Yes, Americans Do Have Differences

I wrote recently of the value of teamwork in meeting local needs and making our communities safe (January 15).  I argued that faced with oncoming crises we would do well to respond in a constructive spirit – yet prepare for frustrations.

Working with neighbors can make a big difference in security and comfort. Agreement about practical needs and a willingness to focus on common purpose will make it easier to make things work.

This means rising above our differences to connect as allies and collaborators.  But, it will not be necessary to compromise our personal views and beliefs.  It is essential that we maintain our personal dignity and self-respect.

As we take on local problem-solving the challenge is to be both self-confident within ourselves – and respectful of others.

It can certainly be difficult to work with people.  Some difficulties are easier to overcome than others.  We can often make interpersonal connections with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, but sometimes it takes great patience and determination.

Why should we make this effort?

The coming days and years will redefine the meaning of crisis for everyone.  Safety will require that we can depend on our neighbors.  Learning how to listen well and understand one another will become an important part of learning how to survive and prevail in the face of great challenges.

The science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein once commented, “I never learned from a man who agreed with me.”

Coming to understand the personality and perspective of another person can be useful in itself, even if no possibility of agreement exists.

This can be the means for crystallizing our own thinking and beliefs.  And, if we approach it as a learning experience we will have much to gain, including knowledge, skills, and perspective.

Aristotle is believed to have said that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Well, Aristotle did not attend high school, and neither have some of us.  But, it is our job to figure out what he meant and learn how to do it.

Aggravation aside, we are all capable of respecting the sincerity and intrinsic integrity of every human being, allowing our differences to exist freely in their own space, distinct from the roles of community-member, teammate, or friend.

Suppose we find ourselves dealing with a person who presents us with special challenges – perhaps someone who does not believe effective community is possible, or who values their privacy to an extreme, or is just unreceptive?

It is almost always possible to work with someone who we find difficult if we are determined to find a way.

It is prudent to remember, however, that in such circumstances we cannot allow ourselves be emotionally needy or easily disheartened.  Such an effort calls for backbone as well as a positive attitude and a generous spirit.

The wise do not impose themselves until they obtain a hearing.

If, however, we are able to plant the seeds of community in the fertile soil of the human heart, and water them gently with compassion and kindness, we may not have to wait long before the green shoots spring forth.

Often it is impossible to know why someone remains unresponsive despite our best efforts.  Pain is often hidden there, whether or not it is conscious.  And, caring will always give solace, however silently it is received.

When we make ourselves present in the life of another without expectation or demand, healing can take place even without our knowing – until the dam breaks and the words flow.

It might take days, weeks, or years.  But it will come.

In a little book called “The Miracle of Dialogue” (1963), the Christian theologian Dr. Reuel L. Howe wrote that “every man is a potential adversary, even those whom we love.  Only through dialogue are we saved from this enmity toward one another. Dialogue is to love what blood is to the body…. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born.

Tom

Note to readers: Watch for the next post on or about February 28.

A new chapter (in draft), “Confronted by the Past,” was posted on this page last weekend.  A project description and introduction to the coming book can also be found with the links above.  Please see especially Chapter One: American Crucible.

The Promise and Reward in Teamwork

Readers are quite right to question how I can expect the intense hostilities and incivility current among the American people to allow any dialog or cooperation at all.

I have never said it would be easy.  It will be extremely difficult.  But I believe we have no choice.  Our failure saps our spirit, undermines our strength and impedes governance.  It could actually lead to the loss of the American Republic and everything it stands for.

I think it interesting that our young people can commit themselves to discipline, teamwork, and decisive action in the armed forces – while the rest of us appear unwilling to exercise even basic civility, much less the loyalty and generosity that have characterized the American tradition.

Faced with an oncoming series of major crises, it will be necessary to renew our spirits and brace ourselves for frustrations.  Working with our neighbors to resolve local problems will bring us together.  Collaborating to meet shared needs will steady our course.

The success of communities in developing shared purpose and strategies for coping, will be critically important.  This can only happen when we rise above our differences and begin to understand and trust one another as friends, neighbors, and allies.

It is not necessary to compromise our personal views and beliefs.  The challenge is to be both self-confident within ourselves and respectful of others as we engage in local problem-solving.

This might require that we adjust our attitudes.  Can we come to terms with one another as teammates and compatriots committed to the fundamental integrity of the nation?

No cohesive effort can be mounted, much less succeed, if we cannot get ourselves onto the same page.  This will not be possible if we cannot communicate with civility and listen with understanding.

The way we handle working relationships and resolve local problem-solving will be the first stage in preparing for the future.  A right attitude for dealing with an immediate crisis, as I suggested in an earlier post, will probably be the right attitude for working with one another to build a better future.

There will inevitably be confusion at times, and difficulties comprehending problems.  The American people are under immense pressure.  Many of us are already demoralized.

Those who have the presence of mind to engage in problem-solving will need to step forward and pull their neighbors together.

Working with people can be one of our greatest tests.  This is a fundamental aspect of the life we have been given in this world.

I will continue to offer practical perspectives and tools for building trust and dependability when working with people in our communities, including those who are especially difficult to work with.

Assistance will be available in my forthcoming book, and more detailed guidance will follow in a handbook for communities.

A variety of topics will include:  1) Rising above personal differences to build dependable relationships; 2) local decision-making in small groups; 3) planning and managing community gardens and other local projects; and, 4) responding to conflict with an approach called conflict transformation.

You might wonder what I mean by “conflict transformation”.

This is a practical approach to serious conflict, which is described most clearly by John Paul Lederach in “The Little Book of Conflict Transformation”.  The book is inexpensive and available from major booksellers.

Conflict transformation looks beyond immediate surface issues to recognize and respond to the personal or group experiences that led to the conflict.  It seeks first to reach a shared understanding of perceptions and underlying causes, and then to address the actual human needs relating to the conflict.  Finally, participants are invited to join in seeking satisfying solutions.

When the going gets tough, we would do well to remember that user-friendly tools are available for group collaboration and problem-solving, online and from booksellers.

No one can do this for us.  Each of us can learn – if we have the will to stand up, take responsibility for the future, and refuse to give up.

Tom

Notes to new readers:  Please watch for the next post on or about January 17.  A project description and several chapter drafts from the forthcoming book are linked on this page (see above).  Please see especially Chapter One: American Crucible.

Responsibility and Trust in America

Community is the seat of civilization. It is in our local communities that we engage with one another face-to-face and work shoulder-to-shoulder.  And, it is in responding to crises and meeting shared needs that we earn respect, learn patience and build trust.

With our neighbors we can overcome disorder in our own little corner of the world.  Trust and responsibility don’t just appear by good fortune.  They are formed in the trials of necessity and hardship.

Like a marriage, a genuine commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.  Perhaps this is why so many avoid full participation.

However, there are other reasons to live responsibly.  Just beyond the boundaries of family, community is that place where the reality of immediate needs must be addressed and resolved.

Americans have avoided personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time.  We will continue to do so at our peril.

It was not always thus.  Prior to the American Revolution and for close to 100 years afterward Americans gravitated easily, even impulsively, toward decentralized local governance and an independent frame of mind.  We managed our own affairs in cooperation with our neighbors and expected regional autonomy as a natural condition.

Civil society flourished during America’s first century, a vibrant force that was documented admiringly by Alexis de Tocqueville in his two volume commentary, Democracy in America.  Americans created an immense variety of civic organizations to address every conceivable interest and social need.  Citizens did this on their own initiative, inspired by their sense of belonging and the spirit of the times.  There were few restrictions or constraints.

The need for community in America, both in spirit and as a practical matter, is as important today as it has ever been.  It is only in direct engagement with our neighbors, and in all spheres of problem-solving, that we will learn the skills of living and working productively with one another.

As Americans, we have been here before and we can do it again.

Some argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal to which we should aspire.  And this is, indeed, an attractive vision.  However, I think it should be apparent for all to see that there must be a balance struck between a nation of fully engaged local communities and a competent and trustworthy central government that respects and protects the primacy of local responsibility.

At the present time it is difficult to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are prepared to protect both our freedoms and our security.  But, that is what we need.

Without law there can be no freedom.  And, there can be no freedom without a mature understanding of responsibility.  I believe that a valid vision of limited government for the American future can only come from a view firmly anchored in local communities.

Those who understand trust, moral responsibility, and constructive action – and who recognize the very high stakes involved – will build the foundations for the American renewal at home, with their neighbors.

Building unity within communities is a gradual process.  It depends on each of us to reach out across our differences, to form friendships that develop trust, to be supportive in times of trouble, and to influence the hearts and minds of all who care.

It will take time and patience, creative thinking and new skills, and we will do it because America is too important to lose.  The future of humankind depends on it.

Tom

Dear readers: Watch for the next post on or about November 28.   Please note that a project description and several sample chapters from the forthcoming book are linked on this page.

Stepping Forward, Taking Ownership

I have urged that we prepare for a future beyond the impending crisis, and I have proposed three priorities for your consideration.

In my view, the first priority will be to organize our local communities with constructive purpose.  By this I mean mobilizing to meet local needs, resolve local problems, and ensure that we have dependable neighbors and open lines of genuine communication.

The second priority depends on the first.  Everything from neighborhood safety and food security to ensuring the future of the United States of America as a constitutional republic will require that we rise above our differences.

Learning how to collaborate in meeting local needs is only the first step in taking ownership of America’s destiny.

I have never said it would be easy.  I said I do not believe we have a choice.

The third priority will be to start consulting strategically in our communities about building toward a future we can believe in.

All this will ask more of us than simply to communicate with civility.  It will require that we remain rational, investigate reality for ourselves as individuals, and open our hearts.

On a material level we need to be aware that profound structural change is happening in the world around us.  Not all the problems confronting us will be someone’s fault.

By structural change I do not mean anything to do with ideas or political philosophy, but rather the inevitable change brought on by technology, complexity, and rapid population growth.

Structural change will include vanishing jobs, aging physical infrastructure, and major public health threats introduced by international travel and a deteriorating environment at home.

Pervasive systemic change will confront us with surprises we have not even imagined.

I believe we face a long, grinding crisis.  Meeting the shared needs of local safety, energy, food and clean water will depend on functional relationships among neighbors.

If we are to foster dependable relationships we have no choice but to cultivate common ground on which to live and work despite our differences.

In the coming book I will offer practical tools you may find useful.

We will consider the basic skills and processes with which we can accommodate differences (and difficult people) without losing our minds – how to make decisions in small groups, how to transform conflict in reasonable ways, how to create and manage small businesses, and much more.

We all face a steep learning curve.

As  of you know, the purpose of this project involves more than a concern with survival.

A secure future requires a constructive attitude that builds on the foundation of trustworthy relationships, cohesive neighborhoods, and mutually supportive networks of communities.

The learned skills with which we manage relationships, construct plans and negotiate solutions will prepare us for whatever the future holds.

We will soon recognize that our first responsibility will actually be to manage ourselves.  Emotion clouds reason.  Insensitive words can cause alienation where mutual respect is needed.

There are some lessons we can only learn the hard way, but which we would do well to accept gracefully–

How can we relate to others in a manner that will actually lead to the desired results?

What approach will best facilitate community-building among diverse and sometimes anxious or frightened neighbors?

What personal attitude can we foster in ourselves that will best generate a positive response in others?

Beyond the personal challenges of mastering the self, there are a number of concerns for the future that beg thoughtful attention before our backs are against the wall.

Working Americans have been facing deterioration in our quality of life for a long time.  And, in fact, economic conditions could rapidly become worse.

How can we think constructively about finding local solutions?  Who has land on which we can grow food?  What small local businesses will suddenly become viable in a collapsed economy?  Who can we learn from and work with?

A renewed America will call for ingenuity and new ideas.  The force of circumstances will change us all for the better.  But, we must attend to relationships now and not wait for disaster to strike.

Tom

Dear readers:  I will be taking a brief break.  Please look for the next post on or about November 1.

Will the Center Hold?

Seeking an American renewal will be an arduous task requiring genuine dialog and rational negotiations. Basic values and national purpose need to be on the table.  Our differences are great and some have not been resolved for 200 years.  But, civilized debate may not turn out quite as we expect – if all sides actually listen.

At this very challenging moment for Americans I suggest that the goal of civil dialog should be to answer the following questions:

Will a courageous few stand together at the center of national unity?

Are we willing to rise above our differences to rebuild civil society based on moral responsibility and basic shared values?

Will this alliance of loyal and determined citizens establish itself as a civilized American “center” that transcends culture, religion, politics?

Will the center hold?

As difficult as it is to visualize how this can happen, I expect Americans will rise to necessity. Because we must.

The only alternative could easily be catastrophic collapse – with no future possibility of influencing receptive minds or furthering personal agendas.

I believe such a challenging course of action can ultimately succeed because it does not need to begin with large numbers.  A small unified core group of determined Americans can make this happen.  But, it will require citizens with vision, tenacity, and compassion who invoke a powerful moral presence.

Such an honorable vision for the future which embodies a generous and welcoming spirit will be immensely attractive to a nation desperate to feel solid ground beneath its’ feet.  Increasing numbers will respond.  A few at first, then many.

I expect the vision of a civil order based on trust and responsibility will draw Americans to it from every walk of life – from every religious faith, from every economic condition and political philosophy.

Why?  Because without safety, civility, and a stable order no one will be listening.  The business of the nation will grind to a halt.

The first priority must be to defend the identity and character of the United States as a constitutional republic.  The second priority will be to do what Americans have always done: to debate our many differences with fairness and dignity.

What is essential is not that we agree on all aspects of personal belief, but that we restore the integrity of a civil society that allows for constructive cooperation, so that we can secure the safety of our families and the stability of civil order.

If this is indeed our priority, we cannot allow America to disintegrate in unrestrained acrimony.  We will have to choose our battles.  Some issues might be argued more effectively on another day.

James Madison fought to have slavery abolished by the Constitution when it was first drafted in 1787.  It was painful for him to walk away from that vision, but he finally realized it threatened to kill the entire project.

It took decades for citizen abolitionists to get the job done.

Today, however, agreement about certain principles will be immediately necessary.  What must these be?

What are the core principles that will put America on the road to a self-respecting future? Not the core principles held dear by each of us personally, but rather those necessary to pull a diverse people together to make our local communities safe and dependable.

Each of us must consider our personal willingness to engage in respectful, meaningful dialog concerning these questions.

As regular readers know, I have suggested several principles in this blog that I consider essential.  In addition to a firm defense of the Constitution, I have written of the necessity for trustworthiness and civility, for moral responsibility and the concept of constructive action.

A fully American future can only be reached by identifying where we can find common purpose.

An inclusive vision of the future does not require agreement, but rather genuine curious interest and understanding – and a shared loyalty to the nation we love.  Only then can we work together on real problems and real needs.

We are either all in, seeking to build a free and fair society, or we are each on our own in a disintegrating world.

Tom

Dear readers, please look for the next post on or about July 19.

The Second Amendment, Then and Now

The Bill of Rights, which includes the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was first proposed to Congress by James Madison as articles to be incorporated into the main body of the Constitution.

Congress approved twelve articles of amendment to the Constitution in 1789 and submitted them to the states for ratification.  Contrary to Madison’s proposal, they were submitted as “supplemental” additions.  Articles Three through Twelve were ratified by the required number of states and became Amendments One through Ten in 1791.

The Second Amendment, which has become a matter of considerable interest in recent years, reads as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This was not controversial at the time.  The concept existed in English common law long before the enactment of the Bill of Rights.  And, many Americans feel it necessary to own firearms today.

The importance of this issue to the Founders was quite clear.  James Madison, who introduced the language that became the Second Amendment, also wrote that “The Constitution preserves the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation where the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”

Alexander Hamilton, like Madison a strong advocate for Federalism, was equally explicit: “The constitution shall never be construed…to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.”

Thomas Jefferson famously said: “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.” And he also wrote that “The strongest reason for the people to retain their right to keep and bear arms is as a last resort to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”

During the years just prior to the Revolutionary War there was mob violence in several of the colonies.  In addition, many Americans lived in or close to wilderness regions where conditions were essentially lawless.

The need people felt to protect their families was quite rational.

It should be noted that a primary motivation for supporting “a well regulated Militia,” expressed in the Second Amendment as “being necessary to the security of a free State,” was the strong opposition among the Founders to the concept of a standing army.

Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army.  To keep ours armed and disciplined is therefore at all times important.” “Every citizen should be a soldier,” he wrote. “This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state.”

The American reality in 1776 and 1791 was entirely different from that confronting us today.

Yet, news of social and religious violence imposes on our peace every day.  Older Americans are particularly sensitized to what has changed: the radical loss of trust and the absence of civility, ethical integrity, and social responsibility.

We must acknowledge the compelling reasons why so many feel it necessary to possess firearms.

It is in this context that I express my concern about the threat of force made or implied in the name of political ends.  We already face dangerous instability, a condition likely to grow worse as conditions deteriorate.  Political violence could easily tip us into chaos.

For those with the eyes to see, it is clear that the use of force for political ends will very likely produce exactly the opposite of its intended purpose.  There is a dynamic relationship between means and ends.  The character of our results will be determined by the character of the means we employ.

Indeed, violence committed by Americans against Americans would endanger the Constitution and contradict the rationale behind the incentive for violence itself.  The uniformed services are staffed by our own sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.  We need to win them over; not turn them against us.

We have pragmatic alternatives.  We need to learn what they are.  Both our purpose and our means must be carefully considered, and we need to get it right.

We face a long crisis.  Many dark and dangerous things can happen.

Tom

A reminder for readers: Please look for the next post on or about June 14.

Foundations for Security

In seeking security for those we care for at a time of crisis we would do well to consider the qualities of order and stability that security requires.

Safety depends on the conditions we put in place around us, and therefore upon our ability to provide for necessities and to create a dependable environment.  This includes access to adequate food and healthcare, a roof over our heads, safe functional sanitation, and absence of conflict, among other things.  None of these will be possible without proactive, trustworthy relationships with our neighbors.

With deteriorating social and economic conditions we will be exposed to the failure of institutions and systems we have depended on for basic needs.  Our neighborhoods may feel less safe.  Police protection may become less dependable.  Some individuals might lose their balance and become disoriented.

It is quite possible that we will find it necessary to organize our communities effectively to meet needs and resolve problems.

In a time of social degradation it would, in my view, be wise to think carefully and rationally about the potential for sociopathic violence.

But, let’s be clear: The possibility for violence is only one among a wide range of security concerns.  In the coming weeks I will touch on some of these, including ways we can both prepare for and limit personal encounters with violence.

As we experience increasing disorder, I expect it will become increasingly clear that we must assume responsibility for our own necessities.

Food security will be a major problem if we do not learn how to produce and preserve food.  Hunger is not fun and hungry people are often not very nice.  By the way, March and April are crucial months for planning gardens and preparing the soil in the northern hemisphere.

The greatest test for some may be the sudden recognition that we do not really know how to be self-sufficient.  Our well-being will depend on how we respond to these challenges.  And so, as we find our way forward in a new reality it will become apparent that the requirements of security are in fact the requirements of stable communities.

That said, let’s be realistic about the relative nature of security.

President Dwight Eisenhower, a five star general, reminded us of the limits: “If you want total security,” he said, “go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.”

Like President Eisenhower, Helen Keller also had a way of putting things in perspective.  Being both deaf and blind gave her insights into life that the rest of us would do well to think about.

Security is mostly a superstition,” she said. “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

Fear can interfere with our ability to address problems and to keep our heads clear in difficult circumstances.  However, security concerns certainly do need to be addressed to keep our families safe and our communities productive.

I suggest that a sequence of responsibilities applies to local communities:  Freedom depends on security, which depends on stability, which in turn depends upon honesty, trust, dependability, and forbearance.  All these depend on personal commitment and generosity of spirit.

There is one other essential component as well, which I call “constructive action.”  By this I mean the active condition in which dependable working relationships are built.

Trust and dependability among neighbors can only be functional in the presence of constructive action guided by principle and a shared sense of purpose.

Principle and purpose cannot be constrained.  Stability is only possible when we are in motion.  Constructive action supported by a shared sense of purpose will be the only way to navigate through dark times.

Stability is the necessary foundation for security.  And, constructive action allows us dynamic flexibility in responding to what the world throws at us.

All of this will also depend on our readiness to work closely with people we have differences with.

We cannot be tentative about this.  Building trustworthy communities will not be easy.  Our future depends on it.

Tom

Dear readers:  Please look for the next post on or about April 6.  To receive alerts by email when new posts are available, please click the “Follow” button on the right side of this page.

Food and Water: The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are Americans.  We can do this.

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

Tom

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

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