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.

Freedom and Responsibility

When the first European settlers came to America and dispersed into the forests and across the open plains, they had only their own initiative, ingenuity, and self-reliance to depend upon. No one was there to counsel them about the requirements for survival.  Freedom and responsibility were defined by harsh realities.

Intrepid settlers also relied on one another as neighbors, so long as each understood what responsibility meant in the face of hardship. Self-reliance and the acceptance of personal responsibility are sources of self-respect and lead to mutual respect among neighbors.  Whining and complaint don’t fly, however tough the circumstances.

I believe the time is approaching when this may become important once again.  And, the moral integrity that motivates us to assist one another will be as blind to differences as it was on the American frontier. Integrity is neither inhumane nor fickle.

Our physical circumstances are different now, and our independence as self-sufficient individuals is generally gone—but the coming challenges will increasingly resemble those of an earlier time. We are called upon even now to stand on our own feet and respond constructively to the unexpected.

In the early years of European settlement, American frontier life required little organization other than that prescribed by the traditions of English common law and common decency.  But as the population grew, it was not long before undisciplined enthusiasm and competitiveness roiled the civil order.

Thinking people soon found themselves facing growing contentiousness and the dangers of majority rule, which threatened to suppress individual liberty and initiative.

Democracy was a new idea two centuries ago.  The Constitutional Convention of 1787 struggled with concerns about the intensity of divisiveness among the colonists, and recognition that the Republic would face future threats and unpredictable social and economic stress in the coming centuries.

Libertarian sentiments were strong among Americans in the 18th century.  There was a natural fear of the oppressiveness of institutions from which they had so recently fled. Many had strong feelings about protecting the freedom they felt in America, a freedom that stood in marked contrast to the ever-present example of slavery.

The Founders were quite aware of the mood, and recognized that majority factions had no qualms about suppressing minorities or rejecting the interests of anyone who differed from them. Given the European experience it was easy to imagine a violent and tumultuous future.

The United States Constitution is the product of this tension, and the determination to create a dynamic framework capable of protecting freedoms while channeling the forces of conflict and change that would surely come.

The Constitution provides a structure for governance designed for an inherently contentious people.  Yet, it is notable for its’ simplicity and provides few legal constraints.  The Founders chose to depend on Americans to govern their own behavior.

The imperative that future Americans observe principled values and virtue ethics was clearly stated by Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Washington among others. 

The Founders could not impose the virtues they expected of Americans, or the cooperation upon which the Constitution depends.  However, the document itself makes such necessities self-evident.

The forthcoming book, upon which this blog is based, considers the history and implications of these challenges. How do we understand the meaning of freedom, and what are the practical constraints required by freedom itself in a civilized order?

How did the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 formulate a structure for governance that would preserve a balance between majority and minority, freedom and stability? How did they endeavor to project freedom and order into a future they could only barely imagine?

Fairness and balance are written into the legal structure of the Republic.  The rest depends on us. 

Instability begins with lack of foresight, belligerence, and the inability to compromise.  We are well over 300 million in number and we have differences.  If we are to avoid catastrophe, genuine listening with the intent to understand and educate is essential.

Civilized solutions will only be possible through collaborative problem-solving enabled by the Constitution.

We stand today at an extraordinary turning point.  We must not throw away our inheritance and imagine it possible to start over from nothing.

Tom

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

A note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several completed chapter drafts are available at the top of the homepage.

Getting Real About Problem-solving

The commitment of politicians and others to the integrity of the United States Constitution has been questioned in recent years.  This is a serious concern.  Those who understand the significance of the Constitution will be concerned about the means for defending it.

This is an emotional issue for many Americans, and the recent proliferation of armed citizen militias across the country has drawn attention to it.

It makes sense to think practically about how to ensure the integrity of the Constitution.

[This post has been updated and re-published due to the timeliness of the topic.]

Here we have a question of means and ends.  Destructive forcefulness will easily cause precisely the opposite of its’ intended purpose.

It was Hayek who said, “the principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.”

In my view, Harry Emerson Fosdick stated this truth most clearly: “He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.”

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

Americans can understand this logic.  In the midst of conflict nothing is more important than a clear mind.  Yet, we human beings are emotional creatures, and the less disciplined have always been capable of emotion-driven violence.

So, let’s take a look at the way incivility and antagonism—and especially the threat of violence—will actually subvert our own interests and intentions.  I will suggest four reasons here, as follows.

First, force—or the threat of force—subverts the Constitution itself, immediately destroying its’ capacity to function as written and effectively nullifying its existence.

The Founders created a structure for governance that depends on civility, moral responsibility, and collaboration.  The Founders expected Americans to behave with ethical integrity in the service of their country, and several of them stated this expectation emphatically.

Second, hostile action by a few individuals would make it difficult, even impossible, for rational and disciplined strategies to be mounted effectively.  It could actually set back the cause of the perpetrators themselves—for years, even decades.

Why?  The use of force would harden the attitudes of most Americans toward the perceived purpose or philosophy of the instigators.  This would make it difficult to win a fair hearing from anyone who respects the rule of law.

Third, any rebellion by force of arms pits itself against the uniformed services—law-enforcement agencies and the National Guard.  These are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and sworn defenders of the Constitution.

Individual members of militias need to understand who exactly they intend to fight, and who they wish to attract and win over to their cause.

Fourth, the vast majority of Americans value the character of the United States deeply. They recognize the essential role of the Constitution in making America a safe, productive, and meaningful country to live in.

If we wish Americans to have a better understanding of how the Constitutional structure of governance should function, it will not be accomplished by beating them up.

Influencing hearts and minds requires the rational exchange of information—accurate information.  This means teaching our values, demonstrating basic virtues in our actions, and learning how to communicate effectively.

Not only do we depend on civil order for the safety of our families, for safe streets, jobs, schools and hospitals, but there is a fundamental principle involved: We cannot defend what we believe in by tearing it down.

To preserve the Constitution and renew the strength of the United States we will need to address our countrymen with clear reasoning presented compellingly, and in a composed and rational manner.

The Constitution will last far into the future if, and only if, Americans stand by it with steadfast adherence to the rule of law, and to the values (and virtues) the Founders expected of us.

Tom

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

Liberty and the Foundations of Order

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

The Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is anchored in a legislative order, the protections it provides, and the power to seek constructive change.

These are among the essential elements of a civil order that provides Americans with stability and a rational space to forge the future.

I have shared my observations with you concerning the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.

The Founders made conscious assumptions about the character of the American people.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

In past posts I have shared the words of several of the Founders, which are quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”.  I will repeat two of them here:

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

And, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

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

The Founders had good reason to think in this way.  A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation.

“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes.  But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.

“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”

Virtues are the substance of good character.  But they are not instilled in us by nature.

Character is not formed in a vacuum.  We learn what matters in life by engaging directly and meaningfully with family and community—people who need to depend on us.

Personal values can either mature or be degraded through interpersonal relationships.  It is here that we experience the necessity for trust—for truthfulness, dependability, responsibility.

Without such virtues, life quickly becomes intolerable, and security is beyond reach.

How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us?  Well, breaking down barriers will take time and patience, discipline and determination.

This begins with ourselves, and so also does our own self-respect.

We may not agree with the beliefs or behaviors of other people, but without truthfulness and a readiness to engage honestly and respectfully, we are lost.

Engaging with differences is not easy, especially in an age of extreme distrust.  We must counter destructiveness with integrity and moral responsibility, yet always with emotional restraint.

True liberty rests firmly on human dignity and respect for others.  Where these are not found, depravity flourishes and the mischief-maker is free to roam.

Tom

Note to readers: Please assist me with your comments; I value your feedback!  You may watch for the next post on or about February 2.

The Origins of Dislocation and Distress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom.

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

Truth and Consequences

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

Future Americans deserve wise thinking from Americans today.

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

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

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

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

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

I will suggest four reasons, as follows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

Lost Trust, Embattled Identity

Amidst divisiveness and disarray the anchor of the Constitution holds steady, manifesting order and assurance for an anxious nation.  Our hopes and concerns can only be pursued within the steady frame of rational governance.  We are a nation of laws, and a civilized future depends on this foundation.

I have argued here that local communities are the building-blocks of society and the foundation of civilization.  And, the importance for local cooperation if we are to seek safety and stability in a long crisis.

In no other place do Americans have the freedom and opportunity to resolve local problems, and to develop dependability with neighbors through working relationships. Well-organized local communities and networks of communities will provide the only effective foundation for an American future we can respect and believe in.

Regular readers may already have recognized that the strategy proposed here implies a premise—a pattern and framework for action suited to our circumstances in America.

We understand that the Constitution reflected the traditional attitudes of the 18th century.  The intelligent competence of women was unrecognized, and the humanity of black Americans was denied outright.  This was true throughout the European world.

But the Founders of the American Republic had something conceptually new in their minds. 

They knew the future of the new nation was far beyond their capacity to imagine.  Yet, pluralism, inclusive diversity and moral responsibility were clearly assumed in their thinking and enabled in the text. The originality of their vision was made plain in the Federalist Papers.

So it is that since the Civil War we have seen an uneven but consistent and irreversible advance toward inclusiveness—in attitudes, society, and law.

Today, however, something has changed.  And we are confronted with the consequences of lost trust, a deteriorating social order, and financial irresponsibility.

The field of debris is expansive and multidimensional.  What happened?  And, how can the American vision and the confidence it once generated be restored?

No political philosophy is offered here; only a reminder that Americans are the beneficiaries of a priceless birthright: An exceptional Constitution, and an attitude and belief in ourselves, which have overcome crises and hardship and differences for more than 200 years.

There is only one means for recovering the vision and confidence that once made us who (I believe) we still are.  This will be along the rocky path through honest, rational, and courageous personal engagement—genuine relationships with other Americans—most of whom we know very little about.

This will only be possible with determination to seek an American future we can believe in, both conceptually and realistically.

In the face of widespread hopelessness it will be a bold undertaking.  I submit that it must be forged in the crucible of genuine communities—our own communities—which we have the ability to build in place, wherever we are.

Such determination calls us to dignify ourselves with civility and to bravely face the damage of the past.

I have presented the rationale for knowing our neighbors and ensuring we can depend on them.  I have spoken of the need to rise above our differences, at least to the extent that we can collaborate in meeting needs and resolving local problems. 

The resources and learned skills we will need are available to anyone, and the frame of mind that allows genuine community to flourish can be achieved by every American.

Again, let me be clear: We are Americans before all else, and we need to organize our communities in place—where we already are.

Those who would retreat into isolation as religious or ideological groups do not simply lack the courage of their convictions.  An isolationist, fear-based mentality actively subverts the vision of the Founders.  And, it abandons responsibility for contributing constructively.

To restore the nation to its rightful place in history will call for immense patience, forbearance, and generosity of spirit.  It will not require that we compromise our beliefs. 

American strength and integrity are functions of the diversity of experience, perspective, and practical skills that have, for more than 200 years, overcome every challenge.

The center must hold.

Tom

Note to regular readers: You may look for the next post on or about November 30.

America: Our Legacy, Our Challenge

The extraordinary questions confronting the American people today will surely mark a turning point.  The diversity of challenges we face together represent a great test of America’s character and place in history.

For more than two hundred years the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope, a source of creative imagination and ingenuity, and as a singular model of freedom, diversity, and vitality.

In the cauldron of converging crises it is easy to forget the unparalleled meaning of the United States, and the role it has played in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization.

Our confidence is shaken by the widespread loss of trust, by abandoned responsibility and collapsing institutions. Economic well-being has been undermined for several decades.  A coherent sense of national identity has weakened.  And, the generosity of spirit for which Americans have long been known has faded.

This week I will step away from recent topics to revisit the central theme of this blog and forthcoming book.

I ask my fellow Americans to consider the danger in a crisis that it did not begin in 2000, 2008, or 2016.  I am speaking of the long crisis, a condition that has been evolving for at least half a century.

Surely, we know of the deterioration experienced in the lives of working Americans in recent decades, and recognize the degradation of the consumer economy generally. And now a pandemic is kicking us when we were already battered and struggling.

In my view, the basic underlying problems have not been caused by present or past leadership, but rather by two profound and historic developments. These are 1) profound structural change, which has been easy to ignore or misunderstand, and 2) a gradually increasing loss of concern for moral responsibility and constructive thinking as a whole.

Leadership will not save us.  Hope lies in the hands of the American people and our readiness to step aside from partisanship. The ultimate survival of the United States as a constitutional republic demands nothing less.

As concerned as many Americans are about our ideological or cultural differences, (and these are real), we will be unable to pursue perfectly valid interests if we destroy the means to do so.

My message is brief.  It will be short on analytical detail and will avoid blame.  There is more than enough blame to go around and we all know about it.

This blog and a coming book are focused on the essentials of mind and attitude, of moral character, and of our relationships with one another that will be required to go forward. If we fail to attend to these essentials, nothing else will matter.

The book will acknowledge mistakes and the failure of vision and responsibility.  We will consider the way we have gradually abandoned control over our lives.

However, I do so not to fix blame, but for the purpose of understanding the steps required to build a just and stable future we can respect and believe in.

In the present fragile context, the priorities we must first address will be to turn despair into courage and failure into honor and self-respect—such that we can ensure the safety and well-being of our families and communities.

The bottom line depends on truthfulness, trustworthiness and teamwork. The rest will follow.

Building trust and finding safety will require that we rise above our differences to resolve shared problems, meet local needs, and learn to collaborate.

Is this really possible? Yes, but only with great patience, a commitment to fairness, and determination to pursue constructive, life-affirming solutions.

America has gained its vitality from our diversity and the creative engagement found in the clash of differing opinions.  However, at a time of existential danger we are confronted with a stark choice. Will we accept the necessity for collaboration which is embedded unalterably in the Constitution?

Will we protect two hundred years of commitment, hard work, and sacrifice by generations of Americans who have given their lives to this unprecedented vision? Or, will we give way to the emotions of uncompromising partisanship—and allow a great trust to vanish from history?

Tom

The blog will be taking a break during the election period.  Please watch for the next post on or about November 16.

Dignity, Self-respect, and Ugliness

Public corruption and transparent dishonesty are very discouraging.  And when public discourse descends into ever more rancor and bitterness, it attests to deepening disarray.

As individuals we can choose not to live this way.  What can we do?  When useful debate has ceased, and purposeful dialog has degenerated into extremes of invective, ridicule, and slander—what are our options?

Personal dignity and self-respect depend on our values and our attitude.  And these only become real when translated into action.  Words are not enough.

Divisiveness reflects entrenched partisan views, but mean-spirited ugliness is degrading and accomplishes nothing.  Do we somehow imagine that such behavior supports our beliefs or advances our interests?

It is extraordinary that so much of this ugliness is unabashed and occurs in full view of the world.  Americans have always been a contentious people, but self-respect and a self-conscious sense of our national character have tended to constrain shameful extremes.

Given the unparalleled ease with which citizens can now participate in public debate, unthinking acts and lapses of judgement are made far easier and their consequences more enduring.

How does this reflect on us as Americans?  Who do we wish to be?  Where is the concern for self-respect and integrity that once mattered?  Are we no longer a society with values?

Morality and the ethics of responsibility are closely related to values.  And values are closely related to virtues.  Virtues?

Does anyone care about values and virtues in today’s world?

Let’s get real!  Truthfulness, dependability, trustworthiness—these are virtues that a civilized society depends upon.  They are the living substance of human values.

One way to think about these questions is to consider the value we place on the ends we seek.  What do we wish for in our future?  The ends we seek can only be reached by means that actually get us where we want to go.

As the means so the end.

In the present circumstances the future has become a vital concern for everyone.  Reason and conscience can only guide us to safety if we adhere to truthfulness.

Today in the United States ethics and values involve far more than a concern for ones’ self-image.  And, most Americans will never accept a moral system imposed from outside.

Rather, we are concerned here with something that is of vital importance to the future of our country.  Social order and trustworthy relationships are not only crucial for our personal lives, but for the security and well-being of the nation.

Developing personal virtues is not easy.  Consistent self-examination requires determination and acceptance of life’s tests.  But, without essential virtues there can be no values, either in our lives or in a future we can believe in.

In my view, the most fundamental of virtues is truthfulness.  All other virtues follow from truthfulness—honesty, reliability, credibility, trustworthiness.  These form the foundations of civilized life.

As I have noted previously, it will only be in community that we have the opportunity and freedom to live and learn civilized values, to build trust, and to experience the richness of genuine relationships.

This can’t wait.  We all have neighbors.  It is time to act.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people (August 23 post).  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot share our experience and offer guidance patiently, and if we fail to believe in the potential for people to change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Making this work will depend, ultimately, on firm values and self-confident generosity.  Of all people, Americans should know the importance of this.

I have argued that diversity of experience and perspective, knowledge and skills will facilitate physical survival.  They are the instruments of safety and order.

However, differences that come at us with ugliness are a threat to all these things.  Ugliness exhausts and debilitates.  Mean-spiritedness pushes people away and shuts the door to life.

Tom.

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

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

If We Are to Remain Free

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

It is important that we understand this because the Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is made real in a legislative order and in the protections it provides.

These are among the essential elements of a society that provides both stability and the creative space to forge a future.

I have been sharing my observations with you about the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.

The authors of the Constitution made deliberate assumptions about the character of the American people.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

In the previous post I shared views from several of the Founders quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”.  I will repeat two of them here:

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

And, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

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

How do we feel about this idea?  It’s a little scary, wouldn’t you say?

There were reasons why the Founders thought this way.  A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation. 

“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes. But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.

“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”

Virtues are the substance of good character.  But this is not instilled in us by nature.

Good character cannot be formed in a vacuum.  We learn what matters in life by engaging meaningfully with other people.  Personal character matures by means of relationship.

Regular readers will not be surprised when I suggest that virtues can only be lived and learned in community—where constructive relationships call for trust and dependability.

In genuine community we experience the necessity for trust every day—for truthfulness, trustworthiness, responsibility.

Without such virtues, life in human society is intolerable and security is out of reach.

Need I say more?  Just look around you.

How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us?  Well, breaking down barriers will take honest determination.

Living in community requires certain virtues.  Adjusting to such disciplined conditions will take time, but the necessity must be confronted openly.

Dialog is the essence of genuine relationship.  Developing character starts here.

Without give-and-take a relationship does not exist and problem-solving is impossible.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people.  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot offer guidance patiently and believe in the potential for change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Our differences support problem-solving.  Diversity brings experience and perspective, knowledge and skills.

We need these things.  They are the instruments of safety and order.

However, differences that come at us with ugliness are a threat to all these things.  Ugliness exhausts and debilitates.  Mean-spiritedness pushes people away and shuts the door to life.

Tom

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

America at a Tipping Point

America is troubled today by the crippling consequences of distrust.  Polls have reported a steadily growing distrust of government for many decades.  Like a cancer, the problem has now spread throughout American culture.

Do we imagine that constructive problem-solving—or an orderly and prosperous future—can be possible without trust?

Americans have always been a contentious lot.  Yet we have remained loyal to the vision and ideals of the founders, for better or worse.

Many of you share my view that our future depends, first and foremost, on the bulwark of stability and justice that is the Constitution.  However, the Constitution depends on the expectations the founders had of the integrity and character of future Americans.

“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.”

James Madison was explicit: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical [wildly fanciful] idea.”

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

And, in his farewell address George Washington famously said: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

These words of wisdom are quoted in Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart”.  “In their various ways”, he comments, “the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

A reader of this blog has commented further that, “America is at a tipping point because every tenet [and] moral fiber of this nation has been diminished, so that no one is held accountable.  [There is] no moral compass because the foundations are removed.”

We do not have to agree on details to recognize the truth in this.  Yet, we cannot wait for somebody else to fix it.  In America accountability falls to ourselves.

Only in community can the true essence of accountability be fully understood.  Here the integrity of trustworthy interpersonal relations cannot be avoided.

Honest relationships can be hard work, but when the going gets tough relationships count.

I don’t just mean engaging with our next-door neighbors, as important as this is.  If we find ourselves under threat, directly or indirectly, the last thing we need is neighbors down the road or over the hill who are an unknown quantity.

And, we are not simply concerned about making acquaintances here.  This is not about borrowing a cup of sugar over the back fence.  To make our communities safe and to rebuild the nation we need dependability. And that means trust.

OK, to be quite honest, building trust is not something that Americans know much about. Mostly we don’t believe in it any more.

In my previous post I reminded readers that social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust.  Without this assurance, liberty and justice will remain elusive and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.

Trust is the substance of integrity.  It is essential for building a future we can believe in.

Yet, we cannot start trusting people simply because we wish for it.  The social reality we live in is decidedly untrustworthy.  Many people do not have a clear concept of what trust means, much less an understanding of why it is important or what to do about it.

Change will take time and patience.  We can expect a steep learning curve.

Building honest and reliable relationships with our neighbors calls for grit and determination. We will win a few and lose a few, but the ones we win will buy us a degree of security—and move the nation forward.

This can only be learned face-to-face, and with the courage to engage fully, to overcome mistakes, and to accept one another as whole persons in all our complexity.

We are adults.  We learn by doing.  Let’s not deny ourselves the maturity of forbearance and kindliness.

Each must decide if the future matters, and then join with others to make it decent, dependable, and real.

Tom

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