The Spirit of Liberty

For more than two hundred years the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope, as a source of creative energy and as an evolving expression of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality. People everywhere have been attracted to the vision it represents. Yet, the extraordinary challenges that confront the American people today mark a turning point and a defining test of America’s place in history. 

We have entered a dark time.  Confronted with economic instability, social disorder, and widespread distrust, it can be easy to forget the unique stature of the United States and the unfolding role it has played in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization. Our economic well-being as a nation has been weakening for decades, and the generosity of spirit for which we have long been known has dimmed.  Confidence in the future is shaken.

There is more than enough blame to go around and we all know about it.  What is essential, however, is that we recover our traditional spirit of generosity and resilience. There is truth in the unity of our national character—in our humanity and the dignity that has always given us courage and self-respect.

Few have expected what we are seeing now.  The future has been altered in unimaginable ways.  Even so, America is blessed with a constitutional order that respects the individual, seeks to protect both minorities and majorities, and makes room for diversity, innovation and creativity. 

The genius of the United States Constitution lies in a simplicity that imposes minimal restraint and allows maximum freedom—all the while requiring moral responsibility and functional cooperation.

It is a legal document, 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 by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

The Constitution presents itself today as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is anchored in the wisdom of its legislative order, the protections it ensures for the individual, and the means with which it enables constructive change. These are among the essential elements of a civil order that provides Americans with stability and the opportunity to forge a rational future.

The American Founders recognized that the liberty secured through constitutional order will only be as strong as the citizens who make it so.

In what form must this strength manifest itself? 

The unique character of the Constitution depends on moral responsibility and the basic virtues we all know about: Truthfulness, trustworthiness, justice, forbearance—and a prudence that respects the interdependence of these virtues. This expectation of the future is written into the fabric of the American idea. 

Yet we are confronted with unsettling questions in the 21st century.

A multitude of severe crises have brought immense pressures to bear.  Will civil order be torn apart by resentments, distrust and frustration?  Will the nation survive as the constitutional republic envisioned by its founders? Do we have the fortitude and grit to learn the lessons and reaffirm the vision that will lead to a genuine American renewal?  We are living at a pivotal moment.

Will Americans embrace the spirit required of us by the founders, which alone can lead to unity of purpose?  Or will we succumb to a rigidity born of insecurity and fear?

Neither philosophical convictions or the correction of mistakes can be addressed effectively until we answer this question in dialogue, as well as in our own hearts.  Civil disarray and social degradation will remain with us until it is.

Do we believe in the American tradition of good will—the expectation that people of differing persuasions can unite around a common cause?  Do we have the patience to rebuild a national unity that transcends the differences that always exist among a free people?

Or, to put the question another way, will we do what is necessary to make the United States of America whole and to prepare it for the future we deserve?

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about August 1.

Note to readers: This post is lifted from Chapter One, “American Crucible”, in the forthcoming book. The entire chapter is available in draft at the top of the homepage:  http://www.freedomstruth.net.

The Road to Liberty

We often make assumptions about the meaning of liberty.  But have we considered its questions and requirements?  Can we truly embrace meaning without examining its foundation?

I’ve been challenging you to seek true liberty, rather than the benefits we suppose it will provide.  And, I have focused on the role of the virtues in the function of the United States Constitution, a concern argued forcefully by the Founders.

Some people think a concern for the virtues is tiresome or frivolous.  Who are these people?  How do they live?  What do they know?

Do we expect to defend liberty without principles or conditions?

The Founders identified personal virtues required by the Constitution.  They knew the Constitution, which imposed almost no limits on personal freedom, could not function without ethical behavior on the part of citizens.

They said so in writing.

Why?

At a time when the horizon is darkening, when growing disruptions dominate our lives, the virtues take on renewed significance.  They include trustworthiness, dependability, patience, forbearance, cooperation and courage—among others.

And the most important is truthfulness.  Because truthfulness is the foundation for all the rest.

While these are personal principles requiring personal commitment, civilization itself depends on them.

For Americans who care about the future this is a practical matter.  The virtues are the fundamental requirements of a civilized, prosperous and secure order.

But they are more than this.  They are markers that identify human character.  They inform us of the inherent attributes of a persons’ beliefs and intentions, the moral and ethical basis for their actions and reactions.

I suggest that these are firm attributes among those who have chosen to serve their country and their neighbors with selfless intent.

Words are not enough.  Honesty and dependability, patience and good will, are revealed in action—the behavior of trustworthy people.

There is nothing we need now more than trust.

And, yes, there is a bottom line:  The truly trustworthy person knows this about him- or herself!  We are trustworthy when no one is watching; truthful when no one else will know the difference.

We show patience and forbearance when no one else would do so.

The virtues bring our lives into harmony with the way of the world when things are right.  They are consistent with justice.  They are the foundations of order.

Who would imagine that liberty could be built on the foundation of anything else?

It is long past time to stop listening to gossip and easy talk.  We need to turn to our neighbors, whoever they may be, and get down to the real work.

Local communities are the building-blocks of civilization, and the virtues are the means that govern outcomes.  It is time for action.

Nothing will change until each of us takes initiative.

We cannot know the needs of a neighborhood, a community or town, without engaging directly and respectfully with our neighbors.

Each of us is responsible for investigating the truth—or withholding judgment if this is not possible.  We cannot afford to see the world through the eyes of others, or to act on unproven assumptions.

Nothing—no person and no problem—can be understood without asking questions.  Dialog and perseverance pave the road to liberty.

If we are not ready for the real work of living in a civilized society, what are we complaining about?

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about July 4.

Note to new readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage:  www.freedomstruth.net.

Freedom’s Foundation

Principles are often debated, (and sometimes thrown about in combat), without consideration for their foundation in reality.  How deeply do we think about principles?  When we choose to embrace a principle or lay claim to values, do we consider the meanings and interpretations with which each is understood by others?  Does this matter?

In the previous post I invited you to think realistically about the essential character of “truth” and the importance of truthfulness.  We all depend on our understanding of what is true or false to get through life.

Everyone thinks what they believe is reasonable and true.  Yet it is often apparent that our assumptions differ from those of others.  While we assume that our perceptions of truth are valid, we are often reminded that we have many differences with one another, sometimes slight, sometimes quite significant.

And we all live by principles, sometimes without even thinking about them.  Is it possible they can be influenced by inaccurate assumptions or untrustworthy influences?

If our perceptions of truth are influenced by tradition, or news sources, or social media—how do we know what ‘our truth’ is really made of? How do we judge the foundations for our beliefs—the knowledge and reasoning that supports certainty?  The human world embraces innumerable personal truths!

So, what does this tell us about the reality of truth?  Is it possible there is actually a single foundational truth—a foundation for what is real?

Surely none of us can lay claim to understanding such a fundamental truth, yet it most assuredly must exist.  The world of existence could not function without such a unity.

One principle that matters to all of us is freedom, a principle that often seems elusive.  Realistically, life’s many obstacles and constraints can be oppressive. Yet, freedom is a deeply valued principle.  And so, we choose to respond to life’s constraints with maturity and self-control.

There are many principles we cherish despite their challenges.  Honesty, civility, and generosity of spirit are among the most essential for living and working with others. These may not be ‘rules’ in the usual sense, but they represent values we cannot do without.  They lead to trust, and a genuine freedom that rises above limitations and hardship.

When the horizon is darkened; when safety and trust are threatened by chaotic and unpredictable conditions, we can always turn to fundamentals—to patience, forbearance, dependability, cooperation, and most of all, to truthfulness.

Some folks think organized cooperation is impossible.  But it will be impossible to ensure safety or meet basic needs if our differences prohibit collaboration.

Yes, there will always be some people who are afflicted by selfishness and arrogance.  But the future depends on the character of true Americans—a people who have risen to their tests for many generations.

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

We live in a reality defined by limitation and challenges.

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

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

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

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

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

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 2.

A note to new readers:  Blog posts are usually adapted from the forthcoming book and appear on both at the main website and on the Facebook page.  To receive emailed alerts click on the Follow button at http://www.freedomstruth.net.

What Is Truth?

Hello my friends, I have some questions for you.  I want to ask what you think about truth and truthfulness.  What is truth?  All of us have our own truths.  We know what we are sure of, and what we are not.  Most of us know why we believe what we believe, but might not be so sure of its source and pedigree.

How do we judge the foundations for our beliefs—the knowledge and reasoning that supports certainty?  Everyone thinks logically.  Everyone thinks what they believe is reasonable and true. 

So, can we see that our various (personal) truths are probably not all the same?

What does this tell us about the reality of truth?  Does it mean there cannot possibly be one single true reality? 

Tell me: What would it be like to live in a world as fragmented as our differing ideas about it are?

I suggest we think for a moment about how the reality we live in actually functions.  How, for example, does the human body work so well despite its astonishing complexity?  What allows all our interrelated parts to work together in unity?

How does the physical world provide precisely what we need to live, breathe and be active?  Why does everything—air, water, light, gravity—all fit together so perfectly?

These are among the interrelated aspects of a reality that make life possible.  They are truths we interact with daily and cannot live without.

They are interrelated functions of a single coherent whole—an indivisible and inviolable truth that tolerates no compromise with opinion.

Why do we have such difficulty accepting the logic of coherent wholeness—the single all-embracing unity that presents itself in the life we are given on this planet?

Well, it seems to me there is one very big difference between human beings and the natural order in which we live:  We possess free-will. The ability to make choices allows us to actualize our thinking, to create, to be constructive and to cooperate.  No other creature can do these things.

We have the conscious ability to engage with one another and with the universe.

However, this freedom also allows us the choose selfishness, to be hurtful and destructive.  And to be mistaken.  Anything we chose to do we could just as well choose not to do.

So, here’s another question:  Why would anyone graced with the miracle of life turn away from the honor of contributing to the safety and well-being of family, community, or nation?

Is this confusion?  Stubborness?  Short-sightedness?

And so I ask: What are our choices when we disagree?  Are anger and hostility our only options?  What courses of action can lead to acceptable solutions?

To phrase the question another way: How can we respond to conflict in a way that is constructive, that listens—that avoids subverting or destroying our very own hopes and wishes?

If we believe in freedom we will need to accept diversity and differences.  This is reality.  And to preserve a free society we need to understand our differences and negotiate our way forward.

As you can see, cooperation is not about sameness.  Constructive action is about rising above our differences to build dependable, trustworthy relationships.

Our values and principles are only effective in this way, and a civilized future depends on it.

We all know this is not easy.  But the rewards are great and the alternative is terrible.

What will it take?

In my view, it will be necessary to align ourselves with fundamental order:  Not the order devised by free-will and the human imagination, but the pre-existing order we are born into on this planet.

You might not be religiously inclined.  Some of you might not even respect the concept of virtue.  But human societies have recognized the necessity for the virtues for thousands of years.

Truthfulness, honesty, trustworthiness, patience, kindness, self-restraint…. Why are these so important?

They are important because they allow us to align ourselves with the pre-existing order—to belong in this world the way we are supposed to be, and to live safe, happy, productive lives.

And the most important is truthfulness.  Because everything else depends upon it.

Everything.

Tom.

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

A note to new readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  To receive emailed alerts, click the Follow button.

The Freedom Within

We are human.  We have been given free-will, the ability to make choices and to act with reasoned judgment.  While our freedom will always be limited by circumstances, our choices are what define our character and identity.  Without freedom of choice there can be no morality.  And the choices we make, whether thoughtful or thoughtless, determine our behavior and demonstrate our integrity.

Self-confidence in our personal integrity is of paramount importance for everyone, and this can be disturbed by life’s many challenges. It is often impossible to avoid the tests life throws at us, but it can be helpful to recognize the potentially positive way such disruptions can lead to personal maturity.

Responding constructively to a crisis can be very difficult.  Crises challenge our personal sense of integrity.  We all want to have confidence in our own integrity.  But what is the basis for personal integrity?

Upon what foundation do we ground our sense of integrity?

I suggest that ones’ feelings of integrity rest upon our understanding of the underlying reality of things, whether or not our perceptions are accurate.

Self-confidence depends on our beliefs about the way things are supposed to be.  When we feel aligned with reality as we understand it—with truth as we know it—we experience a sense of moral soundness.

But this begs a question:  As individual persons whose perceptions of reality differ from one another—sometimes substantially—how can we be sure of moral integrity?

Should we align our thinking with that of other people?  Can we rely on someone else’s assertions about truth?  Or should we investigate truth ourselves—independently?

Do we have the maturity to see with our own eyes and think with our own minds? I hope we will recognize the importance of an independent attitude, as we attempt to keep our balance amidst the uncertainties and challenges of a disrupted world.

We are members of family and community.  As caring people, our choices are influenced by a sense of responsibility to and for others. 

Surely we know that integrity—and freedom—are impossible without responsibility.  We cannot walk away from a crisis or avoid the necessities of material circumstances.

Our personal lives are embedded in a social context.  And we are all suffering from a damaged social order.  So, my question to you concerns our ability to see where things are headed.

Do we recognize that the “American idea”, and the fragile order that generations of Americans have toiled to build, will be impossible to reconstruct if it is torn down?

Constructive change depends on an orderly process:  Respectful dialogue and consultation will allow the investigation of creative ideas and genuine concerns. 

America depends now on cool heads and a concern for authentic liberty.  These are the foundations of integrity. 

With steadfast patience and determination, a damaged civilization can be renegotiated, reconstructed, healed.  But a civilization reduced to disintegration and chaos will not recover.

Those who think they can gain their ends by means of violence have a hard lesson awaiting them.

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

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.”

Strength of character is not found by going with the crowd.  It is only in meeting tests and difficulties that identity comes into focus.

Freedom depends upon our ability to think clearly and to recognize the true basis for moral integrity.  Especially when the going gets tough.

To be both free and responsible we must be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves.  Only then can we actualize our integrity as compassionate citizens in the real world.

Tom

You may look for the next post on or about March 31. 

Confronting Change: Security & Well-being

Change has been accelerating for much of our lives, but it is especially so now.  These are not normal times.  The challenges are unsettling, especially when the outcome is uncertain.  It is hard to think clearly when life is in turmoil, and easy to fear for the worst.

We are all human.  We need to feel secure in our lives, and security needs stability.  But is all change bad?  Challenges bring personal growth, greater maturity, and sometimes wisdom.

Can there be a positive dimension to hardship and struggle that make us see with new eyes and reexamine our values and priorities?

Values are tested when we are confronted with change.  This can strengthen our self-confidence.  Clarity about values brings clearness to our lives.

Plural and conflicting values are inevitable in this world.  Human beings have never agreed on values, and even personal values occasionally come into conflict with each other.

But we do not usually think about this.  While it is natural for values to be influenced by events, it is when we hit a real bump in the road that we start paying attention.

Unexpected bumps can be uncomfortable.  But unexpected people can be kind of nice.  Especially if we can get to know them.  And especially if we avoid trying to force them into our own boxes!

Diversity is a source of security.  It contributes constructive ideas, practical skills and creative thinking.  It also exposes us to new ideas and perspectives.

Living in a pluralistic society exposes us to a rich abundance of the initiative and energy conducive to prosperity.  And with the benefits of diversity, we gain the experience of others and inspiration for ourselves.

The American character has been formed by the gifts and rewards of diversity.  Our story has been distinguished by curiosity, loyalty, and hopefulness over the course of more than two centuries.

No one expected Americans to be perfect, but the Founders gave us simplicity in the United States Constitution, a form of governance that assumes the capacity for virtue.

Two concerns that I think pivotal in any consideration of our national identity include an understanding of this expectation of virtue, and, secondly, our mutual respect as citizens who understand the value of diversity.

Personal independence and acceptance of individual differences go hand-in-hand.  In the end, one cannot survive without the other.

Again, I ask the question: Who are we, as Americans?  Who do we want to be, really?

The degradation we are experiencing today is real.  Americans have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent decades. 

The collapse of social order has complicated origins.  A lack of perceptiveness and foresight among both political leadership and financial professionals has undermined trust and social stability on a broad scale.

Institutions we have depended on are facing moral and financial bankruptcy, try as they might to cover it up.  Systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

However, we are all responsible—because we are all capable of responding constructively.

We are not prisoners of the past nor slaves to the present.  We are perfectly capable of standing on our own feet and accepting one another as fellow-citizens, even with our faults and blemishes.

Yes, it is true that we are confronted with the consequences of the past.  We have lost our sense of direction and ultimate purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.

What is to be done?  OK, listen carefully!

Truth is not invented by tearing people down.  The future cannot be built on blame.  It is clear we must overcome the alienation that divides us.

Whatever our disputes and misunderstandings, our fears and uncertainties, the survival and well-being of our families and our neighbors depends on our readiness to work together in response to practical necessity. 

We cannot afford to allow our differences to disrupt our ability to make our communities safe and our necessities secure.  We are all Americans.  We have differences, but divisiveness alone will bring our downfall.

If we wish to meet needs and resolve problems, we will have to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences—to face the complex dangers now imposing on our future.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about January 17.

A note to regular readers:  In the coming weeks we will explore views of our national past through the eyes of economic historian Niall Ferguson, social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, and conservative commentator Richard Weaver. 

Self-confidence and Dependability

As we continue to mature throughout our lives, we gain knowledge and perspective from our experience in the world.  Our richest sources of perceptual experience will always be interpersonal relationships.  Reading, reflection, and the personal search are all valuable, but there is little wisdom to be found in an isolation devoid of dialogue.

How can we be self-confident in our view of the world, of society, of the people we encounter, without having our understanding genuinely tested—that is, without dialogue?

Perceptions and assumptions come effortlessly. Creative imagination is a wonderful human capacity.  Reason allows us to judge meaning and differences.  We should be grateful for both!  But neither should be mistaken for windows to truth.

It has been said that our first responsibility as human beings is the investigation of truth.  Our ability to investigate and comprehend truth is broadened and deepened throughout our lives.

And so it is that we benefit from authentic interactive relationships with friends or colleagues who do not always agree with us, yet honor our integrity and respect personal differences.

Personal identity and the sense of self begins to take form in childhood and youth, in our relationships with family and the people who bring us up.  If we are fortunate, our personal growth is further supported in the wider community.

Self-confidence matures with self-understanding, a process influenced most by meaningful associations with people who matter to us.

Why are self-definition and belonging so important to human beings?  Why is a self-conscious sense of identity so essential for the individual?  How do we know who we are?  What gives us energy to express ourselves?

As we consider the prospects for a stable, just, and prosperous future, these questions loom large.

The extent to which identity and self-definition are developed through interpersonal relationships might not be obvious.  But, in fact this is the only way identity is formed.

It is the means by which wisdom and character are refined throughout our lives.  And it is one of the primary reasons we benefit from community.

Charles Taylor helps to illuminate the significance this has for us: “We are selves,” he writes, “only in that certain issues matter for us.  What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me.” 

He goes on to remind us that “one is a self only among other selves.”   Personal freedom and independence can only develop in relation to the world around us.  We learn from engaging with others and define ourselves in relation to others—even when our differences are great.

Charles Taylor continues: “My self-definition is understood as an answer to the question Who I am.  And this question finds its original sense in the interchange of speakers.

“I define who I am by defining where I speak from in social space…, in my intimate relations to the ones I love, and also in the space of moral and spiritual orientation within which my most important defining relations are lived out.

 “We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection.  But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity.

“We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us.  And even when we outgrow some of the latter—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.”

The great need for constructive problem-solving in today’s world presents us with the need to work effectively with all kinds of people, including those we have differences with.

This is an essential endeavor—for survival today and for the future we want for tomorrow.  It will require great patience, courage, and determination. 

The future will continue to present a blank wall unless and until we learn how to understand one another accurately, while leaving assumptions and hearsay behind.

Only then can we find our way forward with assurance—remaining confident in our own values and comfortable in our own skin.

Tom.

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

A note to new readers:  A project description and several sample chapters from the coming book are available at the top of the homepage: http://www.freedomstruth.net

Reaching for Resilience

The pursuit of freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty has set citizens against one another as well as against autocratic authority.  Reactions against insensitivity and unrestrained power in governance is a natural enough response.  Yet, we often find ourselves entangled with differing views about the meaning (and responsibilities) of liberty.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should be responsive to the needs and interests of the plurality their citizens. And this poses interesting questions for those living in a constitutional republic with a democratic spirit. 

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

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

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized this danger and designed a decision-making structure which limits the ability of one faction to oppress another.  Neither a large majority nor a powerful minority can form an oppressive regime like those we see elsewhere in the world.

While this provides a legal structure, however, a functional government is impossible in the absence of cooperation to meet common needs and interests.

When there is uncompromising denial of the validity of an opposing side, governance is essentially brought to a halt. After two hundred years of experience, we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

Throughout American history, liberty has generally implied the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others. The United States Constitution is exceptional in imposing almost no limitations on citizens—beyond responsibility and civility.

But, where does this leave us in the face of our present difficulties?  A multitude of converging crises has us all on edge.

The world has long admired the generosity of spirit in the American character.  This is an American attitude; a way of thinking and being.  Regaining this spirit will require courage and determination.  And, we can begin with our neighbors.

However—this will only be possible with a readiness to honor another American virtue: The respect for plurality embodied in the Constitution.

When we are ready to discover our shared values, and to assess our differences with accuracy, we can start with our neighbors.

What is it we want?  It is in local communities that safety, dependability, and problem-solving become essential realities. Only when we tackle local needs and challenges together, shoulder-to-shoulder, can we truly represent what we are made of.

We can start with first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to ensure we have accurate information about one another.  This will involve the effort to recognize both shared values and real differences. 

2) To identify and prioritize local needs and problems, and then to negotiate the means for undertaking collaborative action while accommodating personal differences.

3) To identify the knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among ourselves—to support the community and do what needs to be done.

If we are committed citizens and mature adults, there is no reason we cannot maintain an attitude of civility and respectfulness.  No one needs to alter their values or views.

Community problems can be multi-layered and complex.  But our purpose is simple: to investigate the extent to which we can pursue constructive action as neighbors.

Addressing basic needs shoulder-to-shoulder will strengthen a community with the foundations for trust and dependability. 

Safety and survival may well depend on this, and no one will do it for us.

The three steps outlined above will soon become critical as oncoming crises multiply and circumstances deteriorate.  And, engaging in working relationships can also open doors to the future and influence the emergence of a mutually acceptable vision.  

We all possess the capacity to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we meet friend and stranger alike with dignity, civility, and generosity of spirit.

Tom

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

Note to readers:  An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available at the top of the homepage.

The Bottom Line

My dear friends, what do we think is “the bottom line”?  Do we imagine that everything will work out in the end, and that we simply need the right leadership to make things right?  Do we imagine that someone other than ourselves should deal with this multitude of crises—should come to our rescue and take care of us?

What is our personal role and responsibility?  How can we respond effectively?

The wreckage we face in this day can easily inspire feelings of helplessness.  We don’t know what to do or where to start.  And being overly reactive can just make things worse.

It’s easier to see what needs to be done for our families or in our communities, where the needs are practical.

I want to avoid preaching.  That’s not my place.  But I’d like to suggest that finding our way forward in this time of hardship and testing will depend first on our personal integrity and self-confidence.

What kind of persons are we?  Who do we want to be?

Can we see how important it can be in a time such as this to have our feet planted firmly on the ground?

How can one think clearly in the confusion of a disrupted society?  Will we ever find constancy or assurance in partisan politics?

In my view, gaining balance in our lives depends on the foundation we build within ourselves.  And this foundation is called integrity.

What is integrity?  How is it created?

I will share a secret with you.  The foundation of all things in the human world is trust.  This is the secret in personal relationships, in communities, and in nations.

Rebuilding damaged trust takes time and constancy.  And its’ first requirement is truthfulness.

All of trusts’ necessities begin with truthfulness:  honesty, dependability, trustworthiness.

Where do we begin?

The pathway to trust might seem simplistic, but this is because its’ requirements are so basic. 

We may think it a hopeless endeavor, but I am not addressing hardened attitudes and closed minds.  I am talking to you, dear reader.

First, kind words and friendliness can open doors and penetrate hearts.  Being the first to listen can make all the difference.  Even the most stubborn attitudes can be penetrated with generosity of spirit, however long it may take.

If others are not ready to listen or respond, leave them to themselves.  We must always move on.  Yet, there can be no integrity in isolation.

Integrity lives and grows in our engagement with people.  It is the product of thoughtful relationships.  It requires inquisitive interest.

The greatest tests on this rocky road are steadfast grace, commitment and consistency.

We are called to seek our common humanity, but no one is asking us to agree on everything.  We can keep our views and our values.  Something greater needed.

The integrity that takes root in relationships soon spreads to implant itself in the character of a family, community or nation. 

This is not easy, but it is real.  It takes time. And the struggle remains deeply personal.

Even if we are fortunate to have a religious community, our integrity remains very much our own.  Guidance can be a great help.  True friendship is a blessing.  But life’s struggle is always personal. 

And in the end, the wisdom we gain can only be our own.

We can protest against injustice or politics or misbehavior.  We can blame people or institutions, social degradation or human history.  But we control just one thing, and that is ourselves.

Strangely enough, it is actually this one thing—personal integrity—upon which the integrity of nations and societies depend.

Nothing in business, politics, or society will matter until we get this right.  And it can only be made right by each and every one of us, deep within ourselves.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about 14 September.

Interested readers can find an introduction to the coming book and several chapters (in draft) linked at the top of the homepage

No Shortcuts to the Future

Change has been accelerating for years.  Americans are well aware of the steady debasement of civil order, if we have been alive long enough to see it.  Our economic lives have deteriorated for at least a generation—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.  Little is left of the middle class. Trouble began long before the pandemic.

Being human, it is tempting to look for blame.  But blame gets us nowhere in a crisis.  It is really not possible for any of us to fully understand or respond effectively to the magnitude of structural change confronting the world.

Are we strong enough to step back from the barrage of fragmented and incoherent headlines, media sound-bites and images, which bombard our minds? Is it possible to think without reacting?  How otherwise can we defend ourselves from manipulation in advertising and politics?

Our greatest challenge is to investigate truth for ourselves and not through the minds of others.

I suggest we each stop to check our motives regularly every day, and to think about what are we learning through all this—about life and about ourselves.

Change can sometimes help us to see with new eyes.  Perceptions, values, and sense of purpose all evolve throughout our lives—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.  But maturity only comes when we think for ourselves.

Some change is masked by chaos and not so easy to see.  Increasing complexity is an example: A threat today that is difficult to understand and quite capable of disrupting our lives suddenly and without notice.

I have raised concerns about complexity here in the past.

Complexity has increased rapidly with advancing technologies and an interconnected world.  A multiplicity of interdependent systems, subject to intense disconnected forces, leads inevitably to instability and unexpected crises.

And when our lives are disrupted, our values come under pressure.  Confused values undermine self-confidence and our sense of identity.

Having shared values with those around us always feels good, but, in fact, everyone is different.  Never in history have human beings agreed on values. Even our own personal values can sometimes conflict.  Have you noticed?

The presence of plural and conflicting values in this life tests character and challenges unsupported assumptions.  Which is why we need to stand on our own two feet.

But we also need dependable neighbors in a crisis!  Can we agree on just a few things?  How about respect for personal dignity?  Or the value of individual autonomy that refrains from imposing on others?

Do we recognize the virtues and values that undergird safety and stability in our communities?

Can we see that a safe and prosperous society, economically and otherwise, will depend on personal virtues: on truthfulness, for example, and responsibility?

Justice and morality are closely related, and we learn about them in the trenches.  Hardship generates new thinking, as I have said.  It is when we stop thinking that we resist awareness and miss opportunities.

Responding to a changing world begins within ourselves.  Who are we, really?  Who do we want to be?

Yes, we are human—we are not perfect.  But let’s get something straight:  There are no shortcuts to the future. Freedom depends on responsibility, and moral responsibility cannot be left half done.

America has always been a work in progress, but we are living today in a time of extremes. We are witnessing rapid ongoing deterioration of moral character, self-discipline, and social responsibility.

Mass murder, pornography, sexual violence: To name just a few among many.  All have proliferated at an appalling rate.  We see social degradation and abasement all around us.

Regaining strength in America is a personal matter.  It will require responsibility, courage, and steadfast patience.  To engage in constructive action with our neighbors—to seek safety and to meet common needs—will mean engaging with differences.  Americans value individuality, diversity, liberty.  Am I right?

The United States is, by definition, a pluralistic society.  This will always be a challenge and responsibility.

Before we can begin to secure an acceptable future, we will need first to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences.

Danger confronts us all, without exception.

Tom

You may look for the next post on or about July 26.

A note to readers:  An introduction to the coming book can be found linked at the top of the homepage, along with sample chapters exploring the history of ideas and conflicting values that have brought us to this place.

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.