First Principle

If Americans are to regain confidence in the future, we must learn to work together effectively despite our differences.  And, we will need to employ means that can actually lead to the ends we seek.  Let’s proceed then with respectful deliberation rather than emotion and ego.

The clash of differing opinions is a time-honored American tradition.  But, no American responds well to abuse, verbal or otherwise.  Expressing our views is important, but nothing will subvert our purpose more quickly than a combative attitude that alienates the very people we need to influence or work with.

We have choices.  We can choose to join forces to tackle the practical problems that threaten the safety and security of our communities.  We can choose to distinguish ourselves with civility and common decency, cooperating to resolve practical problems.

It is only in dependable working relationships tasked with shared responsibilities that we can truly come to know and influence one another.

We live in a time of dangerous instability.   It is a time to refrain from antagonistic words, a time to refocus our energy away from the dysfunction of partisan politics, so to secure essential needs at home.

I have described three essential elements that make safe communities possible.  They are trust, dependability, and constructive action.

These elements will only be found in communities where neighbors rise above their differences to serve a higher purpose.  And, for self-respecting Americans, purpose must be something more than “survival.”

As regular readers know, I use the term “constructive action” to describe the positive means by which we can realistically pursue shared goals.  And, I have explained that constructive action is impossible without a shared sense of purpose.

Shared purpose, I wrote, is a lens through which a community can bring the challenges of necessity into focus and coordinate the efforts of diverse personalities.  In working relationships, shared purpose can provide a standard by which to determine priorities and judge progress.

So, how can we understand constructive action?

Constructive action begins with the refusal to do harm.  It is action taken with dignity, respectfully, which refuses to hurt or injure – by impatience, dishonesty, hatred, or wishing ill of anybody.

Please do not misinterpret constructive action as merely a negative state of harmlessness.

On the contrary, while constructive action in its purest form attempts to treat even the evil-doer with honesty and grace, it will by no means assist the evil-doer in doing wrong.  Nor will it tolerate wrong-doing in any way.

Constructive action requires that we resist what is wrong and disassociate ourselves from it even if doing so antagonizes the wrong-doer.

Constructive action is the essential first principle upon which all other principles, values, and purposes depend.  Its’ underlying premise is pragmatic.  It allows communication and problem-solving even in the most difficult circumstances.

There is a close relationship between the positive spirit of respect and trustworthiness that characterizes constructive action and the moral integrity of the civil society we wish to build.  The two are inseparable as means and ends.

Constructive action is the means.  Unity of purpose grounded in moral integrity is the end.

Western political thinking has always considered means to be either an abstraction of tactics or simply the character of social and political machinery.  In both cases means are considered only in their service to the goals of political interests.

Here we have a very different understanding of means, replacing end-serving goals with an end-creating purpose.

Such an approach to our methods is necessary if we seek to apply traditional American values to rapidly changing circumstances.  Thus my call for the active engagement of all Americans in this endeavor, despite our vast diversity.

A vital and prosperous future can only be reached by capitalizing on our differences – in knowledge, skills, perspectives.

And, the better our working relationships, the better our chances for influencing one another – to attract, inspire, and understand.

Again, we have clear choices to make.

Either we choose to respect the Constitution and recover the fundamental meaning of the American Idea, or we can walk away forever from the safety, stability, and integrity of a future we can trust and believe in.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about May 31.

Hard Realities, Practical Needs

Americans know something is wrong.  It is easy to place blame; there is plenty to find fault with.  But, many sense that something unusual is unfolding, something that goes deeper than the headlines, something that has been a long time coming.

For the majority of Americans, social and economic conditions have been deteriorating for decades.  Civil order is crumbling.  Staggering numbers of jobs have disappeared.  Financial disruptions come one after another.

Some threats are obvious, but others lie hidden in the complexity of geopolitical stress, interlocking financial institutions, and a debt-based monetary system.

Our vulnerability is exacerbated by apathy and an inability to understand the choices that now confront us. We accept the present as normal, even when it is dangerous.  Most of us expect every day to be like the last.

To recognize that circumstances could lead to pain requires imagination and foresight.  Imagination based on fear can be get us in trouble, but so too can carelessness.

Imagination applied rationally is a survival skill.  Let me offer an example.

James Rickards is a monetary economist who has advised the Department of Defense and the CIA concerning terrorist threats to the monetary system and financial markets.

Writing about our well-equipped intelligence agencies, staffed by smart people who are intent on protecting the United States, he tells us that these agencies were actually monitoring most of the individuals who subsequently carried out the 9/11 attacks. Analysts were aware that several were being trained to fly airplanes.  In short, the intelligence community had the information it needed to warn of the impending attack.

The only thing missing, says Rickards, was imagination.

It is easy to understand why our families and friends might think we are being alarmist when we express concerns about the future. They are human. But, the time may come when they will depend on us.  We must trust our perceptions and think through the implications.

There are numerous resources available in bookstores and on the web, which can help us prepare for a long crisis. This blog (and book project) is focused specifically on the personal, social, and relational challenges involved: the effort to build dependable communities, and to accept moral responsibility in an increasingly disrupted and desperate world.

Local communities can organize around felt-needs – if we are ready to rise above our differences.  But, having little positive experience working with groups of dissimilar people will lead to challenges when trouble strikes.

We may have experienced community in a church group, club, or sporting pastime, but not usually in the immediate neighborhood where we live, and not in the face of threats to our safety and well-being.

A dependable bond among neighbors will be necessary to address food security and other essential needs. But, most of us do not know our neighbors and cannot now depend on them.  We might not even have introduced ourselves to those we see regularly on the street or in the grocery store.

Our natural inclination to be independent and avoid troublesome arrangements has led to the widespread loss of civil society and trustworthy relationships. There have been few compelling reasons for Americans to seek meaningful community with our neighbors.  Yet, when things stop working we will have no one to depend on except each other.

If we are to find security in a crisis, it will be necessary to learn patience, and a range of practical interpersonal, organizational, and technical skills.

Most of us can learn how to grow food, or at least to work with others who do.  But, as the crisis deepens we will discover necessities we did not see coming. Organizing our lives without electricity or safe drinking water or a functional sewage system will require that we cooperate to solve problems, and sometimes solve them quickly.

It will be this personal engagement with one another, forced by hard realities, which will bring Americans together where we belong – as responsible citizens and dependable neighbors.

Hiding under a rock might feel like a good idea in a shooting war, but it will not lead to the kind of world most of us want to live in.

Tom

Dear readers, please look for the next post on or about May 2.

Stability Begins with Constructive Action

The deterioration of social order taking place around us raises increasing concerns about security in our local communities.  Growing instability is impacting businesses and institutions as well as individuals and families.

As I observed in the previous post, our safety and well-being will ultimately depend on the stability and dependability of the conditions we put in place around us.

Stability and security are mutually reinforcing, but without stability any effort to increase security is futile.  Stability makes our efforts to create security possible, and it benefits from those efforts.

It is natural to think that security must come first, but actually it is the other way around. The key to security is effective community and the value of our personal investments in each other.

The first priority for any stable community is the strength of interpersonal relationships. These form the basis for trust, for good communication and effective problem-solving.

Dependable community depends on dependable relationships.

Americans are used to thinking of security as the responsibility of trained professionals who are expected to deal with emergencies.  That is because we have been accustomed to stable institutions and dependable systems.

This may not always be true.  Things we have taken for granted in the past could become major concerns – if we are not prepared for them.

Food security is a good example.  Supermarkets typically limit their distribution centers to a three-day supply.  If the supply chain is disrupted and their vendors are unable to deliver, we are in trouble.

Unless we can imagine what’s coming, the interruption of systems we take for granted will catch us off guard.  A systemic disruption could be caused by a cyber-attack on the banking system or national grid, a global monetary crisis, an Ebola-type epidemic, or any number of other threats.

These are not unreasonable possibilities.

In my view, we would do well to think about the implications – from public health defenses and emergency medicine to the need for a cash economy.  Building dependable networks of support among neighboring communities will also be wise.

Learning how to work effectively in groups will be key to ensuring dependable conditions.  This calls for new personal skills. Group decision-making and resolving interpersonal conflicts need not be traumatic ordeals, if we have acquired the necessary tools.

We are quite capable of preparing ourselves if we are ready to learn.

I have written of the importance of such virtues as trustworthiness, dependability, and responsibility.  These probably make sense to you.  But, I have also introduced concepts that might be unfamiliar, including what I call “constructive action”, and the idea that stability is not possible without forward motion.

Why are constructive action and forward motion so indispensable?

Think of it this way: Keeping ones’ balance while riding a bicycle requires forward motion.  In any community, business, or organization, activity guided by purpose serves a similar function.  No social group can sustain coherence or mutual respect without applying itself to a common purpose.

We will address two considerations as we consolidate our communities: What we do and how we do it.  The concept of constructive action concerns the “how”.  It is a way we can work together effectively.  And, it has a direct bearing on security.

To put it very simply, constructive action is about being constructive rather than destructive, encouraging rather than tearing down, freeing rather than oppressing.

A constructive approach requires a positive attitude and will contribute to improved safety and well-being.  Destructive actions and a negative attitude will set us back, the results of emotional reaction rather than rational purposefulness.

One leads toward the ends we seek; the other pushes us farther away.

Agreeing on a shared purpose (or several) is also essential.  In this way we can test group decision-making tools and come to know each other as friends and allies.

Shared purpose is a lens through which community needs will come into focus, and the efforts of diverse personalities can be coordinated.  Shared purpose provides standards by which a community can determine priorities and measure progress.

With patience and willpower each of us can learn how to this meaningfully.  And, a positive attitude will support rational thinking and a constructive way forward.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 19.

In the Crucible of Crisis

The extraordinary challenges confronting the American people mark a turning point and an unambiguous test of America’s 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 political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality.

In the cauldron of crisis it is easy to forget the unparalleled historic meaning of the United States, and the role it has played and will continue to play in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization.

Yet, our confidence in the future is shaken by abandoned responsibility and collapsing institutions.  Our economic well-being and social coherence as a nation have been weakened, and the generosity of spirit for which Americans have long been known has faded.

As we begin a new year, I am stepping away from recent topics to revisit the central theme of this blog and forthcoming book.

Most of my posts are adapted from a working manuscript.  They usually appear on alternating Fridays here at http://www.freedomstruth.net – and at facebook.com/freedomstruth.  You will find a project description on this page, an introduction to the book, and drafts of several chapters.

My question is this:  Is there a diverse and loyal core of American citizens who possess the will and the vision to refine our shared identity as a nation at this great turning point?

The turning point I speak of is not political.  It is social and economic, defined by crises and brought on by lack of foresight and the abandonment of moral responsibility over many years.

I believe this is a critical moment; a time to consider our identity as a people.

Are we prepared to stand firm amidst chaotic disruptions and rise above our differences to seek a common understanding and vision – an “American idea”?

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.

Rather, it will focus on the essentials of mind and attitude, of moral character, and of our relationships with one another that will be required to go forward – to turn despair into courage and failure into honor and self-respect.

The book will acknowledge certain past mistakes and failures of responsibility. We will briefly consider the manner in which we have gradually abandoned control over our lives, making ourselves vulnerable to the present circumstances.

However, it will do so not to fix blame, but for the purpose of understanding the steps required to build a stable future we can all accept and believe in.

We all yearn for a less partisan and more civil national discourse. Let us accept that diverse views are needed, however divergent they may be, if we are to identify effective solutions.  Practical problem-solving best occurs with input from varied perspectives.

In the present dangerously fragile context, priority must go to ensuring the safety and well-being of our families and communities.  This will depend on trustworthiness and teamwork despite our differences.

There can be no freedom without trust.  And, we cannot begin to build trust or address the larger issues in our future without first securing stable local forums in which to dialog, strategize and collaborate.

Is this really possible?  Yes, but only with great patience, a commitment to justice, and an effort to envision the end in the beginning.

The United States has gained its vitality from our diversity and the creative engagement found in the clash of differing opinions.

I will not ask you to alter your views, but to listen, understand, and debate.  Our differences must not be permitted to subvert the unity of purpose that defines us as a nation.

At a time of extraordinary existential threat we are confronted with a stark choice.

Will we seek the ideal made possible by the United States Constitution?  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 – and allow a great trust to pass away?

Tom

Dear readers, you can support this project by suggesting that your friends and associates take a look.  Constructive feedback is much appreciated.  Please expect the next post on or about January 12.

From Crisis to Crisis

The twentieth-century brought an immense number of marvelous advances to the world – scientific, intellectual, cultural.  Yet it was a century of appalling violence, the most destructive in human history.  An estimated 167 million to 188 million people died at the hands of their brothers.

The century that produced communism, fascism, and nationalism also saw the invention of highly efficient weaponry and a willingness to direct it against civilian populations on a massive scale.

Do we understand that terrible things could happen on American soil – tragedies far worse than anything we have experienced since the Civil War?  At this historic turning point we can least afford a repetition of the world’s destructive past.  And how easily that could happen!

Only a strong America, just and wise and levelheaded, can lead a disrupted world back to stability and peace.

In his 2006 book, “The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West”, the historian Niall Ferguson, who I have introduced to you previously, wrote that “the hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era…. There was not a single year before, between or after the world wars that did not see large-scale violence in one part of the world or another.”

I consider Niall Ferguson’s analysis to be of value because he departs from the typical explanations that blame weaponry and fascist governments, as significant as these were, and instead identifies ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and declining empires as the true causes.

In short, he reminds us of our human vulnerability to fear, emotional insecurity, and tribalism.

The convergence of multiple crises I am writing about here involves elements of all these things, but also a range of newly emerging concerns that most of us have not seen coming.

These include a fragile and globally interdependent banking system, depleted natural resources, environmental degradation, and runaway technologies that are rapidly outpacing the maturity of human moral competence.

In every case, regardless of the particular nature of approaching crises, the challenges we face as individuals and families come into focus in the form of immediate local threats.

And, as Dr. Ferguson points out, it is the overreaction of people under pressure that leads to the most terrible violence.

Long-time readers know my views.  In the extremes of social and economic crises, it is my belief that local communities are the only place where we have the capability and reasonable hope of organizing our lives in a civilized manner.

The difference between a violent past and a civilized future will depend entirely on the manner in which we address problems with our neighbors and manage our local affairs.  To be plainspoken, the distinction between past and future will be determined by personal attitudes and dependable relationships.

Local communities are the only context in which we have the capacity to respond constructively to the social and economic degradation taking place around us.

Community provides us with the means to build trust with friends and neighbors, and to take responsibility for meeting needs.

Here it is that the real needs of real lives can be identified and addressed.

And, it is in the process of problem-solving and working shoulder-to-shoulder that we can begin to know, understand, and influence one another.  The lessons of civility and cooperation to be learned here will be critical to our future as a nation.

We must be realistic.  Many people are still dominated by their own crippling prejudices.  This is unlikely to change until we are forced to address the essential needs we all face together under crisis conditions. 

Patience and determination will make many things possible, and necessity will sharpen the mind.

Distrust and alienation are diminished as we identify common concerns and work together in service to a common purpose.

And what is that common purpose?

Ultimately, in my view, it is the survival of a constitutional republic and the Constitution of the United States, which together have allowed gradual progress toward unity and inclusive fairness for more than 200 years

Tom 

Watch for the next post on or about December 1.

A note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to my forthcoming book, and several working drafts of early chapters are posted on this page (see above).  Please see especially, “American Crucible”.

 

Why the Bankers Are Trapped

Few seem to grasp that we have arrived at an historic turning point: a nation and a world confronted with profound structural change.  The hope to recover the past will not be helpful. We must pick ourselves up, hit the reset button, and respond to a rapidly changing reality.

I cannot accept assumptions about political policies or intentions without asking practical questions. I want to understand a complex transition that is having an immense impact on us all.

There are many aspects to the changes we are experiencing, some with immediate implications, others longer-term.  To seek solutions we must recognize structural change.

I have given attention to the continuing financial crisis in recent posts because I believe that is where the closest danger lies.

So, I begin here with a financial question with structural implications: Why is the Federal Reserve unable to return the economy to some semblance of fairness and order? Or, to put it another way: Why have our financial liabilities not been corrected since the crisis in 2008?

The short answer is that they want to believe they are dealing with a cyclical crisis rather than a structural crisis.  Again, why?

Because the truth represents an unbearable existential threat.

Here we find a powerful example of the problems presented by structural change.

The economy has shifted into a long-term deflationary trend, which presents banks and governments with an impossible situation.

I refer you again to James Rickards’ best-selling book, “The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System”.  A monetary economist and former banker, Rickards has been advising the Pentagon and CIA concerning financial warfare and terrorism.

Using simple math, Rickards’ explains how, “in effect, the impact of declining prices [deflation] more than offsets declining nominal growth [GDP] and therefore produces real growth.”

Most of us would think this is a good thing.

He writes: “Despite possible real growth, the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve fear deflation more than any other economic outcome. Deflation means a persistent decline in price levels for goods and services. Lower prices allow for a higher living standard even when wages are constant, because consumer goods cost less. This would seem to be a desirable outcome, based on advances in technology and productivity that result in certain products dropping in price over time….”

Why is the Federal Reserve so fearful of deflation that it resorts to extreme measures to oppose it? Rickards gives us four reasons.

First, deflation has a severe impact on government debt: “U.S. debt is at a point where no feasible combination of real growth and taxes will finance repayment…. But if the Fed can cause inflation…, the debt will be manageable because it will be repaid in less valuable nominal dollars. In deflation, the opposite occurs, and the real value of the debt increases….”

Second, deflation impacts the debt-to-GDP ratio, causing foreign creditors to lose confidence in the dollar and demand higher interest rates. This is an urgent problem because the debt is continually increasing. Budget deficits require new financing, and interest payments are already being financed with new debt.

Third, deflation is a major problem for banks. As Rickards’ puts it, “deflation increases money’s real value and therefore increases the real value of lenders’ claims on debtors…. But as deflation progresses, the real weight of the debt becomes too great, and debtor defaults surge.”

The fourth problem with deflation is about taxes. When a worker receives a raise, the additional income is subject to taxes. But, if the cost of living drops by the same amount, the worker in effect receives the same raise and the government cannot tax it.

“In summary,” writes Rickards, “the Federal Reserve prefers inflation because it erases government debt, reduces the debt-to-GDP ratio, props up banks, and can be taxed.”

“Deflation may help consumers and workers,” he says, “but it hurts the Treasury and the banks…. The consequence of these deflationary dynamics is that the government must have inflation, and the Fed must cause it. The dynamics amount to a historic collision between the natural forces of deflation and the government’s need for inflation.”

Such are the challenges of structural change.

Tom

Note to readers: You can support this blog and the book project by suggesting that your friends and associates take a look.  And, watch for the next post on or about November 3.

In This Time of Danger

I have addressed my concerns to Americans for two primary reasons.  I believe we have entered a period of severe, successive and interacting crises that promises to be deep, grinding, and long-lasting.  And, I am concerned that the bitter divisiveness and disunity current among us will limit our ability to respond effectively to the danger we face.

Many of you know that the present disorder has been gradually escalating for decades. We now find ourselves with a pervasive loss of respect for civility and moral responsibility, (both public and private), a frightening loss of social coherence and stability, and a broad deterioration of economic well-being for ordinary Americans.

We now stand at an extraordinary turning point.  Do we want the United States to be preserved as a constitutional republic?  Are we personally prepared to rise above our differences to make this possible?

There are pragmatic solutions to these questions, but they will be extremely difficult.  I have never said it would be easy.  I have said I do not think we have a choice.

With closed minds and hardened attitudes our circumstances are becoming increasingly extreme.

We face a formidable array of complex crises.  The challenges are diverse, profound, and mutually reinforcing.  Some will impose themselves suddenly, others gradually, but all will ultimately converge as they impact upon our lives.

What is most extraordinary is the number and variety of crises that are emerging into view at the same time: social and economic, moral and material.

An abbreviated review is offered here to demonstrate this diversity.

1) Increasing social instability characterized by a dramatic loss of civility and unrestrained anti-social behaviors that include accelerating incidences of brutality and mass murder.

2) A banking and monetary system that favors the financial elite rather than the American people, and which has become dominated by self-serving individuals who appear incapable of recognizing that their risk-taking behavior threatens the well-being of everyone, including themselves.

3) Massive government, corporate, and private indebtedness, which constricts the economy and threatens to precipitate a significant devaluation of the US dollar.

4) Old and deteriorating infrastructure, which we depend on every day: bridges, municipal water and sewage systems, and the electrical grid.  These cannot be upgraded or replaced by national, state, and municipal governments that are hobbled by indebtedness and shrinking revenues.

5) An exponentially increasing global population.  With this comes rapidly increasing risk of war and global epidemics, as well as food shortages caused by falling water tables and the ongoing loss of arable farmland.

6) The rapid development of advanced technologies without a commensurate advancement of ethical maturity or a commitment to moral responsibility.

7) Degradation of the natural environmental systems that provide us with clean air and water, the consequence of population pressures and the long-term aggregate build-up of toxic substances derived from motor vehicles, household products, and industrial pollution.

8) Last, but not least, the loss of ethical integrity and moral responsibility on a massive societal scale.  This deterioration is overwhelming the values and norms upon which social stability depends.  It is a crisis weakens our ability to respond to all other crises.

During the past 100 years we have seen the emergence of integrated global systems that include transport, communication, and surveillance technologies, and an interactive global monetary system.  No crisis can take place anywhere without disrupting the whole interrelated system.

However dark the immediate future, we will always be presented with opportunities.  The most important opportunity for us lies in a disruption so broad and profound that it alters our perspective and challenges our assumptions.

We will find ourselves thinking differently to survive: How well do we actually know our neighbors? What are our priorities?  How important to our future is the idea and vision of America?

Local problem-solving will once again become paramount.  Safety and food security will depend on a diversity of local knowledge, skills and experience – regardless of our politics or religion or the color of our skin.

Discovering safety and strength in diversity will change us.

If we can build dependable communities we can also begin to talk – to identify shared needs and shared values, and to re-imagine a shared vision of the future that we can respect and believe in.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about 8 September:  “A Confluence of Crises”

Finding Our Balance in the Storm

We live in a world of unprecedented complexity.  Add to this a sense of moral responsibility, and life can be imposing!  The conditions we will face in a serious social and economic crisis will create unexpected challenges.  It will be easy to stumble and fall

So, let’s think about how we can respond to extreme conditions with courage and fortitude.  How can we meet adversity in a way that can actually serve as a springboard for constructive action and community-building?

All of us sometimes feel inadequate.  Courage fails us.  It can be difficult to find our footing and focus our energy productively, especially when we are confused or surprised.  And, it can sometimes feel impossible to be supportive of others, many of whom we seem to have little in common with.

Preparing ourselves will be important as we navigate through one of history’s great turning points.  Our ability to function responsibly under difficult circumstances will be challenged again and again.

I believe we have entered a period of upheaval that will be unparalleled in character and global in its dimensions.  I will explain in my forthcoming book why we can expect to experience “a confluence of crises” in the coming years, an extraordinary convergence of inevitable and seemingly unrelated crises.

It is imperative that we meet our tests with dignity, and above all not to give in to fear.  Democracy is by nature unpredictable, and it will be severely tested in the coming years.  Our future will depend on steadfast patience and forbearance if we are to preserve the open discourse and cooperation that liberty requires.

The American Republic is and always was founded on core human values and a positive, constructive attitude.  We cannot stand by and watch our future descend into chaos.

Those who are alive today have been chosen by history to bring America through this critical passage in time.  Preserving the essential qualities of the American Idea will be our great responsibility as we transit the upheavals of a great storm.

We must keep our balance, keep our hearts and minds focused on our ultimate purpose and not allow ourselves to be dragged down by rancor and bitterness.

We will prevail if the means we employ are harmonious with the ends that we seek.

I offer you symbolic imagery below for our place in history – a metaphor for freedom’s truth.  What follows are the final lines of a eulogy I delivered for my father at his memorial service, and a testimony to what I learned from him.  Please think about it:

“He gave me one truly great thing above all else…. And, this he did by teaching me the ways of sailing boats.  He taught me to fly on the wind.  He taught me to sail, to ride high on the blustery gale!

“Without fear we ventured out on the running tide, suspended between liquid and ether, to know the snap of the rigging, the sting of salt spray, and the unyielding rush of a steady keel straining against the wild.  Together we embraced the untamed and raced across the sky.  He was my Dad.”

Throughout life we are subject to the vagaries of a capricious human world, just as we can be subject to the vicissitudes of the wind and sea.  Yet, core principles and steadfast standards remain firmly in place in both worlds if we have the eyes to see.

Understanding the requirements of this truth, we can then spread our wings and learn to fly.

As with a sailing vessel at sea, our identity as human beings can only be realized in action.  It is through action alone that we free ourselves to discover the world we are given, learning as the sailor learns – to engage a fluid and often unpredictable reality with wisdom and flexibility.

Failing this, we will beat ourselves against an implacable and merciless resistance.  An unwillingness to learn will expose us to the storms of life in a rudderless ship and with our rigging in disarray.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about August 25.

A note to new readers:  Blog entries adapted from the forthcoming book are posted on most Fridays here and on the Facebook page.  A project description, an introduction to the book (in draft), and several chapter drafts are available on this page.  Reader engagement on the FB page is substantial.  To receive alerts by email you may click “Follow”.

The Challenge of Inner Freedom

At a time of deepening social disorder and economic disarray, I am concerned about the potential for overreaction – by the power elite, by police agencies and by citizens.  We are experiencing circumstances in which terrible things can happen.

I will share a story with you that illuminates our capacity as human beings to assert our dignity and inner freedom even amid the most terrible circumstances.

Responding to injustices and irrational behavior is difficult.  And yet, facing the world rationally and responsibly can be a personal statement of transcendent freedom.

This is possible regardless of the conditions around us, however difficult they may be.

To be free we must seek to be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves, and then to actualize our identity with dignity and perseverance.

We may not like the reality in which we find ourselves.  Indeed, it could become nightmarish.  But, possessing free will necessitates a commitment to be free in oneself and to engage proactively with the circumstances we face.

If there is a primary requirement for attaining the integrity of inner freedom, it is the personal determination to do so with moral responsibility and ethical discipline.

In my view, this choice has never been described more eloquently than by Viktor Frankl in the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, his testimony of four terrible years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.

Because his response to those circumstances is so revealing, I will devote most of this post to his words:

“I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings.  (In this case the surroundings being the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain set pattern.)  But, what about human liberty?

“Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? …Do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?  Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

“We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle.

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.  There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“And there were always choices to make.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom….

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

“Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

As we face our own personal tests, which we hope will not be so daunting as Dr. Frankl’s, how can we find this strength within ourselves?

Here is a freedom reached through personal empowerment, compassion and responsibility, as we respond to the turmoil of a transformative age.

No one can do this for us.  As we turn our attention to the distress and confusion of those around us, we are preparing for both the coming hardship and the new day beyond.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 16.

First Steps to Self-Reliance

The struggle for freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty set citizens against autocratic or totalitarian authority.  Resistance to unrestrained power and the self-serving motivations of governments is a natural response of the human spirit.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should function in the interests of their citizens, and to believe that political leadership should only be elected on a short-term basis.

This raises an interesting question for those of us living in a democratic republic.

If we require that elected officials should identify directly with the people who elected them, it follows that such a nation should not need to be protected from itself.  A democracy would not exercise tyranny over itself, right?

As Americans well know, however, the notion that citizens have no reason to limit their power over themselves only seems reasonable to those who have no experience with popular government.

Fortunately the Founders recognized the danger and designed a decision-making structure that limits the ability of one faction to oppress another.  Neither a large majority nor a powerful minority can form an oppressive regime like those we see elsewhere in the world.

Even so, the Constitution is only a document and a legal structure.  It cannot provide effective governance without the understanding, civility and cooperation of an educated electorate.

After two hundred years of experience we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

“The will of the people” often turns out to be the will of the most dominant portion of the citizenry, usually the majority, but quite possibly those with overbearing economic and financial firepower.

The Founders took pains to control potential abuses of power.  As I have written in a chapter entitled “Freedom and Order”, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized the importance of limiting such dangers in an uncertain future.

Liberty has come to mean the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others.

This is an attractive ideal, but is not so simple in practice.  It was controversial in 1787 and it is controversial now.

Finding ourselves facing the tensions and complexities of the present turning point, I believe we would do well to step back and reassess the principles with which we can best regain our poise and sense of self as a nation.

Throughout our history the world has recognized a generosity of spirit that is fundamental to the American character.  This is an attitude – a way of thinking and being – and it is important.

To actualize this spirit will require both courage and patience.  The path to self-reliance and personal empowerment begins with problem-solving and cooperation with our neighbors.  And, this will be hard work.

When we tackle our local needs and challenges together we will learn by doing.

Let’s start by doing first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to get past misperceptions, and then to rise above our differences to resolve problems and address local needs.

2) To identify the diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among our neighbors – to do what needs to be done.  Survival might depend on it.

3) To listen to one another; determine and clarify our share values, and explore the extent to which we can pursue constructive action.  Confronting basic needs together, shoulder-to-shoulder, will prepare the foundations for trust and dependability.

We should not wait.  All these steps will quickly become critical when the going gets tough.  And, the effort to learn the skills of living together will give us a more realistic and coherent vision for the future.

It is within our own souls that we will first build the confidence to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we reach out with a generous attitude to friend and stranger alike.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about May 5:  The resilience of inner freedom.

Illusion Over Liberty?

Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable.  Some truths are not pretty.  But, revitalizing our core values and the restoration of a once vibrant civic spirit will require that we recognize what has been lost and why.

The current difficulties have developed over a long period of time.  The gradual loss of a spirited civic life has left most Americans without a shared sense of purpose or the interwoven fabric of community relationships.

Americans have become obsessed with immediacy.  We want what we want and we want it now.  We seek to be entertained with melodrama and spectacle, or violence and degraded behavior.

We find ourselves dominated by materialism and immersed in a homogenized culture with little conscious identity.

Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on material appearances.  Even the once humiliating liabilities personal debt seems to be of no concern.  We live on false appearances bought with future income.

Strange as it may seem, we have essentially abandoned the future. Where is there a purposeful commitment to neighborhood, to responsibility for local needs?

The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic represented by this posture have influenced almost every aspect of our national life.  An undisciplined attitude has led us to the brink of financial disaster, and our insistence on freedom from institutional and cultural restraints is fraught with contradictions.

For example, our respect for the individual requires that we honor the independent integrity and privacy of each individual, and yet we have readily abandoned this principle out of fear for our own safety.

Similarly, we fail to see that privacy and integrity are sacrificed when we welcome obscenity and titillation into our lives on television, in film and web-based media.

Personal integrity is lost to gossip, backbiting, and fascination with “the raw stuff of life,” in the words of the conservative American philosopher Richard Weaver:

The extremes of passion and suffering are served up to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home.  The area of privacy has been abandoned because the definition of person has been lost; there is no longer a standard by which to judge what belongs to the individual man.  Behind the offense lies the repudiation of sentiment in favor of immediacy.

Richard Weaver wrote these words in the late 1940s, before television existed.  And he was not the first to make such an observation.  A quarter of a century earlier the renown Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw commented that an American has no sense of privacy.  He does not know what it means.  There is no such thing in the country.”

Weaver warned Americans of a self-destructive streak that would ultimately lead to crisis.

He pointed out our fascination with specialization, with the parts of things at the expense of understanding and respecting the whole.  He argued that an obsession with fragmentary parts without regard for their function necessarily leads to instability.

Such instability is insidious, penetrating all relationships and institutions.  In Weaver’s words, “It is not to be anticipated that rational self-control will flourish in the presence of fixation upon parts.”

Until we understand how things function as a whole we will have no capacity for good judgment and no control over outcomes.

This is not the fault of government – except to the extent that government, managed by people like ourselves, has joined wholeheartedly in the party.  In a democracy it is tragically easy for government policy to degenerate until it serves the worst inclinations of a self-interested electorate.

Consequently we have descended into the financial profligacy of recent decades and are now the most indebted nation in history by a wide margin.

Ours has been a twisted path with a clearly visible end.  Yet, the inevitable outcome remains ignored.

If we are to recover our balance, it is essential that we recognize the attitudes and thoughtlessness that got us here.  Will we continue to choose illusion over liberty?  Would we rather be ruined than to think?

It will never be too late to turn the corner – to clear our minds, to straighten up and step forward with purpose.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 7: Responsibility with dignity, or apathy and paralysis?

A note to new readers: A project description, an introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts are available on this page.

Civil Society and American History

We find ourselves now at a turning point, confronted by the consequences of the past and the anger and confusion of the present.  Yet, this is an opportunity – a time that calls for clarity of purpose, and for coming to terms with the history that brought us here.

It is not political change that I speak of, but a far more profound transition.  We are confronted with questions of principle, of values, of the meaning of moral responsibility.

Such concerns often come into sharper focus amidst disruption and conflict.

Answers do not come easily, but history leaves silent lessons etched in our national experience.

In my view, we have lost a sense of purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.  This has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.

We have indulged ourselves increasingly over time in our attraction to meaningless spectacle and thoughtless voyeurism – a wasteland of sex, violence, greed and materialism.

In his recent book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson provides a persuasive view of what has come to pass in the United States.  He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and loss of social stability have had devastating consequences.

In my own words these are: 1) the loss of personal and social responsibility, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.

Dr. Ferguson reminds us of past strengths, and in particular the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America.

“I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted?  I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.”

He goes on to cite Alexis de Tocqueville from his famous commentary, Democracy in America, published in 1840:

“America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.

“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.

“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it….

“In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion.  There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

Dr. Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy.  But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him.”

Consider Tocqueville’s description:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.  Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of great example, they associate.”

What happened?  Once upon a time Americans succeeded in overcoming the constraints to freedom through their own initiative and a sense of community.

Today inaction has replaced action.  A once vibrant culture of engagement has been replaced by a self-centered attitude and the isolating influences of technology, mass media, and corporate society.

Will we recreate what we once did so well?  Shall we rebuild the American spirit and character to meet the challenges ahead?

Tom

A Note to Readers: A project description and a draft introduction to the book can be found on this page.  Please look for the next post on or about March 10.