Americans stand at an historic turning point. Our thinking, attitudes, and political differences have collided with hard realities in the 21st century. A long record of short-sightedness, ineptitude and irresponsibility reflects societal degeneration at every level, political, economic, social and ethical. On the foregoing pages I have attempted to survey the historical progression of ideas, behaviors and conditions that have led to dysfunction in the present.
This is a moment of reckoning for Americans. And it calls on us to think constructively about the future and the society in which we wish to live. Whatever our personality, philosophy or religious belief, we each have an unavoidable choice to make. Either we retreat into ourselves, accepting what is given as beyond our control, or we step forward as mature adults to engage with current and emerging challenges in an intelligent and responsible manner.
Living in a time of existential crisis, this choice takes on great importance—for ourselves, for the communities around us, and for the world. The American model and the vibrant creative spirit it engendered have served as a beacon of hope for people everywhere. And, the world is watching.
The future will not wait.
We have entered a lengthy period of severe and sequential crises. If we are to protect our families, organize the means for safety and security among our neighbors, and recover the promise of this nation, we must engage constructively and with dignity. This is our challenge.
To react precipitously with misinformation or pre-conditioned assumptions could damage our ability to defend cherished ideals and cut us off from the very future we wish for.
I come to you here with both a premise and a pragmatic proposition. I will argue here that only in genuinely functional local communities will it be possible to respond effectively to the challenges of the present hour. There are a number of reasons this is true, and I will outline them for you here. The remainder of the book will be devoted to understanding the principles, perspective, and practical skills that will be required—if we accept this challenge.
I do not suggest it will be easy to do. It will not be. What I am saying is that we have no choice. Either we rise above personal limitations, adjust our thinking and place America ahead of selfish interests, or we will join an inexorable slide into chaos.
To hesitate here is to react as victims rather than as Americans, to choose loss over promise, helplessness over responsibility. We each possess the capacity to live with purpose and determination. The responsible, free-thinking person will sometimes struggle with the contradictions between freedom and necessity, or might be intimidated by extreme circumstances, but we will never give in and never lose sight of the light on the horizon.
Functional local communities will not protect us from uncertainty, but they will position us to better keep our balance—physically, mentally, economically. Choosing to take control of our destiny will require that we create dependable communities around us, exercising tolerance, perseverance, and self-control. We must work together despite our differences—to create safety, resolve local problems and seek economic stability. And, no, it will not be easy.
Working with other people is one of the most challenging aspects of life. The need to engage meaningfully in genuine personal relationships is basic to our humanity. Yet, finding the fortitude to be supportive despite the sorrows, frustrations, and aggravation we have all felt, will be challenging. There will always be difficult people to test us. Our job is not to be heroes. We will advance one step at a time. What is imperative is that each of us step forward to give of ourselves with a positive attitude – come what may.
Foundations for Stability
Several generations of Americans have looked to an ever-growing bureaucracy as the guarantor of our basic needs. It has not always been this way. For the first time in human history centralized government has come to be accepted as the sole defender of economic security and social stability.
It would seem reasonable to think a powerful central government would be effective at securing the order and safety formerly provided by smaller communities. Yet, dependence on even the most benevolent of governments raises concerns. No centralized government has proved resistant to the seduction of power for very long. Furthermore, it has become increasingly apparent that a dynamic and productive order cannot, in the words of sociologist Robert Nisbet, “be maintained in a monolithic society. Pluralism and a diversity of experience are the essence of true freedom…. No large-scale association can really meet the psychic demand of individuals because, by its very nature, it is too large, too complex, too bureaucratized, and altogether too aloof from the residual meanings which human beings live by.”[i]
Why do local communities have an unparalleled role in the stability of social order? And why has this become especially important today? For many of us the foremost concern at present is the growing need for safety and security at a time of multiple crises. Without neighbors we can depend on, the immediate future appears bleak. Physical survival will require dependable community. Safety is essential, but it is not everything.
“The only proper alternative to large-scale, mechanical political society,” Nisbet writes, “are communities small in scale but solid in structure. They and they alone can be the beginning of social reconstruction because they respond at the grass roots, to fundamental human desires: living together, working together, experiencing together, being together. Such communities can grow naturally and organically from the most elementary aspirations, they remain continuously flexible, and, by their very nature, they do not insist upon imposing and rigid organizations.”[ii]
The greater the threats to social stability, the greater the need for trustworthy relationships, as well as practical knowledge, life-experience, and crucial skills. Such concerns as food security and safe electrical maintenance, for example, are dependent upon local knowledge and cooperation. The necessary conditions for starting small businesses and building a cash economy will only be found in local communities and networks of communities. And, ultimately, the challenge of rebuilding a damaged social order and kick-starting local and regional economies will require effective working relationships. Such skills can be learned and strengthened in functional, mutually supportive communities.
Are we capable of building such stability? Americans have little experience with genuine community. Many of us are barely acquainted with our neighbors.
I am proposing that we learn how to do this: that we build a society where both security and prosperity have a foundation in local independence, knowledge, and initiative—where our children can be safe and where personal autonomy is respected. To do so will require that we construct a stable environment for addressing problems, managing conflict, and organizing local and regional projects. Shared values need to be identified and affirmed. Differing values must also be identified and respected. Growing our strength will require the trust, dependability and skill-sharing that community depends upon.
The strategy introduced here is inspired in part by the role of communities early in the nation’s history, but there are important differences. Among the primary differences is the practical need for inclusive diversity. This will be necessary due to the extreme conditions confronting us, and the practical knowledge required for survival, both personal and societal.
Another difference will be the intentionality with which we agree on practical needs and goals. In the American past, most communities included people with similar cultural roots and ethnicities. We cannot afford to revert to that pattern today for very clear reasons.
In little more than a generation, American communities have been rearranged radically by shifting demographics and a deteriorating economy. We no longer know our neighbors and have been unable to depend on them. Our physical circumstances have been dominated by discontents, and disconnected alienation from the people around us. And, many of us have been living in a state of repetitive transitions and flux.
It has gradually become apparent that differences in character, personality, perspective and background are essential for the security of communities. But, divisiveness and an attitude of fault-finding make this difficult. While the idea of engaging with different kinds of people might feel uncomfortable at first, we will soon come to recognize its value in securing local safety and stability. The challenges we face call for neighbors with a diversity of skills, experience and practical knowledge capable of meeting basic needs and a multitude of unprecedented social and technical problems. And, those who have already been tested and strengthened by hardship will be most dependable.
In Chapter Three we saw how the effectiveness of problem-solving increases with a diversity of knowledge and perspective. In complex situations a multiplicity of experience can forestall disaster. As we face worsening conditions, we will depend on the diversity of practical experience and resourceful talent that America is blessed with. A positive attitude can save lives, regardless of race or childhood background. Skills and creative intelligence come in all forms, colors, and ethnicities.
Do we understand the danger of ‘group-think’? This is what happens when a group of like-minded people assume they know everything they need to know about a problem or a plan. Some of history’s greatest disasters have been the result of group-think.
Given the antagonism and negativity that dominate the United States at this writing, the reader might reasonably question how cooperation and serious problem-solving can be made possible. On the following pages I will answer this doubt and offer practical guidance for those with the courage and fortitude to embrace the task. If the survival of the United States as a constitutional republic is important to us, we will rise to the occasion.
Identity, Belonging, and Trust
Let’s be clear: We depend on community for much more than physical survival. 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 here that the individual learns values, finds equilibrium, and gains a sense of belonging. Genuine community invites active participation. It 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, 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 central government. This is a concern as we address the loss of social stability and ethical integrity that Americans face in the 21st century.
Why have people so often abandoned liberty and independence for the charisma of politicians or ideologues? What were they missing? The answer is not so mysterious as it might seem. All of us possess a deeply felt urge to belong, whether it be to family, a place, or a community where we are valued. To be fully human we must belong somewhere, to a group, a nation, or a coherent historical stream. Americans are no different from any others in this regard.
This truth is of critical importance for personal reasons, as well as for the health of a free society. We cannot seek freedom in the cage of isolation, but only in our engagement with a community grounded in the experience of ones’ own generation and society. It is in these bonds of relationship that we know who we are. And it is with the loss of this grounding in the destruction brought about by mass society, that Americans have found themselves without belonging, without trustworthy relatedness.
If the United States is to survive as a nation it will be essential that we find our way back to a confident 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, people must feel needed, productive, and the 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.
More than for most nations, American history has left us dissociated from the normal human experience of possessing a “living center” where we naturally belong. While we might have a feeling of loyalty to the United States as a whole, the consciousness of belonging to a place, a locality, neighborhood or community, has essentially disappeared. Uprooted by economic necessity, and facilitated by the ease of travel, we have spread ourselves thinly across a great continent.
Having subordinated our labor and creative faculties for the benefit of mass society, we find ourselves exploited by a corporate colossus loyal only to wealth and privilege. This has left millions of Americans vulnerable to personal isolation and a deteriorating social and economic order. The loss of jobs during the final decades of the 20th century, torn out from under long-standing American communities and exported to foreign shores, was a shock. It took place without consideration for its’ consequences. Motivated by the wish to maximize profit, it was pursued without concern for American lives or, strangely, the strength of the consumer economy upon which those profits depended.
When citizens recognize that their historic role in society is devalued or disregarded, it is normal for them to feel degraded and dehumanized. The social costs of this reaction have been emerging into view in the contagious degeneration of moral responsibility and social coherence throughout American society. And, arguably, it has led ultimately to the dysfunction of political institutions. It is this condition among vast numbers of once comfortable Americans that must be rectified and its’ damage healed.
Unfortunately, the problem is more complicated still. The history of the individual’s experience in mass society cannot be ignored. With the structural integrity of European societies already weakened prior to the industrial revolution of the 19th century, (see Chapters 6 and 7[iii]), the individual had been freed from social constraints, but also catapulted into the uncertainties of a disintegrating civil order. It is in this context that the social violence of the industrial revolution wreaked havoc. By the beginning of the First World War the widespread loss of communities and associative institutions of civil society was largely complete. The resultant loss produced a profound sense of insecurity and generalized unease throughout a world now dominated by industrial culture.
Robert Nisbet describes the consequences:
“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century from the phenomena of individual insecurity and the mass quest for community, is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.”[iv]
“Separate man from the primary contexts of normative association… and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”[v]
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm goes a little deeper. A community that supports the freedom and well-being of the individual, he writes, will be one that encourages personal productivity and wide-ranging choices for engagement. People need to feel productive, and communities represent the foundations for productive engagement. In his essay, “The Moral Powers in Man,” Erich Fromm is unequivocal:
“If society is concerned with making people virtuous, it must be concerned with making them productive and hence with creating the conditions for the development of productiveness. The first and foremost of these conditions is that the unfolding and growth of every person is the aim of all social and political activities, that man is the only purpose and end, and not a means for anybody or anything except himself. The productive orientation is the basis for freedom…. Every increase in joy a culture can provide will do more for the ethical education of its members than all the warnings of punishment or preaching of virtue could do.”[vi]
It is essential that we come to terms with the destruction of human society experienced during the past two centuries. The widespread loss of community during the 19th century created a receptivity among millions of people to the seductive assurances and utopian promises of Communism and National Socialism. Profound insecurity and the loss of social cohesion opened the way for despotic tyranny, mass murder and total war in the 20th century.
Human beings respond to invitations for belonging wherever it appears most dependable. The disintegration of traditional structures, followed by the extreme stress and disenfranchised conditions of industrial society, brought us face-to-face with the emptiness of mass society.
We must learn from this. The American future must be engaged in a manner that restores independent self-confidence and renews the soul.
The Individual and Mass Society
Most Americans turned away from despotism in the 20th century, yet the meaningless emptiness of mass society drew us into significant social addictions: television, professional sports, drugs, alcohol, and the obsessive preoccupation with sex. Together these formed the extent of many lives as we entered the 21st century.
It is in this context that I draw your attention to concerns expressed throughout the past half century concerning the threat to individual independence and cultural diversity posed by the structural dominance of mass society. This is a concern for liberty—freedom of thought and confidence in self-sufficiency. We touched on this concern in Chapter 7, where I shared the following words of Reinhold Niebuhr:
“The social and economic destruction of individuality [came as] 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….”[vii]
So it was that the consciousness of individuality, which had emerged over several hundred years since the High Middle Ages, came under duress and began to break down. The haunting uneasiness this caused has been profound. The breakdown of community, coupled with intellectual incoherence and a loss of spiritual grounding, has led to an assumption that the individual and society are two completely distinct domains, each having an independent reality. Political philosophers came to believe that the two lack any basis for comparison or relatedness, that they are incommensurable, and that the creative freedom of the individual thinker can only exist in isolation from society.
This thinking represents a radical departure from all previous human experience. For thousands of years human communities have been grounded in the order and consciousness of the civilizations to which they belonged. For most of human history, people have found security and identity in the cohesive reality of the communities in which they lived. All this vanished in a short time.
The tension that developed between the individual and society might easily be attributed to a dominant culture that treats the individual simply as a function. The human potential for transcendence and self-realization is denied explicitly. In such circumstances the personal identity with which we engage socially and which allows us to “belong”, can never be the real “self”. The individuality recognized by mass society is never who we truly are, and never honors what we have actually achieved. It is only our value to society.
We must recognize the danger this represents. Having become accustomed to this perception in the 20th century we might accept it without thought. But there is good reason to be concerned. Indeed, if we look around us it is not hard to see the truth. Robert Nisbet alerted us (see Chapter 6[viii]) that for well over half a century political polling in the United States has revealed ongoing deterioration of trust in political institutions, as well as in groups perceived as related to political institutions.[ix] Distrust has now permeated American society. It is important that we understand the steady growth of distrust in these times as it relates to our submersion in mass society, an evolving condition that has gradually isolated and disempowered Americans for a long time.
Distrust has been heightened by numerous factors in recent decades, including the myopic insensitivity of both political and moneyed elites. However, it has emerged from a ground of anxiety and suspicion that has been with us far longer. As a problem that has evolved unimpeded and which appears rooted in the intellectual delusions of the European Enlightenment, this is not a problem to be resolved politically. Those who came of age during the latter half of the 20th century are likely to be aware of the oppressive influence of mass society. The isolation of the individual faced with the vacuous nature of mass society is a threat to the soul. And, its’ domination of social consciousness is impervious to rational argument.
This condition will not be corrected through confrontation, but only in a transformative process that heals the damage. Here, again, we encounter the essential role of community, and the diverse civil society which community makes possible. This is a challenge that calls for patient, concerted, and steadfast commitment, and can only be engaged at the foundational levels of society. Personal vision and initiative have largely evaporated, and can only be gradually restored through the experiential engagement made possible in community-building.
Each of us must find strength and clarity in our own ethical principles and be prepared to stand firmly on the foundation of truthfulness, trustworthiness, and responsibility. If we are to open to listening, we need first to be comfortable with ourselves. Building trust with others requires sincerity before all else. It is among friends and neighbors that we can forge the attitudes and build the confidence we need to envision the future and look forward hopefully from the disorder of the present.
Having considered the reasons why community has provided an essential foundation for civilization throughout human history, we now turn our attention to the immense challenge this presents to Americans in the 21st century.
The foremost obstacle before us is the atmosphere of divisive antipathy and alienation among Americans. When we resist cooperation or even dialog with people who look or think differently from ourselves, it becomes impossible even to resolve basic practical or procedural problems, much less to form functional communities. The pragmatic strength normally available with a diversity of inputs, including knowledge and varied perspective, is obstructed.[x] We have often appeared determined to close ourselves off from one another.
Emerson famously said: “People only see what they are prepared to see.” And more recently Stephen Covey put it similarly: “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are ─ or, as we are conditioned to see it.” The reasonable person shudders at the immensity of the task.
As a practical matter, living and working with neighbors does not require agreement about anything other than the immediate purpose or concerns at hand. It can potentially be of great importance to address a problem or to engage in decision-making without imagining the necessity for political agreement or social sameness. The problem is trust.
With restored trust, a range of procedural tools become available for small group decision-making and organizational development. Effective approaches for supporting and sustaining working relationships exist, even in the presence of diverse opinions and perspectives. I will first address the problem of trust in the coming chapters, and then proceed to discuss a range of useful tactics, methods and techniques.
Trust will always be the first priority and challenge. Working with people, especially in complex circumstances, is rarely easy. But, with a willingness to learn new skills and to engage with an interested and inquisitive attitude it can be done. Our society has ample experience with making this work. We have to have the will to make it work.
If the concerned reader questions the practical viability of this assertion, but has a genuine interest in knowing how it can be realized, please read on.
This proposition—that Americans build genuine community in place, with their current neighbors—is not, and cannot be based on the invention of community as a new institution. Nor can it depend simply on individual good-will. A coherent and time-tested institution, community has existed since the dawn of civilization. It is no less a function of human development than our mind and body. To imagine that it can be contrived by means of human inventiveness is not reasonable.
We must reject an imposed or disordered collectivism and acknowledge the requirements of human existence which, as outlined above, have determined the character of communities for millennia.
It is also necessary that we gain a realistic understanding of the challenge that genuine community presents at the present time. Reconstructing this essential anchor for human well-being cannot happen overnight. It will be a significant learning experience, and can only take place when we open ourselves to new ways of thinking and being. Such a challenge is always difficult for people. So it is that we must recognize the project as personal and deeply meaningful for American citizens.
The Christian theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen is helpful in reorienting our minds to address the task. “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living,” he writes: “You live your way into a new kind of thinking.”
In other words, it will be necessary to learn by doing—as challenging as that promises to be. We can only live our way “into a new kind of thinking” by engaging directly with our neighbors to address practical problems and to meet local needs. Even when forced upon us by unwanted circumstances, such relationships provide conditions that invite us to gain the skills we need to begin re-imagining a common thoroughly American vision for the future.
Having ourselves challenged to alter accustomed ways of thinking is always uncomfortable. But we are less likely to experience a new awareness as threatening when it comes with the experience of addressing local needs with our neighbors. The effort to consolidate and strengthen local communities creates an opportunity to engage in activities that inform our perspective in practical and non-threatening ways. And, it need not impose on our fundamental values.
If we are fortunate as individuals, guidance will have been given us by parents or grandparents or perhaps by a religious tradition. But we must recognize that values are built from the aggregated assumptions that we have learned from early in life. Values are intimate aspects of personal identity which plant themselves deep in our consciousness. They are, however, meaningless in isolation, unchallenged by interaction with others. It is in the practice of living and working with others that values become real and are translated into action.
Without accepting responsibility for making community dependable, we are living in our imagination. And if we wish to influence the future, we need to engage with those who most appear to differ from us. Will Rogers once said: “People’s minds are changed through observation and not through argument.” Benjamin Franklin, who had a way of getting straight to the point, put it this way: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
Do we value freedom enough to allow ourselves and others to grow without dogmatic constraints? Are we willing to assist others in learning, understanding, rethinking assumptions? As human beings we learn by doing, but this is only possible if we want it. Is the goal of authentic community worthy of our caring, our concern, our willingness to open ourselves to interested engagement? Again, Pastor Nouwen’s words call to us quietly: “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living; you live your way into a new kind of thinking.”
New perspectives will always be personal. Learning may surprise us, but our thinking will always be under our own control. No one can tell us we must change. It will happen when we apply our intelligence and creativity to meeting an unknown future with friends and neighbors who are prepared to do the same. To seek order in the world around us will go hand-in-hand with healing damaged trust. Responsibility, trustworthiness, dependability can only be learned and lived, in direct relationships with real people and real problems.
Making a commitment to stay positive requires considerable resolve. But, holding to a constructive vision, staying focused on purpose, and building trustworthy relationships will make a very big difference. The negativity we see around us may appear powerful and it may be destructive, but it can only survive over time in the absence of constructive action. Negativity and manipulation only have the energy we grant them. However limited our self-confidence may be, when we set ourselves on a practical path, offering encouragement to others with courage and determination, we become the light that defeats darkness.
The strength of the American people that comes with diversity of experience and perspective can be of no benefit without a readiness to rise above our differences. Building a vibrant, welcoming and free-spirited society depends on trustworthiness and a loyal unity. This is the essence of our heritage, our humanity, and the source of the nation’s greatness.
Essential practical responsibilities, necessary principles, procedural tools and personal attitudes, are outlined in the following chapters. Many resources are available online and in bookstores. We have no choice but to get serious. It will be a long fight; there is no halfway.
In the coming years Americans will encounter intense pressures imposed by unexpected dangers and unprecedented tests. Without the loyal dependability of genuine community we will remain in constant jeopardy. The safety and security of our families depends on trustworthy relationships with our neighbors and a strength built with constructive action and a compassionate attitude.
Americans have avoided personal responsibility for the foundations of civilized life for a long time. We will continue to do so at our peril.
[i] Robert Nisbet, Moral Values and Community, in Tradition and Revolt, pp. 136-137.
[iii] See Chapter 6, pp. x-x.
[iv] Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community, op. cit., pp. 211-212.
[v] Ibid., p. 214.
[vi] Erich Fromm, Man for Himself, An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (1947), pp. 229-230.
[vii] See Chapter 7, pp. 5-6; and Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 66-67.
[viii] See Chapter 6, pp. x-x.
[ix] See Chapters 2 and 6, pp. x-x.
[x] See Chapter 3, Finding Our Strength.