The Courage to Engage

If Americans are to create a future we can live with, where personal freedom is protected and prosperity has a foundation in civil order, we must overcome the alienation from each other that prevails today.  Accurate knowledge vanishes when we fail to investigate independently—engaging, listening, seeking true understanding.

Furthermore, significant disagreement on a single issue, or several, does not define another person.  When false assumptions dominate, we never discover how dependable another person might be, especially when we are all in trouble.

If someone is abusive or disrespectful, leave them to themselves.  But many others will respond with dignity.  

Avoiding dialog and lacking courage, we have entered a downward spiral into estrangement.  Americans have always been a contentious lot, but trust has been deteriorating for decades.  It has reached extremes that are untenable.

Without civility and trust, civil order has no footing.  Emotional well-being and the ability to cope with stress are faltering.

We see this all around us.

The present crisis is real and it is complex.  It is physical; it is social; it is moral.  Something is happening to us, and it is not normal.  It cannot be fixed by a superhero—nor by a legion of self-assured politicians.

In the face of societal disintegration, we are helpless without a kind heart and a responsible attitude.

Can we find the courage and generosity of spirit that give us strength?  Can we settle down emotionally with the grace and grit we are surely capable of?

No enduring solutions will be gained by destructive means.  Nobody needs to tell us that.

The United States has been a nation of laws for a reason.  Ethical foundations offer stability, especially in the context of conflict, controversy, and change.

As we all know, cultural values necessarily compete.  Law can be debated, negotiated, altered.  But the rule of law itself—as a fundamental principle and the foundation of order—cannot be corrupted without the eventual collapse of a civilization.

In the midst of turmoil we must tread carefully, judiciously.  Because once the foundations of civil order fracture, there will be no safety and no easy recovery.

The vision embedded in the United States Constitution might not be in the interests of a few.  But most Americans clearly desire the justice and order the Constitution facilitates. And we long for dependability.

Will we rise above our differences to the extent necessary for rational decision-making?  Do we seek safety and cooperation in our local communities?

Civilization depends on a unity characterized by dependability, generosity of spirit, and mutual trust.  If this is our purpose, we will face our challenges with civility and determination.

We will commit to constructive working relationships with our fellow citizens—however great the obstacles.  Our personal integrity, the safety of our families, and a livable future all depend on this.

Let me be clear:  A rational response to the deepening crisis will concentrate our attention on the creation, strengthening and survivability of authentic communities.

The character of the American future will depend on our readiness to engage in constructive action.  This means working shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbors, whoever they may be.

Building trust is an imposing challenge.  It will take time.  So, creating real community begins with negotiating genuine agreements, respecting personal sensitivities, and the courage to engage responsibly.

This is not easy.  Responsibility never is.

With loyalty, discipline and determination, I submit to you that something far better, far nobler, something perhaps beyond our present ability to imagine, will emerge from the present turmoil.

If, however, we cannot work together effectively to build safe local communities with people we have differences with, we will condemn ourselves to the only possible alternative: a collapsing civilization distinguished by fear and violence, a nightmare for our children, and a land where no principles, no values, no stable order can be realized.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about September 1.

A reminder to readers: A project description and several sample chapters from the coming book are posted in draft at the top of the homepage.

The Spirit of Liberty

For more than two hundred years the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope, as a source of creative energy and as an evolving expression of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality. People everywhere have been attracted to the vision it represents. Yet, the extraordinary challenges that confront the American people today mark a turning point and a defining test of America’s place in history. 

We have entered a dark time.  Confronted with economic instability, social disorder, and widespread distrust, it can be easy to forget the unique stature of the United States and the unfolding role it has played in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization. Our economic well-being as a nation has been weakening for decades, and the generosity of spirit for which we have long been known has dimmed.  Confidence in the future is shaken.

There is more than enough blame to go around and we all know about it.  What is essential, however, is that we recover our traditional spirit of generosity and resilience. There is truth in the unity of our national character—in our humanity and the dignity that has always given us courage and self-respect.

Few have expected what we are seeing now.  The future has been altered in unimaginable ways.  Even so, America is blessed with a constitutional order that respects the individual, seeks to protect both minorities and majorities, and makes room for diversity, innovation and creativity. 

The genius of the United States Constitution lies in a simplicity that imposes minimal restraint and allows maximum freedom—all the while requiring moral responsibility and functional cooperation.

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

The Constitution presents itself today as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is anchored in the wisdom of its legislative order, the protections it ensures for the individual, and the means with which it enables constructive change. These are among the essential elements of a civil order that provides Americans with stability and the opportunity to forge a rational future.

The American Founders recognized that the liberty secured through constitutional order will only be as strong as the citizens who make it so.

In what form must this strength manifest itself? 

The unique character of the Constitution depends on moral responsibility and the basic virtues we all know about: Truthfulness, trustworthiness, justice, forbearance—and a prudence that respects the interdependence of these virtues. This expectation of the future is written into the fabric of the American idea. 

Yet we are confronted with unsettling questions in the 21st century.

A multitude of severe crises have brought immense pressures to bear.  Will civil order be torn apart by resentments, distrust and frustration?  Will the nation survive as the constitutional republic envisioned by its founders? Do we have the fortitude and grit to learn the lessons and reaffirm the vision that will lead to a genuine American renewal?  We are living at a pivotal moment.

Will Americans embrace the spirit required of us by the founders, which alone can lead to unity of purpose?  Or will we succumb to a rigidity born of insecurity and fear?

Neither philosophical convictions or the correction of mistakes can be addressed effectively until we answer this question in dialogue, as well as in our own hearts.  Civil disarray and social degradation will remain with us until it is.

Do we believe in the American tradition of good will—the expectation that people of differing persuasions can unite around a common cause?  Do we have the patience to rebuild a national unity that transcends the differences that always exist among a free people?

Or, to put the question another way, will we do what is necessary to make the United States of America whole and to prepare it for the future we deserve?

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about August 1.

Note to readers: This post is lifted from Chapter One, “American Crucible”, in the forthcoming book. The entire chapter is available in draft at the top of the homepage:  http://www.freedomstruth.net.

The Road to Liberty

We often make assumptions about the meaning of liberty.  But have we considered its questions and requirements?  Can we truly embrace meaning without examining its foundation?

I’ve been challenging you to seek true liberty, rather than the benefits we suppose it will provide.  And, I have focused on the role of the virtues in the function of the United States Constitution, a concern argued forcefully by the Founders.

Some people think a concern for the virtues is tiresome or frivolous.  Who are these people?  How do they live?  What do they know?

Do we expect to defend liberty without principles or conditions?

The Founders identified personal virtues required by the Constitution.  They knew the Constitution, which imposed almost no limits on personal freedom, could not function without ethical behavior on the part of citizens.

They said so in writing.

Why?

At a time when the horizon is darkening, when growing disruptions dominate our lives, the virtues take on renewed significance.  They include trustworthiness, dependability, patience, forbearance, cooperation and courage—among others.

And the most important is truthfulness.  Because truthfulness is the foundation for all the rest.

While these are personal principles requiring personal commitment, civilization itself depends on them.

For Americans who care about the future this is a practical matter.  The virtues are the fundamental requirements of a civilized, prosperous and secure order.

But they are more than this.  They are markers that identify human character.  They inform us of the inherent attributes of a persons’ beliefs and intentions, the moral and ethical basis for their actions and reactions.

I suggest that these are firm attributes among those who have chosen to serve their country and their neighbors with selfless intent.

Words are not enough.  Honesty and dependability, patience and good will, are revealed in action—the behavior of trustworthy people.

There is nothing we need now more than trust.

And, yes, there is a bottom line:  The truly trustworthy person knows this about him- or herself!  We are trustworthy when no one is watching; truthful when no one else will know the difference.

We show patience and forbearance when no one else would do so.

The virtues bring our lives into harmony with the way of the world when things are right.  They are consistent with justice.  They are the foundations of order.

Who would imagine that liberty could be built on the foundation of anything else?

It is long past time to stop listening to gossip and easy talk.  We need to turn to our neighbors, whoever they may be, and get down to the real work.

Local communities are the building-blocks of civilization, and the virtues are the means that govern outcomes.  It is time for action.

Nothing will change until each of us takes initiative.

We cannot know the needs of a neighborhood, a community or town, without engaging directly and respectfully with our neighbors.

Each of us is responsible for investigating the truth—or withholding judgment if this is not possible.  We cannot afford to see the world through the eyes of others, or to act on unproven assumptions.

Nothing—no person and no problem—can be understood without asking questions.  Dialog and perseverance pave the road to liberty.

If we are not ready for the real work of living in a civilized society, what are we complaining about?

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about July 4.

Note to new readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage:  www.freedomstruth.net.

The Freedom Within

We are human.  We have been given free-will, the ability to make choices and to act with reasoned judgment.  While our freedom will always be limited by circumstances, our choices are what define our character and identity.  Without freedom of choice there can be no morality.  And the choices we make, whether thoughtful or thoughtless, determine our behavior and demonstrate our integrity.

Self-confidence in our personal integrity is of paramount importance for everyone, and this can be disturbed by life’s many challenges. It is often impossible to avoid the tests life throws at us, but it can be helpful to recognize the potentially positive way such disruptions can lead to personal maturity.

Responding constructively to a crisis can be very difficult.  Crises challenge our personal sense of integrity.  We all want to have confidence in our own integrity.  But what is the basis for personal integrity?

Upon what foundation do we ground our sense of integrity?

I suggest that ones’ feelings of integrity rest upon our understanding of the underlying reality of things, whether or not our perceptions are accurate.

Self-confidence depends on our beliefs about the way things are supposed to be.  When we feel aligned with reality as we understand it—with truth as we know it—we experience a sense of moral soundness.

But this begs a question:  As individual persons whose perceptions of reality differ from one another—sometimes substantially—how can we be sure of moral integrity?

Should we align our thinking with that of other people?  Can we rely on someone else’s assertions about truth?  Or should we investigate truth ourselves—independently?

Do we have the maturity to see with our own eyes and think with our own minds? I hope we will recognize the importance of an independent attitude, as we attempt to keep our balance amidst the uncertainties and challenges of a disrupted world.

We are members of family and community.  As caring people, our choices are influenced by a sense of responsibility to and for others. 

Surely we know that integrity—and freedom—are impossible without responsibility.  We cannot walk away from a crisis or avoid the necessities of material circumstances.

Our personal lives are embedded in a social context.  And we are all suffering from a damaged social order.  So, my question to you concerns our ability to see where things are headed.

Do we recognize that the “American idea”, and the fragile order that generations of Americans have toiled to build, will be impossible to reconstruct if it is torn down?

Constructive change depends on an orderly process:  Respectful dialogue and consultation will allow the investigation of creative ideas and genuine concerns. 

America depends now on cool heads and a concern for authentic liberty.  These are the foundations of integrity. 

With steadfast patience and determination, a damaged civilization can be renegotiated, reconstructed, healed.  But a civilization reduced to disintegration and chaos will not recover.

Those who think they can gain their ends by means of violence have a hard lesson awaiting them.

It was Hayek who said, “the principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.”

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

Strength of character is not found by going with the crowd.  It is only in meeting tests and difficulties that identity comes into focus.

Freedom depends upon our ability to think clearly and to recognize the true basis for moral integrity.  Especially when the going gets tough.

To be both free and responsible we must be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves.  Only then can we actualize our integrity as compassionate citizens in the real world.

Tom

You may look for the next post on or about March 31. 

Beyond Blame

Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable.  Some truths are not pretty.  And sometimes the rush to find answers leads deeper into a quagmire, and is even less pretty.  We are impatient.  We want quick answers.  And this often means finding someone to blame.

Impatience, anger, and a readiness to accept untested information are never helpful. Truth cannot be fabricated.  It belongs to no one.  Truth can be explored, investigated, questioned by means of honest, unbiased inquiry.  But it is rarely simple, and never found where there is partisan certainty.

Why do we react to problems with preconceived assumptions?  Without investigation we can never know the history, the perceptions and nuanced thinking that went into what appears to be bad judgment. 

If we wish to engage meaningfully, to keep our balance and influence outcomes, surely we need to understand the whole picture.

I suppose you think I’m talking about partisan politics. 

But this concern rears its head throughout our lives—in every kind of relationship and in every arena where differences of perception and perspective persist. Families, businesses, and serious working relationships are all vulnerable to someone who tries to dominate—to act without asking questions, without listening, without respectful dialog.

This is not the only challenge we face today.  We face the complexity of massive structural change, the consequence of historic forces that are now impacting us on every side. A confluence of crises is emerging over the horizon.  Our vulnerability to the internet and a vast digital infrastructure is just one example.

Unprecedented levels of national, state, and corporate debt are hobbling the economy. We face the consequences of an antiquated national grid and municipal water systems, an historic drought accompanied by extreme weather, the loss of sufficient farmland, unforgiving poverty, recurring financial crises, and a fragile monetary system plagued by deteriorating trust.

Needless to say, no one fully understands this complexity—how we came to be here or what the future holds.

Blame is perhaps due for greed, lack of foresight, and many other things.  But, if Americans seek to revitalize our core values and to restore a once vibrant civic spirit, we will need to recognize the reality of structural change which is no one’s fault.

Constructive dialog is the first step toward understanding and wisdom.  And a diversity of experience, knowledge, and skills are a necessity.  Our future will depend on it.

The current difficulties in the United States have a history.  A gradual and longstanding loss of trust has accompanied a deterioration of civic vibrancy and economic resilience. This trend has been observed by polling organizations and commentators for more than half a century.

Distrust has left a trail of destruction and decimated the fabric of community relationships.  It has left Americans without a shared sense of purpose. Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on quick answers and immediate gratification.  We have embraced false appearances as though nothing else exists.

The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic embedded in this posture have influenced almost every aspect of our national life. The loss of a grounding in meaning and authenticity has led to disorientation and extremism.

In this context, an insistence on freedom from institutional and political constraints is inevitably confused and fraught with contradictions. Where is there moral responsibility and responsiveness to local needs?

Without careful investigation of context as the basis for problem-solving, and a genuine respect for negotiated solutions, the stability of the future will be unattainable.

If we are to recover our balance, we will need to get acquainted with one another, to engage meaningfully, and to walk away from the alienation and incivility that brought us here.

Let’s get down to the real work of liberty: forging dependable working relationships and rebuilding local community wherever we find ourselves on the map.

There is no other way to restore trust. It won’t be easy.  But with patience, determination, and a constructive attitude we will learn.

It will never be too late to start anew—to dig deep within ourselves and step forward with dignity and purpose.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about February 28.  I will be posting less often for now; I need to focus on completing the book.

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

Safety, Self-reliance, Responsibility

There are reasons why safety and self-reliance are interdependent.  And both depend on trustworthy neighbors.  Local communities are where we have the most control and the most to lose.  The neighborhood we live in, whatever it may look like, is where social problems become personal problems, where needs must be met, and where safety is essential.

When the going gets tough, our neighbors will matter to us.  Many Americans are ignoring this reality of civilized life, and they do so at their peril. Today as the world unravels around us, we are confronted with necessity.

No longer can we depend on emergency services or well-stocked stores.  No longer can we wait for someone else to do what needs to be done.

Self-reliance is a personal attitude and commitment.  But it also depends on community.  We need each other. Each of us is called to step forward, to build dependable relationships, to patiently encourage one another in constructive action.

Making things happen will mean listening to our neighbors and learning to cooperate.  This is never easy to do and we are not used to it.  We face a steep learning curve. But we can do it!

Necessity can only be met with initiative and steadfast patience.  With a positive attitude and a readiness to persevere despite the bumps and bruises, we will prevail.

Safety comes with unity of purpose.  It emerges gradually in working relationships that cultivate trust and meet common needs.  Just as we learn by doing, so also do we earn trust—reaching out across differences of tradition, politics, and experience.

My forthcoming book will provide practical guidance to meet these challenges.  This will include the means for creative decision-making in small groups.  Aggregating diverse perspectives, interests and skills will maximize both safety and productivity.

Effective decision-making takes advantage of the knowledge and thinking of a diversity of perspectives and inputs.

If we listen to one another with inquisitive interest, drawing out every possible nuance, decisions will often produce more than anyone expected.

As I have often said, there will be no need to alter our values or views.  Agreement will only be necessary concerning a common purpose or the problem at hand.  In the process, however, we will come to know and better understand one another.

Dependable alliances and respectful collaboration can emerge where we least expect them.

Leadership will be needed of a certain kind, and this involves each of us.  Responsibility for personal initiative falls to every person.  It will be deeds and not words, giving and not taking, that create safety and move us forward.

The most effective leaders will be those who serve with quiet restraint and minimal drama.  At the end of the day, the best leader might not even be noticed—because the community will know that “we did this ourselves”.

Citizens who have experienced trust, who understand moral responsibility and constructive action—and who recognize the very high stakes involved—will build these foundations. 

What is essential is that Americans stand together selflessly, making firm our commitment to such values as will secure the future, and contribute to a free and just nation.

We must refocus our vision with such strength of purpose that partisan politics is powerless to subvert or degrade our intentions or integrity.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about January 31.

A note to readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  Please take note of Chapter One: American Crucible.

Confronting Change: Security & Well-being

Change has been accelerating for much of our lives, but it is especially so now.  These are not normal times.  The challenges are unsettling, especially when the outcome is uncertain.  It is hard to think clearly when life is in turmoil, and easy to fear for the worst.

We are all human.  We need to feel secure in our lives, and security needs stability.  But is all change bad?  Challenges bring personal growth, greater maturity, and sometimes wisdom.

Can there be a positive dimension to hardship and struggle that make us see with new eyes and reexamine our values and priorities?

Values are tested when we are confronted with change.  This can strengthen our self-confidence.  Clarity about values brings clearness to our lives.

Plural and conflicting values are inevitable in this world.  Human beings have never agreed on values, and even personal values occasionally come into conflict with each other.

But we do not usually think about this.  While it is natural for values to be influenced by events, it is when we hit a real bump in the road that we start paying attention.

Unexpected bumps can be uncomfortable.  But unexpected people can be kind of nice.  Especially if we can get to know them.  And especially if we avoid trying to force them into our own boxes!

Diversity is a source of security.  It contributes constructive ideas, practical skills and creative thinking.  It also exposes us to new ideas and perspectives.

Living in a pluralistic society exposes us to a rich abundance of the initiative and energy conducive to prosperity.  And with the benefits of diversity, we gain the experience of others and inspiration for ourselves.

The American character has been formed by the gifts and rewards of diversity.  Our story has been distinguished by curiosity, loyalty, and hopefulness over the course of more than two centuries.

No one expected Americans to be perfect, but the Founders gave us simplicity in the United States Constitution, a form of governance that assumes the capacity for virtue.

Two concerns that I think pivotal in any consideration of our national identity include an understanding of this expectation of virtue, and, secondly, our mutual respect as citizens who understand the value of diversity.

Personal independence and acceptance of individual differences go hand-in-hand.  In the end, one cannot survive without the other.

Again, I ask the question: Who are we, as Americans?  Who do we want to be, really?

The degradation we are experiencing today is real.  Americans have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent decades. 

The collapse of social order has complicated origins.  A lack of perceptiveness and foresight among both political leadership and financial professionals has undermined trust and social stability on a broad scale.

Institutions we have depended on are facing moral and financial bankruptcy, try as they might to cover it up.  Systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

However, we are all responsible—because we are all capable of responding constructively.

We are not prisoners of the past nor slaves to the present.  We are perfectly capable of standing on our own feet and accepting one another as fellow-citizens, even with our faults and blemishes.

Yes, it is true that we are confronted with the consequences of the past.  We have lost our sense of direction and ultimate purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.

What is to be done?  OK, listen carefully!

Truth is not invented by tearing people down.  The future cannot be built on blame.  It is clear we must overcome the alienation that divides us.

Whatever our disputes and misunderstandings, our fears and uncertainties, the survival and well-being of our families and our neighbors depends on our readiness to work together in response to practical necessity. 

We cannot afford to allow our differences to disrupt our ability to make our communities safe and our necessities secure.  We are all Americans.  We have differences, but divisiveness alone will bring our downfall.

If we wish to meet needs and resolve problems, we will have to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences—to face the complex dangers now imposing on our future.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about January 17.

A note to regular readers:  In the coming weeks we will explore views of our national past through the eyes of economic historian Niall Ferguson, social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, and conservative commentator Richard Weaver. 

Liberty and Me

Our personal individuality is something we take for granted today.  But this was not always so.  Individual freedom was a new and treasured idea in colonial America.  Many of those who came from England and Europe felt they were escaping tyranny.  And the institution of slavery had an imposing presence as well.  Colonial America knew what it did not want.

Concern with individualism, a deep-seated reaction against the autocratic rigidity of Medieval Europe, was dominant on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century.

An active sense of individuality encourages intellectual and artistic creativity.  It motivates entrepreneurial initiative.  And it led to the immensely productive energy of the American spirit.

It also opens the door to undisciplined free-will, to the potential for unrestrained violence, and the rampant materialism we see today.

Self-centeredness came to be defended as the purpose of life.  Breaking free from society to assert oneself without restraint was venerated as a romantic ideal.   The Lone Ranger became the quintessential American hero.

This begs a question!  Can freedom be idolized and defended without accepting responsibility for what makes it possible?

In other words, can freedom, as an ideal, respect the integrity and well-being of the society that respects and protects freedoms?

Individual liberty has sometimes been associated with egotism and selfishness. But the concept was originally conceived as respect for the validity of the views and experience of the individual within his or her own sphere, and the ideal that each of us should be encouraged to develop our own natural gifts.

By 1776 and the founding of the United States, “enlightenment thinking” had crystallized into the conviction that an ideal future civilization would bring freedom and prosperity to the world through the progress of science and rational governance.

To many the United States of America came to embody that promise.  The practical implications were, however, swept under the carpet. 

The limits to freedom imposed by physical reality and the constraints of a complex society might seem obvious.  But many of our compatriots appear unaware of the practical responsibilities that liberty implies.

This is not a simple problem.  We face limits to our freedom every day.  We care for our families, whatever that requires, and cooperate with the requirements of our employment.

In addition, we commit ourselves willingly to civic responsibilities, athletic teams or dance recitals for our kids, charitable organizations and religious communities, all of which can take up most of our wakeful hours.

And the hard realities of structural change and a multitude of converging crises are suddenly closing in around us.  Everything is changing.

Will we simply flounder about trying to place blame?  Or will we step up to necessity?  This is a truly historic challenge.

Many things can chafe in life, particularly the actions of other people.  Domineering and dysfunctional institutions are aggravating, especially in a time of deteriorating social stability.  Yet, human beings are quite capable of rising above our difficulties to create meaning and purpose in the community we live in.

Americans in the 21st Century face simple questions in complex circumstances:  What do we value?  What is it that humanity gained with the founding of the United States?  How do we wish to take it forward?

Will we step forward to create a coherent future with our neighbors despite our differences and the many hardships we face? Without moral responsibility and respectful dialogue, undisciplined free-will leads to disarray.

Let’s pull ourselves together to correct the misinformation, miscommunication, and useless negativity that subverts good will and our best intentions. Truly, an inquiring mind and respectful attitude are of greater importance today than ever before. 

Patience, trustworthiness, and dependability are the hallmarks of a safe community.  They do not require sameness of religion, politics, or philosophy. Americans do not need to agree on these things in order to collaborate with neighbors on specific projects to address shared goals. 

Communities that persevere together can learn the ways of constructive action—engaging everyone in the efforts to create safety, to resolve neighborhood problems and meet local needs.

I never said it would be easy.

We are adults.  We are capable.  We can do it.

Tom

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

Note to readers:  Links to an introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters can be found at the top of the homepage.

Finding the Door in the Wall

We have all been watching change accelerate.  We can find positive change if we try hard enough, but the degrading and destructive dominates the view.  Civilization struggles to advance even as we are catapulted into crisis.

Faced with crises it can be hard to stay rational or to imagine a positive future. It is difficult to keep ones’ balance and there is little time to reflect.  Can we see the potential for good in the experience of hardship and conflict?

So it is for a society, just as in our personal lives.  We live in a world that tests us, always challenging us to learn and grow and mature.

Living with uncertainty, it can take courage to embrace the questions and accept the time it takes to grow into the answers.

I’ve been thinking about what is changing and why.  And I am interested in the way our perceptions and responses are influenced by our sense of identity and character as persons. Can there be both positive and negative dimensions to the same experience? Can we allow ourselves to be influenced constructively—to see with new eyes and to refocus our values?

The inevitability of plural and conflicting values tests our strength of character.  Never in history have human beings agreed on values. 

Values are among the many things that define personal identity.  And yet, as important as our values are, they cannot be nailed down.  We sometimes forget that even our personal values can conflict with each other.  As perplexing as this can be, it challenges us to grow and mature.

Our values are easily tested when the world is in turmoil.  And, conflicting values can be especially uncomfortable when we encounter injustice.

While it is natural for values to be influenced by conditions or events, it is when we stop thinking for ourselves that we are caught by surprise. Living in a diverse, pluralistic society is always a challenge—and a special responsibility.

What is the bottom line?

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

Like values, our personal identity can never be set in stone, although bigotry and intolerance want to convince us otherwise.

Identity is formed of many things: Our families, the town or neighborhood where we came of age, our best friends and the schools we went to, our work experience or profession, our food habits, sports interests, taste in music, and social commitments.  Some aspects of identity exist as assumptions we rarely think about, such as beliefs, values, hopes and dreams.

The fact is, we all have the same check-list despite our differences.  And we are all making choices every day which reflect shifting priorities. This allows for the dynamic interplay of identities in a community, and provides us with the freedom to be ourselves.  Importantly, it supports young people to develop their own distinct individuality.

Authentic community can also create a sense of belonging that supports personal individuality.  However, that same sense of belonging can just as well exclude some people as it embraces others. A supportive community that feels like home, and in which we instinctively do wonderful things for each other, can also be a community where our youth instinctively throw bricks through the windows of newcomers who appear to be “different” in some way.

Identity politics can easily degenerate into identity conflict, a tragedy which ignores the rich diversity of human knowledge and character—and makes a mockery of our professed values.

A major source of divisiveness and hostility in the world today is the presumption that people can be categorized on the basis of a single attribute or association, to the exclusion of all others. 

This is a recipe for disaster.  We may love our children in the same way, suffer from the same illnesses, or enjoy the same food, but a blind dislike erases everything human.

And this is happening throughout the world—a mean-spirited ugliness with devastating consequences.

But here we have a choice that is uniquely American.  As a constitutional republic with the experience and vision of a pluralistic democracy, we know we can be something different.

The freedom to be ourselves belongs to every American, even as we accept our differences.

This is who we are.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about December 7.

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

Freedom and the Sources of Individuality

Personal autonomy is a precious thing.  How can we broaden and enrich this freedom?  Is it simply allowed, or constrained, by the society we live in?  Or does it rather depend on our mental attitude—and what we make of it? What translates independence and autonomy into character and purpose?

This can be a penetrating and thought-provoking question.  And the answer might be influenced by things we sometimes fail to consider—our family, our community, and our cultural heritage.

We like to think of ourselves as self-possessed and in control.  But there can be unrecognized influences at work in ourselves which have their origins in personal experience or cultural roots.

Ignoring this possibility does not make them go away.

I am interested in exploring this question as a white American because that’s what I am, and because of my roots.  The European heritage of white Americans is, for better or worse, the founding heritage of the United States.

And, yes, the question does draw us into complicated territory.  Certainly, the ethnic differences in the United States raise interesting questions.

It is apparent, for example, that indigenous American Indian and African-American cultures are far more community-based than is the dominant white American culture. Could it be they are closer to their historical indigenous roots than are white folk?

And we should remind ourselves that the breakdown of the institutions of family and community—fragmented by modernity—has had profound consequences across every cultural divide.

I want to explore another influence here, however: the cultural history of the European peoples who colonized and founded the United States.

The influence of this extraordinary past remains hidden in almost everything about America, and it colors the experience of every citizen. Understanding where America came from can reveal much about where we now find ourselves.

So, why are white Americans so concerned about freedom, rights, and autonomy?  These ideas do have a history.

Thinking people first began to question the institutional dogmas and restrictiveness of medieval European culture in the 15th century. The emergence of self-conscious individuality gradually freed human initiative and creativity from stifling constraints and overbearing conformity.

The realization of individuality led to growing resistance to the rigid fettering of patriarchal families, religious dogmatism, and the social and economic control of trade guilds. It also led to a lessening of family coherence and the weakening of community roots.  And this isolation from the social foundations of association and identity had consequences.

The shift away from family and community was slow at first.  But it intensified greatly with the industrial revolution and in the formless uniformity of mass society.

Why should this matter to us now? The slow fragmentation of family and community life has dominated American history. 

This is our story.  What shall we make of it? Freedom is not found in a wasteland.  Autonomy is meaningless in a vacuum.

Individuality and identity are grounded in context.  They take shape in childhood and early adulthood. They develop in a supportive environment—and with the diverse associative opportunities that are only available in functional communities.

We are human, intelligent and multi-dimensional.  And we need roots.

The destruction of authentic community by mass society, and the disintegration of family life that inevitably followed, disrupted the natural processes for developing identity and personhood.

This is among the heaviest burdens inflicted by modernity. But nothing forces us to accept it. Creating authentic communities will not be easy, but Americans are fully capable of learning how to do this.

First must come recognition that freedom depends on responsibility.

Second, we must understand that safety and dependability require trust—the gist of constructive working relationships.

“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century,” Robert Nisbet wrote, “from the phenomena of individual insecurity… is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.”

“Separate man from the primary contexts of normative association…, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”

Tom.

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

Dear readers:  An introduction and several chapters from the coming book are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  Please note “The Individual and Society”, which addresses the ideas introduced in this post.

Individuality & Empowerment

Freedom for most of us means personal autonomy.  Without a measure of autonomy in our lives there can be no self-reliance, no creative initiative, and no planning for the future.  Morality has no meaning without it.  Yet, life is complicated.  We have families.  We have jobs.  And we care about the communities in which we live.

And, who are we?  Personal identity is formed by our beliefs and values, our hopes and expectations—and especially by our relationships. 

So why are we so ready to allow social media, outspoken personalities, and even family and friends to dominate our perceptions? Is it OK to explore, to question, to entertain doubts in a complicated world?  How much freedom can we have without curiosity?

Accepting the reasonable differences we have with family or friends does require courage, of course.  Thinking for ourselves calls for trust in ourselves—to inquire, to question, to be objective. And, self-respect and the sense of identity we all need, depend upon our relationships with the people who matter to us. 

Interactive relationships form the fabric of a society.  Moral responsibility is lived and made real through active participation in community and society. Each of us is an essential part of the whole.

Yet, it is personal independence of mind—autonomy—that gives meaning to authentic relationships.  This is the “self” that interacts.

Independence and autonomy are possible because we have been given free will.  But this comes with responsibilities.  The choices presented to us by free will are what make morality possible—and necessary.

And, as we all know, free will is also what makes mistakes so very easy.

How do we learn good judgment?  How do we know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil?  Terrible mistakes have been made by people who were sure they were right.

Can we recognize a problem when someone else is just a little too sure of themselves?

This is why freedom is most secure in local communities. Trust can be built, working relationships become dependable, and personal autonomy is respected in authentic community.  Here perceptions are tested in dialog.

We can create this among those who truly seek a dependable, trustworthy way of life.

This does not happen simply because we wish for it.  A genuinely functional community requires intentionality.  Trust is built with patience and determination in the testing of honest working relationships. 

These are not things that can be delivered by politicians or distant governments.  The really important things in life have to be made real by ourselves and in our relationships.

Americans need to learn how to do it.

Robert Nisbet, a prominent voice in the founding of the American Conservative Movement, foresaw the basic outlines of the crisis we are now experiencing.

His famous book, “The Quest for Community”, was among the most influential among conservative thinkers at that time.

We have learned,” he wrote, “that man is not self-sufficing in social isolation, that his nature cannot be deduced simply from elements innate to the germ plasm, and that between man and such social groups as the family, local group, and interest association there is an indispensable connection.

We know no conception of individuality is adequate that does not take into consideration the myriad ties which normally bind the individual to others from birth to death….

“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century,” writes Nisbet, “…is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.

“Separate man from the primary contexts of [normal] association…, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”

From the beginnings of industrial mass society, the loss of authentic community in America has led to alienation and loss—and an ever-deepening crisis.

Consequently, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an assault on an already suppressed sense of autonomy and personal identity.  Covering ones’ identity with a face mask only adds insult to injury.

With a better understanding of how and why things have changed, we are better able to understand one another, to build what we need, and, in doing so, to create a future we can respect and believe in.

Tom

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

A note to new readers:  An introduction and several chapters from the coming book are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  Please read American Crucible!

American Identity, Plural Values

Accelerating change has been apparent in the United States for most of our lives.  Today the consequences are profound.  And, the coronavirus pandemic is masking this pre-existing reality.  Can we take the long view and try to understand the big picture? Surely, we should not allow COVID to distract us from recognizing what has been happening in the United States.  But the truth is complex.  The reality is not simple.

It is easy to think about change superficially in political terms.  But politics are a consequence, not a cause.   What has actually happened—socially, economically? How has our society been changing over time, and how has this influenced our national identity and character?  Has it altered our sense of who we are?

Hardships, uncertainties, and material losses have upended many lives.  Can we step back from this great testing to consider what it means for us?

In my view, we would do well to turn to what matters most to us—the values and principles and virtues that will keep our communities safe, our minds sane, and our integrity intact.  These are the foundations of personal identity and inner moral strength, and they are easily corrupted and befouled by an outwardly combative attitude.

The courage to respond to distrust or enmity with dignity and grace is not easy, but it will not compromise ones’ principles.  Holding fast to personal integrity allows self-respect, self-confidence, and responsibility.  It can facilitate problem-solving.

Where material devastation abounds, only a calm integrity can support thoughtful purpose.  Never has this been so important, whether it be for safety or sanity or the groundwork for negotiating the future. Our present difficulties in the United States are daunting.  They will not be resolved and the future cannot be secured without a positive attitude.

What is to be done?

We need safety, trustworthy neighbors, and truth we can depend on.  How can we work our way toward this?  Blaming and complaining gets us nowhere.

Local communities are places where basic needs must be met, and where constructive interaction is most possible.  Communities are where life actually takes place, where problem-solving can no longer be passed off to someone else, somewhere else.

Community is the seat of civilization.

Americans will need to relearn how to do this.

Impossible you say?  Think again my friends; we have no choice. There will be no quick fix.

I will offer a systematic approach to building functionally authentic communities in my forthcoming book. We will need to live our way into a future we can believe in.  No bluster, no smooth talk, no promises can be trusted; just hard work.   We can do this, and we need to do it for ourselves. 

Surely our first responsibility will be to accept the reality of our differences, and to negotiate honest means for practical problem-solving. Plural and conflicting values are an inevitable part of life, in families, in societies, in nations.  This has always been true.  Human beings have never agreed about values. 

Managing conflicting values—whether within ourselves or in our relationships—develops character and maturity. How we respond to a diversity of values is what defines a free society.  The acceptance of differences is an essential aspect of our national identity. 

Are we prepared to protect the freedoms of those who disagree with us?  No one should ask us to change our own values or views, and we should not.  Let’s not be diverted from constructive action by judgmental thinking.

The path to a principled stability begins within ourselves.  And the results will be apparent in the grace with which we work with others to make our communities safe.

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 ways both baffling and troubling.  It is a work in progress.

If we wish to collaborate with one another to resolve basic problems, we will need to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences—to face the imposing dangers that now confront us.

Tom

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

A note to new readers:  A project description and several sample chapters from the coming book are available at the top of the homepage.