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E Pluribus Unum


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To say that the U.S. is a ceaselessly evolving, multicultural nation - and always has been - is not a put-down of WASPs.E Pluribus Unum is a Latin phrase meaning “Out of many, one.” This phrase was the de facto motto of the United States until 1956 when the Congress adopted “In God we Trust” as the official motto. But E Pluribus Unum is still emblazoned on the seal of both Houses of Congress, the seal of the Supreme Court, the seal of the Vice President, the seal of the President, and the great seal symbolizing the country. This phrase originally stood for the coming together of the Thirteen Colonies into one nation but it has come to mean “out of many peoples, races, religions and ancestries has emerged a single people and nation.” (1) That we are one nation is not questioned by hardly anyone - no matter how disproportionately unjust is the treatment of some sectors. I know of no one who is seriously contemplating any U. S. national dissolution; I do not consider the tens of thousands of secession petition signers from Texas and other states (after the reelection of Obama) serious. But, truth to tell, we are not one nation; we are “blue states and red states,” liberal coastal areas and conservative middle areas; we are races, genders, generations, and have many more serious differences.

So the only way forward is to do the work of finding and fashioning a knowable, workable, just unity. Very few of us can hold an accurate conception in our psyches of what E Pluribus Unum really means for the United States. Written descriptions of our unity are more often misleading blather than indications of reality. We are hugely and in many ways divided. We are not “out of many, one.” We are out of many, many. We are essentially functioning together through weakening forces, wispy illusion, and deteriorating habits. We are manipulated to function together because of forces outside ourselves.

Clearly, who makes up “the many” has changed much over the hundreds of years of the existence of this nation and the proportions of the multiplying demographic categories are rapidly trending in a direction that is contrary to the false visions that are in the minds of the media, the historians, and those who dominate the presentation of U.S. culture. For not too much longer will they be able to legitimately picture us as a WASP (White, Anglo Saxon, Protestant) nation in primary coloration and culture. This nation is becoming something that I do not believe ever existed before on the earth.

Because I am, therefore we are; because we are, therefore I am.

I think our collective challenge to envision unity stems from a too shallow understanding of to what the phenomena E Pluribus Unum is attempting to speak. Latin is a philosophical language. Much of what we know as philosophy is still expressed in Latin terminology. Many still revere ancient Latin philosophers. However, language - for all that it can do - is still an imperfect carrier of thoughts. The understandings of individual word meanings must precede the receipt of combinations of words that attempt to express something new. But word understanding is made more difficult by the loss of context, translations between languages and cultures, and the passage of time. Meanings and understandings change and new learning sometimes affirms, sometimes corrects, and often makes the meanings of words more complex. Lastly we must recognize the Eurocentric nature of our philosophical understandings that leave us bereft of the insights and genius of other cultures - those cultures brought to this place by peoples from non-European origins and the indigenous cultures of this land.

I think it is this process of complexification that must be attended to with the phrase E Pluribus Unum if it is to have a true meaning in symbolizing what the U.S. must become. Let us start by admitting that many of the political phrases and much of the meaning that is handed down to us from the 1700s were thoroughly influenced by the thinking of the so-called European and American Enlightenment or Age of Reason. Our so-called Founding Fathers were children of the Enlightenment. Without recognition of the influences evident at the time their words were first spoken, we can get captured by the deductive, mechanistic analysis and false perspectives that the Founders passed down to us. These Enlightenment misunderstandings lead us astray in so many arenas and make it harder for us to see what is right in front of our eyes.

Language - for all that it can do - is still an imperfect carrier of thoughts.There are two Enlightenment concepts I will touch on here: the possibility of pure objectivity and a total reliance on deductive reasoning. “Out of many, one” comes out of an atomistic, additive, linear understanding of the nature of reality that has been found to be false - even the deductive scientific method has concluded that the atomistic view is wrong. That atomistic view held that there existed a pure, separate objective position from which The Other could be contemplated. We now know - from that apex of science (Physics) especially - that the observer’s subjectivity affects what is knowable. Therefore we must begin by accepting that the view of the many is already inseparable from the subjective understandings of the observer. Our Founding Fathers stepped on this land with a belief that they were objective and separate from the people that were already here; so that is what they saw.

The Native Peoples held a belief that carries different names in different Native languages that I will call All of My Relations; Native Americans believed and believe in a subjective connection to all living things and to nature. If you start with the belief that we are One, you are better able to know and see how we are One. Native folks, at first welcomed and helped the arriving Europeans. From a belief in All of My Relations, we can get to a deep ecological understanding that would allow us to really know the One that arises out of the Many. For the European philosophy of identity it could be said “because I am, therefore we are.” For the worldwide indigenous philosophy of identity (including African indigenous thinking) it could be said “because we are, therefore I am.”

Everywhere in the natural world we can see E Pluribus Unum. Almost everything is made up of many. I am not necessarily referring to parts that do not function unless they are part of the whole. I am referring to the fact that most living things in nature - at some level of complexity - are made up of many ones that can function to a significant extent independently, at times. At a different level of complexity and framing the many ones are together as one thing; there are one species, one herd, one forest, one tribe, and one ecosystem. What our Enlightenment derived, deductive-science-influenced thinking makes it hard for us to do is to perceive that the One is often greater than the sum of its individual, many elements. What the One is goes beyond just the adding of elements. A forest is something more than just a bunch of trees standing together; it becomes an ecosystem for many other plants and creatures; it becomes a source of oxygen for a whole region and it sustains a planet. Science is now struggling to understand the natural phenomenon of “phase shifts” where something totally new arises that cannot be explained by a deductive summation of elements. Our Nation must be more than just a deductive, quantitative summation of the many elements.

Written descriptions of our unity are more often misleading blather than indications of reality.

The U.S. is no longer a WASP nation not because it will soon no longer have a quantitative majority of its population who define themselves as White Anglo Saxon Protestants. It is no longer a WASP nation because it never was a WASP nation and we can more easily see that now. This is not a put-down of all of WASP culture, particularly for those who adhere to it. But it will be a curtailment of that false superiority claim that some attempt to use to appropriate the “gifts” of other cultures and peoples, use to suppress the expressions of other cultures and peoples, and use to misinterpret the facts of history. To say that the U.S. is a ceaselessly evolving, multicultural nation - and always has been - is not a put-down of WASPs.

There is no other nation in the world - that I know of - that has the diversity of peoples in it that the U.S. has. In that way, we are exceptional. We are not exceptional because of the dominance of capitalistic European-originated values; that is just the opposite of exceptionalism. Other nations have features that herald their exceptionalism; it is “no skin off us” to recognize their exceptionalism. Our unity - E Pluribus Unum - will depend on the spreading in this country of the view that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It will entail a significant shift from individualism to multicultural-community and a shift from false claims of objectivity to recognition of the creation of reality - in Physics the collapsing of the wave - through the exercise of subjectivity. It is the crucial importance of authenticity which must be prized. It will take the process of engagement and nation building, starting with the belief held in our hearts by most of us that we are One.

[Note: Nafsi ya Jamii is the Swahili phrase that translates in English to “The Soul Community”] Columnist, Wilson Riles, is a former Oakland, CA City Council Member. Click here to contact Mr. Riles.

1. Wikipedia

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Nov 15, 2012 - Issue 494
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