Reaching for Resilience

The pursuit of freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty has set citizens against one another as well as against autocratic authority.  Reactions against insensitivity and unrestrained power in governance is a natural enough response.  Yet, we often find ourselves entangled with differing views about the meaning (and responsibilities) of liberty.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should be responsive to the needs and interests of the plurality their citizens. And this poses interesting questions for those living in a constitutional republic with a democratic spirit. 

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

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.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized this danger and designed a decision-making structure which 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.

While this provides a legal structure, however, a functional government is impossible in the absence of cooperation to meet common needs and interests.

When there is uncompromising denial of the validity of an opposing side, governance is essentially brought to a halt. After two hundred years of experience, we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

Throughout American history, liberty has generally implied the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others. The United States Constitution is exceptional in imposing almost no limitations on citizens—beyond responsibility and civility.

But, where does this leave us in the face of our present difficulties?  A multitude of converging crises has us all on edge.

The world has long admired the generosity of spirit in the American character.  This is an American attitude; a way of thinking and being.  Regaining this spirit will require courage and determination.  And, we can begin with our neighbors.

However—this will only be possible with a readiness to honor another American virtue: The respect for plurality embodied in the Constitution.

When we are ready to discover our shared values, and to assess our differences with accuracy, we can start with our neighbors.

What is it we want?  It is in local communities that safety, dependability, and problem-solving become essential realities. Only when we tackle local needs and challenges together, shoulder-to-shoulder, can we truly represent what we are made of.

We can start with first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to ensure we have accurate information about one another.  This will involve the effort to recognize both shared values and real differences. 

2) To identify and prioritize local needs and problems, and then to negotiate the means for undertaking collaborative action while accommodating personal differences.

3) To identify the knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among ourselves—to support the community and do what needs to be done.

If we are committed citizens and mature adults, there is no reason we cannot maintain an attitude of civility and respectfulness.  No one needs to alter their values or views.

Community problems can be multi-layered and complex.  But our purpose is simple: to investigate the extent to which we can pursue constructive action as neighbors.

Addressing basic needs shoulder-to-shoulder will strengthen a community with the foundations for trust and dependability. 

Safety and survival may well depend on this, and no one will do it for us.

The three steps outlined above will soon become critical as oncoming crises multiply and circumstances deteriorate.  And, engaging in working relationships can also open doors to the future and influence the emergence of a mutually acceptable vision.  

We all possess the capacity to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we meet friend and stranger alike with dignity, civility, and generosity of spirit.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about September 28.

Note to readers:  An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters 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.

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.