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.

The Origins of Dislocation and Distress

The current hostile atmosphere in the United States might have caught some by surprise.  But we would do well to consider the origins of this distress.  Growing distrust and several decades of economic pain have been all too apparent for those with the eyes to see.

The pandemic has only deepened the alienation already felt by many Americans.

I invite you to join me in thinking about the steady social and economic deterioration that has brought us to this place.  Practical solutions depend on objective understanding.

The rapid development of science and an industrial society had promised Americans the benefits of prosperity and power—despite showing indifference to the consequences of degraded communities and compromised autonomy.

While little could shake public faith in modern scientific and industrial enterprise, the subversion of civil society and community coherence has been profound.

Constructive energy and a self-conscious sense of individuality came to America with European immigrants and gave impetus to accelerating development of industry and commerce. 

Almost everything about modern America came about by means of this fierce individualism, for better or worse.  And yet, ironically, the blind mechanistic character of industrial culture led directly to the demise of the same autonomous individuality that had originally brought it to life.

As early as 1941 the theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, warned of this unexpected challenge.  Our attention was elsewhere then, and the cruel truth is only now becoming clear:

“The social and economic destruction of individuality is a consequence of the mechanical and impersonal elaborations of a commercial culture which reach their culmination in the development of industrial civilization.  Modern industrialism pushes the logic of impersonal money and credit relationships to its final conclusion.

“The process of production and exchange, which remained embedded in the texture of personal relationships in a simpler economy, are gradually emancipated and established as a realm of automatic and rationalized relations in which the individual is subordinated to the process….

“Modern society is consequently involved in a process of friction and decay which threaten the whole world with disaster and which seem to develop a kind of inexorable logic of their own, defying all human efforts to arrest the decay.”

Is this a criticism of capitalism?  No. not at all!  Savings and working capital are essential for any healthy economy. 

Commerce and industry are an integral part of an advancing civilization.  Why should this be a problem?  We expect our personal freedom and autonomy to be threatened by tyrants, as it often is, but not by industry.

A healthy society needs a productive economy.  It does not need repetitive financial crises, the destruction of civil society, or absurd extremes of wealth and poverty.

This is what we have inherited, and by 1990 it was driving the economic confidence of working Americans into the ground.  Following still another financial crisis in 2008, much of the middle-class joined them in poverty.

Are we surprised by the turmoil that has followed?  Really?  Reality has manifested itself politically, but reality is about human lives—not politics.

Sociologist and noted conservative thinker Robert Nisbet places the problem in historical context: “During the past two centuries,” he writes, “mankind has undergone the most traumatic social change it has experienced since the beginnings of settled culture in the Neolithic age.

“I refer to the decline—even disappearance in spreading sections—of the local community, the dislocation of kinship, and the erosion of the sacred in human affairs…. The historical roots of culture and personality alike lie deep in the neighborhood, family, and religion.

“Unlike all preceding major changes in human history, these… went below the superstructure of society, went right to man’s most ancient and cherished sources of identity.  With the rise of the factory system and the mass electorate, there was inevitably a wrenching of the individual from his accustomed family, local, and religious contexts.”

Needless to say, when people lose economic security and emotional safety, it leads to alienation and disorientation—both individual and societal. 

What happens when people are denied the sources of personal identity?

We are left with a vacuum to be filled by centralized governance and the consolidation of power—and the growing potential for manipulation and despotism.

Tom.

Note to regular readers:  You may watch for the next post on or about January 19.  A description of the project and several recently revised chapter drafts are available at the top of the homepage.

Truth and Consequences

Questions have been raised about the loyalty of some Americans to the United States Constitution.  This is a serious charge.  Those who value the Constitution as a model for governance, and as a foundation for stability in a dangerous world, will remain vigilant in its defense.  This is an emotional concern for many of us, and it inspires strong feelings.

Future Americans deserve wise thinking from Americans today.

A safe and prosperous future calls for careful consideration of means and ends.  In other words, how will the means we employ today lead effectively to the future we intend? Emotional decisions, and especially the failure of foresight, can easily reverse our own best intentions.

It was Hayek who said, “the principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.” In my view, Harry Emerson Fosdick stated this truth most clearly: “He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.”

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

We can recognize this truth if we stop to think about it.  In the midst of controversy a clear mind is priceless, but we human beings are emotional creatures. 

So, let’s take a deep breath, and look at the reasons why incivility, antagonism, and especially the threat of force, will actually subvert our efforts to defend what we believe in.

I will suggest four reasons, as follows.

First, force or the threat of force subverts the Constitution itself, immediately destroying its’ capacity to function as intended.  Any form of violence will effectively nullify its existence.

The Constitution provides a structure for governance that depends on civility, moral responsibility, and collaboration among stakeholders.  The Framers depend on our readiness to adjust our behavior to avoid subverting the dignity and integrity of their intended purpose.

Second, hostile tactics conducted by even a tiny minority would make it difficult, even impossible, for any disciplined and rational strategies to be mounted effectively.  Indeed, such actions could actually set back their own intended purpose for decades.

Why?  The use of force by a militia group would harden the attitudes of most Americans toward any supposed viewpoint or philosophy.  It would become far more difficult to win a fair hearing from citizens who respect the rule of law.

Third, any rebellion by force of arms pits itself against the uniformed services—police agencies.  These are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and sworn defenders of the Constitution.  And, they are our fellow citizens.

Members of armed militias need to think clearly about who exactly they intend to fight, and how they expect to influence hearts and minds.

Fourth, the vast majority of Americans value the historic character of the United States of America.  And, they recognize the place of the Constitution in making this what it is.

If we wish to educate Americans about how the structure of governance could or should best function, this will not be accomplished by offensive acts.

We depend on civil order for the safety of our families, for safe streets, jobs, and a thriving economy.  Liberty itself depends on trust and dependability.

We cannot defend what we believe in by tearing it down.

To make America strong we will need to address our countrymen with reasoned argument presented logically. Our present difficulties require that we actually hear and understand one another.  This means teaching what we believe in, sharing the history of our pain, and learning to do this effectively.

Agreement is not required, but we must listen to one another with the intention of understanding and a willingness for truth-telling.

The United States will only be sustained as a constitutional republic with a steadfast loyalty to the ethical integrity, the dignity and civility the Founders expected of us.

National unity will rise above differences.  The center must hold.

Tom

Note to regular readers:  The blog will take a brief break over the coming holidays.  Please watch for the next post on or about January 5. 

A Different Kind of Nation

The United States Constitution holds a unique place in history.  The Framers stepped away from the customs and tyrannies of the past to devise a new model for governance envisioned for a free and civilized people.  It has endured for more than two hundred years.

Are we willing to overlook the subsequent missteps and mistakes, the rude and selfish behavior, to consider what is truly of value to us?  Are we prepared to step forward to defend what we wish to preserve?

If we let this inheritance die, what will we have lost?

The record of American history has been rough-hewn.  How could we expect anything like perfection when we have gathered the human race together from across the world into the natural restlessness of a democratic republic?

We are blessed with a structure for governance that has channeled creativity and contentiousness into a dynamic force for capacity-building and prosperity. The Founders made an effort to ‘see the end in the beginning’, but they knew the future was beyond their ability to imagine.

We now stand at another great turning point in history, another moment that requires a visionary maturity from Americans of all stripes, colors, and viewpoints.

I do not refer to the current political turmoil as such a turning point.  Rather, I speak of something far greater and more profound, a shift in attitudes and perspective which has been building for many decades, and which will require at least a generation to fully comprehend.

In the coming years we must find our way through a sequence of crises that transcend partisan politics.

As in the past, many of our troubles will be caused by foolishness, mistaken assumptions and a lack of responsibility and foresight.  Change comes slowly.  Shamelessness and iniquity have walked together on this land.

However, the future will also be impacted by the inevitability of structural change—which is beyond anyone’s control.  The world is undergoing major shifts in physical and economic circumstances. 

The oncoming and irresistible forces we can expect will include the undisciplined advance of technology, exponential population growth, and the limits of agriculture and other natural resources.

There are those who think 200 years is a reasonable age for a democratic republic to reach its’ natural demise.  However, the United States of America remains an extraordinary model of spirit and governance, despite the blemishes.  

I think it more reasonable to understand 200 years as the age of maturity, shaped by experience and illuminated by the context of a disturbed world.  The nation is coming of age and in a time of natural volatility.

Let’s be clear: Americans are responsible for the trust our forebears have placed in us, and for the unique heritage of the American idea.

It is a trust that no other nation has the vision, the strength of will or the generosity of spirit, to embrace.  Brought into focus by the foresight and wisdom of the American Founders, it shines even now from the darkness, a beacon amidst dangers and hardships.

Yes, human imperfections remain.  Those who point to the evils and injustices of the past and present are serving a necessary role. While we should not forget the ignoble or wrongly conceived actions of the past, it is not useful to condemn the vision and character that give us our strength.

Questions also remain.  Thoughtful citizens will consider the requirements liberty imposes on the way we manage civil discourse, our disagreements and decision-making. 

Surely there can be no freedom for thought, for creativity, for social and economic advancement in the absence of the civility and self-discipline that allow us to engage freely and without fear.

Recognizing the need for social order and stability, upon which all else depends, a practical question confronts us each day:  Have we matured as individuals to the degree that we can represent our personal views patiently, listen with understanding, and, when necessary, live with our differences?

The crisis-fueled tensions of the early 21st century leave us wondering.

The future depends on our ability to engage in problem-solving, and to accept our differences within the supporting constraints of shared values.

If we fail—we could lose everything.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about December 15.

Note to regular readers:  To receive email alerts when posts are published, please click on the Follow button.

Lost Trust, Embattled Identity

Amidst divisiveness and disarray the anchor of the Constitution holds steady, manifesting order and assurance for an anxious nation.  Our hopes and concerns can only be pursued within the steady frame of rational governance.  We are a nation of laws, and a civilized future depends on this foundation.

I have argued here that local communities are the building-blocks of society and the foundation of civilization.  And, the importance for local cooperation if we are to seek safety and stability in a long crisis.

In no other place do Americans have the freedom and opportunity to resolve local problems, and to develop dependability with neighbors through working relationships. Well-organized local communities and networks of communities will provide the only effective foundation for an American future we can respect and believe in.

Regular readers may already have recognized that the strategy proposed here implies a premise—a pattern and framework for action suited to our circumstances in America.

We understand that the Constitution reflected the traditional attitudes of the 18th century.  The intelligent competence of women was unrecognized, and the humanity of black Americans was denied outright.  This was true throughout the European world.

But the Founders of the American Republic had something conceptually new in their minds. 

They knew the future of the new nation was far beyond their capacity to imagine.  Yet, pluralism, inclusive diversity and moral responsibility were clearly assumed in their thinking and enabled in the text. The originality of their vision was made plain in the Federalist Papers.

So it is that since the Civil War we have seen an uneven but consistent and irreversible advance toward inclusiveness—in attitudes, society, and law.

Today, however, something has changed.  And we are confronted with the consequences of lost trust, a deteriorating social order, and financial irresponsibility.

The field of debris is expansive and multidimensional.  What happened?  And, how can the American vision and the confidence it once generated be restored?

No political philosophy is offered here; only a reminder that Americans are the beneficiaries of a priceless birthright: An exceptional Constitution, and an attitude and belief in ourselves, which have overcome crises and hardship and differences for more than 200 years.

There is only one means for recovering the vision and confidence that once made us who (I believe) we still are.  This will be along the rocky path through honest, rational, and courageous personal engagement—genuine relationships with other Americans—most of whom we know very little about.

This will only be possible with determination to seek an American future we can believe in, both conceptually and realistically.

In the face of widespread hopelessness it will be a bold undertaking.  I submit that it must be forged in the crucible of genuine communities—our own communities—which we have the ability to build in place, wherever we are.

Such determination calls us to dignify ourselves with civility and to bravely face the damage of the past.

I have presented the rationale for knowing our neighbors and ensuring we can depend on them.  I have spoken of the need to rise above our differences, at least to the extent that we can collaborate in meeting needs and resolving local problems. 

The resources and learned skills we will need are available to anyone, and the frame of mind that allows genuine community to flourish can be achieved by every American.

Again, let me be clear: We are Americans before all else, and we need to organize our communities in place—where we already are.

Those who would retreat into isolation as religious or ideological groups do not simply lack the courage of their convictions.  An isolationist, fear-based mentality actively subverts the vision of the Founders.  And, it abandons responsibility for contributing constructively.

To restore the nation to its rightful place in history will call for immense patience, forbearance, and generosity of spirit.  It will not require that we compromise our beliefs. 

American strength and integrity are functions of the diversity of experience, perspective, and practical skills that have, for more than 200 years, overcome every challenge.

The center must hold.

Tom

Note to regular readers: You may look for the next post on or about November 30.

Dignity, Self-respect, and Ugliness

Public corruption and transparent dishonesty are very discouraging.  And when public discourse descends into ever more rancor and bitterness, it attests to deepening disarray.

As individuals we can choose not to live this way.  What can we do?  When useful debate has ceased, and purposeful dialog has degenerated into extremes of invective, ridicule, and slander—what are our options?

Personal dignity and self-respect depend on our values and our attitude.  And these only become real when translated into action.  Words are not enough.

Divisiveness reflects entrenched partisan views, but mean-spirited ugliness is degrading and accomplishes nothing.  Do we somehow imagine that such behavior supports our beliefs or advances our interests?

It is extraordinary that so much of this ugliness is unabashed and occurs in full view of the world.  Americans have always been a contentious people, but self-respect and a self-conscious sense of our national character have tended to constrain shameful extremes.

Given the unparalleled ease with which citizens can now participate in public debate, unthinking acts and lapses of judgement are made far easier and their consequences more enduring.

How does this reflect on us as Americans?  Who do we wish to be?  Where is the concern for self-respect and integrity that once mattered?  Are we no longer a society with values?

Morality and the ethics of responsibility are closely related to values.  And values are closely related to virtues.  Virtues?

Does anyone care about values and virtues in today’s world?

Let’s get real!  Truthfulness, dependability, trustworthiness—these are virtues that a civilized society depends upon.  They are the living substance of human values.

One way to think about these questions is to consider the value we place on the ends we seek.  What do we wish for in our future?  The ends we seek can only be reached by means that actually get us where we want to go.

As the means so the end.

In the present circumstances the future has become a vital concern for everyone.  Reason and conscience can only guide us to safety if we adhere to truthfulness.

Today in the United States ethics and values involve far more than a concern for ones’ self-image.  And, most Americans will never accept a moral system imposed from outside.

Rather, we are concerned here with something that is of vital importance to the future of our country.  Social order and trustworthy relationships are not only crucial for our personal lives, but for the security and well-being of the nation.

Developing personal virtues is not easy.  Consistent self-examination requires determination and acceptance of life’s tests.  But, without essential virtues there can be no values, either in our lives or in a future we can believe in.

In my view, the most fundamental of virtues is truthfulness.  All other virtues follow from truthfulness—honesty, reliability, credibility, trustworthiness.  These form the foundations of civilized life.

As I have noted previously, it will only be in community that we have the opportunity and freedom to live and learn civilized values, to build trust, and to experience the richness of genuine relationships.

This can’t wait.  We all have neighbors.  It is time to act.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people (August 23 post).  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot share our experience and offer guidance patiently, and if we fail to believe in the potential for people to change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Making this work will depend, ultimately, on firm values and self-confident generosity.  Of all people, Americans should know the importance of this.

I have argued that diversity of experience and perspective, knowledge and skills will facilitate physical survival.  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 October 7.

Note to new readers:  An introduction to the coming book and several chapters in draft are linked at the top of the homepage.

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.

America at a Tipping Point

America is troubled today by the crippling consequences of distrust.  Polls have reported a steadily growing distrust of government for many decades.  Like a cancer, the problem has now spread throughout American culture.

Do we imagine that constructive problem-solving—or an orderly and prosperous future—can be possible without trust?

Americans have always been a contentious lot.  Yet we have remained loyal to the vision and ideals of the founders, for better or worse.

Many of you share my view that our future depends, first and foremost, on the bulwark of stability and justice that is the Constitution.  However, the Constitution depends on the expectations the founders had of the integrity and character of future Americans.

“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.”

James Madison was explicit: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical [wildly fanciful] idea.”

Patrick Henry was equally forceful: “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, in his farewell address George Washington famously said: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

These words of wisdom are quoted in Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart”.  “In their various ways”, he comments, “the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

A reader of this blog has commented further that, “America is at a tipping point because every tenet [and] moral fiber of this nation has been diminished, so that no one is held accountable.  [There is] no moral compass because the foundations are removed.”

We do not have to agree on details to recognize the truth in this.  Yet, we cannot wait for somebody else to fix it.  In America accountability falls to ourselves.

Only in community can the true essence of accountability be fully understood.  Here the integrity of trustworthy interpersonal relations cannot be avoided.

Honest relationships can be hard work, but when the going gets tough relationships count.

I don’t just mean engaging with our next-door neighbors, as important as this is.  If we find ourselves under threat, directly or indirectly, the last thing we need is neighbors down the road or over the hill who are an unknown quantity.

And, we are not simply concerned about making acquaintances here.  This is not about borrowing a cup of sugar over the back fence.  To make our communities safe and to rebuild the nation we need dependability. And that means trust.

OK, to be quite honest, building trust is not something that Americans know much about. Mostly we don’t believe in it any more.

In my previous post I reminded readers that social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust.  Without this assurance, liberty and justice will remain elusive and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.

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

Yet, we cannot start trusting people simply because we wish for it.  The social reality we live in is decidedly untrustworthy.  Many people do not have a clear concept of what trust means, much less an understanding of why it is important or what to do about it.

Change will take time and patience.  We can expect a steep learning curve.

Building honest and reliable relationships with our neighbors calls for grit and determination. We will win a few and lose a few, but the ones we win will buy us a degree of security—and move the nation forward.

This can only be learned face-to-face, and with the courage to engage fully, to overcome mistakes, and to accept one another as whole persons in all our complexity.

We are adults.  We learn by doing.  Let’s not deny ourselves the maturity of forbearance and kindliness.

Each must decide if the future matters, and then join with others to make it decent, dependable, and real.

Tom

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

To See for Ourselves

Each of us has the ability to see and interpret things for ourselves.  Yet, all too often we allow other people to influence our personal judgment.  Sometimes we even neglect to investigate the truth for ourselves.

Dishonesty and deceit run rampant in the political world.  Every media outlet has its own “spin”, however well-intentioned the editors might be.  And, anyone can create a website intended specifically to mislead and direct our thinking.  Every day we are presented with alternative realities based more on rumor and imagination than on serious investigation.

How can we test the accuracy of our beliefs and assumptions?  What protection can we find for personal independence in the midst of social upheaval?  There are ways to do this using the internet, if we are truly curious and intent on searching for accuracy.

We are human.  We can never fully comprehend the reality in which we live, physically or spiritually.  Yet, I firmly believe that hidden behind every disruption and every illusion a dependable underlying order exists.

Otherwise no civilization would be possible, and the perfections of the physical universe could never have come into being.

The human world survives repeated cataclysms, always recovering its balance and somehow progressing despite incessant delusions, duplicity, and chicanery.

In the previous post I wrote of the boundaries we must navigate between freedom and justice as we move through life.  This foundational structure cannot be altered or manipulated.  We spend our youth learning to recognize and accommodate ourselves to it.  And, under normal conditions we begin to take it for granted.

Religious people may recognize this truth as a manifestation of God’s Grace.  Others might see it as a function of the integrity of the natural order in the universe.  I believe both are true.

Without this stability our lives would always be dominated by anxiety.  And, the disorder in today’s world is cutting us off from this security, causing a massive excess of anxiety all around us.

A balanced and coherent unity can be recognized in both the human and natural worlds, when our vision is freed from myths and manipulation.

The elegant equilibrium found in nature will, if left alone, always manage itself with a sensitive, yet robust and resilient functionality.  Human society, too, has a purposeful balance.  Can we imagine the terror we would experience as social order disintegrates?

Whether in human affairs or in the natural world, any disruption or harm will result in consequences that may not be immediately apparent.  Yet the repercussions of injury and injustice spread rapidly as each impact leads to others in widening circles of instability.

What does this mean for freedom?

Surely we all know that freedom depends on a just, dependable and predictable world.  So it is that freedom and responsibility are interdependent.

While dialog and consultation offer essential safeguards, the ability to recognize the consequences of our own actions, “to see the end in the beginning,” is perhaps most important.

This is a capacity we can develop in ourselves.  The perceptive capacities we possess allow us—if we are responsible—to determine our course of action more freely, safely, and independently.

And, recognizing the potential after-effects of our own deeds allows us a degree of protection from engaging in overly emotional, ill-conceived, or destructive acts.

A cursory review of human history reveals numerous examples of poorly conceived actions leading to disastrous consequences.  As we have all seen, both individuals and groups are quite capable of falling into error.

How does this happen?  Well, sometimes we think we have everything figured out when, in fact, our information is limited and we are only aware of a part of the truth.

Sometimes we fail to speak with people who are right around us.

It is important that we consult with others, and to listen for diversity of experience and perspective when we do so.  Only then can we step back to think critically for ourselves.

These are among the lessons that will allow us to build safety and strength for ourselves and for America.

Tom

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

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.

Grit and Grace

Americans today face a critical moment in time, arguably as profound as any in our history.  Freedom of opportunity, social and economic justice, and the preservation of our ability to seek personal goals are all at stake.  The character of the nation appears to be in question.  Our sense of identity as a people has been shaken.

We are all aware that this crisis is far bigger than an unexpected viral pandemic.  The causes of social degradation and political disruption overshadowing recent decades have been making themselves felt for a long time.

We are experiencing the present adversity as an American crisis, and it is.  But it is taking place in the context of a great turning point in the human story, a period of time when an unprecedented number of monumental crises are converging across the globe.

Our own crisis is inextricably intertwined with the affairs of the world.  Never has there been a greater need for the stability of the American vision.

I have proposed a simple, yet demanding course of constructive action for Americans, which can allow for survival, safety and functional coherence in local communities.

This will be extremely difficult for us to carry off.  But we have a choice.  Without a willingness to engage with one another in this a way, we have to question whether the nation can survive as a democratic republic.

We must find our way with both grit and grace, navigating through complex, sequential and interacting crises.  We have entered a transition that will dominate the course of the 21st century.

For Americans the outcome will depend on our character as a people, and our understanding of the unprecedented structural change that will confront us every step of the way.  Necessity presents us with stark, uncomfortable choices.

We can give free reign to anger and disillusionment, allowing ourselves to be dragged down into demoralized helplessness.  Or we can determine to stand firmly together as a people, rising above our differences to address the immediate practical priorities that confront us.

Are we prepared to preserve core values as we forge a genuinely American response to evolving conditions and a converging series of crises?  Will we have the vision, courage, and fortitude to commit ourselves to principled means and to engage responsibly in constructive action?

I will not offer political philosophy, nor will I speak of ultimate goals.  Fundamental values and shared purpose must be agreed upon by the American people.  Rather, I am proposing a way forward that calls for qualities of character, attitude, and responsibility that transcend conflict and controversy.

As a first step, I ask that we begin by turning away from the dishonesty and deceit of partisan politics to respond to the practical needs and problems in our local communities – which, in microcosm, embody and exemplify the challenges facing the nation as a whole.

However, make no mistake:  Consolidating local communities is only the first step.  This will create a platform for democratic engagement and a base from which to confront the oncoming forces of disintegration and disequilibrium.

The ultimate vision of the future will be up to you, the American people.

Essential lessons involving physical needs and social order must first be learned in the crucible of crisis.

We must discipline ourselves to abstain from deceptiveness, deceit, or manipulation.  Genuine virtuousness and a constructive attitude are called for, however dark the prospect.

I ask that we rise above our differences with the conviction that however immense the tests we face, however the world changes around us, however diverse our personal circumstances, this nation must not be permitted to abandon its founding vision and ultimate purpose.

Tom

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

Note for new readers: A project description, introduction to the coming book, and several chapters in draft can be found at the top of the homepage.