Finding Our Balance in the Storm

We live in a world of unprecedented complexity.  Add to this a sense of moral responsibility, and life can be imposing!  The conditions we will face in a serious social and economic crisis will create unexpected challenges.  It will be easy to stumble and fall

So, let’s think about how we can respond to extreme conditions with courage and fortitude.  How can we meet adversity in a way that can actually serve as a springboard for constructive action and community-building?

All of us sometimes feel inadequate.  Courage fails us.  It can be difficult to find our footing and focus our energy productively, especially when we are confused or surprised.  And, it can sometimes feel impossible to be supportive of others, many of whom we seem to have little in common with.

Preparing ourselves will be important as we navigate through one of history’s great turning points.  Our ability to function responsibly under difficult circumstances will be challenged again and again.

I believe we have entered a period of upheaval that will be unparalleled in character and global in its dimensions.  I will explain in my forthcoming book why we can expect to experience “a confluence of crises” in the coming years, an extraordinary convergence of inevitable and seemingly unrelated crises.

It is imperative that we meet our tests with dignity, and above all not to give in to fear.  Democracy is by nature unpredictable, and it will be severely tested in the coming years.  Our future will depend on steadfast patience and forbearance if we are to preserve the open discourse and cooperation that liberty requires.

The American Republic is and always was founded on core human values and a positive, constructive attitude.  We cannot stand by and watch our future descend into chaos.

Those who are alive today have been chosen by history to bring America through this critical passage in time.  Preserving the essential qualities of the American Idea will be our great responsibility as we transit the upheavals of a great storm.

We must keep our balance, keep our hearts and minds focused on our ultimate purpose and not allow ourselves to be dragged down by rancor and bitterness.

We will prevail if the means we employ are harmonious with the ends that we seek.

I offer you symbolic imagery below for our place in history – a metaphor for freedom’s truth.  What follows are the final lines of a eulogy I delivered for my father at his memorial service, and a testimony to what I learned from him.  Please think about it:

“He gave me one truly great thing above all else…. And, this he did by teaching me the ways of sailing boats.  He taught me to fly on the wind.  He taught me to sail, to ride high on the blustery gale!

“Without fear we ventured out on the running tide, suspended between liquid and ether, to know the snap of the rigging, the sting of salt spray, and the unyielding rush of a steady keel straining against the wild.  Together we embraced the untamed and raced across the sky.  He was my Dad.”

Throughout life we are subject to the vagaries of a capricious human world, just as we can be subject to the vicissitudes of the wind and sea.  Yet, core principles and steadfast standards remain firmly in place in both worlds if we have the eyes to see.

Understanding the requirements of this truth, we can then spread our wings and learn to fly.

As with a sailing vessel at sea, our identity as human beings can only be realized in action.  It is through action alone that we free ourselves to discover the world we are given, learning as the sailor learns – to engage a fluid and often unpredictable reality with wisdom and flexibility.

Failing this, we will beat ourselves against an implacable and merciless resistance.  An unwillingness to learn will expose us to the storms of life in a rudderless ship and with our rigging in disarray.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about August 25.

A note to new readers:  Blog entries adapted from the forthcoming book are posted on most Fridays here and on the Facebook page.  A project description, an introduction to the book (in draft), and several chapter drafts are available on this page.  Reader engagement on the FB page is substantial.  To receive alerts by email you may click “Follow”.

Liberty, Responsibility, Integrity

I have suggested here that liberty is the outgrowth and result of justice.  I believe true liberty is found when we bring ourselves into alignment with justice.  And, this can only be accomplished through moral responsibility and accountability.

The implications of this proposition are profound.  Let’s unpack it.

I understand moral responsibility to be the ability to respond on the basis of conscience, using personal judgment regarding our responses to the world around us.  And, I hope we will act with moderation, and base our actions on careful consideration of the principles of justice to the best of our ability.

We will not agree on many things, but moral responsibility requires that we think and act carefully with regard for our fellow human beings and the well-being of our communities.

A friend once pointed out to me that the meaning of “responsibility” is suggested in the compound word, “response-ability.”  Without this ability, justice cannot be realized and liberty has no purpose.

We heard from Viktor Frankl several weeks ago in a blog post entitled “The Resilience of Inner Freedom.”  Dr. Frankl emerged from his World War II ordeal in a Nazi death camp with the firm conviction 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.”

For many of us, seeking freedom in our lives is a gradual process of maturing, letting go of dependencies, and trying to make a go at life with what resources we can gather or create.

This much is meaningful 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 – or feeling sorry for ourselves?  Or, do we seek dignity in the face of limitation, assert control over our personal shortcomings, and engage constructively with the world around 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 offer a certain satisfaction.

Still, self-respect cannot wait for things to change.  We are each capable of responding to the world around us with dignity and creativity, and we must.  This requires initiative and constructive action.

Seeking to accept responsibility depends 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 critically important?  Because ultimately all complex problem-solving depends on trust.

This is because, fundamentally, justice depends on trust.

Without trust, justice (and liberty) 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 the future.

A principled integrity gains primacy in our very identity, our character and way of being.  But, it can easily be squandered in a moment of carelessness.

So, there you have it: Integrity is the necessary quality of being; trustworthiness is the substance of that quality; and, responsibility provides the constructive action with which we make it so.

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

To put this in another way, responsibility follows immediately from personal integrity and is the expression of it.  Social order and stability depend on this.  When responsibility is understood and applied to the challenges we face, progress is possible.  Otherwise the integrity of intention is lost.

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

Tom

A note to readers:  I wish to express my gratitude to regular readers, particularly on the Facebook page, for your active engagement and constructive feedback.  I could not reasonably proceed otherwise.  Please look for the next post on or about July 28.

To See for Ourselves

We each have the ability to see and interpret things for ourselves.  Yet, all too often we allow other people (and their agendas) to influence our own best judgment.  Naturally, we are attracted to views that support our preconceived assumptions, but can we really depend on others for the truth?

The dishonesty and deceit of partisan politics runs rampant.  Mass media is particularly insidious, creating a variety of alternative realities and imposing them on us in an incoherent stream of sound bites and disconnected images.

Social media is worse.  When our friends post an opinionated viewpoint on Facebook, does that make it true?  Can we determine our own independence and objectivity?

How can we test the accuracy of cherished perceptions?  What means do we have for seeking truth in the midst of upheaval?

We can never fully comprehend the reality in which we live, physically or spiritually.  But, hidden behind every disruption (and illusion) there is a stability we can depend on.  The world survives repeated cataclysms, always recovering its balance and somehow progressing despite human delusions, duplicity, and chicanery.

In the previous post I proposed a way to keep our balance.  I wrote of a dependable, self-sustaining foundation underlying the whole of reality, both material and spiritual, which has the character of justice.

We would do well to align ourselves with this standard, to unite with its’ principles and meet its’ conditions as best we can.

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.

A balanced and coherent unity can be recognized in both the human and natural worlds, when they are freed from manipulation.

The elegant balance found in nature will, if left alone, always manage itself with a highly sensitive, yet robust and resilient functionality.

Human society has a similarly purposeful balance.  But, this is often distorted by insistent efforts to control things according to our selfish desires, rather than with any sense of the right order of things.

Religion has taught us of the interdependence and integrity of the relationships that form the fabric of human communities.  Science has shown us that the earth’s biosphere is a delicate web of life arranged in an integrated network of networks.

Whether in human affairs or in the natural world, any disruption or harm inflicted upon the balance will incur consequences that may not be immediately apparent.  Yet the repercussions of injury and injustice spread rapidly abroad, as each impact leads to others in widening circles that extend themselves in perpetuity.

Why is this important to our understanding of freedom?  Understanding the fundamental form and function of things allows us to see things for ourselves without undue influence from others.

While dialog and consultation can be important safeguards, the ability to recognize the consequences of events for ourselves, “to see the end in the beginning,” allows us to determine our own course of action freely, independently.

And, recognizing the far-flung after-effects of our own deeds provides us with 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 serious 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 parts of the truth.

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

Always mindful of the foundation of justice, which is a given, (and rechecking our own motives periodically), will pay ever greater dividends in constructive outcomes and the avoidance of unnecessary trouble.

The framework of justice is a gift that will not go away.

However destructive unjust acts may be, the foundations of reality remain trustworthy, unperturbed and uncompromised – even in the darkest night.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about July 14.

New readers please note that posts adapted from the forthcoming book will usually appear on Fridays at both the main blog site and the Facebook page.  To receive emailed alerts, click “Follow” on this page.

Personal Integrity and the American Future

We each have a sense of self, an understanding of ourselves in our own minds.  This sense of self is challenged by all the conflicts and incongruities we are forced to contend with as individuals – between freedom and responsibility, the material and the moral, and among all the concerns in our lives.

Consciously or otherwise, each of us adopts a moral / ethical system upon which to base decisions and guide our way in the world.  We can choose religious guidance or a philosophy assumed or devised by ourselves.

This can be highly refined or only rudimentary.  Either way, it is all we have to moderate conflicting interests and desires.

The moral philosopher Mary Midgley describes the problem in an interesting way:

“I am suggesting,” she writes, “…that human freedom centers on being a creature able, in some degree, to act as a whole in dealing with… conflicting desires.  This may sound odd, because freedom sounds like an advantage, and having conflicting desires certainly does not.

“But it is not a new thought that freedom has a cost.  And the conflicting desires themselves are of course not the whole story.  They must belong to a being which in some way owns both of them, is aware of both, and can therefore make some attempt to reconcile them.

“…The endeavor must be to act as a whole, rather than as a peculiar, isolated component coming in to control the rest of the person.  Though it is only an endeavor – though the wholeness is certainly not given ready-made and can never be fully achieved, yet the integrative struggle to heal conflicts and to reach towards this wholeness is surely the core of what we mean by human freedom.”

Whether it is weak or strong, sloppy or consistent, or we even think about it very much, our personal morality serves as the grounding for both our sense of identity and our actions.  It is impossible to function without it.

It is our integrity as “whole persons” that resists the onslaught of disintegrating forces in our lives.

We lose control of our independence when we succumb to the fragmentation imposed by the incoherent impact of advertising and mass media that constantly bombards us.

This is particularly challenging I think for those who choose to disregard the major religious traditions, all of which offer rich and textured guidance.  For the reader who is religiously inclined and grounded in the original texts, the way forward is generally well-lit – at least in principle.

If the reader is not religious, the task will be to ground oneself in common decency, to focus on the highest good, to discipline oneself to abide by an ethical code, and to bring healing and encouragement to those around us.

Let’s be clear: This is very difficult, and especially when we rely solely on our own limited knowledge and perspective.

Each of us is called to participate in the affairs of the community we have chosen as our home, to engage with our neighbors respectfully and to encourage and empower those around us.

Whatever our personal vision or intent, it is important that we think carefully about our means in relation to the ends we wish to seek.  We can only ensure the integrity of our purpose by means that are in harmony with our purpose.

Mahatma Gandhi said it best: “They say ‘means are after all means’.  I would say ‘means are after all everything’.  As the means so the end.”

This assertion was stated somewhat differently, but just as explicitly by the economist and political philosopher F. A. Hayek, when he wrote: “The principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.”

These are not theoretical statements.  They express a profound truth.  The integrity of means must always provide the standard of reference in every endeavor.

If each of us holds our personal integrity clearly in focus, attends to moral responsibility, and respects our neighbor as we ourselves would wish to be respected, we should not find ourselves at odds with justice.

In the end, the way we respond to interpersonal differences will determine who we are and the freedom we are capable of fostering.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 2.

First Steps to Self-Reliance

The struggle for freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty set citizens against autocratic or totalitarian authority.  Resistance to unrestrained power and the self-serving motivations of governments is a natural response of the human spirit.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should function in the interests of their citizens, and to believe that political leadership should only be elected on a short-term basis.

This raises an interesting question for those of us living in a democratic republic.

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

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.

Fortunately the Founders recognized the danger and designed a decision-making structure that 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.

Even so, the Constitution is only a document and a legal structure.  It cannot provide effective governance without the understanding, civility and cooperation of an educated electorate.

After two hundred years of experience we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

“The will of the people” often turns out to be the will of the most dominant portion of the citizenry, usually the majority, but quite possibly those with overbearing economic and financial firepower.

The Founders took pains to control potential abuses of power.  As I have written in a chapter entitled “Freedom and Order”, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized the importance of limiting such dangers in an uncertain future.

Liberty has come to mean the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others.

This is an attractive ideal, but is not so simple in practice.  It was controversial in 1787 and it is controversial now.

Finding ourselves facing the tensions and complexities of the present turning point, I believe we would do well to step back and reassess the principles with which we can best regain our poise and sense of self as a nation.

Throughout our history the world has recognized a generosity of spirit that is fundamental to the American character.  This is an attitude – a way of thinking and being – and it is important.

To actualize this spirit will require both courage and patience.  The path to self-reliance and personal empowerment begins with problem-solving and cooperation with our neighbors.  And, this will be hard work.

When we tackle our local needs and challenges together we will learn by doing.

Let’s start by doing first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to get past misperceptions, and then to rise above our differences to resolve problems and address local needs.

2) To identify the diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among our neighbors – to do what needs to be done.  Survival might depend on it.

3) To listen to one another; determine and clarify our share values, and explore the extent to which we can pursue constructive action.  Confronting basic needs together, shoulder-to-shoulder, will prepare the foundations for trust and dependability.

We should not wait.  All these steps will quickly become critical when the going gets tough.  And, the effort to learn the skills of living together will give us a more realistic and coherent vision for the future.

It is within our own souls that we will first build the confidence to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we reach out with a generous attitude to friend and stranger alike.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about May 5:  The resilience of inner freedom.

Freedom or Paralysis

We often think of freedom as a principle without consideration for its requirements or even of what it actually means.  Impediments to freedom are experienced in many forms.  Personal obstacles can be oppressive.  The constraints and obligations imposed by our workplace, our families, and society in general are familiar to everyone.

Freedom for the individual, it seems, is conditional.  Yet, we can choose to respond with maturity and self-control.  We generally understand and accept the limitations we experience, however much they chafe.  And there are principles we cherish despite the challenges they present.

There is much to talk about here.  But, I wish to focus on our response to life’s inevitable constraints, especially in the context of crises, and the choices we can make if we wish to work effectively with others.

Most of us cooperate with most of what society asks of us most of the time.  We accept the rules that regulate athletic contests, vehicular traffic, and commerce.

Rules make it possible to ensure fairness, to strategize and compete.  It is the relative certainty of fairness and predictability that allows businesses to plan and invest in the future, an economy to be productive, and our personal lives to be sane.

Similarly, it is honesty, candor, and civility that are most conducive to constructive dialog and decision-making in any organization or community.  These may not be “rules”, but they are values we cannot do without.  They are shared norms that lead to trust.

When we are confronted with chaotic and unpredictable conditions, our first step can always be to address the need for conditions that allow effective communication and encourage practical dialogue.

Progress toward social and economic reconstruction will require that we work together in a civil manner, regardless of our differences.  Problem-solving cannot take place otherwise.

Some folks think organized cooperation as impossible.  But, it will be impossible to ensure safety or meet basic needs in our communities if our differences preclude collaboration.

The iconic conservative philosopher Richard Weaver, who we heard from in the previous post, would say this goal represents a formidable task; that it would require us to confront a national character uncomfortable with form, resistant to leadership, and impatient with any systematic process.  He called America “a nation which egotism has paralyzed.”

We have seen how egotism has diverted our attention from serious purpose in our infatuation with expensive toys, in our descent into personal and public indebtedness, and in a sordid media voyeurism that forgoes all pretensions of privacy.

Weaver called it “the spirit of self, which has made the [citizen] lose sight of the calling of his task and to think only of aggrandizement.”

Is it this “spirit of self” that has led us to the meaningless disorder in which we now find ourselves, where self-indulgence overwhelms rational judgment, motivation and foresight?

I see some truth in this, but I believe we must look more deeply into the character of a people who have risen to every test in the past.

Americans are smart, resilient, and creative.  In the difficult years ahead I expect we will gain a deeper understanding of freedom and will respond with a maturity imposed by necessity.

All form has structural limits and all limits provide the means for leverage.  It is the consistent dependability of this reality 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 the constraints of necessity, (which include our own values), we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

Our ability to exercise discipline overcomes the limitations imposed by nature and society.  Surely the discipline to leverage inspiration against the constraints we encounter in life provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material difficulties in life.

We cannot leap without a firm foundation beneath our feet.  We cannot fly without wings.

It is in the encounter between discipline and necessity that we find the ground of freedom.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 21:  The Freedom Within.

Illusion Over Liberty?

Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable.  Some truths are not pretty.  But, revitalizing our core values and the restoration of a once vibrant civic spirit will require that we recognize what has been lost and why.

The current difficulties have developed over a long period of time.  The gradual loss of a spirited civic life has left most Americans without a shared sense of purpose or the interwoven fabric of community relationships.

Americans have become obsessed with immediacy.  We want what we want and we want it now.  We seek to be entertained with melodrama and spectacle, or violence and degraded behavior.

We find ourselves dominated by materialism and immersed in a homogenized culture with little conscious identity.

Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on material appearances.  Even the once humiliating liabilities personal debt seems to be of no concern.  We live on false appearances bought with future income.

Strange as it may seem, we have essentially abandoned the future. Where is there a purposeful commitment to neighborhood, to responsibility for local needs?

The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic represented by this posture have influenced almost every aspect of our national life.  An undisciplined attitude has led us to the brink of financial disaster, and our insistence on freedom from institutional and cultural restraints is fraught with contradictions.

For example, our respect for the individual requires that we honor the independent integrity and privacy of each individual, and yet we have readily abandoned this principle out of fear for our own safety.

Similarly, we fail to see that privacy and integrity are sacrificed when we welcome obscenity and titillation into our lives on television, in film and web-based media.

Personal integrity is lost to gossip, backbiting, and fascination with “the raw stuff of life,” in the words of the conservative American philosopher Richard Weaver:

The extremes of passion and suffering are served up to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home.  The area of privacy has been abandoned because the definition of person has been lost; there is no longer a standard by which to judge what belongs to the individual man.  Behind the offense lies the repudiation of sentiment in favor of immediacy.

Richard Weaver wrote these words in the late 1940s, before television existed.  And he was not the first to make such an observation.  A quarter of a century earlier the renown Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw commented that an American has no sense of privacy.  He does not know what it means.  There is no such thing in the country.”

Weaver warned Americans of a self-destructive streak that would ultimately lead to crisis.

He pointed out our fascination with specialization, with the parts of things at the expense of understanding and respecting the whole.  He argued that an obsession with fragmentary parts without regard for their function necessarily leads to instability.

Such instability is insidious, penetrating all relationships and institutions.  In Weaver’s words, “It is not to be anticipated that rational self-control will flourish in the presence of fixation upon parts.”

Until we understand how things function as a whole we will have no capacity for good judgment and no control over outcomes.

This is not the fault of government – except to the extent that government, managed by people like ourselves, has joined wholeheartedly in the party.  In a democracy it is tragically easy for government policy to degenerate until it serves the worst inclinations of a self-interested electorate.

Consequently we have descended into the financial profligacy of recent decades and are now the most indebted nation in history by a wide margin.

Ours has been a twisted path with a clearly visible end.  Yet, the inevitable outcome remains ignored.

If we are to recover our balance, it is essential that we recognize the attitudes and thoughtlessness that got us here.  Will we continue to choose illusion over liberty?  Would we rather be ruined than to think?

It will never be too late to turn the corner – to clear our minds, to straighten up and step forward with purpose.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 7: Responsibility with dignity, or apathy and paralysis?

A note to new readers: A project description, an introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts are available on this page.

America: Identity, Direction, Ultimate Purpose

Americans have been watching change accelerate.  These are not normal times.  I have been thinking about what has changed and why.  I’m especially interested in the ways our identity and character as a people have unfolded over time.

Is the change we have been experiencing in recent years all bad?  Can there be both positive and negative dimensions to events that force us to focus our minds and rethink our vision, direction, and values?

The inevitability of plural and conflicting values tests character.  While it is natural for values to be influenced by social conditions or challenged by events, it is when we stop paying attention that we are caught by surprise.

Living in a pluralistic society is a challenge and a responsibility.

It is with this concern that I wish to review some historical viewpoints.  I have no intention of passing judgment in this forum.  But, I think it is important to consider how we came to be where we are, and this is one dimension of my forthcoming book.

The American story is one of visionary hopefulness, realized in fits and starts over the course of more than two centuries.  It has been part courageous and inspiring, and in other aspects both baffling and troubling.  It is a work in progress.

Two concerns that I think are pivotal in any consideration of our national identity include our understanding of the vision and principles of the Founders, and, secondly, our mutual respect as citizens who respect that vision.

Personal independence and acceptance of individual differences are concerns of great significance to Americans.

Yet, there has been a clear divergence between the vibrant and spontaneous civic life that characterized much of early American history, and during the same period a record of violence and brutality revealing an arrogance that defied accountability.

Who are we, really?  Who do we want to be?

Anti-social behavior will evoke revulsion in most of us.  But, historically the dark side of individualistic egotism has been socially acceptable, even conspicuous, in racist attitudes and practices toward American Indians, African-Americans and other minorities.  We have an painful legacy of violence, accentuated by the degradation of slavery, drugs and prostitution.

And, the destruction we are seeing today is very great.  We have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent decades.

We live in a time of extremes.  Consider: Mass murder and sexual violence are escalating at an appalling rate.  Prior to 1960 mass murder in the United States was rare, with no more than several incidences per decade.  This has changed steadily since then.

In 2015 there were 333 mass shootings in the United States and 13,485 deaths by gunshot, with 697 children and 2,694 teens killed or injured.  In 2016 there were 385 mass shootings and 15,054 deaths by gunshot, with 670 children and 3,114 teens killed or injured. (Source: shootertracker.com)

This is but one example among many of the social degradation and abasement we can see all around us.

The current break down of social order has been complicated process.  The economic abandonment of working Americans and the destruction of the middle class has been taking place over several decades with little notice.  I believe parenting is also a factor.

A lack of perceptiveness and foresight among our political leadership and financial professionals has undermined social and economic stability on a broad scale.  Institutions we have depended upon are facing financial bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

How is it that we have so completely lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world?

We now find ourselves confronted by the practical consequences of material loss, fear and anger.  Most importantly, we have lost our sense of direction and ultimate purpose – and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.

The spirit is wounded.

If we wish to regain a civil society in which we join one another to resolve problems, we will need to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences – to face the complex dangers that now confront us.

Tom

Note to readers:  In the coming weeks we will consider implications suggested by our national past through the eyes of historian Niall Ferguson, political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, and conservative commentator Richard Weaver.  Please look for the next post on or about February 24.

Freedom of Thought, Integrity of Values

For most of us any threat to our expression of belief or opinion would be a threat to our personal integrity.  Freedom of thought and expression is a hallmark of liberty and fundamental to a free society.  This post raises questions about how the assumptions we make about beliefs and opinions can impact freedom, both our own and that of others.

Our personal freedom, however, depends on accurate information, including the accuracy of our assumptions about the interests, beliefs, and views of others.

What do our assumptions have to do with freedom? My answer is that our ability to engage effectively, safely, with real people in the real world, both friend and foe, depends on accuracy.

Assumptions are beliefs about facts (or the views of others) that may or may not be true.  My suggestion here is that unexamined assumptions can limit our knowledge of the reality we are dealing with, and thus our ability to respond effectively.  Inaccurate assumptions interfere with the free flow of information, which limits our personal autonomy and independence.

And so I ask you: If we have not investigated and fully understood opposing points of view, how can we engage with and influence others effectively?  How can we question their assumptions?

I do not suggest that agreement is necessary.  That will often be impossible.  But, being mindful of the dangers of untested assumptions can protect us from misunderstandings or worse.

Questions of judgment often involve complex circumstances and depend on information coming from multiple sources.  Sometimes complexity can be aggravating, but if we value the integrity of our beliefs and our role in the world, there is no alternative to pursuing accuracy.  After all, our personal views reflect our identity as decent and intelligent people.

Problems often catch us by surprise as a consequence of assumptions we did not realize we were making.  This can happen socially or politically.  It happens in science.  I have raised a variety of questions in recent blog posts about historical assumptions that I think deserve a closer look.

These included supposed promises that have long been accepted as inevitable by western society and by Americans in particular: The assumption, for example, that rational governance is possible if we simply trust the wisdom of experts, or that nature will eventually submit completely to human control.

Today we face an extraordinary series of interrelated crises that call these and many other assumptions into question.  Political dysfunction, social and economic disarray, and a nearly total lack of civility and cooperation, leave us enmeshed in frustration.

As regular readers know, I have been suggesting that local communities provide the only effective opportunity for Americans to seek local security in the midst of social disorder.

This is a very challenging proposition.  But, I do not believe we have a choice.  The lessons of civility, trustworthiness and cooperative problem-solving may have to be learned by force of necessity.  Our survival might depend on them.

Teaming up with a diverse group of neighbors to meet shared needs will not be easy.  It will require personal courage and initiative.  Understanding does not necessarily lead to agreement, but it lubricates and sustains working relationships.  It is the path to genuine trust.

The greatest challenge for building community in a disintegrating society will not be differences of opinion, but differences in our values.

We each have numerous values, perhaps more than we realize.  Values are not casual ideas or choices; many are deeply rooted in our interests and needs. If we are to live together, certain essential values must be shared; others might challenge our patience, but not our trust.

To find safety in community we will need to seriously examine our assumptions in the clear light of honest dialog.  I believe we will find more agreement than we expect, but we cannot delay. Dependable community will depend on genuine understanding.

We must never abandon our values, but rather control the manner in which we manage them.  Each of us carries a personal perspective that will contribute to the character and wisdom of the whole – as long as we refrain from allowing ego or emotion to overwhelm the context in which we find ourselves.

We must learn how to work with others, to influence one another little by little, and to live with grace and charity.

Tom

Note to regular readers:  Please watch for the next post on or about February 10.

Freedom and Limitation

Questions about the meaning of liberty and freedom have been with us for centuries. Even now, we are confronted by contradictions and constraints.

In the coming months we will ponder the challenges of transcending our limitations – and keeping a positive attitude in difficult circumstances.

As we proceed, I will refer the implications of religious faith to individual judgment. Certainly belief in an all-knowing God imposes constraints on our decisions and behavior.  It can also liberate the heart and mind in entirely transcendent ways.

Here we will focus instead on the spirit of freedom as it can be experienced by thoughtful people of every stripe, religious and non-religious alike, as we engage and prevail over the obstacles and strictures that present themselves in our personal, social, and material lives.

Of particular significance in our present circumstances, our relationship with nature looms large. Many Americans have a great love for the extraordinary beauty of this land.  And, our future depends on it.  This is our home and source of sustenance, yet we sometimes seem to forget our dependence on it.

Two hundred years ago scientists, philosophers, and politicians all expected that nature would ultimately come under human control.  Human beings certainly do have a unique capacity to manipulate nature.  But, as science has begun to understand the complexity of natural systems, it has become clear that the balanced order of nature must be sustained to ensure the survival of life on earth.

Setting aside the controversy surrounding climate change for the moment, the idea that nature has limits when it is sufficiently disrupted seems to make sense.

When I was a child there were two billion people alive on this planet.  Now, having recently reached retirement age, I understand the number is seven billion and growing rapidly.  This has taken place in a single lifetime.  My lifetime.

I cannot see how seven billion human beings, along with a massive agricultural and industrial footprint, can fail to impose a strain on the capacity of nature to provide the clean air and water we all depend on.

I believe this question is worth thinking about.  Yet, any suggestion that absolute freedom has collided with limits in the real world seems to cause a violently negative reaction.

What is this about?

If freedom appears to be threatened by science, this would be no small matter.  And so a disagreement that appeared at first to simply raise questions as to material fact has instead descended into bitter accusations of conspiracy, treason, and dishonor.

Am I wrong to think that this reaction is about more than climate change?  The emotional climate suggests that freedom itself must be under attack.

There are many aspects of our lives that impose on our freedom.  Physical reality is just one.

Today we find ourselves colliding with limitations on many levels, personal, social, economic: the loss of privacy and economic freedom, violence on our streets, aging infrastructure, conflicts over land and water rights, insolvent financial institutions, and massively indebted governments.

Shall I go on?  It gets to be crazy-making, you know?

Emotion coalesces into a rage focused on those who may have effectively driven us off a cliff.  Who is responsible for all this, we ask?  Bankers?  Politicians?  Corporate executives?  Are these not people who are supposed to understand what they are doing?

Whether it is the limits to nature that are in question or a deteriorating social and economic order, clearly the cherished expectations of ultimate human prosperity are no longer assured.

The prospects for peace do not look so great either.

We are confronted by crises that appear to be approaching from every direction.  It is a time for each of us to begin adjusting to new conditions, new questions, and new ways of thinking. We owe it to our children to keep our wits about us.

We are Americans.  We are capable, imaginative, constructive.  Coming to understand freedom in a way that transcends human limitations has become very important.

We each have the capacity to think for ourselves.  We must commit ourselves to the independent investigation of truth, and not allow ourselves to be overly influenced by others.

The future and the responsibility are ours to claim.

Tom

Next post: The Loss of Ultimate Purpose

Note to regular readers: I have been rewriting the draft introduction for the book and would appreciate your feedback.  You can find it on this page.  Please watch for the next post on or about January 27.

The Will to Freedom

When America was first being settled by Europeans, the emerging identity of the new nation was characterized by a hopeful confidence in the future and a belief that freedom would lead ultimately to general prosperity and peace.

A new understanding of history had, in the words of political scientist and philosopher Michael Allen Gillespie, “opened up the possibility that human beings need not merely accommodate themselves to the natural world.  Instead they could become masters of nature and reshape it to meet their needs through the methodological application of will and intelligence. This new understanding of the relation of man and nature had profound implications for man’s own understanding of his place in time.”

The “will to freedom” as conceived by philosophers and treasured by American settlers and colonists, thus became the dominant theme on a continent that seemed unlimited, but for the noble peoples it displaced.

We have not been willing to tolerate anything that stands in our way, including those once proud and independent indigenous American peoples who, despite heroic resistance, were forced to give ground to the relentless advance of western expansion.

The contradictions hidden in the vision of absolute freedom and unlimited prosperity have remained largely unconscious and unresolved, whether they be social, economic, or physical.

Forced by extraordinary circumstances, our attachment to illogical assumptions and inflexible absolutes is today pitching us into a confusion of emotionally charged philosophical and political conflicts.

Several related questions were raised in previous posts.

Do we still think we can make ourselves “master and possessor of nature” without regard for the coherent balance that physical life depends upon?

Is absolute freedom even possible, given the complexity and destructive potential that science and technology have introduced into our lives?

What do we expect of technology?  What of the vulnerability of aging infrastructure we depend on for electricity and water every day, or the steadily growing impact of robotics on the economy and jobs, or swiftly advancing surveillance technologies that are capable of prying into every corner of our lives?

Finally, what do the changing realities we face today suggest about the practical meaning of freedom and responsibility – and the necessity for cooperative problem-solving?  Can we collaborate with one another to address these questions and retake control of our destiny as wise, creative, and courageous people?

The historic questions have taken on a contemporary quality, but they are essentially the same questions.  Earlier generations evaded these questions by exalting science and materialism above all else.  Consequently, the denial of a rational God and the suppression of a religious perspective diverted attention from a logical contradiction that transcended philosophy and belief.

When the constraints and limitations imposed by belief in an all-knowing and all-powerful God were disposed of with the cry of “God is dead!” they were immediately replaced by constraints and limitations imposed by belief in a supposedly mechanical natural world.

It was, of course, assumed that science would soon master nature, human beings would succeed in perfecting rational governance, and humankind would realize absolute freedom.

But, nature proved to be far more complex and unpredictable than was expected.  And, having rejected the God of traditional religion, humankind has found itself confronted with a severe discipline imposed by nature, and without the grace or guidance of a loving Teacher.

And “rational governance”?  Well, we have certainly witnessed in graphic terms the manner in which self-appointed leaders of “rational thought” led us into the totalitarian nightmares of communism, fascism, and Nazism.

Please make no mistake: This past is not far behind us.

If we are to reconsider the cataclysms of the first half of the twentieth century and the horrific consequences of the many bungled attempts to control human destiny – politically, economically, and scientifically – we might start to see the future more clearly.  Indeed, we might then avoid potential disasters before they befall us.

We cannot neatly sidestep such fundamental unresolved questions, which I would suggest have embedded themselves deeply in the American psyche.

Agreement concerning the details is not required, but taking responsibility for the practical consequences of our actions in the real world is of immense significance.

Tom

Next post: Transcending Our Limitations

A note to readers:  Please watch for the next post on or about January 13.  Regular readers can register for email alerts by clicking “Follow” on this page.

A Conflicted Legacy

What makes America different?  During the formative years of colonial America something extraordinary was happening in the world.  Beginning in Europe, new ways of thinking were breaking free from authoritarian institutions and belief systems.  A creative energy was released that came to America with a rising flood of immigration.

The new ethos was grounded in the belief that a rational humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, must be capable of discovering effectual truth.

From this conviction there arose a faith that humankind would, in the words of philosopher and political scientist Michael Allen Gillespie, ultimately secure “universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.”

The idea of a promising future for humankind was powerful, inspiring confidence in the potential to free ourselves from the shackles of an oppressive past.  And, for the thousands of immigrants disembarking in the New World, a working knowledge of 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 emerging American identity.

Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American character, 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 moneyed 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 ideas continued to generate a confident vision on both sides of the Atlantic through most of the nineteenth century.

While much of the brutality perpetrated against Black and Native American people was ignored by Americans of European descent, the horrific violence of the Civil War shocked the Nation.  And then came the twentieth century.

Professor Gillespie 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 prevailed during 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 have drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt.

What happened?

I believe we have tried to walk away from the past with little understanding of what happened.  Both the fear of debt and the destruction of global war have been largely repressed and lost to memory.

The long history of degrading abuses suffered by immigrants and people of color is often forgotten and rarely addressed.  The promises of equality and freedom remain, but are only apparent through a haze of inconsistency and uncertainty.

The practical limits of freedom in a complex world have started to close in on our lives, unforgiving in the absence of clear thinking and moral responsibility.

Are we ready to reflect on where we have come from and to confront the oncoming confluence of crises with responsibility, and with our eyes wide open?

Tom

On New Years’ weekend:  The Will to Freedom

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