Turning Point for America

Whether our ancestors came to this continent by choice or in slavery, or were forcibly separated from their indigenous American roots, all of us are estranged from the lands and lives of our forbears.

For some the escape from oppression or deprivation has taken great determination and willpower.  With a strength rooted in the individualism of the survivor, Americans have reconstructed human society on the basis of association, reciprocity, and principle: freedom of thought, economic independence, and a new sense of belonging that transcended social and religious differences.

Despite the hardships, European settlers formed communities and built a vibrant civil society that flourished through the first half of the 19th century.

However, our inquisitive nature and the inclination to range far and wide across the North American continent soon took us away from physical roots and led to the society we know today – mobile, disconnected, alienated, and suspicious of differences.

Cut off from the cultural foundations that provided previous generations with the basis for social stability, personal identity, and moral integrity, our values have become less confident, our standards less clear.

First railways, and then a proliferation of highways, major industrial enterprises and shopping malls facilitated unrestrained pursuit of economic productivity and material gain. Cheap energy made many things possible.  Big always seemed better and was certainly more profitable.

Somehow we lost any sense of proportion, purpose, or belonging.  A society once anchored by small businesses and community cohesion soon fell apart, morphing into urban sprawl, broken families, and lost dreams.

What have we been thinking?  Did we ever really have a vision?

We have lost interest in community, except in isolated rural areas that have found themselves increasingly on the defensive, both socially and economically.

For new immigrants the trials have always been greatest.  And for people of color, especially blacks, numerous setbacks keep resurfacing.

Paradoxically, the resulting loss of social cohesiveness has led to diminishing independence and self-sufficiency for virtually everyone.

Many of us have a haunting awareness of the deterioration and decay of American society. Some have responded with inarticulate anger, with little understanding of the historical context or economic forces that are contributing to their unease.

Do we understand the forces of disruption that are confronting us?

Sensing the loss of vitality in an economic order that once provided us with the dignity of self-sufficiency, and watching the deterioration of the civil order we have depended on, we look for something or someone to blame.

In the past year this blog has reflected on a national character that has, historically, embodied conflicting values: generosity and self-indulgence, a welcoming inclusiveness and an unfriendly prejudice.  We now find ourselves at a turning point at which hard choices are becoming clear.

The positive ideals that have given us a feeling of dignity are partly veiled from memory, and the need to clarify our identity as a nation has become clear.

Never fully realized, the visionary foundations laid down in 1787 remain ideals.  The genius of our Constitution has allowed the nation to grow and mature.  Yet, we find ourselves in confusion today, without a vision, and without a sense of community we can trust or depend on.

As we find ourselves confronted with growing instability and uncertainty, I believe this is the only place that offers us effective control over our destiny – our own local communities.  It is here that the future will be determined.

Yet, we know very little about how to make community work.

We are presented with a formidable task.  Without trustworthy neighbors and coherent communities, how are we to engage constructively with America as a whole – a people uprooted and disorganized in the wasteland of a broken society?

How will we build dependable relationships, a stable civil order, and a safe future for our children and grandchildren?

I do not voice this question as an intellectual exercise, but rather as a personal challenge to my readers as thinking, caring, self-respecting individuals.

This is our turning point.  Do we have the will to rise above our differences to engage with our neighbors to meet local needs and resolve shared problems?

Do we have a choice?

I don’t think so.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about January 26.

The Forward Edge of History

The vision of America that came to life with the birth of the Nation was unprecedented in history.  It is subverted today by a bitter divisiveness that disallows dialog and obstructs decision-making.

To regain the integrity of that vision – and to build a future we can all believe in, Americans must navigate carefully through currents of alienation, hostility, and misinformation.

Violence begets violence in a downward spiral, verbal or otherwise. Words can ignite fierce, uncontrollable fires.  And, irresponsible, dishonest or self-serving actions can do the same.

Destructiveness can take many forms.

When the banks nearly collapsed in 2008, the United States hovered on the edge of catastrophe.  Americans discovered that failures of responsibility, foresight, and common sense involved the very people and institutions we depend on.

We were stunned by the foolishness that came to light in places where we are most vulnerable.  It was a startling discovery: A cavalier disregard for the interests of both citizens and nation – by institutions we had previously regarded as models of dependability.

In retrospect, however, we can see that this crisis has long been coming, and that it reveals far more than foolishness.

For many years we have watched a broad social deterioration in America that comes with a self-centered lack of principles and the absence of genuine values.

Respected national leaders have stained themselves.  We have even seen immoral and deeply hurtful actions committed by religious leaders and clergy, the supposed exemplars of integrity.

Where will it stop?  In addition to the material damage done to our lives, the rampant failure of responsibility appearing at the core of our society is demoralizing.

There is nothing more destructive.  Indeed, it strikes at the foundations of civilization.

It is easy to get caught up in emotional feelings at a time like this.  We have healing work to do.  If we wish to reaffirm the ultimate purpose of this great nation, it will be necessary to modulate our speech and better manage our emotions.

Times of peril require that we communicate carefully and avoid contributing to inflamed passions, however offended we may be.  Hurled accusations and insults make it impossible for others to hear reason.

The trouble with blame is, first, that it tends to be indiscriminate. It blinds us to the complexity of circumstances, and to the plural identities of those who disagree with us, or who may have just made some bad mistakes.

We often fail to see that we share many similar values and commitments with those who anger us.

Secondly, blaming will blind us to looming perils that are the fault of no one.  A fierce storm has come upon us.  We need each other if we are to take responsibility for the needs of our local communities.

Make no mistake: A storm of this magnitude will alter everyone’s perspective.  It is essential that we transcend personal fear, resisting its attendant passions, and learn to work with those around us.  We will build from there.

Some of you have expressed serious doubts that this is possible.

I never said it would be easy; I said we have no choice.  If we are unable to confront crises shoulder-to-shoulder as loyal Americans, freedom will be lost in the chaos of the deepening storm.

This will require patience, cooperation, and learned skills.  We must try to see the end in the beginning – the vision of a civil society where respectfulness, fairness, and moral responsibility prevail and freedom of expression is nurtured and defended.

This vision and purpose might just be worth our learning to get along, even for the most doubtful among us.  Local communities are the one place where we can be assured of having the freedom and capacity to make this happen.

Steadfast determination and the legendary American generosity of spirit are among the virtues that will be called upon again and again in the coming days.

We will not escape this great turning point in human history.  It will inflict tests upon us whether or not we respond with dignity and compassion – whether or not we take our rightful place at the forward edge of history.

Tom

A note to readers:  The blog will take a break until after Christmas.  Please watch for the next post on or about December 29.

If you wish to know more about the project you can find a description, along with an introduction to the forthcoming book and several chapter drafts elsewhere on this page.