Out of many, one. Our country’s motto. On our currency. Part of the Great Seal of the United States.
I think maybe we’ve forgotten what the hell it means.
I am in Washington, DC, a city with which I have a love-hate relationship. I love the rich history, the memories of coming here on one of our early Kertay Guy Trips, the pomp and circumstance. There is something deeply satisfying about seeing the original constitution in the National Archives, about standing on the original house floor, about looking through the fence surrounding the White House. There is the seductive pull of power I felt again today, being in a meeting that was held in a conference room where the seal of the United States Senate stands out from the wall. If you haven’t seen a presidential motorcade up close and personal, it’s hard to appreciate the oppressive sense of power that sits over the top of an underlying thrill, like a blanket of snow muting a frozen landscape. Beautiful and brutal at the same time. There is nothing about all that I don’t love. It’s hard for me not to feel patriotic in the face of these things.
But then there is the sense of unreality. There are guns everywhere. Metal detectors set to levels of sensitivity beyond anything I see at airports. Barricades that, although intended to keep out organized terrorists or lone crazies who would commit mayhem, also have the impact of warning us all not to get too close. There is an “us” and there is a “them,” and we’re not quite sure who’s who.
And while this is going on around me, I am watching social media streams exploding with vitriol and xenophobia, fear and false bravado. I hear epithets and racial slurs and nonsense that I know is driven by fear, and ignorance.
Somehow, I don’t think these things are mere coincidence.
I walked into the Libarary of Congress today to take in the grandeur of what is arguably the most beautiful building in the country, and when I saw our motto above a doorway – E Pluribus Unum – it struck me that we seem to have forgotten who we are. That’s when I took the picture at the top of this post, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
Life doesn’t come in sound bites. The issues that face this nation are complex. Building a wall and billing the Mexican government for it won’t solve our problems. Refusing to allow immigration from the middle east won’t solve our problems. If terrorists want to attack us, they will. I believe it is inevitable that we will see more terrorism, whether it’s homegrown radicalization like what appears to have happened in San Bernadino, and what happened not so long ago in Chattanooga, or whether it’s larger scale and coordinated by ISIS or someone else. It’s coming. It’s here.
Ignoring reality won’t work. ISIS really does want to do us great harm, and they mean what they say. They have not perverted their religion, they have taken one version of it very literally (see Graeme Wood’s in depth piece, What Isis Really Wants, for as sobering and enlightening and terrifying a piece of writing as I’ve encountered in a long time).
Ignoring the fact that black lives are disproportionately lost, and burdened, and ruined with impunity, is to close our eyes to a grave injustice. Answering black lives matter with ALL lives matter or blue lives matter fixes nothing, and ignores the truth of institutionalized racism.
Pretending that we aren’t headed for a catastrophe if we don’t figure out how to fix the biggest economic inequality in history is, not to put too fine a point on it, just dumb.
But then again, living in fear won’t work either. We live in fear and we give up our freedoms to the NSA and whoever else is listening in, and we shrug. We live in fear and arm ourselves to the teeth, thinking that universal gun ownership will somehow keep us safe, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
It seems to me that we’ve forgotten that this country was built on great principles of freedom, based on knowledge. But in the words of Andrew Shepard in An American President, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve got to want it bad.” If we want to call ourselves free we have to be willing to tolerate differences, celebrate them, learn about them, talk about them.
The country was built on a notion: out of many, one. Out of many states, one country. Out of many people, one nation. We didn’t become great by turning away immigrants, or by giving away our freedoms in the service of a false sense of security.
We aren’t safe. But we can be free.
If only we can remember who we are.
Dr Les Kertay