What Is Truth?

Hello my friends, I have some questions for you.  I want to ask what you think about truth and truthfulness.  What is truth?  All of us have our own truths.  We know what we are sure of, and what we are not.  Most of us know why we believe what we believe, but might not be so sure of its source and pedigree.

How do we judge the foundations for our beliefs—the knowledge and reasoning that supports certainty?  Everyone thinks logically.  Everyone thinks what they believe is reasonable and true. 

So, can we see that our various (personal) truths are probably not all the same?

What does this tell us about the reality of truth?  Does it mean there cannot possibly be one single true reality? 

Tell me: What would it be like to live in a world as fragmented as our differing ideas about it are?

I suggest we think for a moment about how the reality we live in actually functions.  How, for example, does the human body work so well despite its astonishing complexity?  What allows all our interrelated parts to work together in unity?

How does the physical world provide precisely what we need to live, breathe and be active?  Why does everything—air, water, light, gravity—all fit together so perfectly?

These are among the interrelated aspects of a reality that make life possible.  They are truths we interact with daily and cannot live without.

They are interrelated functions of a single coherent whole—an indivisible and inviolable truth that tolerates no compromise with opinion.

Why do we have such difficulty accepting the logic of coherent wholeness—the single all-embracing unity that presents itself in the life we are given on this planet?

Well, it seems to me there is one very big difference between human beings and the natural order in which we live:  We possess free-will. The ability to make choices allows us to actualize our thinking, to create, to be constructive and to cooperate.  No other creature can do these things.

We have the conscious ability to engage with one another and with the universe.

However, this freedom also allows us the choose selfishness, to be hurtful and destructive.  And to be mistaken.  Anything we chose to do we could just as well choose not to do.

So, here’s another question:  Why would anyone graced with the miracle of life turn away from the honor of contributing to the safety and well-being of family, community, or nation?

Is this confusion?  Stubborness?  Short-sightedness?

And so I ask: What are our choices when we disagree?  Are anger and hostility our only options?  What courses of action can lead to acceptable solutions?

To phrase the question another way: How can we respond to conflict in a way that is constructive, that listens—that avoids subverting or destroying our very own hopes and wishes?

If we believe in freedom we will need to accept diversity and differences.  This is reality.  And to preserve a free society we need to understand our differences and negotiate our way forward.

As you can see, cooperation is not about sameness.  Constructive action is about rising above our differences to build dependable, trustworthy relationships.

Our values and principles are only effective in this way, and a civilized future depends on it.

We all know this is not easy.  But the rewards are great and the alternative is terrible.

What will it take?

In my view, it will be necessary to align ourselves with fundamental order:  Not the order devised by free-will and the human imagination, but the pre-existing order we are born into on this planet.

You might not be religiously inclined.  Some of you might not even respect the concept of virtue.  But human societies have recognized the necessity for the virtues for thousands of years.

Truthfulness, honesty, trustworthiness, patience, kindness, self-restraint…. Why are these so important?

They are important because they allow us to align ourselves with the pre-existing order—to belong in this world the way we are supposed to be, and to live safe, happy, productive lives.

And the most important is truthfulness.  Because everything else depends upon it.

Everything.

Tom.

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

A note to new readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  To receive emailed alerts, click the Follow button.

The Freedom Within

We are human.  We have been given free-will, the ability to make choices and to act with reasoned judgment.  While our freedom will always be limited by circumstances, our choices are what define our character and identity.  Without freedom of choice there can be no morality.  And the choices we make, whether thoughtful or thoughtless, determine our behavior and demonstrate our integrity.

Self-confidence in our personal integrity is of paramount importance for everyone, and this can be disturbed by life’s many challenges. It is often impossible to avoid the tests life throws at us, but it can be helpful to recognize the potentially positive way such disruptions can lead to personal maturity.

Responding constructively to a crisis can be very difficult.  Crises challenge our personal sense of integrity.  We all want to have confidence in our own integrity.  But what is the basis for personal integrity?

Upon what foundation do we ground our sense of integrity?

I suggest that ones’ feelings of integrity rest upon our understanding of the underlying reality of things, whether or not our perceptions are accurate.

Self-confidence depends on our beliefs about the way things are supposed to be.  When we feel aligned with reality as we understand it—with truth as we know it—we experience a sense of moral soundness.

But this begs a question:  As individual persons whose perceptions of reality differ from one another—sometimes substantially—how can we be sure of moral integrity?

Should we align our thinking with that of other people?  Can we rely on someone else’s assertions about truth?  Or should we investigate truth ourselves—independently?

Do we have the maturity to see with our own eyes and think with our own minds? I hope we will recognize the importance of an independent attitude, as we attempt to keep our balance amidst the uncertainties and challenges of a disrupted world.

We are members of family and community.  As caring people, our choices are influenced by a sense of responsibility to and for others. 

Surely we know that integrity—and freedom—are impossible without responsibility.  We cannot walk away from a crisis or avoid the necessities of material circumstances.

Our personal lives are embedded in a social context.  And we are all suffering from a damaged social order.  So, my question to you concerns our ability to see where things are headed.

Do we recognize that the “American idea”, and the fragile order that generations of Americans have toiled to build, will be impossible to reconstruct if it is torn down?

Constructive change depends on an orderly process:  Respectful dialogue and consultation will allow the investigation of creative ideas and genuine concerns. 

America depends now on cool heads and a concern for authentic liberty.  These are the foundations of integrity. 

With steadfast patience and determination, a damaged civilization can be renegotiated, reconstructed, healed.  But a civilization reduced to disintegration and chaos will not recover.

Those who think they can gain their ends by means of violence have a hard lesson awaiting them.

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

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

Strength of character is not found by going with the crowd.  It is only in meeting tests and difficulties that identity comes into focus.

Freedom depends upon our ability to think clearly and to recognize the true basis for moral integrity.  Especially when the going gets tough.

To be both free and responsible we must be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves.  Only then can we actualize our integrity as compassionate citizens in the real world.

Tom

You may look for the next post on or about March 31. 

Safety, Self-reliance, Responsibility

There are reasons why safety and self-reliance are interdependent.  And both depend on trustworthy neighbors.  Local communities are where we have the most control and the most to lose.  The neighborhood we live in, whatever it may look like, is where social problems become personal problems, where needs must be met, and where safety is essential.

When the going gets tough, our neighbors will matter to us.  Many Americans are ignoring this reality of civilized life, and they do so at their peril. Today as the world unravels around us, we are confronted with necessity.

No longer can we depend on emergency services or well-stocked stores.  No longer can we wait for someone else to do what needs to be done.

Self-reliance is a personal attitude and commitment.  But it also depends on community.  We need each other. Each of us is called to step forward, to build dependable relationships, to patiently encourage one another in constructive action.

Making things happen will mean listening to our neighbors and learning to cooperate.  This is never easy to do and we are not used to it.  We face a steep learning curve. But we can do it!

Necessity can only be met with initiative and steadfast patience.  With a positive attitude and a readiness to persevere despite the bumps and bruises, we will prevail.

Safety comes with unity of purpose.  It emerges gradually in working relationships that cultivate trust and meet common needs.  Just as we learn by doing, so also do we earn trust—reaching out across differences of tradition, politics, and experience.

My forthcoming book will provide practical guidance to meet these challenges.  This will include the means for creative decision-making in small groups.  Aggregating diverse perspectives, interests and skills will maximize both safety and productivity.

Effective decision-making takes advantage of the knowledge and thinking of a diversity of perspectives and inputs.

If we listen to one another with inquisitive interest, drawing out every possible nuance, decisions will often produce more than anyone expected.

As I have often said, there will be no need to alter our values or views.  Agreement will only be necessary concerning a common purpose or the problem at hand.  In the process, however, we will come to know and better understand one another.

Dependable alliances and respectful collaboration can emerge where we least expect them.

Leadership will be needed of a certain kind, and this involves each of us.  Responsibility for personal initiative falls to every person.  It will be deeds and not words, giving and not taking, that create safety and move us forward.

The most effective leaders will be those who serve with quiet restraint and minimal drama.  At the end of the day, the best leader might not even be noticed—because the community will know that “we did this ourselves”.

Citizens who have experienced trust, who understand moral responsibility and constructive action—and who recognize the very high stakes involved—will build these foundations. 

What is essential is that Americans stand together selflessly, making firm our commitment to such values as will secure the future, and contribute to a free and just nation.

We must refocus our vision with such strength of purpose that partisan politics is powerless to subvert or degrade our intentions or integrity.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about January 31.

A note to readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  Please take note of Chapter One: American Crucible.

Confronting Change: Security & Well-being

Change has been accelerating for much of our lives, but it is especially so now.  These are not normal times.  The challenges are unsettling, especially when the outcome is uncertain.  It is hard to think clearly when life is in turmoil, and easy to fear for the worst.

We are all human.  We need to feel secure in our lives, and security needs stability.  But is all change bad?  Challenges bring personal growth, greater maturity, and sometimes wisdom.

Can there be a positive dimension to hardship and struggle that make us see with new eyes and reexamine our values and priorities?

Values are tested when we are confronted with change.  This can strengthen our self-confidence.  Clarity about values brings clearness to our lives.

Plural and conflicting values are inevitable in this world.  Human beings have never agreed on values, and even personal values occasionally come into conflict with each other.

But we do not usually think about this.  While it is natural for values to be influenced by events, it is when we hit a real bump in the road that we start paying attention.

Unexpected bumps can be uncomfortable.  But unexpected people can be kind of nice.  Especially if we can get to know them.  And especially if we avoid trying to force them into our own boxes!

Diversity is a source of security.  It contributes constructive ideas, practical skills and creative thinking.  It also exposes us to new ideas and perspectives.

Living in a pluralistic society exposes us to a rich abundance of the initiative and energy conducive to prosperity.  And with the benefits of diversity, we gain the experience of others and inspiration for ourselves.

The American character has been formed by the gifts and rewards of diversity.  Our story has been distinguished by curiosity, loyalty, and hopefulness over the course of more than two centuries.

No one expected Americans to be perfect, but the Founders gave us simplicity in the United States Constitution, a form of governance that assumes the capacity for virtue.

Two concerns that I think pivotal in any consideration of our national identity include an understanding of this expectation of virtue, and, secondly, our mutual respect as citizens who understand the value of diversity.

Personal independence and acceptance of individual differences go hand-in-hand.  In the end, one cannot survive without the other.

Again, I ask the question: Who are we, as Americans?  Who do we want to be, really?

The degradation we are experiencing today is real.  Americans have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent decades. 

The collapse of social order has complicated origins.  A lack of perceptiveness and foresight among both political leadership and financial professionals has undermined trust and social stability on a broad scale.

Institutions we have depended on are facing moral and financial bankruptcy, try as they might to cover it up.  Systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

However, we are all responsible—because we are all capable of responding constructively.

We are not prisoners of the past nor slaves to the present.  We are perfectly capable of standing on our own feet and accepting one another as fellow-citizens, even with our faults and blemishes.

Yes, it is true that we are confronted with the consequences of the past.  We have lost our sense of direction and ultimate purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.

What is to be done?  OK, listen carefully!

Truth is not invented by tearing people down.  The future cannot be built on blame.  It is clear we must overcome the alienation that divides us.

Whatever our disputes and misunderstandings, our fears and uncertainties, the survival and well-being of our families and our neighbors depends on our readiness to work together in response to practical necessity. 

We cannot afford to allow our differences to disrupt our ability to make our communities safe and our necessities secure.  We are all Americans.  We have differences, but divisiveness alone will bring our downfall.

If we wish to meet needs and resolve problems, we will have to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences—to face the complex dangers now imposing on our future.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about January 17.

A note to regular readers:  In the coming weeks we will explore views of our national past through the eyes of economic historian Niall Ferguson, social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, and conservative commentator Richard Weaver. 

American Identity, Plural Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is to be done?

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

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

Community is the seat of civilization.

Americans will need to relearn how to do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

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

To Recover a Civilized Order

The vibrant community-based society of pre-revolutionary America continued to flourish following independence.  With self-generated order came a sense of identity and belonging.  But, a hundred years later the loss of community and degradation of society were becoming apparent.

This decline unfolded with the gradual disappearance of cultural organizations, interest associations, churches, and craft guilds.  Without the mediating influence of extended families and civic associations, little remained to support social identity and stability for individual or society.

In the absence of a stable foundation in local communities, the commitment to moral responsibility loosened.

Eventually Americans sought community wherever they could find it—within the protection of large labor unions, in the less personal corporate world, and in the functions of a growing central government.

The rise of individualism in European culture since the middle-ages had accompanied a gradual diminishment of the civil society that gives life to communities. In America this trend was halted briefly by a surge of community-based activism.  But, the blossoming of independent local and regional energy was lost in the faceless momentum of industrial society.

The results became clear following the First World War.  Measures intended to ensure uncompromising support for the war effort gave President Woodrow Wilson virtually total power.  Wilson intended a quick return to normal three years later, but the damage was done.

The widespread presence of government agents tasked with rooting out dissent led to pervasive distrust.  Social cohesion was severely weakened throughout the country.  The perceptions of the American people and the place of the federal government in the American mind were permanently altered.

What is to be learned?

Active involvement in community life does not limit individual freedom or self-fulfillment.  On the contrary, local communities are the foundation of traditional conservatism. If we are to recover a civilized order, an active community-based civil society needs to be cultivated.  Here it is that young people learn values and gain a sense of identity.

The spontaneous civic life that characterized early America degenerated over time into the isolation and materialism of suburbia, scattered families, and uninspiring employment. 

Americans have had a reputation the world over as generous, kind, big-hearted people–despite hardships and controversies.  Yet, the truth has been inconsistent. An uneven trend toward inclusiveness since the Civil War stands in contrast to an undercurrent of disharmony and an attitude that defies accountability.

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

Clearly, the humanity that embraces mutual respect and moral responsibility will remain ever vulnerable to self-centered interests. Failures of foresight and responsibility are visible across every social class, including the very wealthy.

Children are growing up without effective parenting or civilized values.  Every consecutive generation reaches maturity with less of the preparation needed to sustain a stable society. And, it does not end there.  Institutions we have depended upon are facing every form of bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

How is it that we have lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world? The answer is not simple, but it might be more personal than we realize.

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry – not gentility, but virtue. `No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure,’ James Madison famously observed at the Virginia ratifying convention. `To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

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

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

Tom

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

Personal Integrity, Freedom of Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

A Stormy American Heritage

What makes the United States special?  Americans have always been a contentious lot.  Many of the disagreements and differences we know today have been with us from the beginning. How does our history influence our understanding of ourselves and our views? 

Can we look beyond our disputes to see the extraordinary place of America in human history?

During the formative years of this nation something remarkable was taking place in the countries Americans were coming from.  Radically new ideas were breaking free from authoritarian institutions and traditional attitudes in Europe.

Thinking people were becoming convinced that humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, would be capable of securing universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.

And so, a rebellious spirit and immense creative energy came to America with a rising flood of immigration.  The idea of a promising future was powerful.

For the thousands of immigrants disembarking in the New World, however, a knowledge of political philosophy was not required.  Everyone knew what America represented, and the promise, however primal and unformed it might be, came to root itself deeply in the American identity.

Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American spirit, and Americans were energized by their freedom from the fetters of an autocratic culture and restrictive social norms.

There were abundant crises and controversies, of course, to arouse and vitalize the new nation as it struggled to find its feet.  We did not agree on much.

The country was saddled with the unfinished business of its European past: the scar of slavery, the tensions between wealthy and working classes, and the prejudices of religion, race, and nationality.

Yet, a potent hopefulness prevailed as wave after wave of European arrivals powered the growth of a seemingly insatiable industrial economy.  Despite apparent contradictions, the new vision of the future continued to inspire confidence on both sides of the Atlantic through most of the nineteenth century.

While the continuing brutality experienced by Black and Native American peoples was ignored by most Americans of European descent, the horrific violence of the Civil War shocked the nation. 

And then came the twentieth century.

Professor Michael Allen Gillespie at Duke University describes what happened next:

“The view of history as progress was severely shaken by the cataclysmic events of the first half of the twentieth century, the World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the Holocaust.  What had gone wrong? 

“Modernity, which had seemed on the verge of providing universal security, liberating human beings from all forms of oppression, and producing an unprecedented human thriving, had in fact ended in a barbarism almost unknown in previous human experience. 

“The tools that had been universally regarded as the source of human flourishing had been the source of unparalleled human destruction.  And finally, the politics of human liberation had proved to be the means to human enslavement and degradation.

“The horror evoked by these cataclysmic events was so overwhelming that it called into question not merely the idea of progress and enlightenment but also the idea of modernity and the conception of Western civilization itself.”

We have admired the generation of Americans who survived the Great Depression and fought in World War II.  We like to call them “The Greatest Generation.”  They did not forget.

They remained proud and frugal for the rest of their lives, though many of their children failed to understand.  Most are gone now.  How many of us today know what they knew–we who drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt?

Both the fear of debt and the destruction of total war have been repressed and lost to memory.

The long history of abuses suffered by immigrants and people of color is often forgotten as well.  And past promises of equality and freedom are remembered through a haze of inconsistency and uncertainty.

The material limitations caused by growing complexity and a multitude of crises have started to close in on our lives. 

An American future will be dark and unforgiving without moral responsibility and authentic community.  Such are the means for both survival and prosperity.

It is said that history does not repeat—but often rhymes.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about May 24.

Note to new readers: A project description and introduction to the coming book, along with several sample chapters, are linked at the top of the homepage.

American Challenges, Personal Choices

We have choices to make.  They might differ from the choices we are used to thinking about, but we are not living in normal times.  The challenges confronting us call for courage and clear thinking.  Social and economic instability raises concerns for safety.  And, our local communities are where this matters most.

Shall we build trust and dependability in our relationships with neighbors—or just pretend that every day will be like the last?

When the world is breaking down and hardship grows, we can always find common cause with neighbors.  But we can’t wait until we are already in trouble.

We need people in our lives who have the practical knowledge and skills to help resolve local problems—whatever their politics or religion or the color of their skin.

Interpersonal relationships take time and commitment.  They can only happen when we make them happen, and the first step is always ours to take.  The road to security begins with civility and is paved with trustworthiness.

Yes, we have differences.  Conflict is natural in relationships, yet differences can only be understood and negotiated in the immediacy and authenticity of working relationships.

Making this fractious process succeed in today’s America will depend on whether we think it’s worth the effort.  Creating community can be hard work, but it is the only defense against calamity.

Some may say it’s too hard or too late.

I say that Americans are courageous, resourceful, resilient.  The United States was conceived in controversy, and the vision of the Founders came with recognition that wisdom and strength are found in diversity. 

The Founders gave us a structure.  It is our responsibility to make it work.

We are confronted today by one of the great tests in American history, a challenge to an idealistic vision that has been slowly maturing for two hundred years.

Perhaps we have lost our way at times, stumbled, gotten sloppy.  But now it is time to pull together.  It is argued here that we must begin in our local communities—the historic home to democracy and the seat of civilization.

Stability cannot be imposed from above in a free society.  The kind of strength we seek depends on courage, trust and dependability.  It can only be made real in active working relationships.

This is the meaning of genuine functional community.

We are confronted now with an unprecedented turning point, a unique window of opportunity to affirm and uphold our exceptional identity as a nation. 

In navigating through an extraordinary confluence of crises we will be forced to renew our values, think on our feet, and make both pragmatic and ethical adjustments.  A creative process is underway that would not be possible otherwise.

We are a spirited and contentious people.  We have gradually, often painfully, built a vibrant and increasingly cohesive society.  And the work isn’t finished.

How has America produced such exceptional results?  Why is the world fascinated by us?  And why do we doubt ourselves?

To understand these questions is important.  The answers can be missed, but they are not hidden.

The concept of unity in diversity did not exist prior to the founding of the United States.  In our European past, political and religious divisiveness had been disastrous. 

The American Founders set humankind on a new course with a constitutional structure that supported diversity and facilitated collaborative problem-solving. 

If we love liberty and are committed to defending the freedom of opinion and belief, we will recognize that differences belong in a free society.  Diversity has been an essential factor in American strength.

Many of history’s greatest political and military disasters have been the consequences of “group-think” among like-minded people.

Diversity of experience, perspective, and practical skills is the foundation for strength in any society. 

The United States Constitution is a pioneering assertion of this principle.  History has confirmed its’ validity, however rocky the road.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about May 10.

Note to readers:  This essay is continued in Chapter 3 of the coming book, which can be found at the top of the homepage. Look for the link to “Finding Our Strength”. You might find these ideas unexpected and interesting.

The Ground of Freedom

We all have a yearning for freedom.  A part of us wants to do whatever we wish, and without interference.  The feeling is ever-present because, unlike any other creature, we possess free will.  The human experience of free will can make us aware of every imaginable possibility.  We can choose to be kind or mean, constructive or destructive, good or evil.

Whatever we choose to do, we could just as well choose not to do.  Without this choice, which is hard-wired in human nature, no morality could exist.

We are not animals.  There are things we care about—activities and relationships, intentions and goals that are important to each of us, and which call for thoughtful consideration.

If we wish to strengthen relationships or to succeed in any endeavor, we will act with “responsibility”.  Because our “ability to respond” will matter.

Without a sense of responsibility, we remain essentially isolated and alone—without the relational experience that develops our skills and measures personal integrity.

It is for this reason that thinking people have always recognized the interdependence of freedom and responsibility.

Genuine freedom is simply not possible in the absence of responsibility.

Understanding this allows us to live our lives intelligently.  And, it also informs us of the contours of justice that form the structure of human reality.

It is important to recognize that justice is relational.  Rational thinking alone cannot determine the foundations for justice.

For this reason, coming to an agreement on acceptable ethical guidelines needs to be a top priority for every functional community, large or small.

Clearly, we need to be talking.

Such agreements are only possible when pursued with a compassionate attitude and inquisitive interest, as we gradually learn of the life experience and personal struggles each individual labors with.

Personal views and opinions will always be present.  This is natural.  But, as long as we are listening and engaged, we can uphold personal freedom as a principle and demonstrate our humanity.

Without question, however, living and working together as neighbors depends on a shared understanding of justice and the negotiation of ethical standards.

Safety depends on this.  And it is a condition we can only arrive at by means of dialog and consultation.

Making morals and making community are, it has been said, a single dialectical process.  Living with others calls for commitment.

Let’s acknowledge that managing the balance between freedom and responsibility is easier for the individual to than for a group.

We need to learn how to do this if we are to bring a community to life and make it a safe and pleasant place to live.

It will require patience, learned skills and an extended learning curve.

If we wish to lead creative, productive lives, we will surely seek the freedom that is our birthright.  At the same time, we cannot avoid the purpose embedded in the finite limitations of existence.

We will need to find responsible means for putting this reality to work.

Finiteness is a structural characteristic of the universe.  All physical form is defined by limits, as it must be to serve its’ function.

This is the nature of physical reality and the functional ground of human freedom.  The social order of a civilized society serves a similar purpose.  These are givens.

It is the inherent dependability of this truth that allows us to launch ourselves into new frontiers of learning and experience, to control the direction of our efforts, to instigate, organize, create. 

Without structural limits, (which include our own moral values), as well as the civil constraints of an orderly society, we would have no capacity to exercise intelligence and direct our energy, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

For the individual, the ability to exercise discipline overcomes the limitations imposed by nature and society.

The discipline to leverage our inspiration against the constraints we encounter provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material challenges in our lives.

We cannot leap without a firm foundation beneath our feet; we cannot fly without wings.

Discipline and limitation are, indeed, the ground of freedom.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about April 26.

America: Cohesive Strength by Design

In 1787 the American Founders at the Constitutional Convention could see the future but dimly, yet they provided us with a structure for governance and a process for problem-solving that allowed for the contentious people they knew us to be.

We are fortunate to have received such an inheritance.  As we look forward from the current state of disorder, how can we learn from and leverage this heritage?

If we can see little that appears dependable, where can we look for a realistic foundation?

Let’s not forget that local communities are the one place where we have the freedom and opportunity to meet shared needs and resolve local problems.

This is not the final solution, but it is the beginning of liberty.  Authentic community is within our power to make real.

Community is the seat of civilization, and it is personal.  It is here that we engage with one another face-to-face, building trust, tending to needs, learning patience and responsibility.

These things don’t just happen by coincidence.  They are learned in the trials of hardship and necessity.  They are born of loyalty, determination and purpose.

Like a family, the commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people—practically, emotionally, spiritually.  Perhaps this is why so many avoid participating fully.

There are also other reasons for committing ourselves to local responsibility.  Beyond the boundaries of family, community is the place to address the immediate needs we all face, to engage in respectful decision-making, and to solve shared problems.

Americans have abdicated personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time, and we have done so at our peril.

It was not always this way.  Prior to the American Revolution, and for close to 100 years afterward, Americans gravitated easily toward local governance and an independent frame of mind.

We managed our affairs in cooperation with our neighbors.  We accepted regional autonomy as a natural condition.

Civil society flourished in the nineteenth century, when Americans created an immense variety of civic associations to address every conceivable social need and activity.  We did this on our own initiative, inspired by a sense of belonging and the spirit of the times.

The rebirth of community spirit is more important today than it has ever been.  And this is a practical matter.

It is only by engaging with our neighbors in all spheres of problem-solving that we learn the skills for living and working productively as neighbors and citizens.

Americans have done this before and we can do it again.

There are those who argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal we should aspire to.  And this is an attractive vision.  Yet, I think it is plain to see that a balance must be struck between a fully engaged civil society and a competent, trustworthy and limited central government.

OK, it is difficult indeed to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are responsible for protecting both our freedoms and our security.  But that is what we need. 

Without law and a just governing structure there can be neither freedom nor safety.  And, I believe that a valid vision of limited government can only come from genuinely functional communities and networks of communities.

Those who understand the necessity for trust and moral responsibility—and who recognize the very high stakes involved—will strengthen these foundations with their neighbors.

It is here that Americans have the potential to affirm trustworthiness and negotiate the future.  Practical necessity can only be met with personal initiative and respectful dialog.

Building unity within communities is hard work, a process that takes time and depends on everyone.

Cohesive strength requires that we reach across our differences to influence the hearts and minds of neighbors, to form friendships and to truly know one another.

Cohesive strength does not come from uniformity.  It is the context of differences that gives solid reinforced consistency to the proven capability of American strength.

This is the principle at the heart of the American heritage.

What is essential is that we refocus our vision in such positive terms as no divisiveness can subvert.

Tom

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

Sample drafts of chapters from the book manuscript are available at the top of the homepage.

Freedom and Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

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