The Forward Edge of History

The vision of America that came to life with the birth of the Nation was unprecedented in history.  It is subverted today by a bitter divisiveness that disallows dialog and obstructs decision-making.

To regain the integrity of that vision – and to build a future we can all believe in, Americans must navigate carefully through currents of alienation, hostility, and misinformation.

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

Destructiveness can take many forms.

When the banks nearly collapsed in 2008, the United States hovered on the edge of catastrophe.  Americans discovered that failures of responsibility, foresight, and common sense involved the very people and institutions we depend 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 this crisis has long been coming, and that it reveals far more than foolishness.

For many years we have watched a broad social deterioration in America that comes with a self-centered lack of principles and the absence of genuine values.

Respected national leaders have stained themselves.  We have even 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 demoralizing.

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

It is easy to get caught up in emotional feelings at a time like this.  We have healing work to do.  If we wish to reaffirm the ultimate purpose of this great nation, it will be necessary to modulate our speech and better manage our emotions.

Times of peril require that we communicate carefully and avoid contributing to inflamed passions, however offended we may be.  Hurled accusations and insults make it impossible for others to 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 bad mistakes.

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

Secondly, blaming will blind us to looming perils that are the fault of no one.  A fierce storm has come upon us.  We need each other if we are to take responsibility for the needs of our local communities.

Make no mistake: A storm of this magnitude will alter everyone’s perspective.  It is essential that we transcend personal fear, resisting its attendant 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, cooperation, and learned skills.  We must try to see the end in the beginning – the vision of a civil society where respectfulness, fairness, and moral responsibility prevail and freedom of expression is nurtured and defended.

This vision and purpose 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 capacity to make this happen.

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

We will not escape this great turning point in human history.  It 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:  The blog will take a break until after Christmas.  Please watch for the next post on or about December 29.

If you wish to know more about the project you can find a description, along with an introduction to the forthcoming book and several chapter drafts elsewhere on this page.

Liberty, Responsibility, Integrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom,” he wrote, “is not the last word.  Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth.  Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness.  In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

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

This much is meaningful for a time.  However, we soon begin to realize that the society in which we live, and the material limitations in our lives, impose themselves on us in uncomfortable ways.

Do we then give in to rebellion – or feeling sorry for ourselves?  Or, do we seek dignity in the face of limitation, assert control over our personal shortcomings, and engage constructively with the world around us?

Many of us find it necessary to construct the lives we wish for from the wreckage of past mistakes, our own and those of others, and are grateful simply for the opportunity to do so.  Even cleaning up a mess can offer a certain satisfaction.

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

Seeking to accept responsibility depends on our circumstances.  What I am suggesting here, however, is that a core responsibility underlies all others: This is the imperative to build and protect trust.

Why is this critically important?  Because ultimately all complex problem-solving depends on trust.

This is because, fundamentally, justice depends on trust.

Without trust, justice (and liberty) will remain elusive, and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.  Trust is the substance of integrity.  It will be essential for building the future.

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

To See for Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

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

Liberty and Justice: Beginning or End?

Neither liberty or justice can be pulled out of the air or handed to us by those in authority.  These are aspects of the elemental substance of reality and they depend on our actions.

It is through personal responsibility that we find the personal freedom to act on the principles of justice.  There can be no liberty without responsibility.

As we saw in the previous blog, personal liberty can be asserted even in the most terrible circumstances.  In a troubled world this is important to understand.  If we are to keep our balance when the ground is shifting under our feet, how can we best prepare ourselves?

We must do more than prepare materially for hard times, although that is important, too.

How can we find the moral and mental strength to persevere?  How can we take a long view in the midst of chaos – to gain a sense of ultimate purpose and a vision of the future we can believe in?

If we seek an even temper and a steady hand when the world around us is coming unhinged, I believe it will be with a firm understanding of the ground on which we stand.  And, I believe the ground of human reality is defined and governed by justice,

I know it is difficult to see justice in the midst of the present disarray.  So, let’s think for a moment about the world we were given, the real world – before we messed it up.

It is my firm conviction that there is an integral order underlying all things, and it has the character of justice.  This is the ultimate ground of the reality of things.

Stated briefly, justice can be understood as the ultimate balance manifested in the self-sustaining structure of things.  Or, to put it in another way, justice is a dynamic framework upon which all things depend, and which remains unified and transcendent despite the disruptions caused by human activity.

We can learn to see this “original” reality with our own eyes (and not through the eyes of others), and to understand it for ourselves without being swayed by others.

Justice is the governing principle and inherent character of this truth.  In my view, there is a reason to believe that this character is indestructible and will prevail in the end.  And, it is what allows us to keep our balance in a disturbed world.

Whether this idea is viewed through religious or philosophical eyes, all of us can benefit by gaining confidence in the ground we stand on.  It is reasonable, it is dependable, and it offers a stable basis for constructive action.

Everyone sees things differently and none of us can comprehend ultimate truth.  Yet, the concept proposed here can be helpful in maintaining our composure, and in determining the right course of action in difficult circumstances.

Such an understanding can be the starting point for both thinking and action.

If we are to rebuild our communities and nation in a constructive and principled manner, it will be necessary to adjust with flexibility to the unexpected changes that come with crises.

America is staggering under the assaults of discord, divisiveness, and hostility.  If this nation is worth saving, it is up to each of us as individuals – to reach out to those who are struggling with hardship, to rise above our differences and to unite with our neighbors to address our shared needs constructively.

Justice will come when we forge an indestructible unity with true American generosity of spirit.  There will always be differences.  It will be shared needs and common purpose that matter.

If we cannot win over a few with the invitation to selfless responsibility and mutual respect, leave them to themselves.  Some will insist on learning the hard way.  Join with those who are ready and get on with the work!

Understanding the ground of justice gives us confidence when exercising responsibility, building trustworthy relationships, and conducting our lives with integrity.

Justice furnishes the ordered condition in which we have the opportunity to bring ourselves into balance with the world of existence as it truly is – and as I believe it is meant to be.

Tom

Dear readers, I depend on your comments and constructive feedback.  Please look for the next post on or about June 30.

The Challenge of Inner Freedom

At a time of deepening social disorder and economic disarray, I am concerned about the potential for overreaction – by the power elite, by police agencies and by citizens.  We are experiencing circumstances in which terrible things can happen.

I will share a story with you that illuminates our capacity as human beings to assert our dignity and inner freedom even amid the most terrible circumstances.

Responding to injustices and irrational behavior is difficult.  And yet, facing the world rationally and responsibly can be a personal statement of transcendent freedom.

This is possible regardless of the conditions around us, however difficult they may be.

To be free we must seek to be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves, and then to actualize our identity with dignity and perseverance.

We may not like the reality in which we find ourselves.  Indeed, it could become nightmarish.  But, possessing free will necessitates a commitment to be free in oneself and to engage proactively with the circumstances we face.

If there is a primary requirement for attaining the integrity of inner freedom, it is the personal determination to do so with moral responsibility and ethical discipline.

In my view, this choice has never been described more eloquently than by Viktor Frankl in the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, his testimony of four terrible years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.

Because his response to those circumstances is so revealing, I will devote most of this post to his words:

“I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings.  (In this case the surroundings being the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain set pattern.)  But, what about human liberty?

“Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? …Do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?  Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

“We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle.

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.  There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“And there were always choices to make.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom….

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

“Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

As we face our own personal tests, which we hope will not be so daunting as Dr. Frankl’s, how can we find this strength within ourselves?

Here is a freedom reached through personal empowerment, compassion and responsibility, as we respond to the turmoil of a transformative age.

No one can do this for us.  As we turn our attention to the distress and confusion of those around us, we are preparing for both the coming hardship and the new day beyond.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 16.

First Steps to Self-Reliance

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

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

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

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

As Americans well know, however, the notion that citizens have no reason to limit their power over themselves only seems reasonable to those who have no experience with popular government.

Fortunately the Founders recognized the danger and designed a decision-making structure that limits the ability of one faction to oppress another.  Neither a large majority nor a powerful minority can form an oppressive regime like those we see elsewhere in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s start by doing first things first:

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

Freedom or Paralysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All form has structural limits and all limits provide the means for leverage.  It is the consistent dependability of this reality that allows us to launch ourselves into new frontiers of learning and experience, to control the direction of our efforts, to instigate, organize, create.

Without the constraints of necessity, (which include our own values), we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

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

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

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

Tom

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

Illusion Over Liberty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

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

Freedom and Limitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is this about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prospects for peace do not look so great either.

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

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

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

The future and the responsibility are ours to claim.

Tom

Next post: The Loss of Ultimate Purpose

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

The Will to Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several related questions were raised in previous posts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

Next post: Transcending Our Limitations

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

A Different Kind of Nation

The United States Constitution holds a unique place in history.  The framers stepped away from the customs and tyrannies of the past to devise a new model for governance envisioned for a free and civilized people.  It has endured for more than two hundred years.

Are we willing to overlook the subsequent missteps and mistakes, the rude and selfish behavior, to consider what is truly of value to us?  Are we prepared to step forward to defend what we wish to preserve?

If we let this inheritance die, what will we have lost?

The record has been rough-hewn, but how could we expect anything like perfection when we have gathered the human race together from across the world into the managed chaos of a democratic republic?

We are blessed with a brilliantly conceived structure for governance that has channeled the energies and creative genius of the world’s people into a dynamic force for capacity-building and prosperity.

As I tried to illustrate in the previous post, the founders made an effort to see the end in the beginning.  We now stand at another profound turning point in history, a moment requiring a visionary maturity from Americans of all colors, stripes, and viewpoints.

I do not suggest the impending election is such a turning point. I speak of something far greater and more profound, a shift in attitudes and thinking that will require at least a generation to comprehend and internalize.

In the coming years we must find our way through a sequence of social and material crises that transcend partisan politics.  These troubles are the consequence of foolishness, mistaken assumptions and a lack of responsibility and foresight over the course of many decades.

Shamelessness and iniquity have walked together on this land.

There are those who think 200 years is a reasonable age for a democratic republic to reach its’ natural demise.  However, the United States of America remains an extraordinary model of spirit and governance, despite the blemishes.

I think it more reasonable to understand 200 years as the age of maturity, shaped by experience and illuminated by the affairs of a disturbed world, when this nation must necessarily come of age.

We have responsibility for a trust grounded in the heritage of the American idea.  Indeed, it is the responsibility to provide a faltering world with the vision and stability to support the next surge forward by the human race.

This is a trust that no other nation has the vision, the strength of will or the generosity of spirit, to embrace.  Brought into focus by the creativity of the American founders, it shines even now from the darkness, a beacon amid dangers and hardship.

Human imperfections remain.  Those who point to the evils and injustices of the past and present are serving a necessary role.  Certainly we must not forget the ignoble or wrongly conceived.  It is not useful, however, to condemn the vision and good will that give character to what the world has admired.

Questions also remain.  Thoughtful citizens will reconsider the requirements that liberty imposes in the way we handle our civil discourse, our disagreements and decision-making.

Surely there can be no freedom for thought, for creativity, for social and economic advancement in the absence of the civility and self-discipline that allows us to engage freely and without fear.

Recognizing the necessity for the social stability upon which all else depends, a practical reality confronts each of us every day.  Have we matured to the degree that we can represent our personal views patiently, listen with understanding, and, when necessary, live with our differences?

The crisis-fueled tensions of the early 21st century leave us wondering.

Ultimately, stability and prosperity depend on our ability to engage in meaningful problem-solving, and to accept our differences within the supporting constraints of shared principles.

If we fail we could lose everything.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about November 11: Standing together for the American idea.

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Endurance, Resourcefulness and Faith

The severity of a deepening crisis raises unavoidable questions. Will the country be torn apart by anger and frustration?  Will the nation survive as the Republic created by its founders? Or, will the American people have the vision, fortitude, and grit to learn the lessons and reaffirm the vision and principles that will lead to a genuine renewal?

If the Republic is to prevail, how will we pull it off?  Do we have the patience and wisdom to give priority first to the stability that makes problem-solving possible, to rebuild a national unity that transcends the very real differences that divide us?

Early in 2008 Peggy Noonan, a widely read conservative commentator and one-time aide to President Ronald Reagan, addressed this question eloquently in a collection of essays, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now.  She wrote during a season of bitter political back-biting, and, as we all know, things soon became very much worse:

“I believe we have to assume that something bad is going to happen, someday, to us.  Maybe it will be ten years from now, but maybe not, maybe sooner, much sooner.  We have to assume, I think, that it will be a 9/11 times ten, or a hundred, or more, and that it will have a deeply destabilizing effect on our country; that it will test our unity and our endurance, our resourcefulness and faith.

“We all know this, I think, deep down.  I don’t know a major political figure in America to whom all this has not occurred, and often…. And yet in some deep way our politics do not reflect our knowledge.  It’s odd.  Stunning, actually.  We keep going through the same old motions in the bitter old ways.  Even our cynics are not being realistic!

“…Will the banks fail, is the system built on anything but faith, and will the faith hold?  Will we keep our coherence as a country, will we hold together, can we continue as a sovereign nation at peace with itself?”

Peggy Noonan’s little book radiates a much needed spirit.  I recommend it.  Most of us never expected to see the United States in the condition in which we find it today.  Many of us never expected to face the personal hardship in which we increasingly find ourselves.

Ultimately we face a uniquely American crisis, yet one that is unfolding in the midst of an extraordinary global turning point.  I will attempt to cut through the emotions and complexity of a monumental moment in history to argue that we must unite to regenerate and rebuild the United States as a living model for a free, stable, and prosperous world.

This nation has progressed gradually toward maturity for 200 years, dedicated to the cause of responsible liberty and built upon the foundation of unity within diversity – diversity of nationality, religion, ethnicity, and, most of all, political philosophy.  We possess wide ranging distinctions and differences, but together we share an essential inviolable common ground.

We are all Americans.  The promise we all hold dear can only prevail if we have the courage and forbearance to rise above our differences, to address our problems shoulder to shoulder, and to do what must be done to make our children safe and our communities secure.

We have the inherent capacity to move forward despite the mistakes and tragedies of the past – and the mysteries of the future.

Our future hangs in the balance.  Let’s pull together, reassert our common ground in the vision with which the nation was built, and step forward to forge a future shaped by fairness, trustworthiness, and moral responsibility.

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 effectively to build safe communities with people we are not in complete agreement with, then we will be condemned to the only possible alternative: a collapsing civilization defined by fear and violence, a nightmare for our children, and a land where no principles, no values, no stable order can be realized.

Tom

Next post: Cooperation or collapse?

A note to regular readers:  As I announced in late June, I have shifted to a new schedule and will now post every two weeks.  This will allow me more time for completing the book.  I will continue to post on Fridays and hope to publish the next blog entry on or about July 22.