American institutions will not recover. Will Americans?

Note: I ask your indulgence for this post. I know we have an international community, and I usually speak to a global audience. Today I make an exception because of the urgency here and the worldwide implications of our current social and political patterns in the USA. Perhaps, by accident, it will be relevant in other domains, as well.

With the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court, the last defense of a liberal democracy¹ in the US is breached. Of course, she has only been nominated, but the institution of the Senate has succumbed, so confirmation before election is inevitable. We will vote on November 3. If there is a free and fair election (which is not assured), Democrats may retake the Senate and White House and keep control of the House of Representatives. With a Supreme Court that reads authoritarian power and paternalism into our Constitution, we have no hope of either equity or freedom in the years to come. It will be possible to replace leadership in the Justice Department, but we will never again believe that it is beyond corruption. We can march every day in overwhelming numbers, but when those in power have no ears to hear or hearts to care, it will not matter. Armed, white nationalist, volunteer militias are indistinguishable from our legitimate police forces. Military might be used to quell peaceful dissent. Experts who have been put in charge of our collective health and wellbeing are cowed into silence by political partisans. Objective, investigative journalism is taken for propaganda, and propaganda is taken for truth. Even the Post Office has been co-opted. Every institutional lever created to assure a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people has been distorted or destroyed. No, American institutions will not recover.

Will Americans? Well, that depends on whether we can find and leverage conditions that sustain our American identity, either collectively or individually.

As a collective, we must ask some tough questions.

What binds us together as a coherent culture, and what does that say about who we are and what we stand for? We used to depend on evening news, respected public education, communities of faith and service, local pride, and delusions of equality and freedom. Even professional sports gave us a collective sense of who we were. These are gone, or they have become too incoherent to serve us well. As I try to think of a single container that holds us all, I am left with Walmart and a taste for violence. Those containers cannot hold the society I would choose.

What are the differences that make a difference and define our identity? Race, religion, education, values, aesthetics, cuisine, national heroes are all differences that can enrich the tapestry of a culture. The problem is that, in complexity, differences within a system and differences between systems serve quite different functions. Within a shared boundary, a difference gives texture and meaning to a shared reality. Differences between create or amplify a sense of “the other.” The political rhetoric of the Right thrives on differences between. One example represents the pattern. To force a shared set of values, Trump proposes a US-First history curriculum for public schools. In doing so, he hopes to erase the rich variety of the stories of “we the people.” The history he wants to create is far from objective and certainly not normative for a liberal democracy. He has no Constitutional power to do this. He has no expertise or historical context, but the institutions that might have stopped such a plan in the past have been bought and broken. His “dominant” narrative will prevail.

What exchanges will allow information and resources to flow as a lifeblood across our nation? Commercial media, social media, video games, journalism, public discourse, homilies, and public rituals have been invaded by greed, hate, and self-serving violence. Under-constrained capitalism has perverted the flow of resources toward those who hold power and away from those who produce goods. Efforts to change messages or divert resources are demonized as “libtardish,” Socialist, or inspired by some “Deep State.”

The same virus that has infected our institutions has also infected our collective culture. Or perhaps it is the other way around. But does it even really matter which was infected first? No, I think we will not revive what I understand to be American culture. Ever.

Will you and I, as Americans, recover?

Our last hope is that individual Americans sustain the patterns that we expected and hoped for in decades past. We are the only ones, now, who can sustain the patterns of a liberal democracy. I won’t say the patterns we experienced, because those are the ones that unfolded into our current dystopian state. No, I mean the ones we spoke of, embedded in the Declaration of Independence, and deluded ourselves into believing. Today, we must call on ourselves, friends, and neighbors to come to terms with those hopes and to live into them, individually and in our communities.

“All men are created equal . . . " is a fairly good container, when you acknowledge that “men” means all human beings of all races, genders, ages, and faiths. What would it mean for you and me to live into this boundary?

“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” is a fairly good list of differences that create a tapestry within the complex system that is the United States. How can I, in my public and private lives, manifest those patterns for myself and for everyone I engage with? How can I use them as a template for making sense of what I see and making decisions for what I want to create for myself and others?

“ . . . to secure these rights . . .” is a great purpose for exchanges of all kinds. The challenge is to imagine how we might create and maintain exchanges that secure these rights, regardless of who we are or where we are. That is a problem we cannot solve. We do not know how. We cannot know how. Not because we are not smart enough, but because these rights are complex patterns. Patterns emerge from self-organizing processes. They are never solved, but they can be influenced. They are always the same and always unique. They change over time, place, and person. They are recognizable, but not predictable. They depend on individual and collective action. They are radically subjective and ultimately normative. Yet, it is my responsibility to secure these rights. The question is, how?

When we live in a complex world where truth is questioned and answers are unreliable, our only choice is to stand in inquiry. To secure these rights for ourselves and others, we must be curious to see patterns in this moment, as they are, not as we want them to be. We must ask good questions to make sense of existing patterns. In sensemaking, we must access a range of intelligences from within ourselves and from our diverse communities. We must make decisions and take actions that shift the pattern in this moment toward the ideals of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Only our commitment to inquiry will shape the future in all places and times, for ourselves and others. If we are to sustain any vestige of a liberal democracy, we must confront reality with inquiry to create a shared future through cycles of learning and transformation.

Will we recover? I don’t know. I don’t even know if I will recover. The most I can do is to base inquiry and decisions on what we said we wanted to be, not what we became. I can ask what it means to be courageous enough to bring forward the best of our past and bridge to the vision of a free and fair future. Through this inquiry, I can hope to tap into the same patterns that inspired us to declare our independence from tyranny in 1776. Can we? Will I?

¹Liberal Democracy is defined by Oxford English Dictionary: A democratic system of government in which individual rights and freedoms are officially recognized and protected, and the exercise of political power is limited by the rule of law.

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