Apotheosis of Washington detail by Brumidi Constantino. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Michael Edward McNeil.
Let’s start at the obvious place, the motto printed on every dollar bill: E pluribus unum—out of many, one. This was the original motto of the United States, not “In God we trust,” and it referred to the formation of one nation out of the separate states. However, the history of this country has involved a much more comprehensive forging of one out of many. It has been the forging into unity of people literally from everywhere. And what is this unity that was forged from so many distinct and diverse individuals? It is the nation we call “the United States of America,” of course, but the unity we speak of is more than just becoming a taxpayer or being eligible to vote. It is a sense of belonging and identity, of being an integral part of something that is also an integral part of you, and of commitment to a core set of distinctive values. Indeed, the essential definition of “American” is one who is committed to American values. We call this unity we speak of “community in diversity.” To know what it is we must understand it in the context of history and see it in contrast with its opposite.
Throughout history, what sorts of things have united people into a shared national identity? For some peoples, it has been a mystical attachment to land, like Mother Russia. More ominously, it has sometimes been race or “blood.” Sometimes a shared religion gives a sense of identity, as in Pakistan or Iran. All nations forge identity through a shared history, especially a history of struggle against a common enemy. You and I both heard from our parents and others of their generation how the Second World War united the country with itself and its allies in a campaign that, literally, delivered the world from evil.
A few other countries have a different kind of story to tell, one of unity arising from plurality. In the first book of his history, Livy tells of the early days of Rome when it was a small settlement adjoining the malarial swamps of the Tiber River, surrounded by larger, wealthier, more powerful, and intermittently hostile neighbors. The first thing Rome had to do was to have a sufficiently large population, so King Romulus invited anyone and everyone to come to Rome, slave or free—anyone destitute or displaced or seeking a new start. No questions asked. Keep your nose clean, be willing to work—and fight when necessary—and you could be a Roman. So men from all around who needed refuge or a clean slate came to Rome. By such means Rome grew quickly and started to challenge its neighbors, and, truly, the rest is history.
The founders of the United States, as classically educated gentlemen of the day, were certainly familiar with the story of Rome’s beginnings. Perhaps it gave them a thought, the most audacious thought ever in the history of nations—namely, that a people could find their unity in an idea—not geography, not blood, not religion, but an idea. All sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and with diverse beliefs could forge an identity based on this idea. The idea was that the very things that divided the people of other nations could be the greatest strength of the United States.
At that time, the most divisive thing was religion. Intellectuals of the Enlightenment, like the founders, were vividly and painfully aware of the religious wars and persecutions that had soaked Europe in blood during the two previous centuries. From 1618 to 1648, Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other with holy fervor in the Thirty Years’ War. Large districts were left essentially depopulated. The rancor continued unabated, even after the dazed survivors declared the Peace of Westphalia. As recently as 1780, the anti-Catholic Gordon riots had engulfed London.
What, though, if a nation assured every religion a right to worship unmolested and without persecution or harassment? Freedom of conscience to worship—or to refrain from worshiping—as seemed best to each person, would be guaranteed. All that would be asked in return was the willingness to allow all others the same freedom, and even to stand up for their religious freedom just as you would your own. Religious tolerance was formally enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In short, the best guarantee of your freedom of conscience is the vigorous defense of everyone’s freedom of conscience.
This was and is a radical idea. It still has not penetrated in many places around the country. In the year 2000 I attended a graduation event at a public high school near Marietta, Georgia. The occasion began with a fervent, specifically Christian prayer, “in Jesus’s name.” The principal addressed the crowd, congratulating them on attending to support a family member because, after all, family was the second most important thing in life after accepting Jesus Christ as your savior. (I am not making up any of this.) The principal also offered each graduate a copy of the Ten Commandments with his or her diploma. The “service”—I can only call it that—ended with another fervent prayer in Jesus’s name. I was amazed that there was no altar call.
Now to take a public event of supposedly secular purpose, one that occurs in a space paid for by the public, and is officiated by persons on the public payroll, and is attended by people of all sorts of backgrounds and faiths, and turn it into a revival meeting, is clearly an aggressive display by the majority religion. It appropriates a time and place that is supposed to be for all and makes it into an in-your-face way of marking territory and putting others in their place. Looking at the names of the graduates, I saw many that indicated Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim backgrounds. The message to these people was clear: “Shut up. Stay in your place. This here’s Jesus Country!” True, this is not as bad as the dungeon, fire, and sword of past centuries, but it is bad enough.
Despite the fact that some folks in Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and other locales may not have gotten the message, America stands for freedom of (or from) religion. As a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, I would sometimes walk around the neighborhood. I would pass the orthodox Jewish community center where I would see the men dancing joyously in a big circle. I would pass the big Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox and Baptist houses of worship, all thriving peacefully within a few blocks of each other. I would think how great this was, and how rare in the context of global history. Just think: No massacres, no burnings at the stake, no sectarian riots, no suicide bombers, and no foaming incitements or rabble rousing from pulpits. It is truly a great achievement, and should rank with anything ever accomplished by our, or any, society.
What applies to religion also works with everything else that has divided people over the eons, like ethnicity, race, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation. Our nation has been slower in learning the lesson with some of these distinctions than with others. You and I have seen big changes in our lifetimes. We were children during the height of the civil rights movement. I remember vividly such incidents as the bombing of the church in Birmingham that murdered four little girls in September 1963, and the murder by the Klan, with the connivance of local “law enforcement,” of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in June 1964.
More recently, we have seen big changes in the status of LGBTQ people. When you and I were in high school, the surest way to get into a fight was to call someone “queer.” At that point, the posturing and name-calling stopped, and you slugged it out. The idea of a man having sex with another man was considered so unspeakably abominable and perverted that hatred of those who were “queer” was accepted, and even violence against them was excused. Some of my classmates spoke casually of “trolling for queers,” i.e. finding gay people and beating them.
It is truly amazing to me now to see my niece and members of her generation so freely associating with friends who are gay, lesbian, or transgender. For them, whom you love, or your gender identity, just is not an issue, and they find it outrageous to the point of incomprehensibility that such people are still the objects of hatred and discrimination. In just the few years of this century we have seen public opinion about same-sex marriage shift from strong disapproval to strong approval.
Fundamentalists and far-right politicians who continue to condemn and harass LGBTQ people—most recently under a bogus claim of “religious freedom”—only make themselves look ridiculous and hateful. They also incur the enmity of the business community because big corporations want to move to dynamic, open, and progressive locales, not places that still sound like ignorant, backward little cow towns. Bigotry is now bad for business.
What we have seen, then, in our lifetimes, is the bending of that “moral arc” that Barack Obama often referenced. Pluralism has always worked in this country to the extent that it has been achieved. In the Second World War, the multiethnic and non-ideological armed forces of the United States smashed the armies, navies, and air forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, societies steeped in ideologies of racial superiority. The Axis nations gambled that a society as diverse as the United States could not unite and effectively fight ethnically and ideologically homogeneous societies. Their wrecked forces and burning cities testified to their folly.
The contrast with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan shows clearly what community in diversity really is: It is the difference between a society of rigid conformity and uniformity in which everybody is supposed to be the same versus an inclusive society in which differences are not only allowed but honored. Worship, think, speak, dress, love, and live as you please—only respect and vigorously defend everyone else’s right to do the same. Community in diversity is recognizing the beauty and goodness of diversity, but achieving unity in our devotion to those ideals, those quintessentially American ideals, of justice, freedom, dignity, and opportunity for everyone. Everyone. E pluribus unum.
Further, it seems to be happening. Now more than ever, it seems, the “pluribus” has become more diverse, and we are increasingly living up to the ideal of making “unum” out of the many. The moral arc really is bending. Right?
Then came Donald Trump. From his first announcement in June 2015 that he would seek the presidency, Trump raised the flag of ethnic discord. He has not furled that flag since. During his campaign and his administration, by word and deed, he has waged war against the ideals of pluralism and inclusiveness. Nor is divisiveness just an adjunct or side effect of his aims. It is his main point, the sine qua non of his whole presidency.
Putting it like this makes it sound like Trump was an anomaly, an unforeseeable disaster that erupted onto the scene with no antecedents. Sadly, nothing could be farther from the truth. Alongside America’s history of expanding tolerance and inclusiveness, there is the dark parallel history of hatred and intolerance, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of the early republic, to the “Know Nothings” of the nineteenth century, to the Ku Klux Klan’s founding after the Civil War and its insidious revival in the twentieth century, to the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South, to today’s alt-right fascists. Intolerance is as American as apple pie, baseball, and hot dogs. Donald Trump is a far more conventional figure than we would like to think.
Albert Camus’s powerful novel The Plague, about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Algerian city of Oran, ends with an ominous warning. Camus cautions us that the plague never dies. It may be defeated in one locale or at one time, but it does not expire. It retreats and bides its time until, when the moment is right, it once more sends its rats into an unsuspecting city. Intolerance can be defeated again and again. It can be rebuked, ridiculed, shamed, and repudiated. Yet it does not die but only retreats and disappears out of sight, hiding in sewers and cesspools. Then, when the time is auspicious, as when a presidential candidate becomes the vector, the plague breaks out once again.
Yet the old divisiveness, promoted by the Klan and their ilk, mostly pitted the majority against various minorities. The old, largely racially based intolerance has not gone away, but is now largely subsumed within a broader, ideologically based divisiveness. Today’s ideological schisms still correlate with ethnic and racial differences, but they also cut right across these categories, dividing neighbors and families. Last Thanksgiving there was earnest discussion about how to avoid shouting matches at the dinner table when Uncle Ed speaks up for Trump and Cousin Sue furiously rebuts. I have experienced the schism in my own extended family. Worse, Trump is only the tip of the iceberg of the deep, deep divisions that sunder us.
For want of a better term, we may call these ideological divisions the “culture wars.” Some have doubted the depth or severity of our current polarization, but spend an evening watching Fox News and another watching MSNBC and I think it will be apparent that the “culture wars” are real enough. If that does not convince you, and you are of a liberal persuasion, read the platform of the Republican Party of Texas. True, the real culture warriors only constitute a minority of the population, but these are still millions of people; they are loud, and the internet and social media give them a voice and an audience such as they never had.
I spoke earlier about the sense of alienation and displacement I felt after the 2004 presidential election. I felt it even more strongly after the election of Trump. I saw a recent strip of the newspaper comic Pearls Before Swine. One character had a sign that was not shown and other characters walked by, saying things like “I don’t know” and “No idea.” The last panel showed that the sign read “What the @#@# is happening to the country I knew?” My feelings exactly. My nostalgia is not for consensus. There has never been consensus in our country, and that is a good thing. Stalin had consensus. Hitler had consensus. Democracies never do. As I said earlier, vigorous, even boisterous debate is a sign of a healthy democracy. Yet there is a difference, a crucial difference, between debate and vituperation. There is a crucial difference between disagreement and contempt.
Debate, even impassioned debate, is an exchange, a mutual agreement to hear and be heard. Invective shuts off debate, and when invective becomes the common mode of exchange between opposing interests, then something precious has been lost. What has been lost is community. As noted earlier, strong, loving families sometimes argue, even vehemently, but the members never forget that everyone is still family and that what they share is much deeper than what divides them. The same should hold true of nations. When it does not, there is no nation. Iraq, for instance, is not one but three nations, the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds. Members identify with each of these religious or ethnic groups far more strongly than they identify as Iraqis, and each group wants hegemony over, or at least autonomy from, the others.
Are we seeing the “Iraqification” of the United States? It sure feels like it to me. Culture warrior Pat Buchanan famously announced/declared the war in a prime-time speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. In the intervening years, it seems that the fissures identified by Buchanan—over issues such as abortion, gay rights, gun control, and the separation of church and state—have widened and deepened into chasms. Some have argued that the culture wars are over, but if they are they are not over because the two sides have reconciled. They are over because they no longer even deign to speak to each other. In that case, the silence is even more ominous than the noisy confrontations.
To begin the road back from polarization to community, we have to define a clear and strong notion of the common good. We will be fleshing out this notion in the remainder of this section, but let me end here with a brief delineation. A common good addresses common needs, needs that we all have. Here I could give Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, but, in the spirit of what I have argued so far, let me offer the following Aristotle/Parsons hierarchy of needs for rational, social, animals:
- Animal Needs: Physical and mental health; sufficient nutritious food; fresh, clean water and air; adequate housing; a livable environment; protection from harmful agents (human and nonhuman); a modicum of other material goods (such as clothing and furniture) to live a reasonably comfortable life.
- Social Needs: Sexual and family life (overlaps with animal needs); self-determination (i.e., limits to the demands that others may make on one’s body, time, or labor); reciprocity and cooperation with others; the freedom to form voluntary friendships and associations; a sense of belonging, that is, freedom to participate fully in the political, cultural, and social life of the community; criminal and distributive justice; economic freedom, i.e., freedom to buy, sell, trade, own, rent, lend, borrow, etc. within limits that respect the common good.
- Rational Needs: Literacy, numeracy, and other basics of education; aptitude for critical thinking; the ability to make rational choices and decisions; a wide sphere of freedom to make such choices and decisions; freedom from ambient factors (like extreme poverty) that limit intellectual growth and attainment; freedom of thought; freedom of conscience; freedom of unconformity (implied by the previous two); freedom of expression (freedom of thought and conscience would be meaningless without the freedom to express our convictions).
This list is certainly not exhaustive. Some of its elements may be debatable, which is fine. Such a listing is more of an aspiration than a definitive statement. If we can identify a set of core needs (as Aristotle was convinced we could), then this opens a wonderful possibility for us. Perhaps we can make decisions about policy and law pragmatically (i.e., empirically rather than on the basis of ideology or partisan rancor). For instance, if it can be shown by clear and solid evidence that a single-payer, universal healthcare scheme will best meet our common health needs then we can decide on that. On the other hand, if we find that free-market solutions best meet our needs, then we can opt for that. We need not start with a doctrinaire insistence on collectivist or libertarian principles, but we can actually choose on the basis of evidence. What a concept!
Ah, but there’s the rub. As we saw in the first section, ideology easily trumps (this word takes on a whole new significance now) science. Ideology, of both the left and the right, creates its own “alternative facts.” Historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn famously said that proponents of different worldviews—what he called “paradigms”— live “in different worlds.” While this statement, if taken too literally, causes mischief, it is no doubt true that people react to the world as they perceive it, not as it is. If, then, people live in balkanized and hermetically sealed worldviews, it is not surprising that they not only cannot agree, but cannot even communicate. How, or whether, we can transcend ideology and let the facts dictate to us rather than vice versa, is something we will discuss.
Reprinted with permission from Polarized by Keith M. Parsons and Paris N. Donehoo, Prometheus Books, 2019.