Turning Point for America

Whether our ancestors came to this continent by choice or in slavery, or were forcibly separated from their indigenous American roots, all of us are estranged from the lands and lives of our forbears.

For some the escape from oppression or deprivation has taken great determination and willpower.  With a strength rooted in the individualism of the survivor, Americans have reconstructed human society on the basis of association, reciprocity, and principle: freedom of thought, economic independence, and a new sense of belonging that transcended social and religious differences.

Despite the hardships, European settlers formed communities and built a vibrant civil society that flourished through the first half of the 19th century.

However, our inquisitive nature and the inclination to range far and wide across the North American continent soon took us away from physical roots and led to the society we know today – mobile, disconnected, alienated, and suspicious of differences.

Cut off from the cultural foundations that provided previous generations with the basis for social stability, personal identity, and moral integrity, our values have become less confident, our standards less clear.

First railways, and then a proliferation of highways, major industrial enterprises and shopping malls facilitated unrestrained pursuit of economic productivity and material gain. Cheap energy made many things possible.  Big always seemed better and was certainly more profitable.

Somehow we lost any sense of proportion, purpose, or belonging.  A society once anchored by small businesses and community cohesion soon fell apart, morphing into urban sprawl, broken families, and lost dreams.

What have we been thinking?  Did we ever really have a vision?

We have lost interest in community, except in isolated rural areas that have found themselves increasingly on the defensive, both socially and economically.

For new immigrants the trials have always been greatest.  And for people of color, especially blacks, numerous setbacks keep resurfacing.

Paradoxically, the resulting loss of social cohesiveness has led to diminishing independence and self-sufficiency for virtually everyone.

Many of us have a haunting awareness of the deterioration and decay of American society. Some have responded with inarticulate anger, with little understanding of the historical context or economic forces that are contributing to their unease.

Do we understand the forces of disruption that are confronting us?

Sensing the loss of vitality in an economic order that once provided us with the dignity of self-sufficiency, and watching the deterioration of the civil order we have depended on, we look for something or someone to blame.

In the past year this blog has reflected on a national character that has, historically, embodied conflicting values: generosity and self-indulgence, a welcoming inclusiveness and an unfriendly prejudice.  We now find ourselves at a turning point at which hard choices are becoming clear.

The positive ideals that have given us a feeling of dignity are partly veiled from memory, and the need to clarify our identity as a nation has become clear.

Never fully realized, the visionary foundations laid down in 1787 remain ideals.  The genius of our Constitution has allowed the nation to grow and mature.  Yet, we find ourselves in confusion today, without a vision, and without a sense of community we can trust or depend on.

As we find ourselves confronted with growing instability and uncertainty, I believe this is the only place that offers us effective control over our destiny – our own local communities.  It is here that the future will be determined.

Yet, we know very little about how to make community work.

We are presented with a formidable task.  Without trustworthy neighbors and coherent communities, how are we to engage constructively with America as a whole – a people uprooted and disorganized in the wasteland of a broken society?

How will we build dependable relationships, a stable civil order, and a safe future for our children and grandchildren?

I do not voice this question as an intellectual exercise, but rather as a personal challenge to my readers as thinking, caring, self-respecting individuals.

This is our turning point.  Do we have the will to rise above our differences to engage with our neighbors to meet local needs and resolve shared problems?

Do we have a choice?

I don’t think so.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about January 26.

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.

The Forward Edge of History

The vision of America that came to life with the birth of the Nation was unprecedented in history.  It is subverted today by a bitter divisiveness that disallows dialog and obstructs decision-making.

To regain the integrity of that vision – and to build a future we can all believe in, Americans must navigate carefully through currents of alienation, hostility, and misinformation.

Violence begets violence in a downward spiral, verbal or otherwise. Words can ignite fierce, uncontrollable fires.  And, irresponsible, dishonest or self-serving actions can do the same.

Destructiveness can take many forms.

When the banks nearly collapsed in 2008, the United States hovered on the edge of catastrophe.  Americans discovered that failures of responsibility, foresight, and common sense involved the very people and institutions we depend on.

We were stunned by the foolishness that came to light in places where we are most vulnerable.  It was a startling discovery: A cavalier disregard for the interests of both citizens and nation – by institutions we had previously regarded as models of dependability.

In retrospect, however, we can see that this crisis has long been coming, and that it reveals far more than foolishness.

For many years we have watched a broad social deterioration in America that comes with a self-centered lack of principles and the absence of genuine values.

Respected national leaders have stained themselves.  We have even seen immoral and deeply hurtful actions committed by religious leaders and clergy, the supposed exemplars of integrity.

Where will it stop?  In addition to the material damage done to our lives, the rampant failure of responsibility appearing at the core of our society is demoralizing.

There is nothing more destructive.  Indeed, it strikes at the foundations of civilization.

It is easy to get caught up in emotional feelings at a time like this.  We have healing work to do.  If we wish to reaffirm the ultimate purpose of this great nation, it will be necessary to modulate our speech and better manage our emotions.

Times of peril require that we communicate carefully and avoid contributing to inflamed passions, however offended we may be.  Hurled accusations and insults make it impossible for others to hear reason.

The trouble with blame is, first, that it tends to be indiscriminate. It blinds us to the complexity of circumstances, and to the plural identities of those who disagree with us, or who may have just made some bad mistakes.

We often fail to see that we share many similar values and commitments with those who anger us.

Secondly, blaming will blind us to looming perils that are the fault of no one.  A fierce storm has come upon us.  We need each other if we are to take responsibility for the needs of our local communities.

Make no mistake: A storm of this magnitude will alter everyone’s perspective.  It is essential that we transcend personal fear, resisting its attendant passions, and learn to work with those around us.  We will build from there.

Some of you have expressed serious doubts that this is possible.

I never said it would be easy; I said we have no choice.  If we are unable to confront crises shoulder-to-shoulder as loyal Americans, freedom will be lost in the chaos of the deepening storm.

This will require patience, cooperation, and learned skills.  We must try to see the end in the beginning – the vision of a civil society where respectfulness, fairness, and moral responsibility prevail and freedom of expression is nurtured and defended.

This vision and purpose might just be worth our learning to get along, even for the most doubtful among us.  Local communities are the one place where we can be assured of having the freedom and capacity to make this happen.

Steadfast determination and the legendary American generosity of spirit are among the virtues that will be called upon again and again in the coming days.

We will not escape this great turning point in human history.  It will inflict tests upon us whether or not we respond with dignity and compassion – whether or not we take our rightful place at the forward edge of history.

Tom

A note to readers:  The blog will take a break until after Christmas.  Please watch for the next post on or about December 29.

If you wish to know more about the project you can find a description, along with an introduction to the forthcoming book and several chapter drafts elsewhere on this page.

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”.

 

Food and Water: The Bottom Line

It is easy in a crisis to feel overwhelmed or angry.  Seeking assistance from neighbors might feel difficult or impossible.  Yet, it may be necessary to cooperate, to organize mutual assistance simply to meet essential needs.

The safety of our families, the security of our local communities, and even the future of the nation could depend on it.

Our disagreements pale in the face of an unprecedented convergence of multiple crises.  If we believe in the unique value of the United States of America as a model for the future of the humanity, we need to think about our priorities.

Some disagreements may need to be deferred to honor central and overriding agreement.

Americans are capable of recognizing shared goals and collaborating to meet shared needs – if this is recognized as a necessity.  Nothing needs to shake our determination to prevail.

The world is changing dramatically every day.  Tensions rise when the economy deteriorates or resources are scarce.  We live in a digitally interconnected world in which financial stress is never isolated and can suddenly spread and metastasize into instability.

But, we do not need to wait for a sudden crisis to know that something is happening.  It is no secret to anyone who watches supermarket prices.  The global population is growing exponentially.  We are gaining approximately 214,000 new mouths to feed every day.

Do we understand that the price of food is determined primarily by global commodity markets?

Natural resources are becoming extremely expensive to produce, whether through agriculture or to extract from the earth.  As falling water tables, changing weather patterns, and the loss of top soil bring pressure to bear on agriculture, the cost of food will continue to rise unevenly.

The natural aquifers that provide water for some of the most productive farming regions in the world, including the United States, are collapsing at an accelerating rate – as they are over-pumped and water is diverted to cities.

Available farmland is shrinking rapidly in the breadbasket areas of the United States, India, and China, which feed hundreds of millions of people.

Some scientists suggest that advancing technologies will increase crop yields.  But, there is evidence that biological “glass ceilings” may exist, above which photosynthesis will not allow increased productivity.

Given the rapid loss of farmland, we have little time to wait for research.

It has become apparent that a worldwide food crisis can only be avoided by producing record harvests every year – year after year.  We all know this is impossible. The weather has never allowed for that.

For Americans, the availability of food at any price could also be of concern.  A banking crisis or other major disruption of North American supply chains would empty the stores. American supermarkets only maintain three-day warehouse inventories.

Logic and wisdom should draw our attention to food security.  This is a necessity that requires self-sufficiency, and it would benefit immensely from cooperation with our neighbors.

We cannot wait to reach a state of desperation before we prepare.  We can all learn how to grow and preserve food. This requires that we arrange for access to appropriate land and find knowledgeable neighbors to work with.

Growing food can be a rewarding endeavor.  It can generate economic activity, and can lend itself readily to community cooperation. But, early planning and preparation are essential.

Safe drinking water is another matter.  The majority of municipal water systems in the United States are ancient and tottering.  Furthermore, polluted ground water can render local wells toxic.  This also demands knowledge, planning and preparation.

Having community-members with electrical, plumbing, farming, and other skills is important for all kinds of reasons.  This is why I continue to remind readers of the importance of finding a diversity of knowledge, experience, and skills for our local communities.

There are also skills we each need to learn – how to build trust, manage conflict, and engage in effective small group decision-making.

We are Americans.  We can do this.

When the going gets tough, differences in religion, politics, or skin color are not going to go away, but they need to take a back seat.

Tom

A note to regular readers: The drafts of several chapters posted on this page (see above) are currently being re-written and expanded.  I depend on your feedback.

Please watch for the next post on or about November 17.

Sorrow and suffering enough…

Trees 10

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow