Swans Commentary » swans.com December 1, 2008  



E Pluribus Unum


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - December 1, 2008)   The notion that there is only one America rhetorically proclaimed by members of all political parties and seconded by much of the general public is comforting but patently false. When the founding fathers were hammering out the framework of the new nation, there were bitter disputes over basic issues such as voting rights, land distribution, and slavery. As the nation approached the Civil War, those differences became even more pronounced. The Civil War itself epitomized a rift about fundamental human freedoms and on whom they should be bestowed and left wounds that have never entirely healed. The Northern versus the Southern sensibility remains palpitatingly rife throughout the nation -- almost as much as it did in the late l9th century. We are all fully aware that we live in a country populated by bigots, racists, and rednecks and, every so often, bloody incidents flare up to remind us that this longstanding national dichotomy is alive and well.

According to the Alaskan seer Sarah Palin, there are two Americas, the real nation teeming with patriots and the other, presumably chock full of subversives. The "patriots" cherish the newborn, wear flag pins and reflexively genuflect at the mention of Ronald Reagan's name; the subversives plant bombs, advocate socialism and persist in believing in the myth of global warming. American politics, it would appear, must always be prefixed by the word "partisan."

Religions divide us -- unquestionably -- even as we clamor for "tolerance" towards antithetical creeds. Every religion puts forth a certain narrative about creation and how it came about and although there are certain resemblances between Protestantism and Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism, we know that historically, they have prompted sectional antagonisms for centuries. Although today we wear our tolerance proudly in our buttonholes like poppies, it often involves stamping down certain religious precepts that are anathema to us. It is precisely because faith rigorously divides us that we are obliged to emphasize our "tolerance" of creeds in which we do not believe. And in some parts of the world, as we know from recent events in Somalia, Zimbabwe, and the Congo, religious differences not only divide people but actually engender wars that attempt extinction of the hated foe. We may acknowledge the differences that underlie Islam but we can never concur with the tribal practices that stone women who have been raped or disembowel men who commit the equivalent of misdemeanors. The assumption that all religions stem from one deific nexus is a sophism of the worst sort and extremely repugnant to the more devout believers of alternative religions. And when we listen in on disputes between advocates of Intelligent Design and Evolutionists, how can we -- without slithering into hypocrisy -- suggest there is some basis for agreement by which these two fundamentally opposed views of genesis can come together?

We are very visibly divided into Haves and Have-Nots, the struggling members of the middle and working classes and the often ill-gotten wealth of the conspicuously affluent; all those well-heeled Wall Street titans floating free towards soft landings in their golden parachutes while members of the underclass are splattered to pieces by crippling falls from lesser heights. Most people accept there is a different kind of law in regard to the rich and the poor, the immigrant and the native-born citizen, the articulate and the uneducated, the gullible and the predatory. These are dichotomies which are thought to be fated rather than socially imposed.

Often, within our own families, we encounter differences that create antagonisms between people who should be integrated; some are benevolent, charitable, and caring; others irrational, grasping, and devoid of empathy. It is because of such dissensions that some of the most bitter enmity is to be found within family circles; siblings who no longer speak to one another; children who feel fierce resentment toward their parents; parents who bitterly reject their offspring.

Then there is the ongoing friction between gays and straights, which, since the passage of Proposition 8 in California, has become even more strident and public, although the underlying conflict has been extant for centuries.

It is as if we have bred a nation in which we all suffer from the same kind of schizophrenia -- and yet we try to persuade one another that we are all in good health. Even as we vent sharply-divided views, we assure each other that we are fully entitled to do so since, if there is a Golden Rule in human behavior, it is certainly that everyone is entitled to their own opinion -- no matter how divisive and mean-spirited it may be.

It is usually at election time that we become most aware of the fact that the last thing this cluster of diverse communities can be called is united. If we share some kind of national circumference at all, it is in the sharp differences that exist between us -- a diffusion of different temperaments, prejudices, and beliefs, which are precisely what prevent us from ever becoming a truly united nation.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand" said Lincoln, but it can wobble and persist so long as dissenting parties refuse to acknowledge what is weakening its foundation. America "divided against itself" may not visibly deteriorate before our eyes, but the realization that certain deep-rooted differences cannot be resolved constantly encourages the kinds of tensions that produce riots, sectarian violence, and lynch-mob mentalities; phenomena we have experienced a lot in our society -- either in racial outrages or psychopathic killings in ostensibly serene communities that we associate with "small town" America; random sniper fire on campuses, inexplicable massacres in rural schoolrooms, assassinations of detested public figures.

It is a schism that can no longer be defined in clichéd terms such as "labor" and "management," "the upper class vs. the middle class," "them and us." But unless one precisely pinpoints the ways in which one has become vicious and the other victimized, true social change can never take place. Look at the bigots, scoundrels, and exploiters in one's midst and try to imagine a social process that can adequately bring them to justice. Or better still, invent a psychic strategy capable of detecting and pacifying them before they strike. One needs more than a blind reliance on the protections offered by the US Constitution.

In theory, a cleansing process could begin. If it means dismantling the morally corroded elements of so-called democratic government, then that is perhaps where the start needs to be made. If it means overhauling the media to eradicate the flaws that have caused it to become spurious and manipulative, that may be a way to start. But the basic building-block is realization of the fact that we are not one -- and that we cannot have a united nation and at the same time clamor for diversity. We are a nation in which the enemies of progress are deeply embedded in the fundament of the state itself and no matter who our president may be and no matter what champions may be installed in the seats of power, so long as there is no revolution in sensibility, there can be no tangible improvements in the body politic.

Perhaps there is some inescapable Yin and Yang at the root of all these divisions; a fundamental duality, which we should learn to live with rather than force into a makeshift unity. Maybe the divisions of America -- Blue states/Red states -- Liberal/Conservative -- Rich and Poor -- the Informed and the Uninformed -- possess virtues with which we cannot come to terms because we view them only as dissensions. Maybe there are 50 Americas and some neurotic impulse towards tidiness makes us want to incorporate them all into one. Maybe there is some all-enveloping flux that actually unites what only appears to be dualities -- and we just refuse to recognize it. At this juncture of the 21st century, despite all the propaganda to the contrary, we may have to accept the fact that we are a naturally divided nation, and it may just possibly be "in the nature of things."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 1, 2008