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.

Freedom’s Foundation

Principles are often debated, (and sometimes thrown about in combat), without consideration for their foundation in reality.  How deeply do we think about principles?  When we choose to embrace a principle or lay claim to values, do we consider the meanings and interpretations with which each is understood by others?  Does this matter?

In the previous post I invited you to think realistically about the essential character of “truth” and the importance of truthfulness.  We all depend on our understanding of what is true or false to get through life.

Everyone thinks what they believe is reasonable and true.  Yet it is often apparent that our assumptions differ from those of others.  While we assume that our perceptions of truth are valid, we are often reminded that we have many differences with one another, sometimes slight, sometimes quite significant.

And we all live by principles, sometimes without even thinking about them.  Is it possible they can be influenced by inaccurate assumptions or untrustworthy influences?

If our perceptions of truth are influenced by tradition, or news sources, or social media—how do we know what ‘our truth’ is really made of? How do we judge the foundations for our beliefs—the knowledge and reasoning that supports certainty?  The human world embraces innumerable personal truths!

So, what does this tell us about the reality of truth?  Is it possible there is actually a single foundational truth—a foundation for what is real?

Surely none of us can lay claim to understanding such a fundamental truth, yet it most assuredly must exist.  The world of existence could not function without such a unity.

One principle that matters to all of us is freedom, a principle that often seems elusive.  Realistically, life’s many obstacles and constraints can be oppressive. Yet, freedom is a deeply valued principle.  And so, we choose to respond to life’s constraints with maturity and self-control.

There are many principles we cherish despite their challenges.  Honesty, civility, and generosity of spirit are among the most essential for living and working with others. These may not be ‘rules’ in the usual sense, but they represent values we cannot do without.  They lead to trust, and a genuine freedom that rises above limitations and hardship.

When the horizon is darkened; when safety and trust are threatened by chaotic and unpredictable conditions, we can always turn to fundamentals—to patience, forbearance, dependability, cooperation, and most of all, to truthfulness.

Some folks think organized cooperation is impossible.  But it will be impossible to ensure safety or meet basic needs if our differences prohibit collaboration.

Yes, there will always be some people who are afflicted by selfishness and arrogance.  But the future depends on the character of true Americans—a people who have risen to their tests for many generations.

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

We live in a reality defined by limitation and challenges.

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 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.  And the discipline to leverage inspiration against the constraints we encounter in life provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the 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 June 2.

A note to new readers:  Blog posts are usually adapted from the forthcoming book and appear on both at the main website and on the Facebook page.  To receive emailed alerts click on the Follow button at http://www.freedomstruth.net.

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.

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.

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.

Reaching for Resilience

The pursuit of freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty has set citizens against one another as well as against autocratic authority.  Reactions against insensitivity and unrestrained power in governance is a natural enough response.  Yet, we often find ourselves entangled with differing views about the meaning (and responsibilities) of liberty.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should be responsive to the needs and interests of the plurality their citizens. And this poses interesting questions for those living in a constitutional republic with a democratic spirit. 

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

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.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized this danger and designed a decision-making structure which 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.

While this provides a legal structure, however, a functional government is impossible in the absence of cooperation to meet common needs and interests.

When there is uncompromising denial of the validity of an opposing side, governance is essentially brought to a halt. After two hundred years of experience, we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

Throughout American history, liberty has generally implied the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others. The United States Constitution is exceptional in imposing almost no limitations on citizens—beyond responsibility and civility.

But, where does this leave us in the face of our present difficulties?  A multitude of converging crises has us all on edge.

The world has long admired the generosity of spirit in the American character.  This is an American attitude; a way of thinking and being.  Regaining this spirit will require courage and determination.  And, we can begin with our neighbors.

However—this will only be possible with a readiness to honor another American virtue: The respect for plurality embodied in the Constitution.

When we are ready to discover our shared values, and to assess our differences with accuracy, we can start with our neighbors.

What is it we want?  It is in local communities that safety, dependability, and problem-solving become essential realities. Only when we tackle local needs and challenges together, shoulder-to-shoulder, can we truly represent what we are made of.

We can start with first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to ensure we have accurate information about one another.  This will involve the effort to recognize both shared values and real differences. 

2) To identify and prioritize local needs and problems, and then to negotiate the means for undertaking collaborative action while accommodating personal differences.

3) To identify the knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among ourselves—to support the community and do what needs to be done.

If we are committed citizens and mature adults, there is no reason we cannot maintain an attitude of civility and respectfulness.  No one needs to alter their values or views.

Community problems can be multi-layered and complex.  But our purpose is simple: to investigate the extent to which we can pursue constructive action as neighbors.

Addressing basic needs shoulder-to-shoulder will strengthen a community with the foundations for trust and dependability. 

Safety and survival may well depend on this, and no one will do it for us.

The three steps outlined above will soon become critical as oncoming crises multiply and circumstances deteriorate.  And, engaging in working relationships can also open doors to the future and influence the emergence of a mutually acceptable vision.  

We all possess the capacity to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we meet friend and stranger alike with dignity, civility, and generosity of spirit.

Tom

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

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

No Shortcuts to the Future

Change has been accelerating for years.  Americans are well aware of the steady debasement of civil order, if we have been alive long enough to see it.  Our economic lives have deteriorated for at least a generation—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.  Little is left of the middle class. Trouble began long before the pandemic.

Being human, it is tempting to look for blame.  But blame gets us nowhere in a crisis.  It is really not possible for any of us to fully understand or respond effectively to the magnitude of structural change confronting the world.

Are we strong enough to step back from the barrage of fragmented and incoherent headlines, media sound-bites and images, which bombard our minds? Is it possible to think without reacting?  How otherwise can we defend ourselves from manipulation in advertising and politics?

Our greatest challenge is to investigate truth for ourselves and not through the minds of others.

I suggest we each stop to check our motives regularly every day, and to think about what are we learning through all this—about life and about ourselves.

Change can sometimes help us to see with new eyes.  Perceptions, values, and sense of purpose all evolve throughout our lives—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.  But maturity only comes when we think for ourselves.

Some change is masked by chaos and not so easy to see.  Increasing complexity is an example: A threat today that is difficult to understand and quite capable of disrupting our lives suddenly and without notice.

I have raised concerns about complexity here in the past.

Complexity has increased rapidly with advancing technologies and an interconnected world.  A multiplicity of interdependent systems, subject to intense disconnected forces, leads inevitably to instability and unexpected crises.

And when our lives are disrupted, our values come under pressure.  Confused values undermine self-confidence and our sense of identity.

Having shared values with those around us always feels good, but, in fact, everyone is different.  Never in history have human beings agreed on values. Even our own personal values can sometimes conflict.  Have you noticed?

The presence of plural and conflicting values in this life tests character and challenges unsupported assumptions.  Which is why we need to stand on our own two feet.

But we also need dependable neighbors in a crisis!  Can we agree on just a few things?  How about respect for personal dignity?  Or the value of individual autonomy that refrains from imposing on others?

Do we recognize the virtues and values that undergird safety and stability in our communities?

Can we see that a safe and prosperous society, economically and otherwise, will depend on personal virtues: on truthfulness, for example, and responsibility?

Justice and morality are closely related, and we learn about them in the trenches.  Hardship generates new thinking, as I have said.  It is when we stop thinking that we resist awareness and miss opportunities.

Responding to a changing world begins within ourselves.  Who are we, really?  Who do we want to be?

Yes, we are human—we are not perfect.  But let’s get something straight:  There are no shortcuts to the future. Freedom depends on responsibility, and moral responsibility cannot be left half done.

America has always been a work in progress, but we are living today in a time of extremes. We are witnessing rapid ongoing deterioration of moral character, self-discipline, and social responsibility.

Mass murder, pornography, sexual violence: To name just a few among many.  All have proliferated at an appalling rate.  We see social degradation and abasement all around us.

Regaining strength in America is a personal matter.  It will require responsibility, courage, and steadfast patience.  To engage in constructive action with our neighbors—to seek safety and to meet common needs—will mean engaging with differences.  Americans value individuality, diversity, liberty.  Am I right?

The United States is, by definition, a pluralistic society.  This will always be a challenge and responsibility.

Before we can begin to secure an acceptable future, we will need first to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences.

Danger confronts us all, without exception.

Tom

You may look for the next post on or about July 26.

A note to readers:  An introduction to the coming book can be found linked at the top of the homepage, along with sample chapters exploring the history of ideas and conflicting values that have brought us to this place.

To Recover a Civilized Order

The vibrant community-based society of pre-revolutionary America continued to flourish following independence.  With self-generated order came a sense of identity and belonging.  But, a hundred years later the loss of community and degradation of society were becoming apparent.

This decline unfolded with the gradual disappearance of cultural organizations, interest associations, churches, and craft guilds.  Without the mediating influence of extended families and civic associations, little remained to support social identity and stability for individual or society.

In the absence of a stable foundation in local communities, the commitment to moral responsibility loosened.

Eventually Americans sought community wherever they could find it—within the protection of large labor unions, in the less personal corporate world, and in the functions of a growing central government.

The rise of individualism in European culture since the middle-ages had accompanied a gradual diminishment of the civil society that gives life to communities. In America this trend was halted briefly by a surge of community-based activism.  But, the blossoming of independent local and regional energy was lost in the faceless momentum of industrial society.

The results became clear following the First World War.  Measures intended to ensure uncompromising support for the war effort gave President Woodrow Wilson virtually total power.  Wilson intended a quick return to normal three years later, but the damage was done.

The widespread presence of government agents tasked with rooting out dissent led to pervasive distrust.  Social cohesion was severely weakened throughout the country.  The perceptions of the American people and the place of the federal government in the American mind were permanently altered.

What is to be learned?

Active involvement in community life does not limit individual freedom or self-fulfillment.  On the contrary, local communities are the foundation of traditional conservatism. If we are to recover a civilized order, an active community-based civil society needs to be cultivated.  Here it is that young people learn values and gain a sense of identity.

The spontaneous civic life that characterized early America degenerated over time into the isolation and materialism of suburbia, scattered families, and uninspiring employment. 

Americans have had a reputation the world over as generous, kind, big-hearted people–despite hardships and controversies.  Yet, the truth has been inconsistent. An uneven trend toward inclusiveness since the Civil War stands in contrast to an undercurrent of disharmony and an attitude that defies accountability.

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

Clearly, the humanity that embraces mutual respect and moral responsibility will remain ever vulnerable to self-centered interests. Failures of foresight and responsibility are visible across every social class, including the very wealthy.

Children are growing up without effective parenting or civilized values.  Every consecutive generation reaches maturity with less of the preparation needed to sustain a stable society. And, it does not end there.  Institutions we have depended upon are facing every form of bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

How is it that we have lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world? The answer is not simple, but it might be more personal than we realize.

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry – not gentility, but virtue. `No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure,’ James Madison famously observed at the Virginia ratifying convention. `To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

“No free government, or the blessings of liberty,” Patrick Henry insisted, “can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”

In their various ways,” Charles Murray has observed, “the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

Tom

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

Personal Integrity, Freedom of Thought

Most of us would consider any threat to our expression of opinion or belief to be a threat to our personal integrity.  Freedom of thought is a hallmark of the “American idea”.  We think of it as being fundamental to a free society.  However, the freedom and integrity with which we live our lives depends on accurate information.  And, the unconscious assumptions we make about other people can be especially problematic.

In a complex world, unconscious assumptions can have a lot more to do with freedom and integrity than we might think.  Our ability to engage effectively and safely with real people in the real world, both friend and foe, depends on accuracy.

Our assumptions are uninvestigated beliefs 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 the effectiveness of our actions. 

Inaccurate assumptions interfere with the free flow of information.  Truthfulness becomes immaterial, and personal autonomy unachievable. 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?  How can we challenge their assumptions?

Do we think we can live with integrity isolated in a vacuum?

I do not suggest that agreement is necessary.  In fact. this will often be impossible.  But untested assumptions are plainly dangerous. 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 self-confidence 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 in the workplace or the home, and with careless inattention to relationships. We have long accepted the assumption, for example, that rational governance is possible if we simply trust the wisdom of experts, or that nature must submit to human control.

Today we face a multitude of interrelated crises that call many of our assumptions into question.  Social and economic disarray, the absence of civility, and a stifling inability to engage in dialog, leave us enmeshed in frustration.

These are challenging circumstances.  America needs us each to step forward.  I don’t believe we have a choice. The lessons of civility, trustworthiness and cooperative problem-solving may have to be learned by force of necessity.  Personal safety and survival might depend on them.

Teaming up with neighbors to meet shared needs will not be easy.  We will need diversity to confront unexpected needs.  This will require courage and initiative.

Understanding does not necessarily lead to agreement, but it lubricates and sustains working relationships.  The road to trust is paved with experience, not promises.  Dependability is lived and proved in relationships.

There will always be differences in our values.  Human beings have never agreed on values.

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 need not threaten trust.

Having dependable neighbors comes with genuine understanding, but we should not abandon the values that give us our identity.

I believe we will find more agreement than we expect, especially in the most important aspects of our common humanity.  But we cannot delay.

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.

Tom

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

A Stormy American Heritage

What makes the United States special?  Americans have always been a contentious lot.  Many of the disagreements and differences we know today have been with us from the beginning. How does our history influence our understanding of ourselves and our views? 

Can we look beyond our disputes to see the extraordinary place of America in human history?

During the formative years of this nation something remarkable was taking place in the countries Americans were coming from.  Radically new ideas were breaking free from authoritarian institutions and traditional attitudes in Europe.

Thinking people were becoming convinced that humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, would be capable of securing universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.

And so, a rebellious spirit and immense creative energy came to America with a rising flood of immigration.  The idea of a promising future was powerful.

For the thousands of immigrants disembarking in the New World, however, a knowledge of political 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 American identity.

Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American spirit, 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 wealthy 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 vision of the future continued to inspire confidence on both sides of the Atlantic through most of the nineteenth century.

While the continuing brutality experienced by Black and Native American peoples was ignored by most Americans of European descent, the horrific violence of the Civil War shocked the nation. 

And then came the twentieth century.

Professor Michael Allen Gillespie at Duke University 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 survived 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 drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt?

Both the fear of debt and the destruction of total war have been repressed and lost to memory.

The long history of abuses suffered by immigrants and people of color is often forgotten as well.  And past promises of equality and freedom are remembered through a haze of inconsistency and uncertainty.

The material limitations caused by growing complexity and a multitude of crises have started to close in on our lives. 

An American future will be dark and unforgiving without moral responsibility and authentic community.  Such are the means for both survival and prosperity.

It is said that history does not repeat—but often rhymes.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about May 24.

Note to new readers: A project description and introduction to the coming book, along with several sample chapters, are linked at the top of the homepage.