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

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.

Liberty and the Foundations of Order

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

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

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

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

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

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

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

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

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

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry–not gentility, but virtue…. In their various ways the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

The Origins of Dislocation and Distress

The current hostile atmosphere in the United States might have caught some by surprise.  But we would do well to consider the origins of this distress.  Growing distrust and several decades of economic pain have been all too apparent for those with the eyes to see.

The pandemic has only deepened the alienation already felt by many Americans.

I invite you to join me in thinking about the steady social and economic deterioration that has brought us to this place.  Practical solutions depend on objective understanding.

The rapid development of science and an industrial society had promised Americans the benefits of prosperity and power—despite showing indifference to the consequences of degraded communities and compromised autonomy.

While little could shake public faith in modern scientific and industrial enterprise, the subversion of civil society and community coherence has been profound.

Constructive energy and a self-conscious sense of individuality came to America with European immigrants and gave impetus to accelerating development of industry and commerce. 

Almost everything about modern America came about by means of this fierce individualism, for better or worse.  And yet, ironically, the blind mechanistic character of industrial culture led directly to the demise of the same autonomous individuality that had originally brought it to life.

As early as 1941 the theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, warned of this unexpected challenge.  Our attention was elsewhere then, and the cruel truth is only now becoming clear:

“The social and economic destruction of individuality is a consequence of the mechanical and impersonal elaborations of a commercial culture which reach their culmination in the development of industrial civilization.  Modern industrialism pushes the logic of impersonal money and credit relationships to its final conclusion.

“The process of production and exchange, which remained embedded in the texture of personal relationships in a simpler economy, are gradually emancipated and established as a realm of automatic and rationalized relations in which the individual is subordinated to the process….

“Modern society is consequently involved in a process of friction and decay which threaten the whole world with disaster and which seem to develop a kind of inexorable logic of their own, defying all human efforts to arrest the decay.”

Is this a criticism of capitalism?  No. not at all!  Savings and working capital are essential for any healthy economy. 

Commerce and industry are an integral part of an advancing civilization.  Why should this be a problem?  We expect our personal freedom and autonomy to be threatened by tyrants, as it often is, but not by industry.

A healthy society needs a productive economy.  It does not need repetitive financial crises, the destruction of civil society, or absurd extremes of wealth and poverty.

This is what we have inherited, and by 1990 it was driving the economic confidence of working Americans into the ground.  Following still another financial crisis in 2008, much of the middle-class joined them in poverty.

Are we surprised by the turmoil that has followed?  Really?  Reality has manifested itself politically, but reality is about human lives—not politics.

Sociologist and noted conservative thinker Robert Nisbet places the problem in historical context: “During the past two centuries,” he writes, “mankind has undergone the most traumatic social change it has experienced since the beginnings of settled culture in the Neolithic age.

“I refer to the decline—even disappearance in spreading sections—of the local community, the dislocation of kinship, and the erosion of the sacred in human affairs…. The historical roots of culture and personality alike lie deep in the neighborhood, family, and religion.

“Unlike all preceding major changes in human history, these… went below the superstructure of society, went right to man’s most ancient and cherished sources of identity.  With the rise of the factory system and the mass electorate, there was inevitably a wrenching of the individual from his accustomed family, local, and religious contexts.”

Needless to say, when people lose economic security and emotional safety, it leads to alienation and disorientation—both individual and societal. 

What happens when people are denied the sources of personal identity?

We are left with a vacuum to be filled by centralized governance and the consolidation of power—and the growing potential for manipulation and despotism.

Tom.

Note to regular readers:  You may watch for the next post on or about January 19.  A description of the project and several recently revised chapter drafts are available at the top of the homepage.

America: Our Legacy, Our Challenge

The extraordinary questions confronting the American people today will surely mark a turning point.  The diversity of challenges we face together represent a great test of America’s character and place in history.

For more than two hundred years the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope, a source of creative imagination and ingenuity, and as a singular model of freedom, diversity, and vitality.

In the cauldron of converging crises it is easy to forget the unparalleled meaning of the United States, and the role it has played in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization.

Our confidence is shaken by the widespread loss of trust, by abandoned responsibility and collapsing institutions. Economic well-being has been undermined for several decades.  A coherent sense of national identity has weakened.  And, the generosity of spirit for which Americans have long been known has faded.

This week I will step away from recent topics to revisit the central theme of this blog and forthcoming book.

I ask my fellow Americans to consider the danger in a crisis that it did not begin in 2000, 2008, or 2016.  I am speaking of the long crisis, a condition that has been evolving for at least half a century.

Surely, we know of the deterioration experienced in the lives of working Americans in recent decades, and recognize the degradation of the consumer economy generally. And now a pandemic is kicking us when we were already battered and struggling.

In my view, the basic underlying problems have not been caused by present or past leadership, but rather by two profound and historic developments. These are 1) profound structural change, which has been easy to ignore or misunderstand, and 2) a gradually increasing loss of concern for moral responsibility and constructive thinking as a whole.

Leadership will not save us.  Hope lies in the hands of the American people and our readiness to step aside from partisanship. The ultimate survival of the United States as a constitutional republic demands nothing less.

As concerned as many Americans are about our ideological or cultural differences, (and these are real), we will be unable to pursue perfectly valid interests if we destroy the means to do so.

My message is brief.  It will be short on analytical detail and will avoid blame.  There is more than enough blame to go around and we all know about it.

This blog and a coming book are focused on the essentials of mind and attitude, of moral character, and of our relationships with one another that will be required to go forward. If we fail to attend to these essentials, nothing else will matter.

The book will acknowledge mistakes and the failure of vision and responsibility.  We will consider the way we have gradually abandoned control over our lives.

However, I do so not to fix blame, but for the purpose of understanding the steps required to build a just and stable future we can respect and believe in.

In the present fragile context, the priorities we must first address will be to turn despair into courage and failure into honor and self-respect—such that we can ensure the safety and well-being of our families and communities.

The bottom line depends on truthfulness, trustworthiness and teamwork. The rest will follow.

Building trust and finding safety will require that we rise above our differences to resolve shared problems, meet local needs, and learn to collaborate.

Is this really possible? Yes, but only with great patience, a commitment to fairness, and determination to pursue constructive, life-affirming solutions.

America has gained its vitality from our diversity and the creative engagement found in the clash of differing opinions.  However, at a time of existential danger we are confronted with a stark choice. Will we accept the necessity for collaboration which is embedded unalterably in the Constitution?

Will we 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—and allow a great trust to vanish from history?

Tom

The blog will be taking a break during the election period.  Please watch for the next post on or about November 16.

To See for Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for freedom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

This Crisis, Here and Now

Faced with severe challenges and the haunting presence of fear and uncertainty, we turn to inner personal resources and reserves.  Where do we find strength when a family is in need, when hopes and expectations suddenly vanish?

For many of us the questions that present themselves, perhaps late at night, in some way turn on character, emotional equilibrium, and for the fortunate, on religious grounding.

With the future thrown suddenly into turmoil, how can we respond – as parents, citizens, human beings?  What kind of person are we?  Clearly, courage is called for, but what does that really mean?

We are being tested: What is the best we can be?

Character, values and virtues all emerge more clearly, demonstrated as they always are through actions and behavior.

Words can come easily, but truth makes itself known in action.

I have some suggestions you might wish to reflect upon.  Our world has been shaken and will likely be a different kind of place after the pandemic.  But the world is not ending.

Human beings have often been tested severely.  This is our history, and it has been rough.  Yet, we have never stopped learning, creating, maturing.

And civilization has continued to advance.

Somehow injuries heal, mistakes are corrected, and human failures vanish behind us in the mists of time.  Yes, as individuals we can fail.  But others are always raised up in our place.

So, again, we are here and now:  How do we wish to respond?

What will our needs and priorities be when we are able, once again, to engage directly with our neighbors?  Will living with dependable neighbors seem more important now?

How can we ourselves become resourceful, trustworthy neighbors?  Communities can improve safety and security in many ways.  Are we willing?

What knowledge, skills and tools do our neighbors already possess?  Electrical, plumbing, IT, security?

Communities can cooperate to grow food, of course, even in urban neighborhoods.  And this is the time of year when the soil is turned and gardens are started.

In a world now dominated more than ever by the stresses of an integrated economy, of population growth and complexity, we can expect a future punctuated by unexpected crises.

Long-time readers of this blog know my concern that local community is the only place where we have the ability to address the needs that both dignity and survival require.

We can choose with our neighbors to rise above our differences, to share personal knowledge and skills, to collaborate in problem-solving.  These are the basic building blocks with which the future will be built.

Community is the seat of civilization.

And, so it is that learning the lessons of cooperation, dependability, and trustworthiness will secure a richer, safer future.

Do we wish to live with neighbors we trust?  Do we wish for neighbors who recognize and appreciate our own efforts to demonstrate trustworthiness?

If so, we will have to step forward and make it so.

Living with integrity, in my view, is to be committed to these things – expressed in our relationships with others who seek the same.

It is only in collaboration with others that we can build a future we can respect and believe in.  It cannot be done in isolation.  Every kind of isolation must come to an end.

Will the coronavirus pandemic awake us to the challenging potential of this waiting reward?

Or will it require a series of ever greater crises and even more terrible suffering for Americans to turn the corner?

There is no other way.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about May 6.

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

Unexpected Wisdom

How has the American identity formed itself during the past 200 years – from amidst an immense diversity of conflicting ideas and beliefs?  Why has the clash of differing opinions led to patriotism and strength?

What is going on?

The idea that unity is strengthened by diversity may seem counter-intuitive at first, yet we have many examples of how this works.

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki describes compelling evidence that large groups of people possess an extraordinary power to solve problems when their judgment is aggregated.  And he shows that the more diverse the crowd, the more efficient the solutions.

Citing many examples Surowiecki describes the conditions in which democratic decision-making does and does not work.

He tells us of the surprise of scientist Francis Galton when 787 participants in a raffle at a county fair submitted guesses at what the weight of a large ox would be after it had been slaughtered and dressed.

“The analogy to a democracy, in which people of radically different abilities and interests each get one vote, had suggested itself to Galton immediately. ‘The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of an ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,’ he wrote.”

Galton, who expected to confirm his view that “the average voter” was capable of very little good judgment, borrowed the tickets from the organizers following the competition.

He added up all the contestants’ estimates and calculated the average.

The crowd had guessed that the ox, after it had been slaughtered and dressed, would weigh 1,197 pounds. In fact, it weighed 1,198 pounds.

Another example described by Surowiecki is the story of the 1968 loss of the US Navy submarine Scorpion, which disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy had no idea what happened to the vessel, where it was or how fast it had been traveling.

Mr. Surowiecki recounts the story as told by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew in their book Blind Man’s Bluff, about how a naval officer named John Craven assembled a diverse group of people – mathematicians, submarine specialists, and salvage men – provided them with a number of varied scenarios, and asked them to offer their best guesses without benefit of contact with each other.

All they knew was the sub’s last reported location.

The group laid wagers on why the submarine ran into trouble, on its speed as it headed for the ocean floor and the steepness of descent, among other things.

Craven built a composite picture of what happened and calculated the group’s collective estimate of where the submarine was. The location he identified was not a location specifically suggested by any members of the group.

But that is where it was.

The Navy found the wreck 220 yards from where Craven’s group said it would be.

Mr. Surowiecki proceeds to demonstrate the surprising consistency of this outcome in widely varied circumstances. And, he explains how groups work well in some circumstances better than others.

As we all know, there are times when aggregating individual judgments produces a collective decision that is disastrous; a riot, for example, or a stock market bubble.

Interestingly, he writes: “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.

“An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with.  

“Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms – like market prices, or intelligent voting systems – to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think.

“Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.”

My coming book will offer practical guidance for local communities to utilize diversity to engage in effective problem-solving and decision-making.

Stability in a crisis and the survival of freedom will require this wisdom.

Tom

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

A note to new readers:  A description of this project, an introduction to the coming book, and several chapter drafts can be found at the top of the homepage.

A Confluence of Crises

Americans face a formidable array of current and emerging crises. I believe this to be a defining moment that requires us to dig deep into the American traditions of loyalty and overriding unity. The only alternative is to accept disaster and disintegration.

The challenges ahead will be diverse, profound, and mutually reinforcing.  Some will appear suddenly, others gradually, but all will ultimately converge as they impact our lives in the coming years.

Most Americans are currently focused on the politicized concerns that attract media coverage. Attention is easily diverted from the most important problems, including degraded economic conditions and growing civil disorder.

Blame is directed at politicians, while the real causes behind deteriorating conditions are ignored or avoided – the pervading loss of ethical responsibility and trustworthiness, the failure of economic foresight, and the profound menace of impenetrable complexity.

Yet, it is just such underlying conditions that most threaten our future security and well-being.

I offered a short list of emerging dangers and dilemmas in the last blog post.  These threaten a wide range of consequences: social and economic, moral and material.

Whatever the details of a confluence of crises, emerging complexity appears to be most dangerous.  The nature of extreme complexity is impossible to comprehend.  It is silent, multidimensional and unpredictable.

Of particular concern, we have never before been subject to the interactive complexity of digital systems.  This is new to the human experience.

The fabric of civil and economic order is shaken when stability fails.  Systems and structures can come unraveled in a self-perpetuating chain reaction.

Given the interrelated dynamics of social, economic, and political pressures pushed to extremes, we are stumbling into a systemic crisis capable of triggering a cascading collapse.

We must be prepared to respond rationally, without panic and with our principles intact.

The integrity of the whole is a dynamic reality, physical, mental, and spiritual.  And here is the crux of the matter.  Behind the material problems there is a rarely perceived but underlying crisis:  It is about the way we see and the way we think.

This is a crisis of a different kind, and it is the reason why the present turning point is so significant.  I speak here of the loss of moral compass, the need for which is critical in the management of complex crises.

The absence of moral responsibility and personal accountability is of devastating consequence.

The foundations of civil order depend on rational problem-solving.  Yet, contrary to the popular imagination, the efficacy of reason is neutralized in a moral vacuum.

This is the most dangerous challenge before us because it limits our ability to respond effectively to every other crisis.

Indeed, it undermines the integral order of civilization.

Whatever our particular religious tradition or philosophical grounding, the difficult years ahead will demand a steadfast commitment to the highest ethical standards, to consistent moral responsibility, and a patient determination to cooperate with others.

Our ability to engage constructively with our neighbors is essential.  While there is much we will not agree on, we must learn to work together, to listen respectfully, and to translate our differences into communication that allows cooperative problem-solving.

A special kind of leadership is needed.  We must encourage one another to believe in ourselves, to be patient, trustworthy, dependable, and steadfast.

Such leaders will be ordinary Americans like yourselves, working to meet local needs and resolve local problems – regardless of our differences.

Dangers will persist.  As Americans pass through a chaotic transition, some will turn to the rigidities of inflexible ideology or violent rhetoric.

Make no mistake!  Extremist demagoguery can subvert the future of the United States as a constitutional republic.  The wreckage of sedition, whatever its sources, will threaten everything we believe in.

Leadership that is true to its American roots will stand firmly against such mental weakening.

The future depends on ordinary citizens like yourself, dear reader.   Your leadership must be quiet, compassionate, steadfast.

It is you who will carry America through the storm and out the other side.

Tom

Note to readers:  Please look for the next post on or about November 12.  A project description, an introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts are linked at the top of this page.