Saturday, October 16, 2010

E PLURIBUS UNUM

The words at the top of this blogpost have been ringing in my ears ever since I took a trip to the Capitol Building a couple of days ago. It was the theme of the short film that is exhibited to those who take the tour of the Capitol. Its meaning is quite simple: “Out of Many, One.”

E Pluribus Unum is the original motto of the United States, one that appears on the nation’s official seal adorning yet another symbol, the bald eagle. The eagle signifies freedom. The motto signifies unity, fraternity. Together, these symbols comprise so much of what we Americans value about our country. We are a freedom loving people, a people of individuals, who are never afraid of marching to the beat of their own drummers. But we also recognize that by only leaving the state of nature and coming together will we maximize our freedom to pursue happiness. You see, a bald eagle might appear free from all external restraints. But true liberty is about more than just freedom from restraints. It entails the opportunity to develop fully our own unique intellectual, emotional and spiritual potentials, and this in turn requires us to bond with those of our brothers and sisters who together can help us all soar.

When our nation was formed, we were not yet the UNITED States of America. We were the United STATES of America. A person’s state was her country. And everyone reveled in the difference between that state and the other twelve. But our founding fathers recognized that their great experiment in large-scale republican government would never last without a powerful overarching unity that could link not only the states but all the citizens who resided within them. We would have to become a single people – one with a common language, a common purpose, and an increasingly common sense of history and hopes for the future. This was a time when the notion of republicanism beyond the scope of the city-state was still in its infancy, still little more than a vague aspiration that there exists some better way than the tyranny of a monarch, but not quite knowing what that something was. This was a time before the advent of political parties, attack ads, and Alien and Sedition Acts. The latter laws didn’t come about until 1798, by which time extreme partisanship had already reared its ugly head. By contrast, “E Pluribus Unum” became our official motto in 1782, and was originally proposed by the troika of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson shortly after they and a few dozen colleagues declared independence. They recognized that a new nation cannot simply declare itself opposed to a common enemy; it must bring together its citizens as friends.

Well, all that I can say is, so much for 1776. We seem to have found ourselves back in 1798 – only this time, we don’t have Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison to bail us out. Now, we’ve got Boehner and Reed. Good luck with that.

It should hardly be a newsflash that partisanship is destroying our government and appears to have already destroyed our Congress. This trend has been going on for many years. But the extent of the problem was not fully apparent to me until a couple of weeks ago when the first of my old friends identified himself as a member of the “Tea Party.” The anger he felt toward “tax and spend” liberalism was palpable, as was his disgust with the politicians who supported such an ideology. But fortunately, from my friend’s standpoint, we seem to be finding an antidote. That antidote is Sarah Palin and the movement that she, perhaps more than anyone else, epitomizes. To my friend, Sarah Palin is a breath of fresh air, a woman who speaks in plain, simple terms about the need to return power back to the private sector so that we might again live free like the bald eagle, unencumbered by that house of horrors, the IRS, which sucks up our money and seemingly flushes it down the toilet.

I had met before a number of people who love Sarah Palin. But the friend I am talking about is someone I met more than 30 years ago when we were students at Stanford. He is educated, intelligent and has always been a pretty reasonable guy. And yet, he champions the cause of a woman who seems to me to be none of the above. I have to say, it made me wonder how the two of us could feel so differently.

As my friend and I spoke about politics, economics and world peace, I was sufficiently fascinated by my friend’s political metamorphosis that I chose to say fairly little myself; I preferred instead simply to listen. Then the subject turned to Sarah Palin, and I found myself becoming more and more animated. I argued that the woman is a dangerous demagogue and even analogized her to figures in Nazi Germany, an analogy that one should rarely if ever make because it is both clich├ęd and inevitably hyperbolic. But that’s how desperate I was at making sure my friend understood the extent of my opposition to this woman’s political future. I needed him to see that while we progressives may lack passion these days, there are certain things that could actually rekindle that passion. At or near the top of that list is surely the opportunity to oppose a Sarah Palin Presidential run.

Perhaps you are thinking that I have just pulled a 180. Here I was, toasting the virtues of a time before partisanship, and now I am sounding like the yellow dog Democrat you all know I can be. But the truth is, I am speaking about something deeper than my own progressive politics. That point was brought home shortly after I saw the E Pluribus Unum film and was brought into the Capitol Rotunda. There, across from where our tour group was standing, was a bronze statue of the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. Immediately, I smiled, having taken a liking to the man despite his domestic policies. And I got a little choked up when the tour guide pointed out that the few inches separating the statute from its base was material obtained from the Berlin Wall. “Mr. Gorbachev,” I found myself mouthing the words silently, “Tear Down That Wall!” It was a statement of which all Americans should be proud, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. When we lose sight of that, we lose sight of E Pluribus Unum.

As I contemplated the bronze Reagan statue and thanked him for his role in ending the Cold War, my thoughts turned to Sarah Palin, some of her fellow Tea Party politicians, and the Fox News hacks who prop them up. I recalled in particular the remarks Palin made in Greensboro, North Carolina, literally two years ago today, when she was running for Vice President. "We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe" [the audience interrupted her at this point with applause and cheers], we believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation."

Continuing on with my tour of the Capitol, the words of Sarah Palin rankled me. That was not the spirit of the founding fathers. Jefferson, the champion of agrarian virtues, fought his rival Hamilton tooth and nail, but I don’t believe he would question whether the bankers or merchants propped up by Hamilton – some of whom surely served with General Washington at Valley Forge -- were real Americans, or whether New York, Philadelphia and Boston were real America. And while I do not presume to know everything Reagan said over the years, I don’t recall him questioning the patriotism of people like me who differed with him about “voodoo economics” or environmental protection, simply because we lived in urban areas and spoke polysyllabically. But that’s exactly what Sarah Palin was doing. She was questioning the patriotism, and indeed the equal right to a voice in our nation’s destiny, of anyone who attends fancy schools, works in urban areas, and engages in professions generally embraced by progressives. This was the same Sarah Palin who mocked Barack Obama for having served between college and law school as a community organizer. Had he been an auto mechanic instead, that would have made him more of a “pro-America” kind of guy.

Palin is not alone within the Tea Party. This mentality of “us against them” seems to be a recurrent theme within that movement. Passion wins elections. And anger is a form of passion. However, it is one thing to galvanize such anger against the policies of the Democratic party and something very different, something much more dangerous and even nefarious, to galvanize such anger against large segments of the American society. I’m increasingly concerned that the Tea Party might not appreciate the distinction. Perhaps they need to take a trip to the Capitol and view a certain film. It’s only 13 minutes long.

Then, if they like the film, they can tell their local Congressmen or Senators to view the same film and incorporate its theme into the next Congress’ approach to governance. Wouldn’t it be a sight for sore eyes to witness “E Pluribus Unum” becoming Congress’ motto in practice, and not just in theory?

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