Believe me when I say that we have a difficult time ahead of us.
But if we are to be prepared for it, we must first shed our fear of it.
I stand before you now, truthfully, unafraid.
Because I believe something you do not?
I stand here because I remember.
I remember that I am here not because the path that lies before me, but because of the path that lies behind me.
— Morpheus speaking to the people of Zion, from the film The Matrix Reloaded
As we start a New Year I find it useful to review my core beliefs. It is easy to lose sight of those amidst the clatter of daily events.
- We are a people with a great past.
- The challenges ahead are no greater than those behind us.
- The American people can surmount these challenges if we work together.
- We will be what we wish to be, if we but make the necessary effort.
8 thoughts on “An important thing to remember as we start a New Year”
I’ll attempt to take the tack of making hope into a strategy by examining assumptions in a sincere and collegial fashion… so let’s run through them one by one:
1. We are a people with a great past.
This is true. However we have a horrendous past in some ways, suffice it for example to state that a form of apartheid was legal in this country less than 50 years ago. That should indicate that we need to have some patience and sophistication in our approach to other human cultures that aren’t evolving as quickly as we would like in a direction we like.
2. The challenges ahead are no greater than those behind us.
This may or may not be true, since current technologies have unprecedented capacities to annihilate us and our environment. Fossil fuels, mechanized warfare, nuclear and other massively destructive weapons lead the pack. The possibility if not probability that the challenges ahead ARE greater than those behind us must be dealt with.
3. The American people can surmount these challenges if we work together.
This may be true. It is however highly probable that unless we radically restructure our relations with the rest of the world, both current ‘friends’ and ‘foes,’ that we cannot surmount these challenges on our own. Some researchers at MIT, using networks of toothpicks, have proved objectively and mathematically that ‘complexity is instability’ which just about everyone knows intuitively. An obvious corollary is that we have to make things less complicated if they are to be more predictable and safe. There is clearly a systemic problem when one lunatic can murder one person in an artificial country (Pakistan last week) and take our stock market down 200 points in a day.
4. We will be what we wish to be, if we but make the necessary effort.
This may be true, but if there are things we wish for that are inherently contradictory, no effort will suffice to bring them about. Two examples should be sufficient: if we are the beacon of democracy and human rights, pragmatism in terms of stability and cooperation with various forms of oligarchy utterly contradicts this. Similarly if we are the ‘high road’ culture morally better than religious fanatics, we cannot have more Abu Ghraibs and keep waterboarding people, even if they are terrorists. We can be what we wish to be only if what we wish for is possible… wishing to be the equivalent of a free lunch or a square circle may be idealistic, it may be hopeful, it may be desirable and even heroic, but in the end it is impossible.
By all means let us hope, but we must leaven that hope with rigor, and acknowledge and incorporate all the facts, even those that contradict our hope. As important and powerful as belief is, the forces of darkness, oppression, tribalism and apocalypse believe as strongly as humanity can, sometimes more so. Truth is our trump card, and the only path to real freedom.
Note I said that these were my beliefs. I did not say that I “hold these truths to be self-evident”.
As for “Truth is our trump card” … there I disagree. First, a small point. “Trump” assumes that we are in a game against others, which I reject as a defining assumption. Sometimes it is true, sometimes not.
More importantly, truth — while an important consideration — is imho not the primary guiding principle in human affairs. We do not know the truth about so many things: high truths (e.g., what is the best system of governance), big truths (e.g., are their genetic differences between human races), and temporal truths (e.g., what is happening in Iraq). Descartes’ method of everything is a sham, not possible for mortals. Faith acts as a paradigm (as used by Thomas Kuhn), allowing us to focus our investigations on a few things, those which are operationally important.
So many things we must take on faith. I believe the following, and am not interested in debating them. Democracy is the best system of government known today (as one of Robert Heinlein’s characters said, “It is a good system for beginners.”). The differences between the races are inconsequential. And so I can focus on things like Iraq.
Mr. Maximus,thank you for your kind words! I am honored and humbled. I enjoy your work and posts about the difficulties faced by the founding fathers,and the strength of character and faith they used to overcome them.Thank you for the work and research you do so that us feeble minded blonds have a better understanding of the future.You are correct,there will be hard times in the future.Every problem presented comes with opportunities to overcome it.These changes will test character and resilience,fear will be overcome by faith.We will emerge better than we are now as we are never given more than we can handle.Happiest of New Years to you and yours!
Dear Mr. Maximus,
Could you comment on what it is that gives the United States its enormous competitive strength? Let me throw out an hypothesis: The competitive strength of any organization depends primarily upon its ability to inspire and then harmonize the creativity and initiative of its people in order to accomplish their common goals.
In the United States, the highest-level expression of our common goals is the Constitution.
In the United States, the free enterprise system is our mechanism for stoking and harmonizing creativity and initiative. In addition to our legal system, other infrastructure, local market size, and access to capital, the US remains the easiest country in the developed world to start (or stop) a business.
So my hypothesis is that as long as we tend to the health of our constitutional free enterprise system, our future as a prosperous nation is assured.
Chet, Interesting timing. I have a series of longish articles discussing the inverse question, what are the sources of our current ills? (Chap I will go up today). My starting point is the same as yours. But to say the “Constitution” is not a complete answer. If the Iraq people voted to adopt the Constitution, would Iraq be on the road to success? And, since we still have the Constitution, our current ills must have other roots.
There is another amorphous but critical dimension to our success. The Founders considered the right “national character” essential. Unlike so many today, they considered social legislation necessary to re-enforce desirable characteristics and guard against adverse developments.
For example, marriage was considered a private matter for most societies throughout history. In tyrannies or monarchies it does not matter what family structure their subjects adopt. But the founders considered this an important element of America’s success, as did other observers (e.g., Alexis de Tocqueville).
“Some researchers at MIT, using networks of toothpicks, have proved objectively and mathematically that ‘complexity is instability’ which just about everyone knows intuitively.”
Complexity is instability. Hmm. Could be why some of the high-tech toys the United States military is in love with don’t work very well.
Good points, for a 2500 year old Roman. Perhaps the key is not so much in having the document as “tending” to it – studying it, striving to uphold its principles, and changing it whenever a significant fraction of our citizens believe it needs to be changed.
Is this possible? I don’t know. As you so adroitly allude, the document was created for a different nation at a different time, a nation about the size of present-day Atlanta, with a relatively small political class, virtually all of whom shared a common English heritage.
Chet’s comments and my related thoughts appear in a new post: Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter II — book recommendations for 2008.