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.

A Severe Choice

What is truly at stake?  Many new crises are confronting the American people, some just now appearing on the horizon.  What are the dangers obscured by the present partisan conflict?  The coming years will bring immense challenges, and the necessity for responsible citizenship will test and re-test the strength of this nation.

For two centuries the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope and an unparalleled model of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality.  People everywhere have admired its dynamism and been attracted to the vision it represents.

In the midst of controversy, it can be easy to forget the unique stature of the United States and the role it has played and expected to play in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization.

Yet, our confidence in its’ social coherence, its’ economic well-being and generosity of spirit has faltered.  Something has changed.  We all know this, but we have widely differing views about what has happened, when and why.

Despite our differences, many Americans share the feeling that the country has strayed from traditional principles we hold dear.

Do we possess the vision and resolve to build a future based on moral responsibility, core values and ultimate meaning?  And, how would this be possible?

Can we step back from recent events—and years of sequential financial crises—to seriously address this question?

Is it terribly surprising that our national preoccupation with self-indulgence has led from self-respect to degradation?  This did not happen overnight.

The economic well-being of working and middle-class Americans has been badly damaged.  Did we understand what was happening?  It is easy for mindless materialism and thoughtless disregard for consequences to place the future in jeopardy.

The fragmented way we perceive the world may have origins in the incoherence of mass media.  But, what of our lack of attention, and our insatiable taste for frivolous entertainment?

We are challenged by vast social, economic and technological complexity.  It’s difficult to see the whole picture, but are we thinking?

Whatever the causes of disarray, we can surely see that disrespect and disunity will not serve us well in reconstructing a stable, coherent, economically viable future.

What is to be done?

Are we willing to truly listen to one another, to think and understand?  Are we prepared to hear about the experience behind our differences—the stories of our pain and the origins of our discontents?

There really is no other way to understand what is happening, or to find solutions to the complexity that confronts us, without inquisitive interest and caring.

And there is no other way to avoid the destructive violence of anarchy without full commitment to the structural order provided by the Constitution.

This is a severe choice because the consequences are severe.

We have entered a crucible of testing that will burn away the self-centered and sloppy thinking of the past to forge an American identity we can respect and believe in.

Americans deserve self-respect.  But the way forward leads through a great testing.

If we fail to rise to our calling, the social violence generated by fear and failing institutions will incinerate our children’s future and turn a great vision to hopelessness and anguish.

Will we reconfirm the founding ideals and principles of these United States as the bedrock on which to build a free and ethical future?

Will we defend and 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, accept alienation or violence—and allow a great trust to shatter and vanish?

Make no mistake: we face a long crisis!  Systems and services we have long depended on will fail in the coming years.

We will need to depend on the knowledge and skills of our neighbors—whatever their background or the color of their skin—to resolve local problems and meet shared needs.

In the coming sequence of crises safety will only be secured with authentic interpersonal relationships.  And the time to act is now.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about March 2.

A note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several completed chapters are available on the homepage.

Truthfulness, the Test of Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please permit me to make a suggestion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why local communities are so important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without constitutional order, wrongs cannot be corrected.

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

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

Tom.

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

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.

Truth and Consequences

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

Future Americans deserve wise thinking from Americans today.

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

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

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

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

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

I will suggest four reasons, as follows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

A Different Kind of Nation

The United States Constitution holds a unique place in history.  The Framers stepped away from the customs and tyrannies of the past to devise a new model for governance envisioned for a free and civilized people.  It has endured for more than two hundred years.

Are we willing to overlook the subsequent missteps and mistakes, the rude and selfish behavior, to consider what is truly of value to us?  Are we prepared to step forward to defend what we wish to preserve?

If we let this inheritance die, what will we have lost?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are those who think 200 years is a reasonable age for a democratic republic to reach its’ natural demise.  However, the United States of America remains an extraordinary model of spirit and governance, despite the blemishes.  

I think it more reasonable to understand 200 years as the age of maturity, shaped by experience and illuminated by the context of a disturbed world.  The nation is coming of age and in a time of natural volatility.

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

It is a trust that no other nation has the vision, the strength of will or the generosity of spirit, to embrace.  Brought into focus by the foresight and wisdom of the American Founders, it shines even now from the darkness, a beacon amidst dangers and hardships.

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

Questions also remain.  Thoughtful citizens will consider the requirements liberty imposes on the way we manage civil discourse, our disagreements and decision-making. 

Surely there can be no freedom for thought, for creativity, for social and economic advancement in the absence of the civility and self-discipline that allow us to engage freely and without fear.

Recognizing the need for social order and stability, upon which all else depends, a practical question confronts us each day:  Have we matured as individuals to the degree that we can represent our personal views patiently, listen with understanding, and, when necessary, live with our differences?

The crisis-fueled tensions of the early 21st century leave us wondering.

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

If we fail—we could lose everything.

Tom

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

Note to regular readers:  To receive email alerts when posts are published, please click on the Follow button.

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.

Reclaiming the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safety is essential.  But, it is not everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can be done and we can do it.

Tom.

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

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.

Integrity or Degradation: The Choice is Ours

We stand at a critical point in American history.  Our thinking, attitudes, and quarrels have collided with hard realities in the 21st century.  A multi-generational record of short-sightedness, ineptitude and irresponsibility, tells us of deepening societal degeneration at every level, social, economic, political.

Self-respect cannot wait for things to change that we have no control over.  We are each capable of responding to the world around us with dignity and creativity, and we must.

For this reason, I have proposed a challenging strategy for your consideration.  And it is an extremely difficult proposition.

Unfortunately, I do not believe we have a choice.

The wide-ranging needs we have as Americans—for resolving shared problems, for meeting local needs, for envisioning a decent future—all depend on a willingness to create genuine community.

Why is this?

If we are to reverse the slide toward chaos, we must first acknowledge a core responsibility upon which everything depends.  This is the imperative that we build and protect trust.

True community exemplifies the need for trust.  All constructive relationships depend on trust.

Social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust.

Without the assurance of trust, liberty and justice will remain elusive, and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.

The integrity of trustworthiness will be essential for building a future we can believe in.

The American founders warned that this could be a problem. (See previous post, August 23).

Patrick Henry was among several quoted by Charles Murray in his important book, “Coming Apart”:  “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.”

“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.”

Clearly there can be no integrity where neither citizens or civil servants care for trustworthiness.

And, here we are today.

The strategy proposed here rests on the principle that trust can only be learned and lived in the active relationships of genuine community.

Community—true community—disciplines us to develop trustworthiness and dependability by necessity.  Human beings cannot gain virtues in a vacuum.  This can only be acquired in personal relationships—where dependability matters and each can see the integrity of the other.

And, there are additional reasons why a free society depends on community.  We can investigate these going forward.  We depend on community for much more than physical survival in a crisis.

Community is the seat of civilization.  It is the basic unit comprising human societies, the structure in which justice, social order, and cultural identity are grounded.

It is in family and community that the individual learns values, finds equilibrium, and gains a sense of belonging.  Community encourages members to express their unique identity, character, and creativity.

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

Among the historic roles of community is to anchor the diversity of institutions, associations, and organized functions that we call civil society.

Why is this so important?

Without diverse opportunities and choices for meaningful involvement, the individual becomes disengaged and disoriented, set adrift, vulnerable to dishonest, despotic and predatory influences.

The absence of such mediating institutions thrusts the individual into a vulnerable reliance on an increasingly pervasive and autocratic central government.

Finally, in closing, (and as I said to you on July 26), please remember that integrity is the highest attainable value—a quality of moral soundness.  Trustworthiness is the substance of that value, and responsibility provides the constructive action with which we make it so.

This can only be learned as we mature in real human relationships, working to find safety and to build the future.

There is no middle ground.  Either integrity and responsibility are wholly present or they are compromised.  Without them no civilization is possible.

Tom

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

Note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several chapters in draft are linked at the top of the homepage.