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Columnist Joe Gannon: E pluribus unum the right slogan for the right time

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Where does hope come from at this time when the world is lurching ever rightward? What can unite us enough to pull in the opposite direction when the old ideologies are gone?

The French may have slowed that lurch toward right-wing populism in last week’s election, but from Britain, to America, North Korea, Russia and Turkey, the authoritarians have had a string of successes that could make a progressive reach for a passport, a shovel or a sick bag. Yet somehow something does not seem right.

The British withdrawal from the European Union (which is possibly the most advanced civilization humans have yet to create on this planet) was unleashed by a Conservative prime minister who did not want to leave the EU, and abetted by a socialist Labor Party leader who could not muster the enthusiasm to remain.

Trump came along next, winning the presidency while losing the popular vote by a larger margin than any other president in American history who won in the Electoral College.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey has joined the list of authoritarians, and he did so by stuffing the ballot box. President Vladimir Putin has had to impose a Soviet-style “Big Brother” state to keep his absolute control over Russia.

And despite the danger of nuclear conflagration, North Korea’s missiles tests remind me of nothing so much as a “Three Stooges” episode, missing only Kim Jong-un spinning circles on the floor like Curly. Whoopwhoopwhoopwhoopwhoop!

But for the Right to win they must work diligently to overcome the fact they do not actually have a majority backing them in any of these countries. So, yes, it seems we are overrun by a right-wing populist takeover, but that destructive force rushes in to fill a vacuum – the vacuum left by the wearing away of the old order and its ideologies.

The 20th century was dominated by the forces and narratives of socialism vs. capitalism. I do not know from whence the next great critique of society will come from that could unify the forces of progressivism, but I would make so bold as to offer a slogan that could so unify us, and unity is the one thing we lack, at least amongst the progressives.

There are marches, groups organizations and organizers out there beating the bushes for opposition. The Left has the gift of spontaneity – Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter. But it has a deficit when it comes to follow-through and unity. The Tea Party was a machine founded and funded by the One Percent, but you have to admit the name itself made it easy for them to gather all sorts under it: a huge tent into which went everyone who opposed Obama for whatever reason.

The Left tends to start bagging on each other as soon as three of us get together.

But there is a slogan buried deep in our history that expresses the best of what our American experiment has been about, had the simple poetic power to unite many, and it is currently not only unused, but largely despised by the right wing: E pluribus unum. From many, one.

It was the official motto of the United States, first adopted during the Revolutionary War period when every newspaper in the land used it on their masthead. It was our sole and official motto until the Congress (yes, with a Democratic majority) voted to change it to “In God We Trust.”

But, from many, one, has been our goal all along. It is why we became a nation. The founders failed to make one from many by dividing the new nation into free and slave; or even more, into the minority of white men who could vote and majority of Americans who could not. That error led to the Civil War after which we took one step closer to becoming one – literally the United States which had been known as “they” prior to war, and “it” afterward.

The vote for women, the defeat of Jim Crow, gay rights, the welcoming of immigrants. every single time this country has been dragged forward, it has taken one step closer to truly making us all one, from our many. Every attempt by the right wing over the centuries to impede our progress, has only ever sought to keep the pluribus at the expense of the unum.

It is the slogan that could unite us all, especially inside the opposition. From many, one, would not only be the motto uniting us against Trump and the Tea party, but tying us to each other.

The divisions of race, class and geography can as easily destroy a unified opposition as it can the country. That middle-class, white hunter who wants to keep his health insurance has to be welcomed under the same tent with the black mother who drills her kids on how to survive an encounter with the police, and the Latinx immigrant trying to avoid deportation and using the “wrong” bathroom.

A slogan does not a movement make. But, E pluribus unum does unite the ideals of our past with the most pressing agenda of our day: to make one people from many peoples is our goal. Why not make it our motto too?

Joe Gannon, of Northampton, is a novelist and teacher.