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.

Self-confidence and Dependability

As we continue to mature throughout our lives, we gain knowledge and perspective from our experience in the world.  Our richest sources of perceptual experience will always be interpersonal relationships.  Reading, reflection, and the personal search are all valuable, but there is little wisdom to be found in an isolation devoid of dialogue.

How can we be self-confident in our view of the world, of society, of the people we encounter, without having our understanding genuinely tested—that is, without dialogue?

Perceptions and assumptions come effortlessly. Creative imagination is a wonderful human capacity.  Reason allows us to judge meaning and differences.  We should be grateful for both!  But neither should be mistaken for windows to truth.

It has been said that our first responsibility as human beings is the investigation of truth.  Our ability to investigate and comprehend truth is broadened and deepened throughout our lives.

And so it is that we benefit from authentic interactive relationships with friends or colleagues who do not always agree with us, yet honor our integrity and respect personal differences.

Personal identity and the sense of self begins to take form in childhood and youth, in our relationships with family and the people who bring us up.  If we are fortunate, our personal growth is further supported in the wider community.

Self-confidence matures with self-understanding, a process influenced most by meaningful associations with people who matter to us.

Why are self-definition and belonging so important to human beings?  Why is a self-conscious sense of identity so essential for the individual?  How do we know who we are?  What gives us energy to express ourselves?

As we consider the prospects for a stable, just, and prosperous future, these questions loom large.

The extent to which identity and self-definition are developed through interpersonal relationships might not be obvious.  But, in fact this is the only way identity is formed.

It is the means by which wisdom and character are refined throughout our lives.  And it is one of the primary reasons we benefit from community.

Charles Taylor helps to illuminate the significance this has for us: “We are selves,” he writes, “only in that certain issues matter for us.  What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me.” 

He goes on to remind us that “one is a self only among other selves.”   Personal freedom and independence can only develop in relation to the world around us.  We learn from engaging with others and define ourselves in relation to others—even when our differences are great.

Charles Taylor continues: “My self-definition is understood as an answer to the question Who I am.  And this question finds its original sense in the interchange of speakers.

“I define who I am by defining where I speak from in social space…, in my intimate relations to the ones I love, and also in the space of moral and spiritual orientation within which my most important defining relations are lived out.

 “We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection.  But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity.

“We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us.  And even when we outgrow some of the latter—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.”

The great need for constructive problem-solving in today’s world presents us with the need to work effectively with all kinds of people, including those we have differences with.

This is an essential endeavor—for survival today and for the future we want for tomorrow.  It will require great patience, courage, and determination. 

The future will continue to present a blank wall unless and until we learn how to understand one another accurately, while leaving assumptions and hearsay behind.

Only then can we find our way forward with assurance—remaining confident in our own values and comfortable in our own skin.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about October 12.

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

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.

The Bottom Line

My dear friends, what do we think is “the bottom line”?  Do we imagine that everything will work out in the end, and that we simply need the right leadership to make things right?  Do we imagine that someone other than ourselves should deal with this multitude of crises—should come to our rescue and take care of us?

What is our personal role and responsibility?  How can we respond effectively?

The wreckage we face in this day can easily inspire feelings of helplessness.  We don’t know what to do or where to start.  And being overly reactive can just make things worse.

It’s easier to see what needs to be done for our families or in our communities, where the needs are practical.

I want to avoid preaching.  That’s not my place.  But I’d like to suggest that finding our way forward in this time of hardship and testing will depend first on our personal integrity and self-confidence.

What kind of persons are we?  Who do we want to be?

Can we see how important it can be in a time such as this to have our feet planted firmly on the ground?

How can one think clearly in the confusion of a disrupted society?  Will we ever find constancy or assurance in partisan politics?

In my view, gaining balance in our lives depends on the foundation we build within ourselves.  And this foundation is called integrity.

What is integrity?  How is it created?

I will share a secret with you.  The foundation of all things in the human world is trust.  This is the secret in personal relationships, in communities, and in nations.

Rebuilding damaged trust takes time and constancy.  And its’ first requirement is truthfulness.

All of trusts’ necessities begin with truthfulness:  honesty, dependability, trustworthiness.

Where do we begin?

The pathway to trust might seem simplistic, but this is because its’ requirements are so basic. 

We may think it a hopeless endeavor, but I am not addressing hardened attitudes and closed minds.  I am talking to you, dear reader.

First, kind words and friendliness can open doors and penetrate hearts.  Being the first to listen can make all the difference.  Even the most stubborn attitudes can be penetrated with generosity of spirit, however long it may take.

If others are not ready to listen or respond, leave them to themselves.  We must always move on.  Yet, there can be no integrity in isolation.

Integrity lives and grows in our engagement with people.  It is the product of thoughtful relationships.  It requires inquisitive interest.

The greatest tests on this rocky road are steadfast grace, commitment and consistency.

We are called to seek our common humanity, but no one is asking us to agree on everything.  We can keep our views and our values.  Something greater needed.

The integrity that takes root in relationships soon spreads to implant itself in the character of a family, community or nation. 

This is not easy, but it is real.  It takes time. And the struggle remains deeply personal.

Even if we are fortunate to have a religious community, our integrity remains very much our own.  Guidance can be a great help.  True friendship is a blessing.  But life’s struggle is always personal. 

And in the end, the wisdom we gain can only be our own.

We can protest against injustice or politics or misbehavior.  We can blame people or institutions, social degradation or human history.  But we control just one thing, and that is ourselves.

Strangely enough, it is actually this one thing—personal integrity—upon which the integrity of nations and societies depend.

Nothing in business, politics, or society will matter until we get this right.  And it can only be made right by each and every one of us, deep within ourselves.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about 14 September.

Interested readers can find an introduction to the coming book and several chapters (in draft) linked 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.

American Challenges, Personal Choices

We have choices to make.  They might differ from the choices we are used to thinking about, but we are not living in normal times.  The challenges confronting us call for courage and clear thinking.  Social and economic instability raises concerns for safety.  And, our local communities are where this matters most.

Shall we build trust and dependability in our relationships with neighbors—or just pretend that every day will be like the last?

When the world is breaking down and hardship grows, we can always find common cause with neighbors.  But we can’t wait until we are already in trouble.

We need people in our lives who have the practical knowledge and skills to help resolve local problems—whatever their politics or religion or the color of their skin.

Interpersonal relationships take time and commitment.  They can only happen when we make them happen, and the first step is always ours to take.  The road to security begins with civility and is paved with trustworthiness.

Yes, we have differences.  Conflict is natural in relationships, yet differences can only be understood and negotiated in the immediacy and authenticity of working relationships.

Making this fractious process succeed in today’s America will depend on whether we think it’s worth the effort.  Creating community can be hard work, but it is the only defense against calamity.

Some may say it’s too hard or too late.

I say that Americans are courageous, resourceful, resilient.  The United States was conceived in controversy, and the vision of the Founders came with recognition that wisdom and strength are found in diversity. 

The Founders gave us a structure.  It is our responsibility to make it work.

We are confronted today by one of the great tests in American history, a challenge to an idealistic vision that has been slowly maturing for two hundred years.

Perhaps we have lost our way at times, stumbled, gotten sloppy.  But now it is time to pull together.  It is argued here that we must begin in our local communities—the historic home to democracy and the seat of civilization.

Stability cannot be imposed from above in a free society.  The kind of strength we seek depends on courage, trust and dependability.  It can only be made real in active working relationships.

This is the meaning of genuine functional community.

We are confronted now with an unprecedented turning point, a unique window of opportunity to affirm and uphold our exceptional identity as a nation. 

In navigating through an extraordinary confluence of crises we will be forced to renew our values, think on our feet, and make both pragmatic and ethical adjustments.  A creative process is underway that would not be possible otherwise.

We are a spirited and contentious people.  We have gradually, often painfully, built a vibrant and increasingly cohesive society.  And the work isn’t finished.

How has America produced such exceptional results?  Why is the world fascinated by us?  And why do we doubt ourselves?

To understand these questions is important.  The answers can be missed, but they are not hidden.

The concept of unity in diversity did not exist prior to the founding of the United States.  In our European past, political and religious divisiveness had been disastrous. 

The American Founders set humankind on a new course with a constitutional structure that supported diversity and facilitated collaborative problem-solving. 

If we love liberty and are committed to defending the freedom of opinion and belief, we will recognize that differences belong in a free society.  Diversity has been an essential factor in American strength.

Many of history’s greatest political and military disasters have been the consequences of “group-think” among like-minded people.

Diversity of experience, perspective, and practical skills is the foundation for strength in any society. 

The United States Constitution is a pioneering assertion of this principle.  History has confirmed its’ validity, however rocky the road.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about May 10.

Note to readers:  This essay is continued in Chapter 3 of the coming book, which can be found at the top of the homepage. Look for the link to “Finding Our Strength”. You might find these ideas unexpected and interesting.

Liberty and the Foundations of Order

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is 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 for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

The Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is anchored in a legislative order, the protections it provides, and the power to seek constructive change.

These are among the essential elements of a civil order that provides Americans with stability and a rational space to forge the future.

I have shared my observations with you concerning the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.

The Founders made conscious assumptions about the character of the American people.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

In past posts I have shared the words of several of the Founders, which are quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”.  I will repeat two of them here:

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

And, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

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

The Founders had good reason to think in this way.  A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation.

“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes.  But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.

“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”

Virtues are the substance of good character.  But they are not instilled in us by nature.

Character is not formed in a vacuum.  We learn what matters in life by engaging directly and meaningfully with family and community—people who need to depend on us.

Personal values can either mature or be degraded through interpersonal relationships.  It is here that we experience the necessity for trust—for truthfulness, dependability, responsibility.

Without such virtues, life quickly becomes intolerable, and security is beyond reach.

How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us?  Well, breaking down barriers will take time and patience, discipline and determination.

This begins with ourselves, and so also does our own self-respect.

We may not agree with the beliefs or behaviors of other people, but without truthfulness and a readiness to engage honestly and respectfully, we are lost.

Engaging with differences is not easy, especially in an age of extreme distrust.  We must counter destructiveness with integrity and moral responsibility, yet always with emotional restraint.

True liberty rests firmly on human dignity and respect for others.  Where these are not found, depravity flourishes and the mischief-maker is free to roam.

Tom

Note to readers: Please assist me with your comments; I value your feedback!  You may watch for the next post on or about February 2.

Lost Trust, Embattled Identity

Amidst divisiveness and disarray the anchor of the Constitution holds steady, manifesting order and assurance for an anxious nation.  Our hopes and concerns can only be pursued within the steady frame of rational governance.  We are a nation of laws, and a civilized future depends on this foundation.

I have argued here that local communities are the building-blocks of society and the foundation of civilization.  And, the importance for local cooperation if we are to seek safety and stability in a long crisis.

In no other place do Americans have the freedom and opportunity to resolve local problems, and to develop dependability with neighbors through working relationships. Well-organized local communities and networks of communities will provide the only effective foundation for an American future we can respect and believe in.

Regular readers may already have recognized that the strategy proposed here implies a premise—a pattern and framework for action suited to our circumstances in America.

We understand that the Constitution reflected the traditional attitudes of the 18th century.  The intelligent competence of women was unrecognized, and the humanity of black Americans was denied outright.  This was true throughout the European world.

But the Founders of the American Republic had something conceptually new in their minds. 

They knew the future of the new nation was far beyond their capacity to imagine.  Yet, pluralism, inclusive diversity and moral responsibility were clearly assumed in their thinking and enabled in the text. The originality of their vision was made plain in the Federalist Papers.

So it is that since the Civil War we have seen an uneven but consistent and irreversible advance toward inclusiveness—in attitudes, society, and law.

Today, however, something has changed.  And we are confronted with the consequences of lost trust, a deteriorating social order, and financial irresponsibility.

The field of debris is expansive and multidimensional.  What happened?  And, how can the American vision and the confidence it once generated be restored?

No political philosophy is offered here; only a reminder that Americans are the beneficiaries of a priceless birthright: An exceptional Constitution, and an attitude and belief in ourselves, which have overcome crises and hardship and differences for more than 200 years.

There is only one means for recovering the vision and confidence that once made us who (I believe) we still are.  This will be along the rocky path through honest, rational, and courageous personal engagement—genuine relationships with other Americans—most of whom we know very little about.

This will only be possible with determination to seek an American future we can believe in, both conceptually and realistically.

In the face of widespread hopelessness it will be a bold undertaking.  I submit that it must be forged in the crucible of genuine communities—our own communities—which we have the ability to build in place, wherever we are.

Such determination calls us to dignify ourselves with civility and to bravely face the damage of the past.

I have presented the rationale for knowing our neighbors and ensuring we can depend on them.  I have spoken of the need to rise above our differences, at least to the extent that we can collaborate in meeting needs and resolving local problems. 

The resources and learned skills we will need are available to anyone, and the frame of mind that allows genuine community to flourish can be achieved by every American.

Again, let me be clear: We are Americans before all else, and we need to organize our communities in place—where we already are.

Those who would retreat into isolation as religious or ideological groups do not simply lack the courage of their convictions.  An isolationist, fear-based mentality actively subverts the vision of the Founders.  And, it abandons responsibility for contributing constructively.

To restore the nation to its rightful place in history will call for immense patience, forbearance, and generosity of spirit.  It will not require that we compromise our beliefs. 

American strength and integrity are functions of the diversity of experience, perspective, and practical skills that have, for more than 200 years, overcome every challenge.

The center must hold.

Tom

Note to regular readers: You may look for the next post on or about November 30.

Dignity, Self-respect, and Ugliness

Public corruption and transparent dishonesty are very discouraging.  And when public discourse descends into ever more rancor and bitterness, it attests to deepening disarray.

As individuals we can choose not to live this way.  What can we do?  When useful debate has ceased, and purposeful dialog has degenerated into extremes of invective, ridicule, and slander—what are our options?

Personal dignity and self-respect depend on our values and our attitude.  And these only become real when translated into action.  Words are not enough.

Divisiveness reflects entrenched partisan views, but mean-spirited ugliness is degrading and accomplishes nothing.  Do we somehow imagine that such behavior supports our beliefs or advances our interests?

It is extraordinary that so much of this ugliness is unabashed and occurs in full view of the world.  Americans have always been a contentious people, but self-respect and a self-conscious sense of our national character have tended to constrain shameful extremes.

Given the unparalleled ease with which citizens can now participate in public debate, unthinking acts and lapses of judgement are made far easier and their consequences more enduring.

How does this reflect on us as Americans?  Who do we wish to be?  Where is the concern for self-respect and integrity that once mattered?  Are we no longer a society with values?

Morality and the ethics of responsibility are closely related to values.  And values are closely related to virtues.  Virtues?

Does anyone care about values and virtues in today’s world?

Let’s get real!  Truthfulness, dependability, trustworthiness—these are virtues that a civilized society depends upon.  They are the living substance of human values.

One way to think about these questions is to consider the value we place on the ends we seek.  What do we wish for in our future?  The ends we seek can only be reached by means that actually get us where we want to go.

As the means so the end.

In the present circumstances the future has become a vital concern for everyone.  Reason and conscience can only guide us to safety if we adhere to truthfulness.

Today in the United States ethics and values involve far more than a concern for ones’ self-image.  And, most Americans will never accept a moral system imposed from outside.

Rather, we are concerned here with something that is of vital importance to the future of our country.  Social order and trustworthy relationships are not only crucial for our personal lives, but for the security and well-being of the nation.

Developing personal virtues is not easy.  Consistent self-examination requires determination and acceptance of life’s tests.  But, without essential virtues there can be no values, either in our lives or in a future we can believe in.

In my view, the most fundamental of virtues is truthfulness.  All other virtues follow from truthfulness—honesty, reliability, credibility, trustworthiness.  These form the foundations of civilized life.

As I have noted previously, it will only be in community that we have the opportunity and freedom to live and learn civilized values, to build trust, and to experience the richness of genuine relationships.

This can’t wait.  We all have neighbors.  It is time to act.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people (August 23 post).  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot share our experience and offer guidance patiently, and if we fail to believe in the potential for people to change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Making this work will depend, ultimately, on firm values and self-confident generosity.  Of all people, Americans should know the importance of this.

I have argued that diversity of experience and perspective, knowledge and skills will facilitate physical survival.  They are the instruments of safety and order.

However, differences that come at us with ugliness are a threat to all these things.  Ugliness exhausts and debilitates.  Mean-spiritedness pushes people away and shuts the door to life.

Tom.

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

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

Integrity or Degradation: The Choice is Ours

We stand at a critical point in American history.  Our thinking, attitudes, and quarrels have collided with hard realities in the 21st century.  A multi-generational record of short-sightedness, ineptitude and irresponsibility, tells us of deepening societal degeneration at every level, social, economic, political.

Self-respect cannot wait for things to change that we have no control over.  We are each capable of responding to the world around us with dignity and creativity, and we must.

For this reason, I have proposed a challenging strategy for your consideration.  And it is an extremely difficult proposition.

Unfortunately, I do not believe we have a choice.

The wide-ranging needs we have as Americans—for resolving shared problems, for meeting local needs, for envisioning a decent future—all depend on a willingness to create genuine community.

Why is this?

If we are to reverse the slide toward chaos, we must first acknowledge a core responsibility upon which everything depends.  This is the imperative that we build and protect trust.

True community exemplifies the need for trust.  All constructive relationships depend on trust.

Social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust.

Without the assurance of trust, liberty and justice will remain elusive, and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.

The integrity of trustworthiness will be essential for building a future we can believe in.

The American founders warned that this could be a problem. (See previous post, August 23).

Patrick Henry was among several quoted by Charles Murray in his important book, “Coming Apart”:  “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”

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

Clearly there can be no integrity where neither citizens or civil servants care for trustworthiness.

And, here we are today.

The strategy proposed here rests on the principle that trust can only be learned and lived in the active relationships of genuine community.

Community—true community—disciplines us to develop trustworthiness and dependability by necessity.  Human beings cannot gain virtues in a vacuum.  This can only be acquired in personal relationships—where dependability matters and each can see the integrity of the other.

And, there are additional reasons why a free society depends on community.  We can investigate these going forward.  We depend on community for much more than physical survival in a crisis.

Community is the seat of civilization.  It is the basic unit comprising human societies, the structure in which justice, social order, and cultural identity are grounded.

It is in family and community that the individual learns values, finds equilibrium, and gains a sense of belonging.  Community encourages members to express their unique identity, character, and creativity.

So it is that community, when endowed with the full engagement of its’ citizens, becomes the substructure for freedom and security.  No other institution is capable of serving this purpose.

Among the historic roles of community is to anchor the diversity of institutions, associations, and organized functions that we call civil society.

Why is this so important?

Without diverse opportunities and choices for meaningful involvement, the individual becomes disengaged and disoriented, set adrift, vulnerable to dishonest, despotic and predatory influences.

The absence of such mediating institutions thrusts the individual into a vulnerable reliance on an increasingly pervasive and autocratic central government.

Finally, in closing, (and as I said to you on July 26), please remember that integrity is the highest attainable value—a quality of moral soundness.  Trustworthiness is the substance of that value, and responsibility provides the constructive action with which we make it so.

This can only be learned as we mature in real human relationships, working to find safety and to build the future.

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

Tom

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

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

If We Are to Remain Free

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is 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 for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

It is important that we understand this because the Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is made real in a legislative order and in the protections it provides.

These are among the essential elements of a society that provides both stability and the creative space to forge a future.

I have been sharing my observations with you about the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.

The authors of the Constitution made deliberate assumptions about the character of the American people.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

In the previous post I shared views from several of the Founders quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”.  I will repeat two of them here:

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

And, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

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

How do we feel about this idea?  It’s a little scary, wouldn’t you say?

There were reasons why the Founders thought this way.  A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation. 

“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes. But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.

“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”

Virtues are the substance of good character.  But this is not instilled in us by nature.

Good character cannot be formed in a vacuum.  We learn what matters in life by engaging meaningfully with other people.  Personal character matures by means of relationship.

Regular readers will not be surprised when I suggest that virtues can only be lived and learned in community—where constructive relationships call for trust and dependability.

In genuine community we experience the necessity for trust every day—for truthfulness, trustworthiness, responsibility.

Without such virtues, life in human society is intolerable and security is out of reach.

Need I say more?  Just look around you.

How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us?  Well, breaking down barriers will take honest determination.

Living in community requires certain virtues.  Adjusting to such disciplined conditions will take time, but the necessity must be confronted openly.

Dialog is the essence of genuine relationship.  Developing character starts here.

Without give-and-take a relationship does not exist and problem-solving is impossible.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people.  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot offer guidance patiently and believe in the potential for change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Our differences support problem-solving.  Diversity brings experience and perspective, knowledge and skills.

We need these things.  They are the instruments of safety and order.

However, differences that come at us with ugliness are a threat to all these things.  Ugliness exhausts and debilitates.  Mean-spiritedness pushes people away and shuts the door to life.

Tom

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

America at a Tipping Point

America is troubled today by the crippling consequences of distrust.  Polls have reported a steadily growing distrust of government for many decades.  Like a cancer, the problem has now spread throughout American culture.

Do we imagine that constructive problem-solving—or an orderly and prosperous future—can be possible without trust?

Americans have always been a contentious lot.  Yet we have remained loyal to the vision and ideals of the founders, for better or worse.

Many of you share my view that our future depends, first and foremost, on the bulwark of stability and justice that is the Constitution.  However, the Constitution depends on the expectations the founders had of the integrity and character of future Americans.

“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.”

James Madison was explicit: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical [wildly fanciful] idea.”

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

And, in his farewell address George Washington famously said: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

These words of wisdom are quoted in Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart”.  “In their various ways”, he comments, “the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

A reader of this blog has commented further that, “America is at a tipping point because every tenet [and] moral fiber of this nation has been diminished, so that no one is held accountable.  [There is] no moral compass because the foundations are removed.”

We do not have to agree on details to recognize the truth in this.  Yet, we cannot wait for somebody else to fix it.  In America accountability falls to ourselves.

Only in community can the true essence of accountability be fully understood.  Here the integrity of trustworthy interpersonal relations cannot be avoided.

Honest relationships can be hard work, but when the going gets tough relationships count.

I don’t just mean engaging with our next-door neighbors, as important as this is.  If we find ourselves under threat, directly or indirectly, the last thing we need is neighbors down the road or over the hill who are an unknown quantity.

And, we are not simply concerned about making acquaintances here.  This is not about borrowing a cup of sugar over the back fence.  To make our communities safe and to rebuild the nation we need dependability. And that means trust.

OK, to be quite honest, building trust is not something that Americans know much about. Mostly we don’t believe in it any more.

In my previous post I reminded readers that social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust.  Without this assurance, liberty and justice will remain elusive and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.

Trust is the substance of integrity.  It is essential for building a future we can believe in.

Yet, we cannot start trusting people simply because we wish for it.  The social reality we live in is decidedly untrustworthy.  Many people do not have a clear concept of what trust means, much less an understanding of why it is important or what to do about it.

Change will take time and patience.  We can expect a steep learning curve.

Building honest and reliable relationships with our neighbors calls for grit and determination. We will win a few and lose a few, but the ones we win will buy us a degree of security—and move the nation forward.

This can only be learned face-to-face, and with the courage to engage fully, to overcome mistakes, and to accept one another as whole persons in all our complexity.

We are adults.  We learn by doing.  Let’s not deny ourselves the maturity of forbearance and kindliness.

Each must decide if the future matters, and then join with others to make it decent, dependable, and real.

Tom

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