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.

No Shortcuts to the Future

Change has been accelerating for years.  Americans are well aware of the steady debasement of civil order, if we have been alive long enough to see it.  Our economic lives have deteriorated for at least a generation—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.  Little is left of the middle class. Trouble began long before the pandemic.

Being human, it is tempting to look for blame.  But blame gets us nowhere in a crisis.  It is really not possible for any of us to fully understand or respond effectively to the magnitude of structural change confronting the world.

Are we strong enough to step back from the barrage of fragmented and incoherent headlines, media sound-bites and images, which bombard our minds? Is it possible to think without reacting?  How otherwise can we defend ourselves from manipulation in advertising and politics?

Our greatest challenge is to investigate truth for ourselves and not through the minds of others.

I suggest we each stop to check our motives regularly every day, and to think about what are we learning through all this—about life and about ourselves.

Change can sometimes help us to see with new eyes.  Perceptions, values, and sense of purpose all evolve throughout our lives—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.  But maturity only comes when we think for ourselves.

Some change is masked by chaos and not so easy to see.  Increasing complexity is an example: A threat today that is difficult to understand and quite capable of disrupting our lives suddenly and without notice.

I have raised concerns about complexity here in the past.

Complexity has increased rapidly with advancing technologies and an interconnected world.  A multiplicity of interdependent systems, subject to intense disconnected forces, leads inevitably to instability and unexpected crises.

And when our lives are disrupted, our values come under pressure.  Confused values undermine self-confidence and our sense of identity.

Having shared values with those around us always feels good, but, in fact, everyone is different.  Never in history have human beings agreed on values. Even our own personal values can sometimes conflict.  Have you noticed?

The presence of plural and conflicting values in this life tests character and challenges unsupported assumptions.  Which is why we need to stand on our own two feet.

But we also need dependable neighbors in a crisis!  Can we agree on just a few things?  How about respect for personal dignity?  Or the value of individual autonomy that refrains from imposing on others?

Do we recognize the virtues and values that undergird safety and stability in our communities?

Can we see that a safe and prosperous society, economically and otherwise, will depend on personal virtues: on truthfulness, for example, and responsibility?

Justice and morality are closely related, and we learn about them in the trenches.  Hardship generates new thinking, as I have said.  It is when we stop thinking that we resist awareness and miss opportunities.

Responding to a changing world begins within ourselves.  Who are we, really?  Who do we want to be?

Yes, we are human—we are not perfect.  But let’s get something straight:  There are no shortcuts to the future. Freedom depends on responsibility, and moral responsibility cannot be left half done.

America has always been a work in progress, but we are living today in a time of extremes. We are witnessing rapid ongoing deterioration of moral character, self-discipline, and social responsibility.

Mass murder, pornography, sexual violence: To name just a few among many.  All have proliferated at an appalling rate.  We see social degradation and abasement all around us.

Regaining strength in America is a personal matter.  It will require responsibility, courage, and steadfast patience.  To engage in constructive action with our neighbors—to seek safety and to meet common needs—will mean engaging with differences.  Americans value individuality, diversity, liberty.  Am I right?

The United States is, by definition, a pluralistic society.  This will always be a challenge and responsibility.

Before we can begin to secure an acceptable future, we will need first to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences.

Danger confronts us all, without exception.

Tom

You may look for the next post on or about July 26.

A note to readers:  An introduction to the coming book can be found linked at the top of the homepage, along with sample chapters exploring the history of ideas and conflicting values that have brought us to this place.

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.

Liberty and the Foundations of Order

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

The Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is anchored in a legislative order, the protections it provides, and the power to seek constructive change.

These are among the essential elements of a civil order that provides Americans with stability and a rational space to forge the future.

I have shared my observations with you concerning the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.

The Founders made conscious assumptions about the character of the American people.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

In past posts I have shared the words of several of the Founders, which are quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”.  I will repeat two of them here:

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

And, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry–not gentility, but virtue…. In their various ways the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

The Founders had good reason to think in this way.  A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation.

“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes.  But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.

“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”

Virtues are the substance of good character.  But they are not instilled in us by nature.

Character is not formed in a vacuum.  We learn what matters in life by engaging directly and meaningfully with family and community—people who need to depend on us.

Personal values can either mature or be degraded through interpersonal relationships.  It is here that we experience the necessity for trust—for truthfulness, dependability, responsibility.

Without such virtues, life quickly becomes intolerable, and security is beyond reach.

How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us?  Well, breaking down barriers will take time and patience, discipline and determination.

This begins with ourselves, and so also does our own self-respect.

We may not agree with the beliefs or behaviors of other people, but without truthfulness and a readiness to engage honestly and respectfully, we are lost.

Engaging with differences is not easy, especially in an age of extreme distrust.  We must counter destructiveness with integrity and moral responsibility, yet always with emotional restraint.

True liberty rests firmly on human dignity and respect for others.  Where these are not found, depravity flourishes and the mischief-maker is free to roam.

Tom

Note to readers: Please assist me with your comments; I value your feedback!  You may watch for the next post on or about February 2.

Integrity or Degradation: The Choice is Ours

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

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

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

Unfortunately, I do not believe we have a choice.

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

Why is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Henry was among several quoted by Charles Murray in his important book, “Coming Apart”:  “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry–not gentility, but virtue…. In their various ways the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

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

And, here we are today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this so important?

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

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

If We Are to Remain Free

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

It is important that we understand this because the Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is made real in a legislative order and in the protections it provides.

These are among the essential elements of a society that provides both stability and the creative space to forge a future.

I have been sharing my observations with you about the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.

The authors of the Constitution made deliberate assumptions about the character of the American people.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

In the previous post I shared views from several of the Founders quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”.  I will repeat two of them here:

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

And, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry–not gentility, but virtue…. In their various ways the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

How do we feel about this idea?  It’s a little scary, wouldn’t you say?

There were reasons why the Founders thought this way.  A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation. 

“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes. But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.

“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”

Virtues are the substance of good character.  But this is not instilled in us by nature.

Good character cannot be formed in a vacuum.  We learn what matters in life by engaging meaningfully with other people.  Personal character matures by means of relationship.

Regular readers will not be surprised when I suggest that virtues can only be lived and learned in community—where constructive relationships call for trust and dependability.

In genuine community we experience the necessity for trust every day—for truthfulness, trustworthiness, responsibility.

Without such virtues, life in human society is intolerable and security is out of reach.

Need I say more?  Just look around you.

How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us?  Well, breaking down barriers will take honest determination.

Living in community requires certain virtues.  Adjusting to such disciplined conditions will take time, but the necessity must be confronted openly.

Dialog is the essence of genuine relationship.  Developing character starts here.

Without give-and-take a relationship does not exist and problem-solving is impossible.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people.  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot offer guidance patiently and believe in the potential for change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Our differences support problem-solving.  Diversity brings experience and perspective, knowledge and skills.

We need these things.  They are the instruments of safety and order.

However, differences that come at us with ugliness are a threat to all these things.  Ugliness exhausts and debilitates.  Mean-spiritedness pushes people away and shuts the door to life.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about September 8.

Freedom, Responsibility, Integrity

I have suggested here that liberty is closely related to justice.  I believe true liberty can only be found when we align ourselves with justice.  We gradually come to recognize the outlines of justice as we mature into adulthood.  So it is that we learn the value of truthfulness, trust, and moral responsibility.  The implications of this are profound.  Let’s unpack it.

We will not agree on many things, but some principles overstep our differences.  Moral responsibility is one—and it requires that we think and act with respect for our fellow human beings.

A friend once pointed out that the meaning of “responsibility” is suggested in the compound word, “response-ability.”  Without this ability, there can be no justice and liberty has no purpose.

Viktor Frankl, a medical doctor who survived imprisonment in two Nazi death camps during World War 2, came through his ordeal with a firm belief that freedom can only be secured through responsibility.

Freedom,” he wrote, “is not the last word.  Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth.  Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness.  In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

Seeking freedom begins in the process of maturing: We let go of selfishness, bad habits and dependencies, and try to make a go at life with what resources we can gather or create.

This is meaningful and sufficient for a time.  However, we soon begin to realize that the society in which we live, and the material limitations in our lives, impose themselves on us in uncomfortable ways.

Do we then give in to rebellion?  Do we sink into feeling sorry for ourselves?  Or, do we choose dignity rather than doubt, assert control over our shortcomings, and engage constructively with what confronts us?

Many of us find it necessary to construct the lives we wish for from the wreckage of past mistakes, our own and those of others, and are grateful simply for the opportunity to do so.  Even cleaning up a mess can provide a certain satisfaction.

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

This requires initiative, a positive attitude and constructive action.

The meaning of responsibility can depend on our circumstances.  What I am suggesting here, however, is that a core responsibility underlies all others: This is the imperative to build and protect trust.

Why is this important?  Because ultimately all constructive relationships depend on trust. Social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust. Without the assurance of trust, liberty and justice will remain elusive, and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.

Trust is the substance of integrity.  It will be essential for building a future we can believe in.

When we are self-respecting persons, we seek to acquire a principled integrity that defines our character and our way of being.

Please keep in mind, however, that such a blessing can easily be squandered in a moment of carelessness.

So, there you have it: Integrity is the highest attainable value—a quality of moral soundness. Trustworthiness is the substance of that value; and, responsibility provides the constructive action with which we make it so.

Finally, justice is the beginning and the end, the structural matrix that holds it all together.

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

Tom

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

A project description and introduction to the coming book, along with completed drafts of several chapters, can be found at the top of the homepage.

The Ground of Freedom

The interdependence of freedom and responsibility is elemental.  Knowing this allows us to live our lives with integrity.  It informs us of the contours of justice.  And yet rational thinking alone cannot determine the foundations for justice.

So it is that agreement on a framework for a just and livable environment is the first order of business for every functional community, large or small.

Living and working together as neighbors depends on a shared understanding of justice—an understanding embodied in a consensual moral consciousness.

Secure communities depend 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 mutually dependent process.

We all have ideas about what is right and good, but where do our ideas come from?  Do we make them up from scratch?

The capacity of the mind to conceive and envision personal freedom hints that self-assurance should rightfully be ours.  Yet, a finite world imposes limits on our freedom even as society depends on moral responsibility.

We are aware of the ease with which we can slip into error, over-stepping the bounds of honesty and integrity in little everyday ways.

To protect ourselves from error, both great and small, we need to see with our own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and to think independently with our own minds.

Many are resistant to recognizing the boundaries between justice and injustice, goodness and evil.  But make no mistake: Every human being is endowed with this ability.

Whatever our religious faith or philosophical belief system, the independent investigation of truth is our first responsibility.

Each of us is vulnerable to the error of transgressing the boundaries of freedom and finiteness that safeguard equilibrium in the world.  We each tread a rocky path strewn with obstacles.

My greatest concern, which I hope you might share, is the powerful influence of strong-willed, overconfident individuals who often appear in the midst of crises, and who will want you to follow them.

We must resist the seductiveness of self-appointed “leaders”.  This is my warning to you.

Such people will surely appear, claiming to love liberty when in fact they are its greatest enemies.  Please be prepared to maintain your independence.

The human spirit knows no bounds.  Yet, the conflict between freedom and the boundaries of justice is as harsh as it is inevitable.  This is a fact of life that defines the human condition.

Given the extraordinary human capacity for perception and imagination, we often stretch the limits with painful consequences.

Worse, it can be easy to imagine ourselves possessed of unique wisdom or exceptional qualities.  The past has been punctuated with great delusions.

So it is that we must understand purpose in the finite limits of being, and find responsible means for putting it 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 in 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), we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

For the individual, the ability to exercise discipline defeats 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 difficulties 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 July 15.

Several additional chapters from the forthcoming book have been added (in draft) at the top of the homepage.

Values, Justice and Economics

The word “economy” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning “household management.” It is hardly surprising that so much of our lives – from the means to make a living to civil order and social stability – depends on a well-functioning economy.

Yet, who exactly is managing this “household”?

We need governance that is geared to serving the best interests of society.  And while our ‘best interests’ may be a matter of debate, we depend on those people in positions of responsibility for honesty and foresight.

The nature and functioning of a civilized society depend on trust.  And trust appears to be in short supply in the digital systems and human thinking that facilitate global finance today.

Americans cannot raise families or plan for the future without consistent and dependable conditions, whether physical, social, or economic.

Businesses cannot expand or take on risks without confidence in the consistency of law and government policies, and in the unhindered price-discovery mechanism of the marketplace.

In short, we need our economy to be managed in the interests of the American people as a whole, rather than for certain groups.

However, the difficulties we face involve more than a simple problem of personal and institutional trust.

Leadership needs to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that it is not possible to control everything in reality, even with the best of intentions.  Indeed, growing complexity leaves little possibility for constructive change without new thinking.

Economist John Taylor’s 2012 book, “First Principles”, argues persuasively that the arbitrary application of discretionary policies has led to inevitable economic imbalances and distortions that feed upon themselves.

However, it appears his recommendations will not protect us from the current anarchy of global finance or the massive distortions that now prevail.  It is difficult to see how the economy can escape the control of people who cannot admit their errors or bear to face the pain of changing course.

Short of another major financial crisis, I do not see this changing.

Central bankers will either abandon the illusion of control and the hubris of the past, or their assurance will be wrenched from their hands when reality reasserts itself.

Leaders of government will either awake to the truth or they will find themselves helpless before a calamity of unprecedented proportions.

The coming transition will be painful and frightening, because great destabilized forces must rebalance themselves.  The extraordinary excesses of recent decades will be wrung from a shuddering world.

An instability reaped by ego, greed, and massive indebtedness has infected both the mind and spirit of the nation.

What does this mean for ordinary Americans?

Americans do have recourse, but let’s be realistic: We will not be saved by self-styled leaders who think they know it all.  We’ve been there and done that.  Rather, we must rise above our differences as individuals, build local community, and commit ourselves to a principled integrity.

And, when the ground moves beneath our feet we must trust in the decision-making structure of the Constitution of the United States.

The national economy, when understood as “household management”, involves far more than budgeting and finances.  It requires leadership with a conscious attitude of responsibility, who care about the “household” and the people in it.

It calls for freedoms that are obstructed or denied to real people – citizens of limited means.

Some readers will be uncomfortable with the concept of “love” when applied to economics.  OK; so let’s call it respectful caring or compassionate understanding or common decency.

Whatever we call it, nothing else will guide us home.

The principles to provide the foundation for the future will be those that facilitate both respectfulness and problem-solving.  Genuine community can only be based on the values of true civilization: honesty, trustworthiness, ethical integrity and moral responsibility.

When we fully embrace these values, the economy will reconfigure itself according to just principles.  Only then will our lives find stability and renewal.

Healing will take time.  But rest assured: the economy will reboot.

Tom

Note to readers: I will be taking a brief break to travel in the coming weeks.  Please watch for the next post after February 7.  Drafts of two additional chapters of the coming book have been posted on this site.  Please see links at the top of the homepage.