The End of E plurbus Unum? The De-evolution from “Out of Many, One” to ME First

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By U.S. Government – Extracted from PDF version of Our Flag, available here (direct PDF URL here.), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41373752 

The motto of the United States is E plurbus unum, which is Latin for “Out of many, one.” Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) and I have written about the importance of this motto in our book, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD. This motto is of crucial importance for helping veterans return home after war and reconnect to their own hearts and to society, which is why Joseph and I wrote about it, but it is also crucial for all of us and the very fabric of democracy. Veterans were trained to view other human beings as “the enemy” and this sense of separation is what makes violence possible. It is this sense of separation that makes violence continue and it is the opposite of peace. There cannot be peace when others are seen as separate. There cannot be peace when people are viewed as “others.”  “The heart of violence is the divided and separated heart,” we write, the heart of violence is “the heart that cannot see other hearts as interrelated and interconnected.”

Violence has its roots in the false idea of separation. Physically we appear separate, but even physically we are in a complex web of life with animals, plants, and the earth. When we begin to speak about human realities beyond the physical: emotion, heart, intuition, and spirit, the idea of ourselves as separate beings no longer makes sense. One can only be violent against someone or something seen as “other” (Kopacz & Rael, Walking the Medicine Wheel, 214).

Currently in the world, we are seeing more division and separation than coming together in unity. The ban on citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering our Nation of Immigrants is the latest and most extreme example of this. This breaks my heart and it breaks the heart of democracy. I worry for the future because, through my work with Joseph, I know that peace depends upon unity and that the current mania for separation and division is very dangerous. The rise of nationalism has historically been associated with violence for the very fact that an over-emphasis on “me first” leads to seeing “others” as getting in my way. We teach our little children, “Don’t rush to the front of the line, don’t push others aside.” We teach our children to respect others, and yet respect has been one of the first casualties in the current national and world-wide Me First Movement. In a very, very short time, the public dialogue has shifted so far toward disrespect and hatefulness that people feel justified in hate speech and separation speech.

We are seeing the rise of nationalism world-wide: Brexit, throughout Europe, the Philippines, the United States, Russia, and within the European Union. Nationalism very easily leads to violence against “others” and once the mad dog of nationalism is let off leash, even a country’s own people can all too easily be labeled as “others.”

Our institutions of unity and collectivism are being seen as obsolete, holding us back, ineffective. The institution of democracy, the United Nations, NATO, the European Union―these are the organizations that we have created to moderate human selfishness in order to promote peace and equality. Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, writes that democracy is one of the ways that we, as human beings, seek to civilize ourselves. Palmer sees democracy as one of our best tools of civilization and that these tools “constitute the core self-hood called the human heart” (Palmer, 81).

For those of us who want to see democracy survive and thrive―and we are legion―the heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life and for our nation. (Palmer, 10).

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How much are we the people of the United States of America making decisions from the heart? To what extent are our current elected officials leading from the heart? What will happen to us if we give up on unity, if we glorify everything falling apart? Louis Ferdinand Céline, writing about World War I, wrote that people had become “madder than mad dogs” because dogs don’t worship their madness.

Could I, I thought, be the last coward on earth? How terrifying! … All alone with two million stark raving heroic madmen, armed to the eyeballs? With and without helmets, without horses, on motorcycles, bellowing, in cars, screeching, shooting, plotting, flying, kneeling, digging, taking cover, bounding over trails, root-toot-tooting, shut up on earth as if it were a loony bin ready to demolish everything on it, Germany, France, whole continents, everything that breathes, destroy, destroy,  madder than mad dogs, worshipping their madness (which dogs don’t) a hundred, a thousand times madder than a thousand dogs, and a lot more vicious! A pretty mess we’re in! (Céline, Journey to the End of the Night).

Céline bore witness to the brutality of World War I and he calls himself a “coward” because he doesn’t want to join in the blood bath of killing “others.” However, non-violence has been raised to a spiritual virtue and political power by people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. (Céline did succumb to his own madness and cowardice in turning against the Jewish people in the lead-up to World War II, and citing him here in regard to World War I in no way condones his later anti-Semitism). I choose to quote Céline because his phrase “madder than mad dogs, worshipping their madness (which dogs don’t)” keeps echoing in my mind this past week. There is something very scary about a strain of U.S. politics that is worshipping madness, division, and hatred. This is happening in the United States of America―right now, yet it has roots going back over the past decades, and honestly back to the history of the European colonization of this land.

Going back to the early days of the U.S. “war on terror,” journalist, Andrew Cohen, wrote “Our journey toward Abu Ghraib began in earnest with a single document — written and signed without the knowledge of the American people” (The Atlantic, “The Torture Memos, 10 Years Later,” February 6, 2012). Cohen continues:

On February 7, 2002 — ten years ago to the day, tomorrow — President George W. Bush signed a brief memorandum titled “Humane Treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda Detainees.” The caption was a cruel irony, an Orwellian bit of business, because what the memo authorized and directed was the formal abandonment of America’s commitment to key provisions of the Geneva Convention. This was the day, a milestone on the road to Abu Ghraib: that marked our descent into torture — the day, many would still say, that we lost part of our soul.

White House Counsel, Alberto Gonzales wrote that the Geneva Conventions should not restrain the United States any longer in how we treat prisoners. “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions,” he wrote. I remember this as a very disturbing philosophical position our government took as it eroded the work of many countries and peoples work to prevent war crimes. When we stop appealing to our higher humanity and to our collective sense of ourselves as brothers and sisters―even while temporarily enemies―we not only take away what makes others human, but we lose our humanity as well. This is because humanity is a two-way street of interaction and of unity. Humanity is a state of being and when we take away this human state of being from others (whether they be Muslims, women, African-Americans, American Indians, people with different sexual orientations or identities, or anyone who disagrees with us), we lose our own humanity as well and we risk becoming mad dogs worshipping our madness as we have let ourselves of the leash of humanity. It is difficult to understand the current anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. because anyone who is not a full-blooded American Indian is an immigrant to the United States. The current president of the United States is an immigrant, as are most of us who have come together as one people in the United States.

It breaks my heart to see the people of the world turn our backs on the institutions we have worked so hard to create that call forth our higher humanity and work to promote peace. What we are witnessing is a kind of war of the many against the One. This break-down of our sense of shared humanity paves the way for dangerous economic and social policies and paves the way for violence against “others” whose humanity we have taken away, thereby losing our own humanity.

One of our primary global institutions of peace is the United Nations. The United Nations includes 193 states and serves as the earth’s only inclusive organization that promotes peace between countries and condemns violence. The newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley threatened the organization in her first speech, saying that “we are taking names” and repeating that “this is a time of strength” (Somini Senguptajan, “Nikki Haley Puts U.N. on Notice: U.S. Is ‘Taking Names,’” The New York Times online, January 27, 2017). The speeches and positions coming out of the current administration sound more like those of school-yard bullies than of elected democratic officials. “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength,” this motto of George Orwell’s dystopian society in his book, 1984, warns us about the kind of rhetoric we are now hearing from the Nation of Immigrants. The ME First Movement does not play well with others and it distorts facts and reality to suit its needs.

Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) was recognized by the United Nations in a 2/20/89 letter for his work promoting peace through building Peace Chambers on four different continents. What Joseph has taught me is that the work of peace is spiritual work, and spiritual work is what makes us true human beings. Peace requires us to be seekers of our common goodness, our common shared humanity. The place that we find this common goodness and unity is in our hearts.

If we remember E pluribus unum on the Great Seal of the United States, we will remember that we are called to work toward an ideal that moves us from our many individual identities into a larger Union. E pluribus unum is Latin for “Out of many, one.” This identity is not just the social body of peacemakers, it is also the mystical and spiritual identity of visionaries and mystics. This is the realm of unity that Joseph is familiar with as a visionary and healer, (Kopacz & Rael, 215).

If we focus on separation and division, we not only destroy peace, we promote violence. This is why Joseph and I say that we all must move from seeing each other as “other” and move toward seeing each other as brother and sister.

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