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George Rebane: America the unnatural

George Rebane | Other Voices

America is an exceptional country and an historical social experiment in more ways than I can count. It is also an ongoing test of how humans can live and profit by behaving unnaturally toward each other. That is by becoming sanguine in the practice of unnatural behaviors which go against the millions of years of evolution through which our progenitors and species survived.

Anthropologists and paleo-sociologists have long known and written about how primitive societies formed, fought, and sometimes flourished. The pervasive watchword among all critters, including hominids, has been “Stick to your own kind’”(as even Maria was advised in “West Side Story”). The fundamental behavior that supported survival and progeny was to be with and trust only those whose behavior you could reliably predict. To this day, we distance ourselves (including denying their access to us) from people in our midst whose behavior we cannot predict. This is the very natural hardwired instinct with which all critters of some intelligence that includes us are born. Even infants begin expressing it at a very early age.

As we should know, all this gave rise first to extended families, that then grew into tribes of related families, that then grew into larger social units, usually under the heavy hand of a strong leader or the demands of meeting a common need. In such social expansions trust in strangers grew slowly, almost always over generations during which a common culture was adopted with a common language, shared traditions and gods, along with known and formalized social customs. Such common cultures served to build trust, promote extra-familial relationships, and serve the common good.

The immediate advantage of such trustful social groupings was that individuals then had the ability to specialize in the products and services they offered each other. Communities that supported such specialization – “you make candles and I’ll make shoes” – were able to trade and garner wealth beyond their daily needs for shelter and sustenance. Trust was the key, common culture was the means, and civilization was the result.

Eventually, diverse cultures inhabited a city or kingdom only for over-arching economic or security purposes. However, the different cultures, even living cheek-by-jowl, always maintained their own ways that allowed them to distinguish and value “the me and mine” as a source of succor and an ever-present redoubt in an unpredictable and often turbulent world. Trade with all, but always stick to your own kind.

As civilizations, empires, and kingdoms flourished and fell over the ages, the world order of cohesive societies remained unchanged. It was natural to conquer or crush cultures, but not to coalesce them with each other. This continued unchanged in the post-Columbian New World, including in the British colonies of North America, until the last quarter of the 18th century when a new type of union was tried in the desperate attempt by disparate colonies to break away from their tyrannical home country. Such an unnatural arrangement to come together was recognized by each of the thirteen colonies as a new and risky experiment. Many thought it might only be a temporary union of convenience until the British yoke could be overthrown.

Ultimately, it became clear to the unusually wizened, nay, brilliant leaders Fortuna had assembled from the colonies, that they could not survive as a collection of small sovereign nation-states. Britain, or even France, would eventually return them to their colonial folds using the well-known divide and conquer stratagems. And so they decided to confederate a new single nation made up of cultures that didn’t even share a common language. During the American Revolution the dominant languages of the colonies were English, German, Dutch, French, and various native American tongues. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, more Americans spoke German at home than any other language.

So our founders knew that what they were attempting had no precedent, that a new country would be born, underpinned by an extremely tentative and fragile (think brittle) social structure. But they had hope that new ideas of common liberty and individual freedoms could be codified in a constitution of laws, and along with ample territory for individual initiatives and industry, this would provide the needed ingredients to give people time to see that different cultures could join together and form sufficient bonds for a country and government that would endure. With some trepidation, Ben Franklin said it would be a republic if we could keep it. And so began our unnatural experiment.

No student of our history doubts that our experiment has had its ups and downs as our republic traveled an uncertain and rocky road over the last two and half centuries. But we have survived, and have shown the world that a multi-cultural politics based on liberty, security, and property is indeed within the art of the possible. We have done this through the bit by piece method of trying new things, keeping what works, abandoning what doesn’t. But in this experiment, we devised a two-level structure for our national culture that let us overcome our heritage of fear and distrust of the other.

Over the decades we fashioned a common American culture to be practiced by all when in the public square – it became the culture the world saw, admired, and attempted to emulate. And concurrently we kept alive and practiced our indigenous cultures (e.g., from the “old country”) with others like us while respecting and giving space to our fellow Americans to practice their peculiar heritages with their own kind. We learned to do this over most of two centuries, always returning to and working with one another as the “e pluribus unum” Americans we were taught and have learned to be.

Sadly, today we are turning away from everything that has kept us intact and from going astray. Most of us have forgotten the American creed that each individual is created equal and possesses the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We have become tainted by the socialist lie that only through membership in a particular collective gives each person’s life a purpose, place, and meaning. In such a social order, cultural collectives are first identified (manufactured) by political elites to locate and separate a previously unified people (i.e., us) into mutually distrustful factions too fractious to oppose the state. The elites then categorize, castigate, or empower people only in terms of their membership in politically accredited and favored/disfavored identity groups based primarily on assigned race, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, and religion.

Today this approach has effectively destroyed “e pluribus unum,” which still requires all of us to form relationships with individuals based, not on their identity group membership, but on their demonstrated merits and the content of their character.

George Rebane lives in Nevada City.



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