Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 August 2017

E Pluribus Unum


The near-universal outrage—especially among our powerful business community—at President Trump’s lame excuses for white extremism in Charlottesville inspired this short essay. More than that, it inspired hope. My somewhat despairing previous essay, based on our current overall national trajectory, appears here. The usual catalogue of recent essays now appears at the end, here, in recognition of the importance of what may be an inflection point in our national divisiveness.


It’s strange. It’s odd. To use a common Trumpism, it’s “sad.” We Yanks have forgotten what once made us Americans.

How could we forget? It’s on the back of every dollar bill. True, it’s small and obscure. If you’re my age, you may need a magnifying glass to see it clearly. But it’s there.

It’s on the right side of the back. It’s just below the field of stars that represent the original Thirteen Colonies. It’s just above, and to the left and right, of the Eagle’s head. It adorns and explains the great Bird, who holds the olive branch and the sheaf of arrows in his claws, representing strength in peace and in war.

It’s Latin, not English. Our Founders were well versed in that ancient language. In their time, Latin was as ubiquitous, and considered as important, as computer code today.

The meaning of the three words is simple and clear: “From Many, One.” The symbolism of the divided scroll is unmistakable. It’s not “left” or “right.” It’s both.

That simple credo is the secret of our strength and our national success. It means that we are not a nation like almost every other. We alone are not riven by differences in race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or (today) gender or sexual orientation.

If you live and are human, you can be American. You can be fully American. You can be equal. You can have equal opportunity. No one can dismiss, disparage or persecute you just because of who you are.

You can hold your head high. You can bow to no man or woman. And in the fullness of time, you can give your family and our nation the benefit of every drop our your talent, wisdom, strength and intelligence. We Yanks neglect no one’s skills because of superficial differences that just don’t matter.

That simple idea—“E Pluribus Unum”—has made us the strongest nation on Earth. How? The same way it worked in ancient Rome. When you offer full and complete equality and respect to all your citizens, everyone everywhere wants to become one. All the smartest, strongest, bravest most resourceful people everywhere flock to your shores, augmenting your people’s strength, intelligence and initiative.

You attract the best from around the globe, like a magnet.

And so it was with us. First came the English and the Scotch. Then the Irish, the Germans, the French, the Italians. Later, in quick succession, came the Poles, Slavs, Chinese, and Japanese. Then the Mexicans, followed by Central and South Americans, poured into our nation. Today it’s the Russians, Syrians and Somalis. All who have the guts, brains and initiative to risk their lives to improve them come here and enrich our so-called “human capital.”

So simple an idea, but so powerful. Even our Native Americans—once victims of genocide and forced relocation into reservations—contributed. During World War II, our largest “Indian” tribe, the Dinè (Navajo) gave us their language. Their “Code Talkers” lent us an unbreakable code that helped us win the war in the Pacific.

Of course Europeans came also. The physicists who invented the nuclear weapons that ended the war in the Pacific came to our shores fleeing the Nazi scourge in Europe. Many of them were previously despised minorities—Italians and Jews. Now, as our collective faith in “E Pluribus Unum” wanes, their successors are returning to Europe, clustering around Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider. With falling budgets and rising anti-immigrant rage, our fleeting supremacy in advanced physics is crumbling like a fading dream.

If the truth be told, we Yanks always have had trouble understanding our most important idea.

Some of us did not come here voluntarily. Some came in slave ships, in chains. We fought our greatest and bloodiest war to free them. We changed our Constitution to make them fully equal. We enshrined “E Pluribus Unum” in our Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. We passed civil rights and voting-rights laws.

But we’ve been backsliding meanwhile and ever since. Along came Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan’s racial terrorism, mass lynching, and Jim Crow. The good Reverend King reminded us of our founding Principle, but we killed him. Lyndon Johnson got more civil rights passed into law, but he lost his way in a misguided foreign war.

Today the most retrograde movement in over a century confronts us. We have a president who won his office by dividing us. He built his short political career by inflaming the resentment of a single ethnic group: working non-Hispanic whites without college educations. He has pitted them against everyone else, especially African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and other recent immigrants. He’s trying to write the most important word—many (“pluribus”)—out of our national motto.

That, of course, he cannot do. “E Pluribus Unum” is the central idea of America. It’s the basis or our strength, our uniqueness, and our “exceptionalism.”

Other nations have the rule of law. But laws can change, just as they have in the barbed wire now facing desperate immigrants in Serbia and Hungary. Other nations have written constitutions, and some of them read better than ours, on paper. But no other nation has anything like our commitment, faltering as it may be, to “E Pluribus Unum.”

Donald Trump is far from the first to challenge our national credo. Nor will he be the last. The current retrogression began with Richard Nixon’s heinous “Southern Strategy,” a naked ploy to mold racism and Southern regional resentment into a winning political strategy. Trumpism is its direct descendant.

But you can’t make something positive out of negativity. You can’t turn evil into good. You can’t build a nation out of the resentment and violence of the night riders, the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchers, Dylann Roof, or the thinly veiled Skinheads of Charlottesville. All you can do is rend and besmirch our nation’s fabric.

Today even the democratic left is confused. The Democratic Party worries about resentful working whites. It frets that Trump will take them away from it. It neglects the Black Lives Matter movement as “divisive” and “controversial” and the concern of a small minority.

But Black Lives Matter is in the mainstream of “E Pluribus Unum.” Unlike many of the white followers of Trump, it seeks not supremacy, but equality.

BLM wants the descendants of African slaves to be able to hold their heads high and walk the streets of our nation with the same freedom from fear as the rest of us. It wants to realize the promise of equal citizenship that made Rome supreme in Europe for most of a millennium. It wants what our Civil War, the Post-Civil-War Amendments, the Johnson-era civil- and voting-rights laws, and the King movement tried to achieve, but so far have collectively failed to do. In confusing this fundamental point, the Democrats are aiding the enemies of America.

And so it is with all those who want to become equal Americans. The cause of the child who walked a thousand miles to escape gang mayhem in El Salvador is our American cause. So is the cause of the Syrian or Iraqi translator who helped us out of respect for our values but now fears deadly reprisals. So is the cause of the brilliant hacker in Russia or China who sees more opportunity in Silicon Valley than in St. Petersburg or Shanghai.

We are so close. Our demographers say that so-called “minorities” will be a majority of our nation by 2043. That’s only 26 years away.

Once that happens, we will have no alternative. We will have to get along and work together. We will have to live “E Pluribus Unum” or fail spectacularly. We will all have to give up our hyphenated identities and become fully American. There will be no turning back.

But twenty-six years is a long time. In a similar time, early twentieth-century Germany morphed from one of Earth’s two most advanced civilizations into goose-stepping Nazis. In much less than that time, the Soviet Union dissolved and morphed into Vladimir Putin’s provocative tsarstvo. In just a few years, Britain—the vanguard and leader of democracy since Magna Carta—has threatened the sacred project of a united Europe and a truly global “common” market.

There are no guarantees in history or in human life. Empires rise and fall. Great ideas succumb to perversion, misunderstanding and corruption. People get smart or get stupid. Bad things could happen to us Yanks, just as they are happening now.

But one thing is clear. Bad things will happen much more quickly and more surely if we forget or neglect the source of our strength. To see it, just take out any dollar bill and look at its back, right side.

It’s not the money that matters; currencies rise and fall. It’s the idea: “E Pluribus Unum.” If we can continue to follow that great idea until demographics enshrine it in our collective DNA, we can continue to be the “last, best hope of mankind.” If not, we could fall as far and as fast as Rome, or Nazi Germany.

The sky above or the mud below. Those are our limits. The words on our own dollar bills provide the direction. The choice is ours.


Catalogue of Recent Posts

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:

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