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.

Individuality & Empowerment

Freedom for most of us means personal autonomy.  Without a measure of autonomy in our lives there can be no self-reliance, no creative initiative, and no planning for the future.  Morality has no meaning without it.  Yet, life is complicated.  We have families.  We have jobs.  And we care about the communities in which we live.

And, who are we?  Personal identity is formed by our beliefs and values, our hopes and expectations—and especially by our relationships. 

So why are we so ready to allow social media, outspoken personalities, and even family and friends to dominate our perceptions? Is it OK to explore, to question, to entertain doubts in a complicated world?  How much freedom can we have without curiosity?

Accepting the reasonable differences we have with family or friends does require courage, of course.  Thinking for ourselves calls for trust in ourselves—to inquire, to question, to be objective. And, self-respect and the sense of identity we all need, depend upon our relationships with the people who matter to us. 

Interactive relationships form the fabric of a society.  Moral responsibility is lived and made real through active participation in community and society. Each of us is an essential part of the whole.

Yet, it is personal independence of mind—autonomy—that gives meaning to authentic relationships.  This is the “self” that interacts.

Independence and autonomy are possible because we have been given free will.  But this comes with responsibilities.  The choices presented to us by free will are what make morality possible—and necessary.

And, as we all know, free will is also what makes mistakes so very easy.

How do we learn good judgment?  How do we know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil?  Terrible mistakes have been made by people who were sure they were right.

Can we recognize a problem when someone else is just a little too sure of themselves?

This is why freedom is most secure in local communities. Trust can be built, working relationships become dependable, and personal autonomy is respected in authentic community.  Here perceptions are tested in dialog.

We can create this among those who truly seek a dependable, trustworthy way of life.

This does not happen simply because we wish for it.  A genuinely functional community requires intentionality.  Trust is built with patience and determination in the testing of honest working relationships. 

These are not things that can be delivered by politicians or distant governments.  The really important things in life have to be made real by ourselves and in our relationships.

Americans need to learn how to do it.

Robert Nisbet, a prominent voice in the founding of the American Conservative Movement, foresaw the basic outlines of the crisis we are now experiencing.

His famous book, “The Quest for Community”, was among the most influential among conservative thinkers at that time.

We have learned,” he wrote, “that man is not self-sufficing in social isolation, that his nature cannot be deduced simply from elements innate to the germ plasm, and that between man and such social groups as the family, local group, and interest association there is an indispensable connection.

We know no conception of individuality is adequate that does not take into consideration the myriad ties which normally bind the individual to others from birth to death….

“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century,” writes Nisbet, “…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 [normal] association…, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”

From the beginnings of industrial mass society, the loss of authentic community in America has led to alienation and loss—and an ever-deepening crisis.

Consequently, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an assault on an already suppressed sense of autonomy and personal identity.  Covering ones’ identity with a face mask only adds insult to injury.

With a better understanding of how and why things have changed, we are better able to understand one another, to build what we need, and, in doing so, to create a future we can respect and believe in.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about November 8.

A note to new readers:  An introduction and several chapters from the coming book are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  Please read American Crucible!

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

A True and Just Economy

In today’s world economists are trained to work with mathematical formulas.  They think habitually in terms of textbook standards and customary assumptions.  Generally in their view, economic order is based on the objectives of a corporate society.  Few economists give attention to civil order or societal well-being—except within the context of this consciousness.   

However, there is actually an economy of the United States that is grounded in the lives of real people.  This is and will always be a living reality, inherent in the entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and productivity of ordinary Americans.

It will survive despite being damaged, and we ignore it at our peril.

This real and essential economy has been subverted and submerged by the single-minded profit-making zeal of large-scale corporate enterprise.  And it is with no little irony that we have seen the corporate world itself subjugated by the wizards of high finance.

It is important that we distinguish the principles of free enterprise, which are essential to a productive economy, from the predatory forces that have corrupted economic order in the interests of power and greed.

It is also necessary to recognize the complexity of our predicament, which is more than simply economic.  A broad range of disruptive forces are contributing to the disintegration of social and economic order.

It is on this storm-tossed sea that Americans must learn to navigate—to regain our balance and sustain our integrity.

Despite the near total destruction of the real economy, the financial elite have managed to stay afloat by co-opting the political order and misrepresenting their motives to everyone else.

It is not realistic to expect this to continue. Without the vibrant consumer economy, which they have themselves demolished, the financial elite has no firm foundation upon which to operate.

The mirage of economic strength is nothing more than an empire of debt.  And, without productive jobs there will be no consumer economy of any significance.

Ultimately, the world of high finance requires a productive economy to fuel its activities.  One can commandeer a vehicle, but it cannot operate without fuel. Or, to put it another way, when a parasite kills its’ host it must find another.  And there is no other.

With all its myopic delusions and pompous posturing, the financial class is self-destructing.  And the consequences will impact all of us.  Whether the transition is short and violent or takes a long time, we cannot wait to organize safe communities and to build self-sufficient lives.

Working people, including the small business owners we will increasingly depend upon, need to start thinking in new ways. Ordinary Americans have been pushed into a corner.  But, in the long run the deepening crisis has a silver lining.  It will engender valuable lessons, creative opportunities, new ways of thinking.

Big business may or may not survive, or it might go away and then come back. Either way we need to find ways to take control of our lives.  And, it will be in local communities and networks of communities that we can assert our economic independence and survive.

This will necessarily depend on a willingness to work together despite our differences, and an ability to respond constructively to the unexpected.

As long-time readers know, we have been discussing the importance of agreeing on shared values and commitment to trustworthiness, if we are to navigate successfully through new and unexpected difficulties.

Whether or not the titans of high finance and big business crash or implode, we must take control of our lives and forge a genuinely American future.  No one is going to do it for us.

Safety, dependability, and self-respect are to be found in local communities—when we make it so. To reach out to our neighbors, friend and stranger alike, is to affirm the most essential of American principles.

It is time to rebuild the foundations.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about August 30.

Thinking Constructively, Under Pressure

In my last full post I encouraged readers to be mindful of the rapidly deteriorating conditions we were experiencing before the pandemic. (July 11, “No Shortcuts to the Future”.)  Surely, we all need to think beyond the present—both forward and back.

This is not easy to do, as the pandemic has aggravated preexisting distrust and further complicated every problem.  To steady ourselves in a storm we need to be aware of our context.  Misjudging reality can be disastrous.

America has entered a new reality in the 21st century, and the context is changing rapidly.

But this is not a sudden event.  Viewed from the future, the structural change we are experiencing will be seen as obvious and inevitable. At present, however, with our perspective rooted in the past, radical change can be difficult to imagine—or accept.

Structural change is imposing itself now with disruptive effect.  Precipitating social and economic disarray, it has generated fear, paranoia, and fault-finding.  

Economic blows that have impaired all but the wealthiest families have been accompanied by a tsunami of civil disorder and instability.

This destruction was apparent long before the arrival of COVID-19.  And, for many, a public health crisis was quickly perceived through the lens of suspicion and distrust.

But, again, this is not new.  Distrust has increased steadily in America for half a century, a trend documented by major polls and discussed in my forthcoming book. 

It would be useful, in my view, to ask ourselves how distrust weakens our ability to see and understand ‘the big picture’.  Distrust might be reasonable, but we don’t need it to disrupt clear thinking.

What is ‘structural change’?  What does it mean for the future?  And, why are a multitude of crises suddenly converging on us in a short period of time?

These questions cannot be adequately addressed in just a few blog posts.  However, many of the causes of structural change are quite apparent. Among others, advanced technology has altered our world dramatically, and exponential population growth has massive consequences.

Structural change is hidden in plain sight.

Economic destruction is hardly new to America, but how well do we understand its’ causes and consequences?  Do we understand why periodic financial crises keep happening?

Most people want safe highway bridges, functional water and sewer systems, dependable electricity, and, of course, the benefits of technology.  But, can we have everything we want?

We have become accustomed to the convenience of ‘big box stores’, but do we recognize their cost—in the destruction of small businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit?

We value technology.  We enjoy the internet and the communication technologies we carry in our pockets.  But do we recognize the significance of automation and robotics?

Yes, automation and robotics!  Thirty percent of the current jobs in America are expected to disappear in a very short time.

This is structural change.  Are we ready for it?

Fortunately, there are people thinking about it. The economist Charles Hugh Smith has written several constructive and readable books.  He is thinking about how economics could be made to actually function beneficially, how to survive financially in a community economy, and the essential role of crisis in systemic change.

I recommend his book, “A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology, and Creating Jobs for All.”

Sometimes we suffer from consequences without understanding what caused them.  But recognizing hard truths does not mean we have to be helpless. 

A functionally authentic community is liberating.  This depends on hard work and a constructive attitude.  Educating and empowering ourselves won’t happen in a vacuum. We will need a diversity of perspectives and skills if we are to survive in a completely new reality. 

How can we seek well-being in our local communities, economically and otherwise?  How can communities network regionally to create a self-reliant, people-centered economics?

We might need to join our neighbors to grow our food.  But, most importantly, we need to learn how to organize and manage projects, how to be innovative and flexible, and how to build trustworthy working relationships with all kinds of people.

The future is arriving too rapidly to accommodate the prejudices of the past.  We must think on our feet as we find our way into an acceptable future.

Tom

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

Note to readers: You can request an emailed alert when new posts appear, by clicking Follow on the homepage.  An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are linked at the top.

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.

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.

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.