The Road to Liberty

We often make assumptions about the meaning of liberty.  But have we considered its questions and requirements?  Can we truly embrace meaning without examining its foundation?

I’ve been challenging you to seek true liberty, rather than the benefits we suppose it will provide.  And, I have focused on the role of the virtues in the function of the United States Constitution, a concern argued forcefully by the Founders.

Some people think a concern for the virtues is tiresome or frivolous.  Who are these people?  How do they live?  What do they know?

Do we expect to defend liberty without principles or conditions?

The Founders identified personal virtues required by the Constitution.  They knew the Constitution, which imposed almost no limits on personal freedom, could not function without ethical behavior on the part of citizens.

They said so in writing.

Why?

At a time when the horizon is darkening, when growing disruptions dominate our lives, the virtues take on renewed significance.  They include trustworthiness, dependability, patience, forbearance, cooperation and courage—among others.

And the most important is truthfulness.  Because truthfulness is the foundation for all the rest.

While these are personal principles requiring personal commitment, civilization itself depends on them.

For Americans who care about the future this is a practical matter.  The virtues are the fundamental requirements of a civilized, prosperous and secure order.

But they are more than this.  They are markers that identify human character.  They inform us of the inherent attributes of a persons’ beliefs and intentions, the moral and ethical basis for their actions and reactions.

I suggest that these are firm attributes among those who have chosen to serve their country and their neighbors with selfless intent.

Words are not enough.  Honesty and dependability, patience and good will, are revealed in action—the behavior of trustworthy people.

There is nothing we need now more than trust.

And, yes, there is a bottom line:  The truly trustworthy person knows this about him- or herself!  We are trustworthy when no one is watching; truthful when no one else will know the difference.

We show patience and forbearance when no one else would do so.

The virtues bring our lives into harmony with the way of the world when things are right.  They are consistent with justice.  They are the foundations of order.

Who would imagine that liberty could be built on the foundation of anything else?

It is long past time to stop listening to gossip and easy talk.  We need to turn to our neighbors, whoever they may be, and get down to the real work.

Local communities are the building-blocks of civilization, and the virtues are the means that govern outcomes.  It is time for action.

Nothing will change until each of us takes initiative.

We cannot know the needs of a neighborhood, a community or town, without engaging directly and respectfully with our neighbors.

Each of us is responsible for investigating the truth—or withholding judgment if this is not possible.  We cannot afford to see the world through the eyes of others, or to act on unproven assumptions.

Nothing—no person and no problem—can be understood without asking questions.  Dialog and perseverance pave the road to liberty.

If we are not ready for the real work of living in a civilized society, what are we complaining about?

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about July 4.

Note to new readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage:  www.freedomstruth.net.

Freedom’s Foundation

Principles are often debated, (and sometimes thrown about in combat), without consideration for their foundation in reality.  How deeply do we think about principles?  When we choose to embrace a principle or lay claim to values, do we consider the meanings and interpretations with which each is understood by others?  Does this matter?

In the previous post I invited you to think realistically about the essential character of “truth” and the importance of truthfulness.  We all depend on our understanding of what is true or false to get through life.

Everyone thinks what they believe is reasonable and true.  Yet it is often apparent that our assumptions differ from those of others.  While we assume that our perceptions of truth are valid, we are often reminded that we have many differences with one another, sometimes slight, sometimes quite significant.

And we all live by principles, sometimes without even thinking about them.  Is it possible they can be influenced by inaccurate assumptions or untrustworthy influences?

If our perceptions of truth are influenced by tradition, or news sources, or social media—how do we know what ‘our truth’ is really made of? How do we judge the foundations for our beliefs—the knowledge and reasoning that supports certainty?  The human world embraces innumerable personal truths!

So, what does this tell us about the reality of truth?  Is it possible there is actually a single foundational truth—a foundation for what is real?

Surely none of us can lay claim to understanding such a fundamental truth, yet it most assuredly must exist.  The world of existence could not function without such a unity.

One principle that matters to all of us is freedom, a principle that often seems elusive.  Realistically, life’s many obstacles and constraints can be oppressive. Yet, freedom is a deeply valued principle.  And so, we choose to respond to life’s constraints with maturity and self-control.

There are many principles we cherish despite their challenges.  Honesty, civility, and generosity of spirit are among the most essential for living and working with others. These may not be ‘rules’ in the usual sense, but they represent values we cannot do without.  They lead to trust, and a genuine freedom that rises above limitations and hardship.

When the horizon is darkened; when safety and trust are threatened by chaotic and unpredictable conditions, we can always turn to fundamentals—to patience, forbearance, dependability, cooperation, and most of all, to truthfulness.

Some folks think organized cooperation is impossible.  But it will be impossible to ensure safety or meet basic needs if our differences prohibit collaboration.

Yes, there will always be some people who are afflicted by selfishness and arrogance.  But the future depends on the character of true Americans—a people who have risen to their tests for many generations.

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

We live in a reality defined by limitation and challenges.

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 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.  And the discipline to leverage inspiration against the constraints we encounter in life provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the 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 June 2.

A note to new readers:  Blog posts are usually adapted from the forthcoming book and appear on both at the main website and on the Facebook page.  To receive emailed alerts click on the Follow button at http://www.freedomstruth.net.

Freedom and the Sources of Individuality

Personal autonomy is a precious thing.  How can we broaden and enrich this freedom?  Is it simply allowed, or constrained, by the society we live in?  Or does it rather depend on our mental attitude—and what we make of it? What translates independence and autonomy into character and purpose?

This can be a penetrating and thought-provoking question.  And the answer might be influenced by things we sometimes fail to consider—our family, our community, and our cultural heritage.

We like to think of ourselves as self-possessed and in control.  But there can be unrecognized influences at work in ourselves which have their origins in personal experience or cultural roots.

Ignoring this possibility does not make them go away.

I am interested in exploring this question as a white American because that’s what I am, and because of my roots.  The European heritage of white Americans is, for better or worse, the founding heritage of the United States.

And, yes, the question does draw us into complicated territory.  Certainly, the ethnic differences in the United States raise interesting questions.

It is apparent, for example, that indigenous American Indian and African-American cultures are far more community-based than is the dominant white American culture. Could it be they are closer to their historical indigenous roots than are white folk?

And we should remind ourselves that the breakdown of the institutions of family and community—fragmented by modernity—has had profound consequences across every cultural divide.

I want to explore another influence here, however: the cultural history of the European peoples who colonized and founded the United States.

The influence of this extraordinary past remains hidden in almost everything about America, and it colors the experience of every citizen. Understanding where America came from can reveal much about where we now find ourselves.

So, why are white Americans so concerned about freedom, rights, and autonomy?  These ideas do have a history.

Thinking people first began to question the institutional dogmas and restrictiveness of medieval European culture in the 15th century. The emergence of self-conscious individuality gradually freed human initiative and creativity from stifling constraints and overbearing conformity.

The realization of individuality led to growing resistance to the rigid fettering of patriarchal families, religious dogmatism, and the social and economic control of trade guilds. It also led to a lessening of family coherence and the weakening of community roots.  And this isolation from the social foundations of association and identity had consequences.

The shift away from family and community was slow at first.  But it intensified greatly with the industrial revolution and in the formless uniformity of mass society.

Why should this matter to us now? The slow fragmentation of family and community life has dominated American history. 

This is our story.  What shall we make of it? Freedom is not found in a wasteland.  Autonomy is meaningless in a vacuum.

Individuality and identity are grounded in context.  They take shape in childhood and early adulthood. They develop in a supportive environment—and with the diverse associative opportunities that are only available in functional communities.

We are human, intelligent and multi-dimensional.  And we need roots.

The destruction of authentic community by mass society, and the disintegration of family life that inevitably followed, disrupted the natural processes for developing identity and personhood.

This is among the heaviest burdens inflicted by modernity. But nothing forces us to accept it. Creating authentic communities will not be easy, but Americans are fully capable of learning how to do this.

First must come recognition that freedom depends on responsibility.

Second, we must understand that safety and dependability require trust—the gist of constructive working relationships.

“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century,” Robert Nisbet wrote, “from the phenomena of individual insecurity… is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.”

“Separate man from the primary contexts of normative association…, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”

Tom.

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

Dear readers:  An introduction and several chapters from the coming book are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  Please note “The Individual and Society”, which addresses the ideas introduced in this post.

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.