Saturday, June 11, 2011

E Pluribus Unum

E Pluribus Unum - Out of many, one. The first national motto of the United States.

I am currently reading Howard Zinn's book "A People's History of the United States", as well as James W. Loewen's book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong". Reading these two books has reinforced my understanding that every person, without regard for tradition, ethnicity, or class, wants opportunity: an opportunity to thrive as an individual, an opportunity to serve as a member of a welcoming community, and an opportunity to fulfill his or her potential as a human being.

These two books have also showed me once again that American history is a tale of how some people were able to seize opportunities for themselves, how some were denied opportunities, and how some people resisted oppression and prejudice to create new opportunities which had never been imagined before. American history is the legacy of overlapping identities - a process called syncretism, described in Loewen's book as "blending elements of two different cultures to create something new" (Lies, 102).

Syncretism, in its power to combine different cultures and traditions into a greater and more vibrant whole, represents the finest qualities of America. Autonomy. Individualism. The power to decide for yourself. Democracy is the same process of deciding among new choices and options which syncretism uses to create new cultures -- so is capitalism. American encounters with new ideas, and our resulting new creations, give birth to ever sharper and more inclusive societies and economies. Pluralism is the lifeblood of America.

America's mass society is controversial, and there are many public voices who wish to soften or silence it. Traditionalists, the precursor to today's social conservatives, argued that people in a more diverse and less tightly rooted society are more isolated and alienated. These arguments are the start of the movement which complains that traditional values are declining, and unfairly labels those Americans - perceived as foreign and unpatriotic - as lesser citizens, and less worthy of participating equally in America's democratic and economic life.

The ever changing values of America are a strength of our society, and this change is not only compatible with America's political and economic values - this change is essential to preserving those values. A pluralistic and diverse society provides choices for individuals to accept or embrace, and this act of choice is a radical offering. It is a vast departure from previous political and economic arrangements of human history. In nations without these new encounters, confrontations, and choices - without syncretism and pluralism - capitalism becomes feudalism, and democracy becomes dictatorship. Every element of civic life becomes stagnant, and the rule of the public transforms into the rule of the elites. The ancient hierarchy which our Founding Fathers despised and risked their lives to oppose will be viciously restored once syncretism and pluralism are attacked and diminished.

The fight for democracy is the fight of the individual and the community against the hierarchy of the elites and those who would replace the rule of the many with the rule of the few. The greatest danger to a democracy is not that elites will directly deny the rights of the public - the greatest danger is that elites will indirectly deny the rights of the public in such a gradual fashion that no one will notice what has happened until it is too late to reverse the trend.

Elites indirectly rob the public of their ability to participate in democracy when corporations and the highest members of government erode the rule of law by ignoring what the laws say and acting outside the bounds of the law.

Elites rob the public of their rights when individuals cannot choose new alternatives. When there is inadequate funding for education at all levels, when there is rampant unemployment, when people are afraid to start their own businesses because they can't get health insurance, the energy and vitality of our country atrophies. When people have no other options, they will accept their position in society without question. This passive acceptance is poisonous to American greatness.

The consistent rule of law, the ability for all individuals to have equal opportunity to participate in the economy and in their government, and an acceptance of pluralism are all necessary to sustain a thriving democracy. When these three principles are no longer defended, and become degraded, democracy begins to decay.

However, there is nothing else that I can say which will show you what these principles look like in action, other than to give you the best example I have:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Me Lover's Pizza With Crazy Broad
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

A man of Lithuanian and Latvian descent loves Italian pizza from New York City! What could be a better example of syncretism and pluralism leading to American greatness? What could be more authentically American than this?!


rr3834a said...

I'll tell you a funny story. My brother is taking a history class and they were talking about the Dawes Act of 1887. My brother took the side that in fact, it was a good thing to integrate the Native Americans and give them citizenship in exchange for renouncing their tribal ways.

Never mind that they had the rights of a citizen before hand, that they should have been allowed to participate in government regardless of whether or not they renounced their tribal ways, they needed to be civilized and homogenized into the culture.

The idea that someone is different doesn't mean they aren't American nor are they not allowed to participate and be a citizen. 100 years ago, among waves of immigration, the country was more divided, there were more languages used and very little homogenization among immigrants. And the country flourished. It grew and succeeded even with such factions. There is no reason today that the same thing cannot happen.

The idea that populations should be homogenized is ethnocentric and quite nativist and should be looked down upon. Sadly this is a major push by the social conservatives, behind such rallying cries as, "You're in America, speak English" and "Go home immigrant."

Only by pushing the fact that these are people too and have the same rights as everyone else can we move towards a more diverse and peaceful society.

Alex said...

What strikes me as even more depressing to hear is the idea that tribal ways are less "civilized". Native Americans had greater acceptance of African Americans and more equality for women - certainly there are ways in which the white society back then could have emulated tribal life. In fact, Americans today in my opinion still have a lot to learn from the first Americans.

Further, I agree with you that differences are a strength, not a weakness, of our country - as I stated in this essay. As such, it greatly annoys me when I hear conservatives complain about "cultural relativism" or "socialism", yet at the same time, champion "choice" and "liberty" and "freedom" for a select few. A choice without choices is hardly democratic, or a free market!

I'm tired of hearing conservatives defend their idea of America by pretending that they love capitalism and democracy more than their opponents, when plenty of liberal ideas do just as much, if not more, than conservative ideas to protect capitalism and democracy! Liberal agrees with conservatives that capitalism and democracy are good, but we just want to extend their benefits to a wider variety of people!