The Latin phrase e pluribus unum is found on the official seal of the United States of America. It means – out of many, one. This initially was a reference to the individual states coming together to form one republic. Later the phrase was accepted to symbolize many nationalities, races, religions, etc. coming together to form one nation.
Two recent events, the open letter from Republican Senators to the leaders of Iran that sought to undermine President Obama’s authority in nuclear weapon negotiation and the events surrounding a fraternity video on the campus of Oklahoma University underscore a disturbing trend on the American political and cultural landscape – the erosion of our “more perfect union”. These events show that the words on the seal could easily be changed to e pluribus duo – out of many, two.
We have adopted a binary (one or the other) approach in dealing with politics and certain aspects of race and culture in America – Democrat vs. Republican, Conservative vs. Liberal, Black vs. White, Haves vs. Have-Nots.
I have four siblings. Our parents used to tell us that if we had to fuss and fight, make sure that we did it at home. Out in public we were to show a united front, because even though there were seven of us in total we were “one” family.
The Republican Senator’s open letter completely violates the words on the seal of the United States and you could also argue that the use of the Executive Order by the President does the same thing. Just as my parents used to tell us when we would argue as kids – I’m not interested in who was right and who was wrong here, the truth is somewhere in the middle so I’m sure that there is enough blame to go around. If we can’t get our act together here at home, can’t we at least pretend for the sake of this particular us vs. them, that the US is united.
The two party system is partly to blame. There is no such thing as a two person democracy – ask any married couple. True democracy can only work with at least three people and is most effective in small numbers when the total count is odd. You could argue that a two person or binary approach can foster dialogue, consensus and compromise, but it can also promote intransigence and stubbornness.
In a pluralistic society there needs to be more than two options for people to choose from. It’s time to take a hard look at our sacred two party system – the tea party did (kinda) and look how much influence they got as a result.
Nothing underscores the binary approach in America more than race. I’m not privy to the discussion or the rules and regulations regarding punishment for discriminatory or racist behavior at the University of Oklahoma, but I don’t think that expulsion from the university was the right answer for the two who were found to be the leaders in singing the chant.
Zero tolerance is not the way to deal with discrimination, racism and race relations if healing and harmony is the end goal.
If we are to change our minds and eventually buy into and embody the mantra of e pluribus unum, we have to have an effective way for everyone to deal with the 10 thousand pound elephant in the room.
Discriminatory and racist behavior should be dealt with but with an eye towards reconciliation and rehabilitation.
Ill feelings between and among groups have deep seeded psychological and societal roots. If our nation is to heal then we have to go through the appropriate steps of dealing with why certain people – white, black, yellow, red or brown feel the way that they do about those who are not like them. This is a long arduous and painful process, but necessary if we are interested in getting to e pluribus unum.
A more productive step towards healing in this particular case would have been for the administration to find a way for the students to be allowed to repent and rehabilitate and stay enrolled (if the students were willing). To be fair, I don’t know what that punishment would actually look like, but I’m convinced that a pound of flesh is not the answer.
If we stay bound to this binary approach then our politics, our government and our culture will continue to go down the one way path of destruction that we are currently on.
I later did interview on WESA in Pittsburgh discussing the events surrounding the Oklahoma University Fraternity incident. You can listen to it here.