Finding the Door in the Wall

We have all been watching change accelerate.  We can find positive change if we try hard enough, but the degrading and destructive dominates the view.  Civilization struggles to advance even as we are catapulted into crisis.

Faced with crises it can be hard to stay rational or to imagine a positive future. It is difficult to keep ones’ balance and there is little time to reflect.  Can we see the potential for good in the experience of hardship and conflict?

So it is for a society, just as in our personal lives.  We live in a world that tests us, always challenging us to learn and grow and mature.

Living with uncertainty, it can take courage to embrace the questions and accept the time it takes to grow into the answers.

I’ve been thinking about what is changing and why.  And I am interested in the way our perceptions and responses are influenced by our sense of identity and character as persons. Can there be both positive and negative dimensions to the same experience? Can we allow ourselves to be influenced constructively—to see with new eyes and to refocus our values?

The inevitability of plural and conflicting values tests our strength of character.  Never in history have human beings agreed on values. 

Values are among the many things that define personal identity.  And yet, as important as our values are, they cannot be nailed down.  We sometimes forget that even our personal values can conflict with each other.  As perplexing as this can be, it challenges us to grow and mature.

Our values are easily tested when the world is in turmoil.  And, conflicting values can be especially uncomfortable when we encounter injustice.

While it is natural for values to be influenced by conditions or events, it is when we stop thinking for ourselves that we are caught by surprise. Living in a diverse, pluralistic society is always a challenge—and a special responsibility.

What is the bottom line?

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

Like values, our personal identity can never be set in stone, although bigotry and intolerance want to convince us otherwise.

Identity is formed of many things: Our families, the town or neighborhood where we came of age, our best friends and the schools we went to, our work experience or profession, our food habits, sports interests, taste in music, and social commitments.  Some aspects of identity exist as assumptions we rarely think about, such as beliefs, values, hopes and dreams.

The fact is, we all have the same check-list despite our differences.  And we are all making choices every day which reflect shifting priorities. This allows for the dynamic interplay of identities in a community, and provides us with the freedom to be ourselves.  Importantly, it supports young people to develop their own distinct individuality.

Authentic community can also create a sense of belonging that supports personal individuality.  However, that same sense of belonging can just as well exclude some people as it embraces others. A supportive community that feels like home, and in which we instinctively do wonderful things for each other, can also be a community where our youth instinctively throw bricks through the windows of newcomers who appear to be “different” in some way.

Identity politics can easily degenerate into identity conflict, a tragedy which ignores the rich diversity of human knowledge and character—and makes a mockery of our professed values.

A major source of divisiveness and hostility in the world today is the presumption that people can be categorized on the basis of a single attribute or association, to the exclusion of all others. 

This is a recipe for disaster.  We may love our children in the same way, suffer from the same illnesses, or enjoy the same food, but a blind dislike erases everything human.

And this is happening throughout the world—a mean-spirited ugliness with devastating consequences.

But here we have a choice that is uniquely American.  As a constitutional republic with the experience and vision of a pluralistic democracy, we know we can be something different.

The freedom to be ourselves belongs to every American, even as we accept our differences.

This is who we are.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about December 7.

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

American Identity, Plural Values

Accelerating change has been apparent in the United States for most of our lives.  Today the consequences are profound.  And, the coronavirus pandemic is masking this pre-existing reality.  Can we take the long view and try to understand the big picture? Surely, we should not allow COVID to distract us from recognizing what has been happening in the United States.  But the truth is complex.  The reality is not simple.

It is easy to think about change superficially in political terms.  But politics are a consequence, not a cause.   What has actually happened—socially, economically? How has our society been changing over time, and how has this influenced our national identity and character?  Has it altered our sense of who we are?

Hardships, uncertainties, and material losses have upended many lives.  Can we step back from this great testing to consider what it means for us?

In my view, we would do well to turn to what matters most to us—the values and principles and virtues that will keep our communities safe, our minds sane, and our integrity intact.  These are the foundations of personal identity and inner moral strength, and they are easily corrupted and befouled by an outwardly combative attitude.

The courage to respond to distrust or enmity with dignity and grace is not easy, but it will not compromise ones’ principles.  Holding fast to personal integrity allows self-respect, self-confidence, and responsibility.  It can facilitate problem-solving.

Where material devastation abounds, only a calm integrity can support thoughtful purpose.  Never has this been so important, whether it be for safety or sanity or the groundwork for negotiating the future. Our present difficulties in the United States are daunting.  They will not be resolved and the future cannot be secured without a positive attitude.

What is to be done?

We need safety, trustworthy neighbors, and truth we can depend on.  How can we work our way toward this?  Blaming and complaining gets us nowhere.

Local communities are places where basic needs must be met, and where constructive interaction is most possible.  Communities are where life actually takes place, where problem-solving can no longer be passed off to someone else, somewhere else.

Community is the seat of civilization.

Americans will need to relearn how to do this.

Impossible you say?  Think again my friends; we have no choice. There will be no quick fix.

I will offer a systematic approach to building functionally authentic communities in my forthcoming book. We will need to live our way into a future we can believe in.  No bluster, no smooth talk, no promises can be trusted; just hard work.   We can do this, and we need to do it for ourselves. 

Surely our first responsibility will be to accept the reality of our differences, and to negotiate honest means for practical problem-solving. Plural and conflicting values are an inevitable part of life, in families, in societies, in nations.  This has always been true.  Human beings have never agreed about values. 

Managing conflicting values—whether within ourselves or in our relationships—develops character and maturity. How we respond to a diversity of values is what defines a free society.  The acceptance of differences is an essential aspect of our national identity. 

Are we prepared to protect the freedoms of those who disagree with us?  No one should ask us to change our own values or views, and we should not.  Let’s not be diverted from constructive action by judgmental thinking.

The path to a principled stability begins within ourselves.  And the results will be apparent in the grace with which we work with others to make our communities safe.

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

If we wish to collaborate with one another to resolve basic problems, we will need to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences—to face the imposing dangers that now confront us.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about October 25.

A note to new readers:  A project description and several sample chapters from the coming book are available at the top of the homepage.

Self-confidence and Dependability

As we continue to mature throughout our lives, we gain knowledge and perspective from our experience in the world.  Our richest sources of perceptual experience will always be interpersonal relationships.  Reading, reflection, and the personal search are all valuable, but there is little wisdom to be found in an isolation devoid of dialogue.

How can we be self-confident in our view of the world, of society, of the people we encounter, without having our understanding genuinely tested—that is, without dialogue?

Perceptions and assumptions come effortlessly. Creative imagination is a wonderful human capacity.  Reason allows us to judge meaning and differences.  We should be grateful for both!  But neither should be mistaken for windows to truth.

It has been said that our first responsibility as human beings is the investigation of truth.  Our ability to investigate and comprehend truth is broadened and deepened throughout our lives.

And so it is that we benefit from authentic interactive relationships with friends or colleagues who do not always agree with us, yet honor our integrity and respect personal differences.

Personal identity and the sense of self begins to take form in childhood and youth, in our relationships with family and the people who bring us up.  If we are fortunate, our personal growth is further supported in the wider community.

Self-confidence matures with self-understanding, a process influenced most by meaningful associations with people who matter to us.

Why are self-definition and belonging so important to human beings?  Why is a self-conscious sense of identity so essential for the individual?  How do we know who we are?  What gives us energy to express ourselves?

As we consider the prospects for a stable, just, and prosperous future, these questions loom large.

The extent to which identity and self-definition are developed through interpersonal relationships might not be obvious.  But, in fact this is the only way identity is formed.

It is the means by which wisdom and character are refined throughout our lives.  And it is one of the primary reasons we benefit from community.

Charles Taylor helps to illuminate the significance this has for us: “We are selves,” he writes, “only in that certain issues matter for us.  What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me.” 

He goes on to remind us that “one is a self only among other selves.”   Personal freedom and independence can only develop in relation to the world around us.  We learn from engaging with others and define ourselves in relation to others—even when our differences are great.

Charles Taylor continues: “My self-definition is understood as an answer to the question Who I am.  And this question finds its original sense in the interchange of speakers.

“I define who I am by defining where I speak from in social space…, in my intimate relations to the ones I love, and also in the space of moral and spiritual orientation within which my most important defining relations are lived out.

 “We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection.  But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity.

“We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us.  And even when we outgrow some of the latter—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.”

The great need for constructive problem-solving in today’s world presents us with the need to work effectively with all kinds of people, including those we have differences with.

This is an essential endeavor—for survival today and for the future we want for tomorrow.  It will require great patience, courage, and determination. 

The future will continue to present a blank wall unless and until we learn how to understand one another accurately, while leaving assumptions and hearsay behind.

Only then can we find our way forward with assurance—remaining confident in our own values and comfortable in our own skin.

Tom.

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

A note to new readers:  A project description and several sample chapters from the coming book are available at the top of the homepage: http://www.freedomstruth.net

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.

The Bottom Line

My dear friends, what do we think is “the bottom line”?  Do we imagine that everything will work out in the end, and that we simply need the right leadership to make things right?  Do we imagine that someone other than ourselves should deal with this multitude of crises—should come to our rescue and take care of us?

What is our personal role and responsibility?  How can we respond effectively?

The wreckage we face in this day can easily inspire feelings of helplessness.  We don’t know what to do or where to start.  And being overly reactive can just make things worse.

It’s easier to see what needs to be done for our families or in our communities, where the needs are practical.

I want to avoid preaching.  That’s not my place.  But I’d like to suggest that finding our way forward in this time of hardship and testing will depend first on our personal integrity and self-confidence.

What kind of persons are we?  Who do we want to be?

Can we see how important it can be in a time such as this to have our feet planted firmly on the ground?

How can one think clearly in the confusion of a disrupted society?  Will we ever find constancy or assurance in partisan politics?

In my view, gaining balance in our lives depends on the foundation we build within ourselves.  And this foundation is called integrity.

What is integrity?  How is it created?

I will share a secret with you.  The foundation of all things in the human world is trust.  This is the secret in personal relationships, in communities, and in nations.

Rebuilding damaged trust takes time and constancy.  And its’ first requirement is truthfulness.

All of trusts’ necessities begin with truthfulness:  honesty, dependability, trustworthiness.

Where do we begin?

The pathway to trust might seem simplistic, but this is because its’ requirements are so basic. 

We may think it a hopeless endeavor, but I am not addressing hardened attitudes and closed minds.  I am talking to you, dear reader.

First, kind words and friendliness can open doors and penetrate hearts.  Being the first to listen can make all the difference.  Even the most stubborn attitudes can be penetrated with generosity of spirit, however long it may take.

If others are not ready to listen or respond, leave them to themselves.  We must always move on.  Yet, there can be no integrity in isolation.

Integrity lives and grows in our engagement with people.  It is the product of thoughtful relationships.  It requires inquisitive interest.

The greatest tests on this rocky road are steadfast grace, commitment and consistency.

We are called to seek our common humanity, but no one is asking us to agree on everything.  We can keep our views and our values.  Something greater needed.

The integrity that takes root in relationships soon spreads to implant itself in the character of a family, community or nation. 

This is not easy, but it is real.  It takes time. And the struggle remains deeply personal.

Even if we are fortunate to have a religious community, our integrity remains very much our own.  Guidance can be a great help.  True friendship is a blessing.  But life’s struggle is always personal. 

And in the end, the wisdom we gain can only be our own.

We can protest against injustice or politics or misbehavior.  We can blame people or institutions, social degradation or human history.  But we control just one thing, and that is ourselves.

Strangely enough, it is actually this one thing—personal integrity—upon which the integrity of nations and societies depend.

Nothing in business, politics, or society will matter until we get this right.  And it can only be made right by each and every one of us, deep within ourselves.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about 14 September.

Interested readers can find an introduction to the coming book and several chapters (in draft) linked at the top of the homepage

No Shortcuts to the Future

Change has been accelerating for years.  Americans are well aware of the steady debasement of civil order, if we have been alive long enough to see it.  Our economic lives have deteriorated for at least a generation—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.  Little is left of the middle class. Trouble began long before the pandemic.

Being human, it is tempting to look for blame.  But blame gets us nowhere in a crisis.  It is really not possible for any of us to fully understand or respond effectively to the magnitude of structural change confronting the world.

Are we strong enough to step back from the barrage of fragmented and incoherent headlines, media sound-bites and images, which bombard our minds? Is it possible to think without reacting?  How otherwise can we defend ourselves from manipulation in advertising and politics?

Our greatest challenge is to investigate truth for ourselves and not through the minds of others.

I suggest we each stop to check our motives regularly every day, and to think about what are we learning through all this—about life and about ourselves.

Change can sometimes help us to see with new eyes.  Perceptions, values, and sense of purpose all evolve throughout our lives—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.  But maturity only comes when we think for ourselves.

Some change is masked by chaos and not so easy to see.  Increasing complexity is an example: A threat today that is difficult to understand and quite capable of disrupting our lives suddenly and without notice.

I have raised concerns about complexity here in the past.

Complexity has increased rapidly with advancing technologies and an interconnected world.  A multiplicity of interdependent systems, subject to intense disconnected forces, leads inevitably to instability and unexpected crises.

And when our lives are disrupted, our values come under pressure.  Confused values undermine self-confidence and our sense of identity.

Having shared values with those around us always feels good, but, in fact, everyone is different.  Never in history have human beings agreed on values. Even our own personal values can sometimes conflict.  Have you noticed?

The presence of plural and conflicting values in this life tests character and challenges unsupported assumptions.  Which is why we need to stand on our own two feet.

But we also need dependable neighbors in a crisis!  Can we agree on just a few things?  How about respect for personal dignity?  Or the value of individual autonomy that refrains from imposing on others?

Do we recognize the virtues and values that undergird safety and stability in our communities?

Can we see that a safe and prosperous society, economically and otherwise, will depend on personal virtues: on truthfulness, for example, and responsibility?

Justice and morality are closely related, and we learn about them in the trenches.  Hardship generates new thinking, as I have said.  It is when we stop thinking that we resist awareness and miss opportunities.

Responding to a changing world begins within ourselves.  Who are we, really?  Who do we want to be?

Yes, we are human—we are not perfect.  But let’s get something straight:  There are no shortcuts to the future. Freedom depends on responsibility, and moral responsibility cannot be left half done.

America has always been a work in progress, but we are living today in a time of extremes. We are witnessing rapid ongoing deterioration of moral character, self-discipline, and social responsibility.

Mass murder, pornography, sexual violence: To name just a few among many.  All have proliferated at an appalling rate.  We see social degradation and abasement all around us.

Regaining strength in America is a personal matter.  It will require responsibility, courage, and steadfast patience.  To engage in constructive action with our neighbors—to seek safety and to meet common needs—will mean engaging with differences.  Americans value individuality, diversity, liberty.  Am I right?

The United States is, by definition, a pluralistic society.  This will always be a challenge and responsibility.

Before we can begin to secure an acceptable future, we will need first to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences.

Danger confronts us all, without exception.

Tom

You may look for the next post on or about July 26.

A note to readers:  An introduction to the coming book can be found linked at the top of the homepage, along with sample chapters exploring the history of ideas and conflicting values that have brought us to this place.

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.

Personal Integrity, Freedom of Thought

Most of us would consider any threat to our expression of opinion or belief to be a threat to our personal integrity.  Freedom of thought is a hallmark of the “American idea”.  We think of it as being fundamental to a free society.  However, the freedom and integrity with which we live our lives depends on accurate information.  And, the unconscious assumptions we make about other people can be especially problematic.

In a complex world, unconscious assumptions can have a lot more to do with freedom and integrity than we might think.  Our ability to engage effectively and safely with real people in the real world, both friend and foe, depends on accuracy.

Our assumptions are uninvestigated beliefs that may or may not be true.  My suggestion here is that unexamined assumptions can limit our knowledge of the reality we are dealing with, and thus the effectiveness of our actions. 

Inaccurate assumptions interfere with the free flow of information.  Truthfulness becomes immaterial, and personal autonomy unachievable. And so I ask you: If we have not investigated and fully understood opposing points of view, how can we engage with and influence others?  How can we challenge their assumptions?

Do we think we can live with integrity isolated in a vacuum?

I do not suggest that agreement is necessary.  In fact. this will often be impossible.  But untested assumptions are plainly dangerous. Questions of judgment often involve complex circumstances and depend on information coming from multiple sources.

Sometimes complexity can be aggravating.  But, if we value the integrity of our beliefs and our role in the world, there is no alternative to pursuing accuracy.  After all, our personal views reflect our self-confidence as decent and intelligent people.

Problems often catch us by surprise as a consequence of assumptions we did not realize we were making.  This can happen in the workplace or the home, and with careless inattention to relationships. We have long accepted the assumption, for example, that rational governance is possible if we simply trust the wisdom of experts, or that nature must submit to human control.

Today we face a multitude of interrelated crises that call many of our assumptions into question.  Social and economic disarray, the absence of civility, and a stifling inability to engage in dialog, leave us enmeshed in frustration.

These are challenging circumstances.  America needs us each to step forward.  I don’t believe we have a choice. The lessons of civility, trustworthiness and cooperative problem-solving may have to be learned by force of necessity.  Personal safety and survival might depend on them.

Teaming up with neighbors to meet shared needs will not be easy.  We will need diversity to confront unexpected needs.  This will require courage and initiative.

Understanding does not necessarily lead to agreement, but it lubricates and sustains working relationships.  The road to trust is paved with experience, not promises.  Dependability is lived and proved in relationships.

There will always be differences in our values.  Human beings have never agreed on values.

Values are not casual ideas or choices; many are deeply rooted in our interests and needs. If we are to live together, certain essential values must be shared; others might challenge our patience, but need not threaten trust.

Having dependable neighbors comes with genuine understanding, but we should not abandon the values that give us our identity.

I believe we will find more agreement than we expect, especially in the most important aspects of our common humanity.  But we cannot delay.

Each of us carries a personal perspective that will contribute to the character and wisdom of the whole—as long as we refrain from allowing ego or emotion to overwhelm the context in which we find ourselves.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about June 7.

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.