Whether our ancestors came to this continent by choice or in slavery, or were forcibly separated from their indigenous American roots, all of us are estranged from the lands and lives of our forbears.
For some the escape from oppression or deprivation has taken great determination and willpower. With a strength rooted in the individualism of the survivor, Americans have reconstructed human society on the basis of association, reciprocity, and principle: freedom of thought, economic independence, and a new sense of belonging that transcended social and religious differences.
Despite the hardships, European settlers formed communities and built a vibrant civil society that flourished through the first half of the 19th century.
However, our inquisitive nature and the inclination to range far and wide across the North American continent soon took us away from physical roots and led to the society we know today – mobile, disconnected, alienated, and suspicious of differences.
Cut off from the cultural foundations that provided previous generations with the basis for social stability, personal identity, and moral integrity, our values have become less confident, our standards less clear.
First railways, and then a proliferation of highways, major industrial enterprises and shopping malls facilitated unrestrained pursuit of economic productivity and material gain. Cheap energy made many things possible. Big always seemed better and was certainly more profitable.
Somehow we lost any sense of proportion, purpose, or belonging. A society once anchored by small businesses and community cohesion soon fell apart, morphing into urban sprawl, broken families, and lost dreams.
What have we been thinking? Did we ever really have a vision?
We have lost interest in community, except in isolated rural areas that have found themselves increasingly on the defensive, both socially and economically.
For new immigrants the trials have always been greatest. And for people of color, especially blacks, numerous setbacks keep resurfacing.
Paradoxically, the resulting loss of social cohesiveness has led to diminishing independence and self-sufficiency for virtually everyone.
Many of us have a haunting awareness of the deterioration and decay of American society. Some have responded with inarticulate anger, with little understanding of the historical context or economic forces that are contributing to their unease.
Do we understand the forces of disruption that are confronting us?
Sensing the loss of vitality in an economic order that once provided us with the dignity of self-sufficiency, and watching the deterioration of the civil order we have depended on, we look for something or someone to blame.
In the past year this blog has reflected on a national character that has, historically, embodied conflicting values: generosity and self-indulgence, a welcoming inclusiveness and an unfriendly prejudice. We now find ourselves at a turning point at which hard choices are becoming clear.
The positive ideals that have given us a feeling of dignity are partly veiled from memory, and the need to clarify our identity as a nation has become clear.
Never fully realized, the visionary foundations laid down in 1787 remain ideals. The genius of our Constitution has allowed the nation to grow and mature. Yet, we find ourselves in confusion today, without a vision, and without a sense of community we can trust or depend on.
As we find ourselves confronted with growing instability and uncertainty, I believe this is the only place that offers us effective control over our destiny – our own local communities. It is here that the future will be determined.
Yet, we know very little about how to make community work.
We are presented with a formidable task. Without trustworthy neighbors and coherent communities, how are we to engage constructively with America as a whole – a people uprooted and disorganized in the wasteland of a broken society?
How will we build dependable relationships, a stable civil order, and a safe future for our children and grandchildren?
I do not voice this question as an intellectual exercise, but rather as a personal challenge to my readers as thinking, caring, self-respecting individuals.
This is our turning point. Do we have the will to rise above our differences to engage with our neighbors to meet local needs and resolve shared problems?
Do we have a choice?
I don’t think so.
Please look for the next post on or about January 26.