[This essay is a companion piece to a recent post on why the last three weeks have been good ones for our human species.
“The internal market [of the EU] shall comprise an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured in accordance with the provisions of the [governing] Treaties.” Consolidated Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Article 26(2).
One of our species’ chief character flaws is taking monumental achievements and hard-won blessings for granted. We Yanks do it with our Bill of Rights and our Civil War Amendments, which abolished slavery and assure all citizens fundamental rights and equal treatment under law. Europeans, especially the Brits, do it with their EU and the common currency in the Eurozone.
What we humans all tend to forget, as we go about our daily business, is how durable are our many cultural pathologies, and how fragile the political institutions that try to cure them. To effect durable
cures, we humans must continually nurture those institutions like delicate flowers, lest they wither. In the best of all possible worlds, we ought to expand and spread them.
If we don’t, from time to time we relapse into pathology. That has been our consistent history. And that will be our species’ destiny unless we exercise eternal vigilance.
Our Yankee phrase “equal justice under law” is literally graven in stone. It appears on the facade of our Supreme Court building, above the massive marble columns that support the roof.
But stone doesn’t govern the affairs of men. Culture does. Law tries to, but law only reflects culture. Culture can and does circumvent, twist and change law. In the long run, culture trumps law every time.
The whole history of the American South is proof positive of that. Think not? Then travel on Federal Highway 1, which runs down the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia to Florida. Who’s it named for? Jefferson Davis, the president of the Old Confederacy, who fought the bloodiest war in our Yankee history to preserve
slavery and racism.
So which symbol is more important? The motto “equal justice under law” that crowns the Supreme Court Building’s facade, or the name of (Eastern) Highway 1
? Most US citizens see the Supreme Court building only once or twice in a lifetime, if at all. But millions drive the “Jefferson Davis Highway” to work and back every day. They see its many naming signs once or twice a day. So the name of a man who fought against
equality, and for
slavery, aristocracy and bossism is ever-present before them, if not ever in their consciousness.
With these sad truths in mind, it become easier to understand the recent spate of police killings of unarmed African-Americans in America. It becomes easier to understand the recent murder, in cold blood and with malice aforethought, of nine good and innocent “black” churchgoers bending their heads over the Bible.
It took their unspeakable premature deaths, and their survivors’ divine forgiveness, to take the Stars and Bars—the very symbol of racial hatred and slavery—down from the state capital in South Carolina at last. But it wasn’t stone mottos or law that accomplished that much-desired end. It was people, who are slowly changing the culture of our American South.
To see this, you have only to admire the photo
of the signing ceremony for the bill that took the Stars and Bars down. There was South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley, amidst a sea of mostly darker faces. A woman of (East) Indian descent, she could no more have become governor of South Carolina a mere few decades ago than she could have become prime minister of South Africa during its Apartheid era.
But there she was, in 2015, smiling as she signed a bill to take down a symbol of inherited hate and put it in a museum, where it belongs.
What made this cultural miracle possible? It wasn’t law, and it certainly wasn’t stone mottos in Washington D.C. It was people. It was the migration of retirees and workers from North to South, coming in search of better weather and better opportunities. As they came, they brought with them new ideas about tolerance and equality. And they promulgated those ideas by joining sympathetic native Southerners and living with them day by day.
This is how cultures change: by exchanging people and, with them, ideas. Just as some Southerners would like to re-fight our American Civil War, the Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milošević wanted to refight the battle Kosovo Pole from 1389, over six centuries ago. That was the impetus for the recent Balkan Wars, which left the Balkans still simmering with hate.
Old hatreds die hard, but new blood can soften them. Biological evolution takes many generations. Social evolution takes decades or centuries. Voluntary migration of people is much, much quicker.
That’s why the EU’s “free movement of goods, persons, services and capital” is so vital to our species’ future. Like our Yankee Constitution’s “privileges and immunities of citizens,” it permits free migration anywhere within the larger entity. It allows free migration of people to smooth over the rough edges of the tribalism and parochialism to which our species is ever prey.
Some day, free migration from North to South will erase all the residual hatred and tribalism from American Southern culture. Some day, migration into and within the United States will make “equal justice under law” a reality, not just a slogan.
Some day, the Balkans’ pathology will be cured in like manner. Some day, Turkey will become a member of the EU, and its historic enmity with Greece will begin to fade. Its voters’ recent rejection of Erdogan’s attempt to “pull a Putin” was a giant step in that direction.
Some day, retirees and other migrants from Germany, Holland and Finland, coming in search of better weather, will begin to change Greece’s culture. They will bring their willingness to pay taxes, their thrift and hard work. They will exert influence not by imposing austerity on a suffering people, but by being there, participating
in the local culture, and changing it by their participation.
Some day, even Serbs and Russians will acknowledge the genocide at Srebrenica, just as today’s Germans acknowledge the Holocaust. Once that happens, similar atrocities will become much less likely.
In 2009, I had the privilege of giving some lectures on law in Strasbourg. That was five years after the EU had admitted ten new members.
Knowing of the EU and some of its history, I didn’t bother with national borders in planning the trip. I landed in Frankfurt and took a train directly through Karlsrühe, still in Germany, to Strasbourg, now in France. While still in the airport in Frankfurt, I got some Euros from an ATM machine, knowing they would be good in France and throughout my journey.
I am blessed, or maybe cursed, with a vivid imagination. As our train approached the German-French border at the Rhine, I thought about the many wars over Strasbourg and its province, Alsace. I recalled the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II, all of which started in Europe. I imagined the Rhine filled with blood, not water.
Then, as our train slowed to cross the bridge over the river, I blinked and came back to modern reality. I found myself sitting in a comfortable, modern train, drinking a glass of wine, staring into bright blue water, and wondering at the absence of any border crossing, border guards, customs forms and indignities, or men with automatic weapons.
All I saw was a beautiful, stately river, the bright sun of a gorgeous early May day, and a tidy, orderly roadway without a piece of trash in sight. My sense of wonder and joy only increased later, when I found that most educated people in Strasbourg speak both
German and French, and many passable English, too.
, my friends, is the meaning of the EU and the Euro—the common currency that makes travel, trade and migration infinitely more convenient. They are both vital steps in curing the vicious tribalism that has made our species its own worst enemy throughout human history. They are big stepping stones on our way to cultural homogenization and the stars.
The alternative we can see clearly now, if we just look a little further south. We can see it in Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The EU is different because it passed that stage of historical development centuries ago, at a time when human weaponry was not nearly so ubiquitous or so destructive.
With us Yanks still winding down our own Civil War, which ostensibly ended a century and a half ago, the EU is the new last, best hope of mankind. So no, it’s not just about money. Not at all. You don’t know how priceless peace is until you no longer have it. And then it’s too late.
There is also another Federal Highway 1, which runs up the West
Coast of the United States. In keeping with the West’s relative distance from dismal history and tribalism, it bears no common name, let alone one of a long-ago-defeated rebel leader. Colloquially, part of it bears the name “Big Sur Highway,” for a stretch of scenic and unspoiled near-wilderness along California’s rugged coast.