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Let's Teach Ourselves to Visualize America's Higher Promise

What would it take to bring out America's best? We don't know, we Americans, and there's no one for us to turn to. It's up to us. We'll have to work this out. For ourselves.

So let's think on this for a moment.

We do have lots of slogans. "Opportunity." "Prosperity." "Equal Rights." "Freedom." "Community." "The U.S. Constitution." And so on.

But we don't actually have a guiding framework for bringing out our best. We've never created one for ourselves, and it shows.

If we had a guiding framework, and if most Americans agreed on it, we'd be a long way ahead of where we are now.

The fact that we - as citizens of a nation that's remarkably capable in many way - have yet to frame a guiding vision for America and where we're headed really ought to be of serious concern.

It ought to make us think, "What is it with us, the American people, that we have yet to describe the kind of country we want America to be? And the kind of future America ought to have?"

Strange, isn't it? For all our talents, individually and collectively, this is the one thing that we are still unable to do.

But now there's a new element. The technologies we rely on to run our civilization have become so powerful and pervasive that we're poisoning Mother Nature; her life-giving powers are starting to give out. The Earth, which has long been our supportive home, is slowly being poisoned by the damaging choices we've been making.

If we had a guiding framework that points the way forward, to an America that's safe and healthy, that works well for everyone, and that protects Mother Nature, we'd be in great shape.

But we don't have that sort of guiding framework. And we know we don't. And the main reason for that? Our entrenched habits have accustomed us to the practice of symptomatic reasoning, not to the practice of systemic thinking. We are reactive thinkers, we Americans. We are not proactive thinkers.

And we are now at a stage in humanity's long history that this shortcoming has already begun to do us in. How is a nation of careless thinkers ever to rise to its higher challenges? How will such a people bring out their country's best? And forge a healthy partnership with Mother Nature?

And that's the point of To present a high level audit of our civic habits. And to develop a brief tutorial on the rethinking challenge that lies ahead.

As the title of this little essay says, "Let's Teach Ourselves to Visualize America's Higher Promise."

Here are some of the themes we'll want to examine:

  • The tension between our Drives and our Principles.
  • The role of our Ambitions in managing both our Drives and our Principles.
  • The role of our Culture in shaping our Ambitions.
  • The tension between Abusiveness and Nurturance.The tension between Corruptionand Integrity.
  • The tension between our settled Habits and our higher Aspirations.
  • The tension between Symptomatic Change and Systemic Change.
  • The tension between asking, "What's Broken?" versus wondering, "What's Missing?"
  • The tensions induced by what Mark Twain once called "Lies of Silent Assent."
  • The connection between "Fulfilling Our Responsibilities" and "Exercising Our Freedoms."‚Äč

For now, I'll offer a simple but potent framework. We humans come into this world with two elemental capacities and a personal tool for balancing the tensions between them. And, inevitably, we soon find ourselves living in this world not only as individuals but as members of communities. Our communities, too, play important roles in shaping our behaviors.

To understand ourselves, let's start with the basics.

We are biological creatures endowed with basic drives. Sex, fame, power, wealth, achievement, self-expression.

We are also biological creatures that quickly develop a capacity for reasoning. And one of the key things we do with this capacity is develop principles for shaping and influencing our drives. It is our capacity for developing principles that plays a key role in steering and sometimes curbing our drives. The males of our species would probably rape the females of our species nonstop if there were no principles in our makeup warning us off. And without the principle that slavery is illegal, white planters might still be using slaves to grow cotton.

But mostly, we wrestle with the tensions between our drives and our principles by trying to figure out how we'd like to lead our lives.

So let's pull in a third concept - our ambitions. Our ambitions play a channeling role in shaping both our drives and our principles.

Henry Ford's ambitions took him in one direction, television comedian John Oliver's ambitions have taken him in a very different direction. Our ambitions shape and channel both our drives and our principles. If our ambitions call us to live very principled lives, we'll care more about being honest than others might. If our ambitions call us to create winning football teams, we'll channel our drive to succeed into the sport of football.

We cannot pursue all the drives that might occur to us; our ambitions help us to focus on the drives that we care most about and urge us to do the best we can with whatever it is that matters to us the most.

No one can possibly live by all the varied principles that one might run across in the study of religion and ethics and civics and the Hippocratic Oath and so on and so on. We use our ambitions to prune away the choices that we're not suited for and to focus us on the choices that suit us the best.

And then, finally, let's add one more category - our Culture. The culture in which we live in will always influence our ambitions - both the ambitions that focus our drives, and the ambitions that focus our principles.

These are very basic elements of who we are, and if you have ever read The Federalist with all its essays by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and John Jay on the logic behind the Constitution, you will know that the distinction between drives and principles has to have been implicitly understood by those authors, but the urgencies of the moment didn't call for those concepts to receive much attention. The very act of writing the essays of The Federalist expressed many of their drives, their principles, and their ambitions, but their larger goal certainly wasn't the meshing of humanity's industrialized colossus with Nature's survival needs. They had written a constitution that was pretty decent for its day, they wanted to get it ratified, and they wanted to get our new government up and running.

But now, some 230-plus years and counting, the meshing of our goals for industry with our goals for Nature is irreversibly urgent. Now the task of reassessing our drives and our principles has risen to the very top of Humanity's "To Do List." Humanity's long-term survival hinges on our readiness to adjust our drives and our principles, our ambitions and our culture.

There are some drives that work well for us and some that don't. The same can be said for our principles, our ambitions, and our culture. Some of what we do is fine, while some of what we do imperils not only the Earth's biosphere, but also our civilization's very survival.

These urgencies place is in an entirely new historical moment. The drives that brought us to this crisis point, the principles and the ambitions and the cultural norms that brought us to this crisis point, are on trial.

And it's time we applied a systemic test to our behaviors and the passions that drive our behaviors. Are the drives we have chosen to pursue compatible with the survival and the well-being of human civilization? Or not?

Are the principles by which we think we should live compatible with our long-run survival? Or not?

Are the ambitions by which we have shaped our drives helping us or leading us astray? Are the ambitions by which we have selected our guiding principles helping our future or harming it?

And what about the cultural norms we promote? Are they in our long run best interest? Or not?

It is through our drives and our principles, through our ambitions and our cultures that we are scripting humanity's future.

But if we are not alert to the cause-and-effect consequences of the business practices and industrial practices we have fallen into, we will one day find that we have chosen a self-destructive course from which the possibility of retreat is steadily shrinking to the point that one day it will be closed off altogether.

We, as Americans and as humans, are therefore responsible now for the future of our own countries, directly, and of all humanity, indirectly. The sort of wisdom that's required now stretches well beyond the needs of the era in which Hamilton, Madison, and Jay penned The Federalist.

It has been the intertwining progress of science, technology, and capitalism that has now thrust into our hands both the power to destroy the Earth's capacity to function as humanity's enduring home, and the sacred responsibility to make sure we don't. We need a common aim, a common purpose, and a common work plan.

Easily said. Not easily done. Peacetime economies don't arise from the common pursuit of shared aims. Only wartime economies reflect the common pursuit of shared aim; in today's peacetime economy, merchants and industries struggle simply to stay afloat within the markets they serve - a struggle that has been intensified by the swamping effects of the coronavirus pandemic, now killing well over a thousand Americans every day.

It's the economic sector whose technologies pose the greatest hazard to our future, and yet we know well that our economic sector is not our common purpose sector. The national government is our common purpose sector.

Given the journey that brought us to our current situation, it was inevitable that we'd find ourselves recognizing and lamenting the growing distance between the modern world's entrenched interests and its Save the Earth responsibilities.

We are still living within the handicaps of that reality, in a civilization that's intensely committed to the protection of its special interests, but hardly committed at all to the fulfillment of humanity's higher possibilities.

And that's why it's time to blow the whistle on what we have long been doing.

And why it is time, together, to reassess our drives, our principles, our ambitions, and our culture. This will be a conversation unlike any we have needed to have before. It is also a conversation that we cannot afford to mess up.

The logic of this journey is relatively straightforward. Until our imaginations have learned to visualize an America of systemic well-being, there's little chance of our actually creating an America of systemic well-being.

Our culture needs to become much wiser than it has been. With a wiser culture, our ambitions can do a much better job of shaping both our principles and our drives. We have to be self-steering as individuals - hence the key role of choosing our ambitions wisely. And we have to be self-steering as a culture - hence the critical importance of teaching ourselves how to aspire to an America of systemic well-being.

Each of us has a first step to take. Getting ourselves unstuck. So that's the first goal of this website - to share some thoughts about how we break ourselves free of old habits, how we define the better habits that we'll need going forward.

Beyond that, the higher goal is to give the nation as a whole some guiding principles on how to break free from the grip of outworn ideas.

It's meant to be dialogue, even an argument. If you'd like to throw in your own two cents, please do. My email is just below. Disagreement is fine, but on this website let's stay away from the snarky potshots that too often pass for argument on other websites.

Courteous dialogue is a good way of taking the first step toward a nurturing America.

Steven Howard Johnson

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