it any more. 

And yet security, civil order and effective governance all depend on trust.  Without this assurance, liberty and justice will remain elusive and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.

Trust is the substance of integrity.  Trust is essential for building a future we can believe in.  But, we cannot start trusting people simply because we wish for it.  The reality we live in right now is decidedly untrustworthy.

This problem can seem like a bleak and insurmountable barrier.  But we are not helpless. 

Recovering dependability in our lives will require an unyielding commitment to truthfulness.  This will take time and patience and determination.

We face a steep learning curve.  How do we begin?

You will find my answer challenging, because the ultimate test for honesty and truthfulness is in the crucible of interpersonal relationships.  Failures of integrity are readily exposed in fully engaged relationships.

If we are prepared to get serious, I suggest that the place to work on trustworthiness is with the people we need (or hope) to have in our lives when hardship arrives.

This is why local communities are so important.

Working with neighbors calls for sensitivity, respectfulness, and dedication.  Good relationships are built.  They are highly sensitive to the truth.  They take time and rarely come easily.

Of course, having dissimilar neighbors does not allow for thin skin.  However, safety allows us no alternative to building trustworthy interpersonal relationships.

We will win a few and lose a few, but the ones we win will buy us increasing security—and move the nation forward.

Authentic community is a haven of safety and a foundation for personal identity and development.

It is also the ground on which the diverse intermediate associations of a strong civil society can be built—which will provide us with personal choices, and protect America from an overbearing central government.

Rising above our differences to create value from a diversity of knowledge and skills will provide incalculable insurance in the dangerous years ahead.

Regular readers know I will not take sides in partisan conflict. This blog has remained strictly non-partisan from inception.

I am simply arguing for first things first.  Our first responsibility as loyal Americans must be to respect the United States Constitution and adhere to ethical integrity within the framework and processes of the law. 

Without constitutional order, wrongs cannot be corrected.

Both neighborhood safety and, indeed, the prosperity of this nation, will depend on the foundation of local well-being and rational collaboration—without regard for religion or philosophy or the color of our skin.

Without moral responsibility and constructive action nothing can work.  There will be no recovery from the coming collapse without authentic local communities and resourceful neighbors.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about February 16. 

The Origins of Dislocation and Distress

The current hostile atmosphere in the United States might have caught some by surprise.  But we would do well to consider the origins of this distress.  Growing distrust and several decades of economic pain have been all too apparent for those with the eyes to see.

The pandemic has only deepened the alienation already felt by many Americans.

I invite you to join me in thinking about the steady social and economic deterioration that has brought us to this place.  Practical solutions depend on objective understanding.

The rapid development of science and an industrial society had promised Americans the benefits of prosperity and power—despite showing indifference to the consequences of degraded communities and compromised autonomy.

While little could shake public faith in modern scientific and industrial enterprise, the subversion of civil society and community coherence has been profound.

Constructive energy and a self-conscious sense of individuality came to America with European immigrants and gave impetus to accelerating development of industry and commerce. 

Almost everything about modern America came about by means of this fierce individualism, for better or worse.  And yet, ironically, the blind mechanistic character of industrial culture led directly to the demise of the same autonomous individuality that had originally brought it to life.

As early as 1941 the theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, warned of this unexpected challenge.  Our attention was elsewhere then, and the cruel truth is only now becoming clear:

“The social and economic destruction of individuality is a consequence of the mechanical and impersonal elaborations of a commercial culture which reach their culmination in the development of industrial civilization.  Modern industrialism pushes the logic of impersonal money and credit relationships to its final conclusion.

“The process of production and exchange, which remained embedded in the texture of personal relationships in a simpler economy, are gradually emancipated and established as a realm of automatic and rationalized relations in which the individual is subordinated to the process….

“Modern society is consequently involved in a process of friction and decay which threaten the whole world with disaster and which seem to develop a kind of inexorable logic of their own, defying all human efforts to arrest the decay.”

Is this a criticism of capitalism?  No. not at all!  Savings and working capital are essential for any healthy economy. 

Commerce and industry are an integral part of an advancing civilization.  Why should this be a problem?  We expect our personal freedom and autonomy to be threatened by tyrants, as it often is, but not by industry.

A healthy society needs a productive economy.  It does not need repetitive financial crises, the destruction of civil society, or absurd extremes of wealth and poverty.

This is what we have inherited, and by 1990 it was driving the economic confidence of working Americans into the ground.  Following still another financial crisis in 2008, much of the middle-class joined them in poverty.

Are we surprised by the turmoil that has followed?  Really?  Reality has manifested itself politically, but reality is about human lives—not politics.

Sociologist and noted conservative thinker Robert Nisbet places the problem in historical context: “During the past two centuries,” he writes, “mankind has undergone the most traumatic social change it has experienced since the beginnings of settled culture in the Neolithic age.

“I refer to the decline—even disappearance in spreading sections—of the local community, the dislocation of kinship, and the erosion of the sacred in human affairs…. The historical roots of culture and personality alike lie deep in the neighborhood, family, and religion.

“Unlike all preceding major changes in human history, these… went below the superstructure of society, went right to man’s most ancient and cherished sources of identity.  With the rise of the factory system and the mass electorate, there was inevitably a wrenching of the individual from his accustomed family, local, and religious contexts.”

Needless to say, when people lose economic security and emotional safety, it leads to alienation and disorientation—both individual and societal. 

What happens when people are denied the sources of personal identity?

We are left with a vacuum to be filled by centralized governance and the consolidation of power—and the growing potential for manipulation and despotism.

Tom.

Note to regular readers:  You may watch for the next post on or about January 19.  A description of the project and several recently revised chapter drafts are available at the top of the homepage.

Truth and Consequences

Questions have been raised about the loyalty of some Americans to the United States Constitution.  This is a serious charge.  Those who value the Constitution as a model for governance, and as a foundation for stability in a dangerous world, will remain vigilant in its defense.  This is an emotional concern for many of us, and it inspires strong feelings.

Future Americans deserve wise thinking from Americans today.

A safe and prosperous future calls for careful consideration of means and ends.  In other words, how will the means we employ today lead effectively to the future we intend? Emotional decisions, and especially the failure of foresight, can easily reverse our own best intentions.

It was Hayek who said, “the principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.” In my view, Harry Emerson Fosdick stated this truth most clearly: “He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.”

Ayn Rand drove the point home most emphatically in her own indomitable style: “An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.”

We can recognize this truth if we stop to think about it.  In the midst of controversy a clear mind is priceless, but we human beings are emotional creatures. 

So, let’s take a deep breath, and look at the reasons why incivility, antagonism, and especially the threat of force, will actually subvert our efforts to defend what we believe in.

I will suggest four reasons, as follows.

First, force or the threat of force subverts the Constitution itself, immediately destroying its’ capacity to function as intended.  Any form of violence will effectively nullify its existence.

The Constitution provides a structure for governance that depends on civility, moral responsibility, and collaboration among stakeholders.  The Framers depend on our readiness to adjust our behavior to avoid subverting the dignity and integrity of their intended purpose.

Second, hostile tactics conducted by even a tiny minority would make it difficult, even impossible, for any disciplined and rational strategies to be mounted effectively.  Indeed, such actions could actually set back their own intended purpose for decades.

Why?  The use of force by a militia group would harden the attitudes of most Americans toward any supposed viewpoint or philosophy.  It would become far more difficult to win a fair hearing from citizens who respect the rule of law.

Third, any rebellion by force of arms pits itself against the uniformed services—police agencies.  These are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and sworn defenders of the Constitution.  And, they are our fellow citizens.

Members of armed militias need to think clearly about who exactly they intend to fight, and how they expect to influence hearts and minds.

Fourth, the vast majority of Americans value the historic character of the United States of America.  And, they recognize the place of the Constitution in making this what it is.

If we wish to educate Americans about how the structure of governance could or should best function, this will not be accomplished by offensive acts.

We depend on civil order for the safety of our families, for safe streets, jobs, and a thriving economy.  Liberty itself depends on trust and dependability.

We cannot defend what we believe in by tearing it down.

To make America strong we will need to address our countrymen with reasoned argument presented logically. Our present difficulties require that we actually hear and understand one another.  This means teaching what we believe in, sharing the history of our pain, and learning to do this effectively.

Agreement is not required, but we must listen to one another with the intention of understanding and a willingness for truth-telling.

The United States will only be sustained as a constitutional republic with a steadfast loyalty to the ethical integrity, the dignity and civility the Founders expected of us.

National unity will rise above differences.  The center must hold.

Tom

Note to regular readers:  The blog will take a brief break over the coming holidays.  Please watch for the next post on or about January 5. 

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 of American history has been rough-hewn.  How could we expect anything like perfection when we have gathered the human race together from across the world into the natural restlessness of a democratic republic?

We are blessed with a structure for governance that has channeled creativity and contentiousness into a dynamic force for capacity-building and prosperity. The Founders made an effort to ‘see the end in the beginning’, but they knew the future was beyond their ability to imagine.

We now stand at another great turning point in history, another moment that requires a visionary maturity from Americans of all stripes, colors, and viewpoints.

I do not refer to the current political turmoil as such a turning point.  Rather, I speak of something far greater and more profound, a shift in attitudes and perspective which has been building for many decades, and which will require at least a generation to fully comprehend.

In the coming years we must find our way through a sequence of crises that transcend partisan politics.

As in the past, many of our troubles will be caused by foolishness, mistaken assumptions and a lack of responsibility and foresight.  Change comes slowly.  Shamelessness and iniquity have walked together on this land.

However, the future will also be impacted by the inevitability of structural change—which is beyond anyone’s control.  The world is undergoing major shifts in physical and economic circumstances. 

The oncoming and irresistible forces we can expect will include the undisciplined advance of technology, exponential population growth, and the limits of agriculture and other natural resources.

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 context of a disturbed world.  The nation is coming of age and in a time of natural volatility.

Let’s be clear: Americans are responsible for the trust our forebears have placed in us, and for the unique heritage of the American idea.

It 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 foresight and wisdom of the American Founders, it shines even now from the darkness, a beacon amidst dangers and hardships.

Yes, human imperfections remain.  Those who point to the evils and injustices of the past and present are serving a necessary role. While we should not forget the ignoble or wrongly conceived actions of the past, it is not useful to condemn the vision and character that give us our strength.

Questions also remain.  Thoughtful citizens will consider the requirements liberty imposes on the way we manage 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 allow us to engage freely and without fear.

Recognizing the need for social order and stability, upon which all else depends, a practical question confronts us each day:  Have we matured as individuals 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.

The future depends on our ability to engage in problem-solving, and to accept our differences within the supporting constraints of shared values.

If we fail—we could lose everything.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about December 15.

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Reclaiming the Future

We are being tested by unprecedented extremes.  It can feel like we are living on the edge.  But the disarray in America did not begin with COVID-19.  We must keep this in mind.

How is the pandemic influencing our thinking about the conditions that preceded it?

It is easy to stay riveted on current events.  But older Americans are painfully aware that social and economic deterioration has been gaining momentum for decades.

Regular readers know of my strategic response to this gathering storm.  Does my focus on the importance of local communities make sense to you?

Am I simply preaching sweetness and light?  Or is this a question of central importance to Americans if we are to regain control of the future?

Why is genuine community essential for the stability of social order?  And why is this especially significant now, as we look into the fog of fear and uncertainty?

A foremost concern for most of us is the need for security in the face of multiple crises.

Without neighbors we can depend on, the immediate future appears bleak.  Physical survival in today’s world needs dependable community.

The greater the threats to stability, the greater our need for trustworthy relationships, and the more dependent we become on the practical knowledge, skills, and life-experience of our neighbors.

Safety is essential.  But, it is not everything.

Communities are much more than geographic locations.  For thousands of years communities have been the basic unit comprising civilized societies, the structure in which justice, social order, and cultural identity are grounded.

It is here that youth learn values, find equilibrium, and gain a sense of belonging. Genuine community encourages members to express their unique identity, character, and creativity.

So it is that community, when endowed with the full engagement of its’ citizens, becomes the substructure for freedom and security.  No other institution is capable of serving this purpose.

Among the essential roles of community is to anchor the diversity of institutions, associations, and organized functions that form a healthy civil society.

This is of crucial importance to the individual.  Without diverse opportunities and choices for meaningful involvement with others, we become disengaged and disoriented, set adrift, vulnerable to dishonest, despotic and predatory influences.

The absence of mediating associations thrusts society into reliance on an increasingly pervasive central government.

Why have human beings so often abandoned liberty and independence for the charisma of totalitarian despots?  What were they missing?  The answer is not so mysterious as it might seem.

All of us possess an urge to belong, whether it be to family, a place, or a group where we are valued. To be fully human we must belong somewhere.  Americans are no different from any others in this regard.

If the United States is to survive as a constitutional republic we must find our way back to this sense of identity, and to the flow of ideas, relatedness, and continuity which may have become distorted or gone underground but is not lost.

And, if we care about freedom—our experience must be local. 

Without communities where we feel at home, where we can serve the greater good, where people know our name—the quest for belonging can easily deliver us to authoritarian tyranny.Are we capable of building stability with our neighbors?  Americans have little experience with genuine community.  Many of us are barely acquainted with our neighbors.

I am proposing that we learn how to build a society where prosperity has a foundation in local knowledge, independence, and initiative—where our children can be safe and where personal freedoms are respected.

Yes, as Americans we are fully capable of developing community-based relationships, of tackling problems, managing conflict, and organizing local projects.

With COVID-19 behind us, communities can grow and preserve food, support small businesses and jump-start cash economies.

We have the energy.  With a commitment to constructive action and a readiness to assess our assumptions we will learn by doing.

Challenges will be met with the spirit of generosity for which Americans have long been known.  This is in our character as a nation.

It can be done and we can do it.

Tom.

Note to regular readers:  I will not be posting close to the US elections.  You may watch for future activity here on or about October 19 and November 9.