America: Our Legacy, Our Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we protect two hundred years of commitment, hard work, and sacrifice by generations of Americans who have given their lives to this unprecedented vision? Or, will we give way to the emotions of uncompromising partisanship—and allow a great trust to vanish from history?

Tom

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

Reclaiming the Future

We are being tested by unprecedented extremes.  It can feel like we are living on the edge.  But the disarray in America did not begin with COVID-19.  We must keep this in mind.

How is the pandemic influencing our thinking about the conditions that preceded it?

It is easy to stay riveted on current events.  But older Americans are painfully aware that social and economic deterioration has been gaining momentum for decades.

Regular readers know of my strategic response to this gathering storm.  Does my focus on the importance of local communities make sense to you?

Am I simply preaching sweetness and light?  Or is this a question of central importance to Americans if we are to regain control of the future?

Why is genuine community essential for the stability of social order?  And why is this especially significant now, as we look into the fog of fear and uncertainty?

A foremost concern for most of us is the need for security in the face of multiple crises.

Without neighbors we can depend on, the immediate future appears bleak.  Physical survival in today’s world needs dependable community.

The greater the threats to stability, the greater our need for trustworthy relationships, and the more dependent we become on the practical knowledge, skills, and life-experience of our neighbors.

Safety is essential.  But, it is not everything.

Communities are much more than geographic locations.  For thousands of years communities have been the basic unit comprising civilized societies, the structure in which justice, social order, and cultural identity are grounded.

It is here that youth learn values, find equilibrium, and gain a sense of belonging. Genuine community encourages members to express their unique identity, character, and creativity.

So it is that community, when endowed with the full engagement of its’ citizens, becomes the substructure for freedom and security.  No other institution is capable of serving this purpose.

Among the essential roles of community is to anchor the diversity of institutions, associations, and organized functions that form a healthy civil society.

This is of crucial importance to the individual.  Without diverse opportunities and choices for meaningful involvement with others, we become disengaged and disoriented, set adrift, vulnerable to dishonest, despotic and predatory influences.

The absence of mediating associations thrusts society into reliance on an increasingly pervasive central government.

Why have human beings so often abandoned liberty and independence for the charisma of totalitarian despots?  What were they missing?  The answer is not so mysterious as it might seem.

All of us possess an urge to belong, whether it be to family, a place, or a group where we are valued. To be fully human we must belong somewhere.  Americans are no different from any others in this regard.

If the United States is to survive as a constitutional republic we must find our way back to this sense of identity, and to the flow of ideas, relatedness, and continuity which may have become distorted or gone underground but is not lost.

And, if we care about freedom—our experience must be local. 

Without communities where we feel at home, where we can serve the greater good, where people know our name—the quest for belonging can easily deliver us to authoritarian tyranny.Are we capable of building stability with our neighbors?  Americans have little experience with genuine community.  Many of us are barely acquainted with our neighbors.

I am proposing that we learn how to build a society where prosperity has a foundation in local knowledge, independence, and initiative—where our children can be safe and where personal freedoms are respected.

Yes, as Americans we are fully capable of developing community-based relationships, of tackling problems, managing conflict, and organizing local projects.

With COVID-19 behind us, communities can grow and preserve food, support small businesses and jump-start cash economies.

We have the energy.  With a commitment to constructive action and a readiness to assess our assumptions we will learn by doing.

Challenges will be met with the spirit of generosity for which Americans have long been known.  This is in our character as a nation.

It can be done and we can do it.

Tom.

Note to regular readers:  I will not be posting close to the US elections.  You may watch for future activity here on or about October 19 and November 9.

Dignity, Self-respect, and Ugliness

Public corruption and transparent dishonesty are very discouraging.  And when public discourse descends into ever more rancor and bitterness, it attests to deepening disarray.

As individuals we can choose not to live this way.  What can we do?  When useful debate has ceased, and purposeful dialog has degenerated into extremes of invective, ridicule, and slander—what are our options?

Personal dignity and self-respect depend on our values and our attitude.  And these only become real when translated into action.  Words are not enough.

Divisiveness reflects entrenched partisan views, but mean-spirited ugliness is degrading and accomplishes nothing.  Do we somehow imagine that such behavior supports our beliefs or advances our interests?

It is extraordinary that so much of this ugliness is unabashed and occurs in full view of the world.  Americans have always been a contentious people, but self-respect and a self-conscious sense of our national character have tended to constrain shameful extremes.

Given the unparalleled ease with which citizens can now participate in public debate, unthinking acts and lapses of judgement are made far easier and their consequences more enduring.

How does this reflect on us as Americans?  Who do we wish to be?  Where is the concern for self-respect and integrity that once mattered?  Are we no longer a society with values?

Morality and the ethics of responsibility are closely related to values.  And values are closely related to virtues.  Virtues?

Does anyone care about values and virtues in today’s world?

Let’s get real!  Truthfulness, dependability, trustworthiness—these are virtues that a civilized society depends upon.  They are the living substance of human values.

One way to think about these questions is to consider the value we place on the ends we seek.  What do we wish for in our future?  The ends we seek can only be reached by means that actually get us where we want to go.

As the means so the end.

In the present circumstances the future has become a vital concern for everyone.  Reason and conscience can only guide us to safety if we adhere to truthfulness.

Today in the United States ethics and values involve far more than a concern for ones’ self-image.  And, most Americans will never accept a moral system imposed from outside.

Rather, we are concerned here with something that is of vital importance to the future of our country.  Social order and trustworthy relationships are not only crucial for our personal lives, but for the security and well-being of the nation.

Developing personal virtues is not easy.  Consistent self-examination requires determination and acceptance of life’s tests.  But, without essential virtues there can be no values, either in our lives or in a future we can believe in.

In my view, the most fundamental of virtues is truthfulness.  All other virtues follow from truthfulness—honesty, reliability, credibility, trustworthiness.  These form the foundations of civilized life.

As I have noted previously, it will only be in community that we have the opportunity and freedom to live and learn civilized values, to build trust, and to experience the richness of genuine relationships.

This can’t wait.  We all have neighbors.  It is time to act.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people (August 23 post).  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot share our experience and offer guidance patiently, and if we fail to believe in the potential for people to change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Making this work will depend, ultimately, on firm values and self-confident generosity.  Of all people, Americans should know the importance of this.

I have argued that diversity of experience and perspective, knowledge and skills will facilitate physical survival.  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 October 7.

Note to new readers:  An introduction to the coming book and several chapters in draft are linked at the top of the homepage.

Integrity or Degradation: The Choice is Ours

We stand at a critical point in American history.  Our thinking, attitudes, and quarrels have collided with hard realities in the 21st century.  A multi-generational record of short-sightedness, ineptitude and irresponsibility, tells us of deepening societal degeneration at every level, social, economic, political.

Self-respect cannot wait for things to change that we have no control over.  We are each capable of responding to the world around us with dignity and creativity, and we must.

For this reason, I have proposed a challenging strategy for your consideration.  And it is an extremely difficult proposition.

Unfortunately, I do not believe we have a choice.

The wide-ranging needs we have as Americans—for resolving shared problems, for meeting local needs, for envisioning a decent future—all depend on a willingness to create genuine community.

Why is this?

If we are to reverse the slide toward chaos, we must first acknowledge a core responsibility upon which everything depends.  This is the imperative that we build and protect trust.

True community exemplifies the need for trust.  All constructive relationships depend on trust.

Social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust.

Without the assurance of trust, liberty and justice will remain elusive, and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.

The integrity of trustworthiness will be essential for building a future we can believe in.

The American founders warned that this could be a problem. (See previous post, August 23).

Patrick Henry was among several quoted by Charles Murray in his important book, “Coming Apart”:  “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.”

“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.”

Clearly there can be no integrity where neither citizens or civil servants care for trustworthiness.

And, here we are today.

The strategy proposed here rests on the principle that trust can only be learned and lived in the active relationships of genuine community.

Community—true community—disciplines us to develop trustworthiness and dependability by necessity.  Human beings cannot gain virtues in a vacuum.  This can only be acquired in personal relationships—where dependability matters and each can see the integrity of the other.

And, there are additional reasons why a free society depends on community.  We can investigate these going forward.  We depend on community for much more than physical survival in a crisis.

Community is the seat of civilization.  It is the basic unit comprising human societies, the structure in which justice, social order, and cultural identity are grounded.

It is in family and community that the individual learns values, finds equilibrium, and gains a sense of belonging.  Community encourages members to express their unique identity, character, and creativity.

So it is that community, when endowed with the full engagement of its’ citizens, becomes the substructure for freedom and security.  No other institution is capable of serving this purpose.

Among the historic roles of community is to anchor the diversity of institutions, associations, and organized functions that we call civil society.

Why is this so important?

Without diverse opportunities and choices for meaningful involvement, the individual becomes disengaged and disoriented, set adrift, vulnerable to dishonest, despotic and predatory influences.

The absence of such mediating institutions thrusts the individual into a vulnerable reliance on an increasingly pervasive and autocratic central government.

Finally, in closing, (and as I said to you on July 26), please remember that integrity is the highest attainable value—a quality of moral soundness.  Trustworthiness is the substance of that value, and responsibility provides the constructive action with which we make it so.

This can only be learned as we mature in real human relationships, working to find safety and to build the future.

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

Tom

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

Note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several chapters in draft are linked 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.