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

What Have We Lost?

Americans are struggling in a sea of disruptions and a multitude of crises.  Many challenges confronted us before COVID, and most will remain with us long after the pandemic is behind us.

As a people, we have always been a contentious lot. We have an uneven past to learn from.  It is easy to forget the good and admirable that history has to tell, when injury demands attention.  And here there is a hidden cost. 

If we allow what has been positive and good to be lost from view—overcome by anger and confusion—we will lose our way on the road to justice and prosperity. 

Without knowledge of the past, both the good and the bad, we are unable to understand the story that brought us to this place—or to consider corrective change.

Clarity does not come easily.  History is often forgotten, but it can leave its’ influence etched indelibly in our national thinking.

The strength of our parents and grandparents in meeting hardship, in overcoming injustices or injury, is the foundation of our American heritage.  This is our honor.  And, it will be recreated ever anew as we navigate through the storms ahead.

More than ever today, we are confronted with questions of principle, of conflicting values, of the meaning of moral responsibility.  Such concerns come into focus amidst disruption and conflict. 

Human beings have never agreed on values.  This is natural and inevitable.  Yet, our personal principles are essential and inviolable.  Like the virtues spoken of by the founders (see June 5 post), principles keep us steady in the storm.

The modern era has never been easy, but until recently its’ tensions have been largely submerged from view. 

In my view, we have lost a sense of purpose and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.  This has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.

Increasingly over time, we have indulged ourselves in meaningless spectacle and thoughtless voyeurism—a wasteland of sex, violence, greed and materialism.

This is not what the founders hoped for.

In his book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson presents a persuasive view of what has come to pass in the United States.  He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and loss of social stability have had devastating consequences.

I paraphrase his words here: 1) the loss of personal and social responsibility, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.

Dr. Ferguson reminds us of past strengths, and in particular the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America.

“I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted?  I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.”

He cites the historian Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous commentary, Democracy in America (1840):

“America is, among the countries of the world,” Tocqueville wrote, “the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.

“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.”

Niall Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy.  But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him.”

What happened?  Once upon a time Americans succeeded in overcoming the constraints to freedom through their own initiative and sense of community. 

A once vibrant culture of engagement has been replaced by a self-centered attitude and the isolating influences of technology, mass media, and corporate society.

Will we step forward now with positive initiative and a constructive attitude?

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about July 5.

To Recover a Civilized Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is to be learned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

Personal Integrity, Freedom of Thought

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

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

Our assumptions are uninvestigated beliefs that may or may not be true.  My suggestion here is that unexamined assumptions can limit our knowledge of the reality we are dealing with, and thus the effectiveness of our actions. 

Inaccurate assumptions interfere with the free flow of information.  Truthfulness becomes immaterial, and personal autonomy unachievable. And so I ask you: If we have not investigated and fully understood opposing points of view, how can we engage with and influence others?  How can we challenge their assumptions?

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

I do not suggest that agreement is necessary.  In fact. this will often be impossible.  But untested assumptions are plainly dangerous. Questions of judgment often involve complex circumstances and depend on information coming from multiple sources.

Sometimes complexity can be aggravating.  But, if we value the integrity of our beliefs and our role in the world, there is no alternative to pursuing accuracy.  After all, our personal views reflect our self-confidence as decent and intelligent people.

Problems often catch us by surprise as a consequence of assumptions we did not realize we were making.  This can happen in the workplace or the home, and with careless inattention to relationships. We have long accepted the assumption, for example, that rational governance is possible if we simply trust the wisdom of experts, or that nature must submit to human control.

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

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

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

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

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

Values are not casual ideas or choices; many are deeply rooted in our interests and needs. If we are to live together, certain essential values must be shared; others might challenge our patience, but need not threaten trust.

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

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

Each of us carries a personal perspective that will contribute to the character and wisdom of the whole—as long as we refrain from allowing ego or emotion to overwhelm the context in which we find ourselves.

Tom

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

The Ground of Freedom

We all have a yearning for freedom.  A part of us wants to do whatever we wish, and without interference.  The feeling is ever-present because, unlike any other creature, we possess free will.  The human experience of free will can make us aware of every imaginable possibility.  We can choose to be kind or mean, constructive or destructive, good or evil.

Whatever we choose to do, we could just as well choose not to do.  Without this choice, which is hard-wired in human nature, no morality could exist.

We are not animals.  There are things we care about—activities and relationships, intentions and goals that are important to each of us, and which call for thoughtful consideration.

If we wish to strengthen relationships or to succeed in any endeavor, we will act with “responsibility”.  Because our “ability to respond” will matter.

Without a sense of responsibility, we remain essentially isolated and alone—without the relational experience that develops our skills and measures personal integrity.

It is for this reason that thinking people have always recognized the interdependence of freedom and responsibility.

Genuine freedom is simply not possible in the absence of responsibility.

Understanding this allows us to live our lives intelligently.  And, it also informs us of the contours of justice that form the structure of human reality.

It is important to recognize that justice is relational.  Rational thinking alone cannot determine the foundations for justice.

For this reason, coming to an agreement on acceptable ethical guidelines needs to be a top priority for every functional community, large or small.

Clearly, we need to be talking.

Such agreements are only possible when pursued with a compassionate attitude and inquisitive interest, as we gradually learn of the life experience and personal struggles each individual labors with.

Personal views and opinions will always be present.  This is natural.  But, as long as we are listening and engaged, we can uphold personal freedom as a principle and demonstrate our humanity.

Without question, however, living and working together as neighbors depends on a shared understanding of justice and the negotiation of ethical standards.

Safety depends 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 dialectical process.  Living with others calls for commitment.

Let’s acknowledge that managing the balance between freedom and responsibility is easier for the individual to than for a group.

We need to learn how to do this if we are to bring a community to life and make it a safe and pleasant place to live.

It will require patience, learned skills and an extended learning curve.

If we wish to lead creative, productive lives, we will surely seek the freedom that is our birthright.  At the same time, we cannot avoid the purpose embedded in the finite limitations of existence.

We will need to find responsible means for putting this reality 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 of 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), as well as the civil constraints of an orderly society, we would have no capacity to exercise intelligence and direct our energy, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

For the individual, the ability to exercise discipline overcomes 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 challenges 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 April 26.

America: Cohesive Strength by Design

In 1787 the American Founders at the Constitutional Convention could see the future but dimly, yet they provided us with a structure for governance and a process for problem-solving that allowed for the contentious people they knew us to be.

We are fortunate to have received such an inheritance.  As we look forward from the current state of disorder, how can we learn from and leverage this heritage?

If we can see little that appears dependable, where can we look for a realistic foundation?

Let’s not forget that local communities are the one place where we have the freedom and opportunity to meet shared needs and resolve local problems.

This is not the final solution, but it is the beginning of liberty.  Authentic community is within our power to make real.

Community is the seat of civilization, and it is personal.  It is here that we engage with one another face-to-face, building trust, tending to needs, learning patience and responsibility.

These things don’t just happen by coincidence.  They are learned in the trials of hardship and necessity.  They are born of loyalty, determination and purpose.

Like a family, the commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people—practically, emotionally, spiritually.  Perhaps this is why so many avoid participating fully.

There are also other reasons for committing ourselves to local responsibility.  Beyond the boundaries of family, community is the place to address the immediate needs we all face, to engage in respectful decision-making, and to solve shared problems.

Americans have abdicated personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time, and we have done so at our peril.

It was not always this way.  Prior to the American Revolution, and for close to 100 years afterward, Americans gravitated easily toward local governance and an independent frame of mind.

We managed our affairs in cooperation with our neighbors.  We accepted regional autonomy as a natural condition.

Civil society flourished in the nineteenth century, when Americans created an immense variety of civic associations to address every conceivable social need and activity.  We did this on our own initiative, inspired by a sense of belonging and the spirit of the times.

The rebirth of community spirit is more important today than it has ever been.  And this is a practical matter.

It is only by engaging with our neighbors in all spheres of problem-solving that we learn the skills for living and working productively as neighbors and citizens.

Americans have done this before and we can do it again.

There are those who argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal we should aspire to.  And this is an attractive vision.  Yet, I think it is plain to see that a balance must be struck between a fully engaged civil society and a competent, trustworthy and limited central government.

OK, it is difficult indeed to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are responsible for protecting both our freedoms and our security.  But that is what we need. 

Without law and a just governing structure there can be neither freedom nor safety.  And, I believe that a valid vision of limited government can only come from genuinely functional communities and networks of communities.

Those who understand the necessity for trust and moral responsibility—and who recognize the very high stakes involved—will strengthen these foundations with their neighbors.

It is here that Americans have the potential to affirm trustworthiness and negotiate the future.  Practical necessity can only be met with personal initiative and respectful dialog.

Building unity within communities is hard work, a process that takes time and depends on everyone.

Cohesive strength requires that we reach across our differences to influence the hearts and minds of neighbors, to form friendships and to truly know one another.

Cohesive strength does not come from uniformity.  It is the context of differences that gives solid reinforced consistency to the proven capability of American strength.

This is the principle at the heart of the American heritage.

What is essential is that we refocus our vision in such positive terms as no divisiveness can subvert.

Tom

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

Sample drafts of chapters from the book manuscript are available at the top of the homepage.

Freedom and Responsibility

When the first European settlers came to America and dispersed into the forests and across the open plains, they had only their own initiative, ingenuity, and self-reliance to depend upon. No one was there to counsel them about the requirements for survival.  Freedom and responsibility were defined by harsh realities.

Intrepid settlers also relied on one another as neighbors, so long as each understood what responsibility meant in the face of hardship. Self-reliance and the acceptance of personal responsibility are sources of self-respect and lead to mutual respect among neighbors.  Whining and complaint don’t fly, however tough the circumstances.

I believe the time is approaching when this may become important once again.  And, the moral integrity that motivates us to assist one another will be as blind to differences as it was on the American frontier. Integrity is neither inhumane nor fickle.

Our physical circumstances are different now, and our independence as self-sufficient individuals is generally gone—but the coming challenges will increasingly resemble those of an earlier time. We are called upon even now to stand on our own feet and respond constructively to the unexpected.

In the early years of European settlement, American frontier life required little organization other than that prescribed by the traditions of English common law and common decency.  But as the population grew, it was not long before undisciplined enthusiasm and competitiveness roiled the civil order.

Thinking people soon found themselves facing growing contentiousness and the dangers of majority rule, which threatened to suppress individual liberty and initiative.

Democracy was a new idea two centuries ago.  The Constitutional Convention of 1787 struggled with concerns about the intensity of divisiveness among the colonists, and recognition that the Republic would face future threats and unpredictable social and economic stress in the coming centuries.

Libertarian sentiments were strong among Americans in the 18th century.  There was a natural fear of the oppressiveness of institutions from which they had so recently fled. Many had strong feelings about protecting the freedom they felt in America, a freedom that stood in marked contrast to the ever-present example of slavery.

The Founders were quite aware of the mood, and recognized that majority factions had no qualms about suppressing minorities or rejecting the interests of anyone who differed from them. Given the European experience it was easy to imagine a violent and tumultuous future.

The United States Constitution is the product of this tension, and the determination to create a dynamic framework capable of protecting freedoms while channeling the forces of conflict and change that would surely come.

The Constitution provides a structure for governance designed for an inherently contentious people.  Yet, it is notable for its’ simplicity and provides few legal constraints.  The Founders chose to depend on Americans to govern their own behavior.

The imperative that future Americans observe principled values and virtue ethics was clearly stated by Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Washington among others. 

The Founders could not impose the virtues they expected of Americans, or the cooperation upon which the Constitution depends.  However, the document itself makes such necessities self-evident.

The forthcoming book, upon which this blog is based, considers the history and implications of these challenges. How do we understand the meaning of freedom, and what are the practical constraints required by freedom itself in a civilized order?

How did the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 formulate a structure for governance that would preserve a balance between majority and minority, freedom and stability? How did they endeavor to project freedom and order into a future they could only barely imagine?

Fairness and balance are written into the legal structure of the Republic.  The rest depends on us. 

Instability begins with lack of foresight, belligerence, and the inability to compromise.  We are well over 300 million in number and we have differences.  If we are to avoid catastrophe, genuine listening with the intent to understand and educate is essential.

Civilized solutions will only be possible through collaborative problem-solving enabled by the Constitution.

We stand today at an extraordinary turning point.  We must not throw away our inheritance and imagine it possible to start over from nothing.

Tom

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

A note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several completed chapter drafts are available at the top of the homepage.

Getting Real About Problem-solving

The commitment of politicians and others to the integrity of the United States Constitution has been questioned in recent years.  This is a serious concern.  Those who understand the significance of the Constitution will be concerned about the means for defending it.

This is an emotional issue for many Americans, and the recent proliferation of armed citizen militias across the country has drawn attention to it.

It makes sense to think practically about how to ensure the integrity of the Constitution.

[This post has been updated and re-published due to the timeliness of the topic.]

Here we have a question of means and ends.  Destructive forcefulness will easily cause precisely the opposite of its’ intended purpose.

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

In my view, Harry Emerson Fosdick stated this truth most clearly: “He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.”

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

Americans can understand this logic.  In the midst of conflict nothing is more important than a clear mind.  Yet, we human beings are emotional creatures, and the less disciplined have always been capable of emotion-driven violence.

So, let’s take a look at the way incivility and antagonism—and especially the threat of violence—will actually subvert our own interests and intentions.  I will suggest four reasons here, as follows.

First, force—or the threat of force—subverts the Constitution itself, immediately destroying its’ capacity to function as written and effectively nullifying its existence.

The Founders created a structure for governance that depends on civility, moral responsibility, and collaboration.  The Founders expected Americans to behave with ethical integrity in the service of their country, and several of them stated this expectation emphatically.

Second, hostile action by a few individuals would make it difficult, even impossible, for rational and disciplined strategies to be mounted effectively.  It could actually set back the cause of the perpetrators themselves—for years, even decades.

Why?  The use of force would harden the attitudes of most Americans toward the perceived purpose or philosophy of the instigators.  This would make it difficult to win a fair hearing from anyone who respects the rule of law.

Third, any rebellion by force of arms pits itself against the uniformed services—law-enforcement agencies and the National Guard.  These are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and sworn defenders of the Constitution.

Individual members of militias need to understand who exactly they intend to fight, and who they wish to attract and win over to their cause.

Fourth, the vast majority of Americans value the character of the United States deeply. They recognize the essential role of the Constitution in making America a safe, productive, and meaningful country to live in.

If we wish Americans to have a better understanding of how the Constitutional structure of governance should function, it will not be accomplished by beating them up.

Influencing hearts and minds requires the rational exchange of information—accurate information.  This means teaching our values, demonstrating basic virtues in our actions, and learning how to communicate effectively.

Not only do we depend on civil order for the safety of our families, for safe streets, jobs, schools and hospitals, but there is a fundamental principle involved: We cannot defend what we believe in by tearing it down.

To preserve the Constitution and renew the strength of the United States we will need to address our countrymen with clear reasoning presented compellingly, and in a composed and rational manner.

The Constitution will last far into the future if, and only if, Americans stand by it with steadfast adherence to the rule of law, and to the values (and virtues) the Founders expected of us.

Tom

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

A Severe Choice

What is truly at stake?  Many new crises are confronting the American people, some just now appearing on the horizon.  What are the dangers obscured by the present partisan conflict?  The coming years will bring immense challenges, and the necessity for responsible citizenship will test and re-test the strength of this nation.

For two centuries the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope and an unparalleled model of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality.  People everywhere have admired its dynamism and been attracted to the vision it represents.

In the midst of controversy, it can be easy to forget the unique stature of the United States and the role it has played and expected to play in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization.

Yet, our confidence in its’ social coherence, its’ economic well-being and generosity of spirit has faltered.  Something has changed.  We all know this, but we have widely differing views about what has happened, when and why.

Despite our differences, many Americans share the feeling that the country has strayed from traditional principles we hold dear.

Do we possess the vision and resolve to build a future based on moral responsibility, core values and ultimate meaning?  And, how would this be possible?

Can we step back from recent events—and years of sequential financial crises—to seriously address this question?

Is it terribly surprising that our national preoccupation with self-indulgence has led from self-respect to degradation?  This did not happen overnight.

The economic well-being of working and middle-class Americans has been badly damaged.  Did we understand what was happening?  It is easy for mindless materialism and thoughtless disregard for consequences to place the future in jeopardy.

The fragmented way we perceive the world may have origins in the incoherence of mass media.  But, what of our lack of attention, and our insatiable taste for frivolous entertainment?

We are challenged by vast social, economic and technological complexity.  It’s difficult to see the whole picture, but are we thinking?

Whatever the causes of disarray, we can surely see that disrespect and disunity will not serve us well in reconstructing a stable, coherent, economically viable future.

What is to be done?

Are we willing to truly listen to one another, to think and understand?  Are we prepared to hear about the experience behind our differences—the stories of our pain and the origins of our discontents?

There really is no other way to understand what is happening, or to find solutions to the complexity that confronts us, without inquisitive interest and caring.

And there is no other way to avoid the destructive violence of anarchy without full commitment to the structural order provided by the Constitution.

This is a severe choice because the consequences are severe.

We have entered a crucible of testing that will burn away the self-centered and sloppy thinking of the past to forge an American identity we can respect and believe in.

Americans deserve self-respect.  But the way forward leads through a great testing.

If we fail to rise to our calling, the social violence generated by fear and failing institutions will incinerate our children’s future and turn a great vision to hopelessness and anguish.

Will we reconfirm the founding ideals and principles of these United States as the bedrock on which to build a free and ethical future?

Will we defend and protect two hundred years of commitment, hard work, and sacrifice by generations of Americans who have given their lives to this unprecedented vision?

Or, will we give way to the emotions of uncompromising partisanship, accept alienation or violence—and allow a great trust to shatter and vanish?

Make no mistake: we face a long crisis!  Systems and services we have long depended on will fail in the coming years.

We will need to depend on the knowledge and skills of our neighbors—whatever their background or the color of their skin—to resolve local problems and meet shared needs.

In the coming sequence of crises safety will only be secured with authentic interpersonal relationships.  And the time to act is now.

Tom

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

A note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several completed chapters are available on the homepage.