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.

To See for Ourselves

Each of us has the ability to see and interpret things for ourselves.  Yet, all too often we allow other people to influence our personal judgment.  Sometimes we even neglect to investigate the truth for ourselves.

Dishonesty and deceit run rampant in the political world.  Every media outlet has its own “spin”, however well-intentioned the editors might be.  And, anyone can create a website intended specifically to mislead and direct our thinking.  Every day we are presented with alternative realities based more on rumor and imagination than on serious investigation.

How can we test the accuracy of our beliefs and assumptions?  What protection can we find for personal independence in the midst of social upheaval?  There are ways to do this using the internet, if we are truly curious and intent on searching for accuracy.

We are human.  We can never fully comprehend the reality in which we live, physically or spiritually.  Yet, I firmly believe that hidden behind every disruption and every illusion a dependable underlying order exists.

Otherwise no civilization would be possible, and the perfections of the physical universe could never have come into being.

The human world survives repeated cataclysms, always recovering its balance and somehow progressing despite incessant delusions, duplicity, and chicanery.

In the previous post I wrote of the boundaries we must navigate between freedom and justice as we move through life.  This foundational structure cannot be altered or manipulated.  We spend our youth learning to recognize and accommodate ourselves to it.  And, under normal conditions we begin to take it for granted.

Religious people may recognize this truth as a manifestation of God’s Grace.  Others might see it as a function of the integrity of the natural order in the universe.  I believe both are true.

Without this stability our lives would always be dominated by anxiety.  And, the disorder in today’s world is cutting us off from this security, causing a massive excess of anxiety all around us.

A balanced and coherent unity can be recognized in both the human and natural worlds, when our vision is freed from myths and manipulation.

The elegant equilibrium found in nature will, if left alone, always manage itself with a sensitive, yet robust and resilient functionality.  Human society, too, has a purposeful balance.  Can we imagine the terror we would experience as social order disintegrates?

Whether in human affairs or in the natural world, any disruption or harm will result in consequences that may not be immediately apparent.  Yet the repercussions of injury and injustice spread rapidly as each impact leads to others in widening circles of instability.

What does this mean for freedom?

Surely we all know that freedom depends on a just, dependable and predictable world.  So it is that freedom and responsibility are interdependent.

While dialog and consultation offer essential safeguards, the ability to recognize the consequences of our own actions, “to see the end in the beginning,” is perhaps most important.

This is a capacity we can develop in ourselves.  The perceptive capacities we possess allow us—if we are responsible—to determine our course of action more freely, safely, and independently.

And, recognizing the potential after-effects of our own deeds allows us a degree of protection from engaging in overly emotional, ill-conceived, or destructive acts.

A cursory review of human history reveals numerous examples of poorly conceived actions leading to disastrous consequences.  As we have all seen, both individuals and groups are quite capable of falling into error.

How does this happen?  Well, sometimes we think we have everything figured out when, in fact, our information is limited and we are only aware of a part of the truth.

Sometimes we fail to speak with people who are right around us.

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

These are among the lessons that will allow us to build safety and strength for ourselves and for America.

Tom

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

The Ground of Freedom

The interdependence of freedom and responsibility is elemental.  Knowing this allows us to live our lives with integrity.  It informs us of the contours of justice.  And yet rational thinking alone cannot determine the foundations for justice.

So it is that agreement on a framework for a just and livable environment is the first order of business for every functional community, large or small.

Living and working together as neighbors depends on a shared understanding of justice—an understanding embodied in a consensual moral consciousness.

Secure communities depend on this.  And it is a condition we can only arrive at by means of dialog and consultation.

Making morals and making community are, it has been said, a single mutually dependent process.

We all have ideas about what is right and good, but where do our ideas come from?  Do we make them up from scratch?

The capacity of the mind to conceive and envision personal freedom hints that self-assurance should rightfully be ours.  Yet, a finite world imposes limits on our freedom even as society depends on moral responsibility.

We are aware of the ease with which we can slip into error, over-stepping the bounds of honesty and integrity in little everyday ways.

To protect ourselves from error, both great and small, we need to see with our own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and to think independently with our own minds.

Many are resistant to recognizing the boundaries between justice and injustice, goodness and evil.  But make no mistake: Every human being is endowed with this ability.

Whatever our religious faith or philosophical belief system, the independent investigation of truth is our first responsibility.

Each of us is vulnerable to the error of transgressing the boundaries of freedom and finiteness that safeguard equilibrium in the world.  We each tread a rocky path strewn with obstacles.

My greatest concern, which I hope you might share, is the powerful influence of strong-willed, overconfident individuals who often appear in the midst of crises, and who will want you to follow them.

We must resist the seductiveness of self-appointed “leaders”.  This is my warning to you.

Such people will surely appear, claiming to love liberty when in fact they are its greatest enemies.  Please be prepared to maintain your independence.

The human spirit knows no bounds.  Yet, the conflict between freedom and the boundaries of justice is as harsh as it is inevitable.  This is a fact of life that defines the human condition.

Given the extraordinary human capacity for perception and imagination, we often stretch the limits with painful consequences.

Worse, it can be easy to imagine ourselves possessed of unique wisdom or exceptional qualities.  The past has been punctuated with great delusions.

So it is that we must understand purpose in the finite limits of being, and find responsible means for putting it to work.

Finiteness is a structural characteristic of the universe.  All physical form is defined by limits, as it must be to serve its’ function.

This is the nature of physical reality and the functional ground of human freedom.  The social order in a civilized society serves a similar purpose.  These are givens.

It is the inherent dependability of this truth 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 structural limits, (which include our own moral values), we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

For the individual, the ability to exercise discipline defeats the limitations imposed by nature and society.

The discipline to leverage our inspiration against the constraints we encounter provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material difficulties in our lives.

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

Discipline and limitation are, indeed, the ground of freedom.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about July 15.

Several additional chapters from the forthcoming book have been added (in draft) at the top of the homepage.

The Journey to Destiny

Whatever our personality, philosophy or religious belief, the individual person has an unavoidable choice to make.  Either we retreat into a defensive posture, or we step forward as mature adults, patiently seeking to engage life with a generous and responsible spirit.

At a time of existential crisis for the United States this choice takes on great importance, not only for ourselves but for the nation and the world.  The American model has served as a beacon of hope for people everywhere.  And, the world is watching.

If we are to protect our families, organize the means for safety and security among our neighbors, and recover the promise of this nation, we must interact with one another constructively.  And with dignity.

In the previous post I emphasized that expressing our views is necessary for a healthy society.   But nothing will subvert our purpose more quickly than a combative attitude that alienates the very people we wish to influence—or need to work with.

As regular readers know, I place great value in local community as the foundation for a dependable, coherent, and prosperous American future.

Are we capable of making this possible?  Americans have little experience with genuine community.  Many of us are barely acquainted with our neighbors.

Why is community a basic element of civil society and a foundation for civilization?

There are several important reasons.

Perhaps the foremost concern at the present time is our need for safety and security in a time of severe multiple crises.  Without neighbors we can depend on and trust, the immediate future appears bleak.

Safety is essential.  But it is not everything.  A community meets needs that are fundamental to human nature.

Human beings possess a deeply felt urge to belong, whether it be to family, a place, or a community where we are valued.  Americans are no different from any others in this regard.

To be fully human we must belong somewhere, to a group, a nation, or a coherent historical stream.

As Americans it is essential that we find our way back to this sense of identity, and to the flow of ideas, relatedness, and continuity which may have become distorted or gone underground, but is not lost.

And, if we care about liberty, the experience must be local.  Communities are the basic unit comprising human societies, the structure in which justice, responsibility, and cultural awareness are grounded.

It is in community that the individual finds equilibrium and belonging; where we are encouraged to express our 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.

In the absence of community there can be no foundation for the diversity of associations, institutions, and organized functions that form a healthy civil society.

Without such diversity of association Americans have become disengaged, disoriented and set adrift.  And, it is in just such a state that human beings have been most vulnerable to dishonest, despotic and predatory influences.

Needless to say, this is of crucial importance as we confront the social disruptions and pervasive loss of ethical integrity that characterize the 21st century.  To hesitate here is to react as victims rather than to respond as Americans, to choose loss over promise, helplessness over responsibility.

The responsible, free-thinking person will sometimes struggle with the contradictions between freedom and necessity, or may be intimidated by extreme circumstances, but we must never give in to helplessness.

I do not suggest that this is easy to do.  It is not.  What I am saying is that we have no choice.  Either we rise above the challenges of personal limitations or we will join an inexorable slide into chaos.

There will always be difficult people to test our patience.  Choosing to take control of the future will require that we exercise tolerance, perseverance, and self-control.

Achieving an honorable destiny will come one step at a time.

What is imperative is that we each take initiative, that we step forward with a constructive attitude—come what may.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about June 30.

A project description and introduction to the coming book, along with drafts of several chapters, are linked at the top of the homepage.

Responsibility and the Future

The civil unrest we are currently experiencing in the United States has exploded into a multi-layered complexity of ongoing crises.  Like the deterioration of social order in America, the present outburst has deep historic roots.  As new crises continue to proliferate, this blog will remain focused on the challenges of social disruption and interpersonal alienation.

We will seek effective solutions for making safety and problem-solving possible despite our many differences.  And, we will return again and again to fundamentals.

When we hear a contentious and quarrelsome tone in the disputes that dominate today, how do we respond?  Does unproductive hostility frustrate us?  Do we yearn for a more practical attitude toward problem-solving?

The clash of differing opinions is a valuable time-honored American tradition.  But no one responds well to verbal abuse, much less physical violence.

Expressing our views is important.  Indeed, it is necessary for a healthy society.   But nothing will subvert ones’ purpose more quickly than a combative attitude that alienates the very people we wish to influence – or need to work with.

Imagine for a moment that we had the good fortune to live in a community where local safety and practical problem-solving is given relative priority over philosophical differences.

In my most recent post (May 18), I challenged readers to consider how far we are willing to go to create safe, positive and productive conditions in our communities.

Do we have the vision, courage, and fortitude, I asked, to commit ourselves to principled means and to engage responsibly in constructive action?

I am not asking what you think other people are willing to do.  I am asking what YOU will do.

Nothing will change while we wait for other people to accept responsibility for themselves.  Responsibility is personal and self-defining.

The most important things in our future – creating safe communities, ensuring food security, recovering from economic collapse, for example – depend on collaboration.

Most of us understand what responsibility means in our personal lives, whether or not we make it real.  And, most Americans know that freedom cannot exist without responsibility.

But what do I mean by ‘constructive action’?  This might sound unfamiliar, but it is hardly a new idea.

As regular readers know, this concept provides effective means for breaking through log-jams of discord.

Constructive action is geared for problem-solving – allowing a sufficient level of cooperation to get the work done, however limited this might be.

Constructive action is exercised with dignity and respect.  It refuses to hurt or injure – whether by impatience, dishonesty, hatred, or wishing ill of anybody.

Please do not imagine this to be simply a state of harmlessness.  On the contrary, constructive action is the foundation for coherent strength.

It is the first principle upon which all other principles, values, and purposes depend.

It makes problem-solving possible despite inevitable conflict.

The moral integrity of the civil society we wish for will depend on the spirit of respect and trustworthiness that characterizes constructive action.

The two are inseparable as means and ends.

Constructive action is the means.  A future grounded in moral integrity is the end.

Political thinking has always considered means to be either an abstraction of tactics or simply the inherent nature of social and political machinery.  In both cases means are considered only in their service to the goals of political interests.

Here we have a very different understanding of means, replacing end-serving goals with an end-creating purpose.

Such an approach is necessary if we wish to apply traditional American values effectively to rapidly changing circumstances.

This in no way denies the validity of partisan political views.  Instead it provides a rational forum for debate, opening hearts and minds to different ways of thinking.

Influencing others can only happen where there are ears to hear.

And, a free and prosperous future can only be sought by capitalizing on our differences in experience, knowledge, skills, and perspective.

The better our working relationships with friends and neighbors, the greater the opportunity to attract, inspire, and learn.

We can choose to learn the skills and tactics that make collaboration possible – or we can walk away forever from the safety and integrity of a future we can trust.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about June 16.

Links to several additional chapters from the coming book have been added (in draft) at the top of the homepage.

The Forward Edge of History

The vision of America that came to life with the birth of the nation was historic.  That vision, controversial as it then was, has been subverted today by a bitter divisiveness that disallows dialog and obstructs decision-making.

Our efforts to regain the integrity of our national identity and to build a future we can believe in, will call on Americans to navigate through currents of alienation, hostility, and misinformation.

Violence begets violence in a downward spiral, verbal or otherwise. Words can ignite uncontrollable fires.  And, dishonest or self-serving actions can do the same.  Destructiveness can take many forms.

Arguably, the United States has been headed for trouble for decades.  But, in the last quarter century social and economic conditions have reached dysfunctional extremes of miscommunication, irresponsibility, and violence.

When the banking system nearly collapsed in 2008, the United States hovered on the edge of material catastrophe.  Americans discovered that failures of responsibility, foresight, and common sense involved the very people and institutions we depended on.

We were stunned by the foolishness that came to light in places where we are most vulnerable.

It was a startling discovery: A cavalier disregard for the interests of both citizens and nation by institutions we had previously regarded as models of dependability.

In retrospect, however, we can see that the crisis had been a long time coming – that it continues today, that nothing has been fixed, and that it reveals far more than foolishness.

The disarray is surely the consequence of something deeper and more basic than financial incompetence.

National leadership has stained itself.  Confidence was compromised, trust destroyed, first in politics, then among institutions and interests that have associated too closely with politics.

We have seen immoral and deeply hurtful actions committed by religious leaders and clergy, the supposed exemplars of integrity.

Where will it stop?  In addition to the material damage done to our lives, the rampant failure of responsibility appearing at the core of our society is degrading and demoralizing.

There is nothing more destructive than distrust.  Indeed, it strikes at the foundations of civilization.

Times of peril require that we avoid contributing to inflamed passions, however offended we may be.  Hurled accusations and insults make it impossible for others to listen and hear reason.

The trouble with blame is, first, that it tends to be indiscriminate. It blinds us to the complexity of circumstances, and to the plural identities of those who disagree with us – or who may have just made some very bad mistakes.

We often fail to see that we share certain values and commitments with those who anger us.

Secondly, blaming blinds us to looming perils that are the fault of no one.  A fierce storm has come upon us.  We need each other for the sake of our local communities.

A storm of this magnitude will alter everyone’s perspective.  The time is coming when we will need to reassess, to adjust, and to seek safety in collaboration.

We must resist fear and its passions, and learn to work with those around us.  We will build from there.

Some of you have expressed serious doubts that this is possible.

I never said it would be easy; I said we have no choice.

If we are unable to confront crises shoulder-to-shoulder as loyal Americans, freedom will be lost in the chaos of the deepening storm.

This will require patience and learned skills.  We must try to see the end in the beginning – the vision of a renewed society where respectfulness, fairness, and moral responsibility prevail.

Both individual freedom and community coherence depend on this.

It is a purpose that might just be worth our learning to get along, even for the most doubtful among us.

Local communities are the one place where we can be assured of having the freedom and ability to make this happen.

Steadfast determination and the American generosity of spirit are among the virtues that will be called upon again and again in the coming days.

The future will inflict tests upon us whether or not we respond with dignity and compassion – whether or not we take our rightful place at the forward edge of history.

Tom

A note to readers:  Please watch for the next post on or about December 31.  New readers can find a project description, a draft introduction to the coming book, and drafts of several early chapters at the top of the home page.

Freedom and Limitation

While we might think of freedom as the opportunity to do as we please, some say it is the opportunity to do what is right.  But, why not do as we please?  And, who decides what is right?

Freedom is a deep and compelling need felt by everyone.  What is it about us that we feel the longing for freedom at the very core of our being?  Why the emotional intensity of these questions?

The awareness of personal freedom is a felt-need, an essential aspect of human consciousness, and we yearn to act on it.  The perception of freedom is a human capacity that transcends the physical senses.

Animals are tied unalterably to the requirements of nature, environment, and species; but not people.  The horizons of the human mind – perception, introspection, imagination and memory – extend in every direction without apparent limitation.

This is a consciousness that provides us with boundless creative power.  Creativity is intrinsic to our character, and together with free will it defines our humanity.

However, the feeling of freedom comes into immediate conflict with the finite limitations of the world around us, and, indeed, with the finiteness of our own being.

We have been given free will and are yet confronted with a physical universe and constrained by the limits of nature and social necessity.

Free will is all about choice.  Whatever we choose to do, we could just as well choose not to do.  Yet we find free will colliding with the limits and necessities of a finite existence, both physical and social.

Our responses to the challenges of limitation determine the quality and integrity of our lives.  The conflict between our capacity for freedom and the world in which we find ourselves has purpose.

Without choice in the encounter with limitation, there could be no morality and no civilized order.  Without the capacity for freedom there would be no need for personal responsibility or discipline.

Creativity and productivity require self-conscious discipline.  Personal growth and maturity require responsibility, problem-solving, and the tests of hardship.

We understand that the constraints imposed on us by society are mostly necessary, if not always fair, and provide order and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world.  The limits of the natural world impose themselves even more exactly.

Yet, we do not feel fully human if we are prevented from seeking our own way.   Every limitation chafes against our yearning and our dreams.

As human beings, we possess the distinctive ability to step outside ourselves to perceive ourselves and our relationships in context.  So it is that we can recognize and interpret our relationships to family, society, and the physical environment.

Further, we are able to perceive and judge the personal qualities of spirit and character that make us who we are as individuals.

This ability allows us to explore the mysteries and majesties of the human spirit both inwardly and outwardly, such that our personal perspective transcends ourselves and our condition.

When the dimensions of valid action are violated, the errors of pride, self-righteousness and illusory obsessions take control.  And in the end, neither our finite qualities as human beings nor the necessities of the world around us will yield to arrogance or poor judgment.

This fact is a given when we enter the world, and it is a unique distinction of the human condition.  The collision of free will with necessity defines character and integrity – personally, socially, historically.

Our freedom opens worlds of potentiality to us, but without moral responsibility and discipline it will spell trouble.  We must choose: either to accept the reality embedded in the implicate order, or to disrupt the equilibrium and invite disorder.

I submit to you that true justice is determined by an unrelenting order in the world we are given.  It is the necessity embedded in the way things are.

Yes, we can violate the boundaries, but only at our peril.

Tom#define