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.

A Stormy American Heritage

What makes the United States special?  Americans have always been a contentious lot.  Many of the disagreements and differences we know today have been with us from the beginning. How does our history influence our understanding of ourselves and our views? 

Can we look beyond our disputes to see the extraordinary place of America in human history?

During the formative years of this nation something remarkable was taking place in the countries Americans were coming from.  Radically new ideas were breaking free from authoritarian institutions and traditional attitudes in Europe.

Thinking people were becoming convinced that humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, would be capable of securing universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.

And so, a rebellious spirit and immense creative energy came to America with a rising flood of immigration.  The idea of a promising future was powerful.

For the thousands of immigrants disembarking in the New World, however, a knowledge of political philosophy was not required.  Everyone knew what America represented, and the promise, however primal and unformed it might be, came to root itself deeply in the American identity.

Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American spirit, and Americans were energized by their freedom from the fetters of an autocratic culture and restrictive social norms.

There were abundant crises and controversies, of course, to arouse and vitalize the new nation as it struggled to find its feet.  We did not agree on much.

The country was saddled with the unfinished business of its European past: the scar of slavery, the tensions between wealthy and working classes, and the prejudices of religion, race, and nationality.

Yet, a potent hopefulness prevailed as wave after wave of European arrivals powered the growth of a seemingly insatiable industrial economy.  Despite apparent contradictions, the new vision of the future continued to inspire confidence on both sides of the Atlantic through most of the nineteenth century.

While the continuing brutality experienced by Black and Native American peoples was ignored by most Americans of European descent, the horrific violence of the Civil War shocked the nation. 

And then came the twentieth century.

Professor Michael Allen Gillespie at Duke University describes what happened next:

“The view of history as progress was severely shaken by the cataclysmic events of the first half of the twentieth century, the World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the Holocaust.  What had gone wrong? 

“Modernity, which had seemed on the verge of providing universal security, liberating human beings from all forms of oppression, and producing an unprecedented human thriving, had in fact ended in a barbarism almost unknown in previous human experience. 

“The tools that had been universally regarded as the source of human flourishing had been the source of unparalleled human destruction.  And finally, the politics of human liberation had proved to be the means to human enslavement and degradation.

“The horror evoked by these cataclysmic events was so overwhelming that it called into question not merely the idea of progress and enlightenment but also the idea of modernity and the conception of Western civilization itself.”

We have admired the generation of Americans who survived the Great Depression and fought in World War II.  We like to call them “The Greatest Generation.”  They did not forget.

They remained proud and frugal for the rest of their lives, though many of their children failed to understand.  Most are gone now.  How many of us today know what they knew–we who drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt?

Both the fear of debt and the destruction of total war have been repressed and lost to memory.

The long history of abuses suffered by immigrants and people of color is often forgotten as well.  And past promises of equality and freedom are remembered through a haze of inconsistency and uncertainty.

The material limitations caused by growing complexity and a multitude of crises have started to close in on our lives. 

An American future will be dark and unforgiving without moral responsibility and authentic community.  Such are the means for both survival and prosperity.

It is said that history does not repeat—but often rhymes.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about May 24.

Note to new readers: A project description and introduction to the coming book, along with several sample chapters, are linked at the top of the homepage.

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.

If We Are to Remain Free

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

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

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

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

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

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need I say more?  Just look around you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

America at a Tipping Point

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

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

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

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

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry – not gentility, but virtue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

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

America: Meaning and Challenge

We all have anxiety about coronavirus and the related instability in the financial system.  These are serious concerns.  But, let’s not take our eyes off the ball.  We have more fundamental issues to deal with – challenges that will continue and deepen with each oncoming crisis.

In my view our greatest concern should be our difficulty dealing with crises, in problem-solving, especially in our local communities.  Because this is where trust, dependability, and survival count most in our lives.

Americans have always been a contentious lot, yet we are capable of showing fierce allegiance to America.  How, I asked in the previous post, have our national attributes led to strength?

I quoted from James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds, where he described how unexpected solutions can be found when independent thinking and a diversity of viewpoints are aggregated in a decision-making process.

I have suggested that such wisdom can be found in small groups, intentionally and intelligently, when we are committed to meeting local needs and resolving local problems.

A decision-making process that seeks common purpose among diverse participants can be managed as a learned skill.  Anyone can learn how to facilitate such a process.

Effective solutions depend on a group’s ability to generate new ideas that go beyond consensus.

This is only possible when we rise above our differences to leverage our diversity in knowledge, experience, and problem-solving skills – and take an inquisitive interest in the input.

All available information is needed on the table.  Unexpected insight might prove invaluable.

With an attitude of patience and civility toward one another we can make an ongoing effort to seek effective solutions.  A degree of uncertainty is natural and healthy.  We can always make course corrections.

However, we must each see with our own eyes and think with our own minds.  We must never be certain of another person’s certainty!

Unity is not sameness.  Unity can only come into being with the embrace of differences.  Living with diversity presents us with the necessity for learning how to engage with one another in practical ways.

In the first chapter of my coming book, which is posted on the blog’s homepage under the heading American Crucible (www.freedomstruth.net), I quote conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, who makes a heartfelt call to the American people in her little book, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now.

In it she urges us to rise above our differences, however significant they may be, to reaffirm “what it is to be an American.”

Peggy Noonan writes:

“Politics is a great fight and must be a fight; that is its purpose. We are a great democratic republic, and we struggle with great questions. One group believes A must be law, the other Z. Each side must battle it through, and the answer will not always be in the middle.  The answer is not always M.

“But we can approach things in a new way, see in a new way, speak in a new way.  We can fight honorably and in good faith, while—and this is the hard one—both summoning and assuming good faith on the other side.

“To me it is not quite a matter of ‘rising above partisanship,’ though that can be a very good thing.  It’s more a matter of remembering our responsibilities and reaffirming what it is to be an American.

“…And so I came to think this: What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace—a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we are in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative.  That admits affection and respect.”

Does she have a point?  I think so.  We can acknowledge the things that divide us, address them in a manner that allows practical solutions, and unite to protect a civil order that allows us to preserve or recover the freedoms we cherish.

Or, we can let it all come to naught.

I never said it would be easy.  I have said that if we are to recover the integrity of the nation we wish to honor and respect – we have no choice.

Tom

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

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

Deeper and More Dangerous

We live in extraordinary times. Having entered a period of current and impending crises, Americans are challenged to pull together as a people, to safeguard the constitutional order of the nation, and to find our way together to a future we can depend on.

We face a broad range of crises, all emerging into view at virtually the same time.  We have discussed several here briefly, and others at greater depth.

Some, like the continuing debt crisis, have major current implications.  Others, like the unrecognized instability of complexity in today’s digitized world, remain hidden, but may well provide the trigger that sends everything into a tailspin.

I have placed emphasis on the coming financial storm because it hangs over us now, waiting for a trigger.

The too-big-to-fail banks are now bigger than they were before they helped bring down the economy in 2008.  Federal and corporate debt have expanded enormously since that time, further devaluing the US dollar.

Millions who lost their jobs and homes in the 2008 crisis remain mired in poverty.

Respectable higher-paying employment has been lost overseas or to robotics and mechanized production.  Experts predict that 30% of current jobs will disappear in the next 10 years.

The stock market has shot upward with no foundation in economic reality.  It has now reached irrational valuations not seen since just before the 1929 panic and the dotcom crash of 2000.

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which is the central banker to the world’s central banks, has stated openly that central bankers will be out of options when the next crisis hits.

The BIS suggests that the major central banks have mismanaged the situation to a large extent because they don’t understand it.  Previously “unthinkable risks,” the BIS said, are coming to be “perceived as the new normal.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also released a report stating that “key fault lines” are growing across the US financial landscape, and that “new pockets of vulnerabilities have emerged.” The largest and most interconnected banks “dominate the system even more than before.”

As imposing as the financial drama appears, in my view there is a deeper and more dangerous crisis.  And, it is clearly visible behind all the others.

I have written here of the profound loss of personal integrity – honesty, trustworthiness, responsibility – we have witnessed in recent years.

A profound collapse of moral standards has taken place on a societal scale.  It has infected many personal relationships and virtually all institutions.

This is the deeper crisis, and it may ultimately be responsible for the general deterioration that appears to be dragging civilization to its knees.

Dependability, trust, and responsibility are the basis for the sound functioning of all human affairs, and lack of them has led to crippling disorientation and disorder.

Why has this happened to such a stunning extent?  Certainly, we have lost the ethical foundations that have contributed to stability in the past.  But, why?  We are intelligent people.  What happened to good judgment?  Where is common sense?

Have we walked away from responsibility believing that honesty and fairness limit our freedom?  Or have we just become thoughtless, undisciplined, sloppy?

Has the daily bludgeoning from mass media stunted our ability to think for ourselves?

Whatever the reasons, we are now reaping the whirlwind.

For a world where many young people have grown up with little or no effective parenting, and where many of their elders have lost any meaningful grounding in values or virtues, there will be no valid guidance available in the chaotic upheavals that lie ahead.

Dealing specifically with impending or potential dangers is very important, but is beyond the scope of this blog.  Rather, I seek to gather Americans around a focus on safety, common needs, and constructive purpose in our local communities.

This is essential regardless of the nature of unpredictable events.

We have entered a time of severe testing.

Such testing requires us to rise to our full personal potential – patiently working together in our communities despite our differences.

This degree of patriotic loyalty is the only antidote to the toxic cocktail of partisan negativity that is poisoning the American soul.

Tom

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

Note to regular readers:  Two new drafts have been posted at the top of the home page (see above).  They are Chapter 6: Freedom and Individuality, and Chapter 9: Confronted by the Past.  In addition, Chapter 1: American Crucible has been revised.  I look forward to your feedback.

Disruption and Endurance

The twentieth-century brought an astonishing number of advances to the human world – scientific, technological, and agricultural.  It was also a century of appalling violence, the most destructive in human history.  An estimated 167 million to 188 million people died at the hands of their brothers.

The century that put communism, fascism, and nationalism on the map also saw the invention of highly efficient weaponry and a willingness to direct it against civilian populations on a massive scale.

Do we understand what could happen to us on American soil – tragedies more devastating than anything we have experienced since the Civil War?  How easily we ignore the warnings!

At this historic turning-point we can least afford a repetition of the world’s destructive past. Only a strong America, just and wise and levelheaded, can lead a disrupted world back to stability and peace.

In his book, “The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West”, the historian Niall Ferguson, who I have introduced to you previously, is explicit:

“The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era…. There was not a single year before, between or after the world wars that did not see large-scale violence in one part of the world or another.”

Niall Ferguson’s observations are useful because he departs from the typical explanations that blame weaponry and fascist governments, as significant as these were.  Instead he identifies the true causes as ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and declining empires.

In short, he reminds us of our human vulnerability to fear, emotional insecurity, and tribalism.

The convergence of multiple crises I have been writing about here involve all these things, but also newly emerging threats that most of us have not seen coming.

These include an extremely fragile, interdependent banking system, depleted natural resources, the rapid loss of farmland and collapsing aquifers, and the degradation of critical environmental ecosystems.

Run-away technology is rapidly outpacing the maturity of human moral competence.

In every case, the challenges we face as individuals and families rarely come into focus until we consider their local implications.

And, as Dr. Ferguson points out, it is the anxiety of people under pressure that leads to social deterioration and violence.

Long-time readers know my views.  In the extremes of social and economic stress, it is my belief that local communities are the only place where we have the freedom and opportunity to take control of our lives in a civilized manner.

The difference between a disrupted past and a secure future will depend entirely on the manner in which we address problems with our neighbors and manage our local affairs.

We cannot completely wall-out the chaos of the world, but we can accept personal responsibility for the unity and well-being of our communities.

The distinction between past and future will be determined by dependable relationships, respectful attitudes, and giving a helping hand.

Building trust with neighbors and cooperating to meet shared needs are personal choices that lead to safety.

As we work together shoulder-to-shoulder, we can begin to know, understand, and influence one another.  The lessons of civility and cooperation to be learned here will serve us well as a nation.

Yes, we need to be realistic— Many people remain crippled by dogmatic prejudices.  This is unlikely to change until we are forced to address the essential needs that we face together in a disintegrating social order.

Patience and determination will then make many things possible as never before.  Necessity sharpens the mind and invigorates the will.

Distrust and alienation are diminished as we identify common concerns and work in service to common needs.

And what of our common purpose?

Ultimately, in my view, our first priority must be the survival of the United States as a constitutional republic.  The future depends on this.

Let us seek a strengthening respect for the Constitution and the cooperative form of governance it requires.

It is the Constitution that has allowed us gradual progress, an advancing strength toward unity, justice and inclusive fairness for more than 200 years

Tom

Dear readers:  I will be taking a short break— Please watch for the next post on or about December 17.  New readers will find a project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several working drafts of early chapters linked at the top of this page.

An Unexpected Threat

In recent decades a profound and unexpected threat has been growing exponentially.  The densely interconnected world of digital networks, instant communication, and global markets have presented a seductively attractive frontier.  Yet, we find ourselves awakening now to the danger embedded in this complexity.

Hidden within this new reality is a menace that is difficult to comprehend.  A new and unpredictable world, it hides hazards of barely imaginable magnitude.

We are confronted with impenetrable complexity.

Exponential population growth and digital connectivity, along with warfare, fragile commercial distribution systems, and the global transmission of deadly diseases, are all contributing to rapidly intensifying complexity.

However, it is the immensity and density of digital networks that is most difficult to grasp.  It is here where we are learning that complexity can behave in very strange and disturbing ways.

Complex systems are capable of spiraling out of control suddenly and inexplicably.  Living as we do with the instability of today’s world, I think it important that we understand this.

In his book, “Ubiquity”, science writer Mark Buchanan writes that a natural structure of instability is in fact woven into the fabric of the world.

He writes that complex structures and processes – in geology, in rush-hour traffic, in financial markets, and in the many intricate networks of human society – have a natural tendency to organize themselves into what is called a “critical state.”

When this happens they are poised on what he describes as the “knife-edge of instability.”

A critical state occurs when a system is poised for sudden change.  Some mathematicians and scientists now believe that a pervasive instability is a fundamental feature in nature – and in the structures of human societies.

Any event, even a small one, can have an effect that seems far out of proportion to its cause.

A single grain of sand, for example, will cause a sand pile to avalanche. But it is impossible for us to know which grain of sand, which individual maneuver in heavy traffic, or which specific circumstance in the financial markets will trigger an inevitable catastrophe.

What is the difference between something that is complicated and something that is complex?

James Rickards, who I have introduced to you in the past, answers this question in his book, “The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System”.

Rickards explains: “Many analysts use the words ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ interchangeably, but that is inexact. A complicated mechanism, like the clockworks on St. Mark’s Square in Venice, may have many moving parts, but it can be assembled and disassembled in straightforward ways.

“The parts do not adapt to one another, and the clock cannot suddenly turn into a sparrow and fly away. In contrast, complex systems sometimes do morph and fly away, or slide down mountains, or ruin nations….

“Complex systems include moving parts, called autonomous agents, but they do more than move. The agents are diverse, connected, interactive, and adaptive. Their diversity and connectivity can be modeled to a limited extent, but interaction and adaptation quickly branch into a seeming infinity of outcomes that can be modeled in theory but not in practice.

“To put it another way, one can know that bad things might happen yet never know exactly why.”

James Rickards goes on to expound on the instability of today’s financial markets and global economy.  He writes: “Bankers’ parasitic behavior, the result of a cultural phase transition, is entirely characteristic of a society nearing collapse.

“Wealth is no longer created; it is taken from others. Parasitic behavior is not confined to bankers; it also infects high government officials, corporate executives, and the elite societal stratum.”

Today the financial markets and monetary system are again poised “on the knife’s edge of criticality.”

My message here is the importance of resisting panic when confronted with frightening and unexpected shocks.  We must remain steady on our feet when others are ready to stampede.

Only with a commitment to justice and steady self-discipline will we hold our communities together.

The road to freedom requires courage, and getting there through a dark night will depend on the strength of local cooperation and moral responsibility.

Tom

Note to readers:  Watch for the next post on or about November 19.  New readers can find a project description, a draft introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts at the top of this page.