Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Melting Pot

Have you ever heard the analogy that the United States of America is a "melting pot" - where different cultures, religions, ethnicity, and personalities come together to create something unique and special? I've always appreciated this analogy for its simple depiction of what makes America great - our pragmatic assimilation and appreciation of the good ideas in the world. This "melting pot" approach to American society and government can be traced all the way back to the original colonies in this nation. While many were British, there was also a great deal of influence Dutch, Spanish, and French society, as well. Settlers came to have opportunity, land, and freedom from the "old country." As time went on, the predominantly Protestant Europeans also began to be diversified among different denominations, and even Catholicism and some non-Christian sects, as well. By the time America declared independence, there was already a great deal of diversity of culture, religious denomination, and ethnicity represented.

Our political philosophy also traces through centuries of thought - ranging from John Locke to Thomas Hobbes to Aristotle and even Plato.

Something else that we Americans often forget is that even our own government system is a "melting pot" of sorts - at least at its foundation. Democracy was not unique to America. The ancient Greeks actually practiced a form of pure democracy, and the Roman Republic sported a Representative Democracy, something that the USA later mimicked. Even the bicameral nature of our Congress hearkens to back to the British Parliament with a smaller, more elite upper house and a larger, more "common" lower house.

Thus, diversity in our nation is not a bad thing, at its core. However, in order for America to properly function as a melting pot there are three key conditions that must first be met:

1. There Must be Mutual Respect for Individual Rights (Libertarian's excel at this)
2. There Must be a Desire to Unite as a Nation (Democrats are good at this)
3. There Must be a Foundation of Morality & Ethics (Conservatives are good at this)

I'll tackle each of these three in turn, to explain why this is so vital the America's melting pot.

1. There Must be Mutual Respect for Individual Rights

This is perhaps the most universally touted condition, but in many ways the least understood. It is also the most "American" of the conditions. In order for there to be any hope at progressing to Condition #2, individuals must be willing to respect the rights of other individuals in their communities, states, and nation. This is at the very core of the ideology on which our nation was founded. Just because one individual makes choices another disagrees with does not necessarily mean that someone has the right to interfere. Libertarians tend to excel at depicting this condition in society. At its core, it is very Lockean because it depends a respect for an individual's Life, Liberty, and Property.

One of the weaknesses of this condition, however, is that it does very little to encourage a melting pot - in fact, it segregates society into small, confined units of individuals that have little interaction. Many times, this is the weakness in matters of civil rights and diversity because it doesn't allow the full integration and growth of a community that is all-encompassing. It works in small communities, but there is little to no national identity.

2. There Must be a Desire to Unite as a Nation

The second condition is an uncomfortable transition from the first because now there arises the problem of competing values. It depends an element of compromise in the interest of unification. Conservatives (GOP & Libertarians) hate this. Democrats thrive on this. As frustrating as this condition is for many conservatives, it is actually fairly uncontroversial at its core - and it is the very basis of representative democracy. In a society of individuals, there will be differences. In order for the society to protect Life, Liberty, and Property there must be a universally respected structure that encompasses the nation-state.

There are many different political theorists that offer different views of government, but I hold most strongly to the Social Contract view which describes government as a conceptual contract to which individuals agree to uphold, whether consciously or subconsciously. Individuals grant to government the ability to make and enforce laws, and agree to abide by laws that are created in accordance with the social contract. In the United States, the government system is Republic in which individuals elect Representatives that pass laws, make treaties, and perform the functions of government. They can tear down "unjust laws" by replacing their representatives with new ones that more accurately represent their values.

The problem with unification and Social Contracts is that there will always be dissenters. Some individuals in
a society will simply refuse to abide by the contract. Whether consciously or subconsciously, they will operate in deviance from the norm. Governments historically create police forces that control crime and deviance by punishing those that are in violation of the law. Not all views, then, can be tolerated in a united society. Thus, a nation must balance competing values in a way that provides the best protection of liberty while also remaining united.

3. There Must be a Foundation of Morality & Ethics

This is the least palatable condition in contemporary America. I list this condition last, due to its controversy, but in reality, it is the very foundation of a just society.

Allow me to explain...

John Adams, one of America's founders once wrote, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people, it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." This is not an extreme statement. I will temporarily divorce this discussion from religious undertones (don't worry, I'll incorporate them later).
First, let's define "morality" and "ethics" before jumping to conclusions. Merriam-Webster should do fine:
Morality (n): Beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior.
Ethic (n): Rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good or bad.
 Morality and ethics, at there core, are the glue that holds a society together. Without them, there is no way for a free society to function. The fundamental difficulty in any free society, though, is establishing whose morality and ethics will be followed. This problem isn't as pronounced in smaller societies. However, as any society begins to grow - whether intellectually, culturally, or geographically - the resulting plurality of beliefs and rules of behavior among the body politic begin to diversify at an alarming rate.

This is essentially why any great society - be it ancient Greece, the Roman Republic, the Catholic Church in the middle ages, the United Kingdom, and even America - all shift toward authoritarian government. There are other factors in this slide, to be sure. In fact, I could probably spend pages on the other factors, but I'll restrict myself for now. Fundamentally, though, this has been a consistent factor throughout history.

Now, the touchy subject is that I firmly believe the Judeo-Christian tradition - which is the the foundation of Western society - is the most stable and just model for an ethical and just society. Now, I'm not saying this because I am a Christian (okay, that's probably part of it) but for a few key reasons:
 - It emphasizes freedom and justice
 - It gives legitimacy to governmental authority while providing accountability.
 - It has proven the most revolutionary and successful philosophy.
 - It sees human nature as fallen and depraved - and therefore government as fallen and depraved.
Historically, the Republican Party has had the greatest impact in holding to Judeo-Christian values in society - largely a result of Reagan's ability to draw the Moral Majority into his coalition.

The great difficulty in America, however, is preserving this framework of morality and justice - despite the reality that many citizens do not hold to the basic tenants of Christianity - or even Western thought - whether through sheer ignorance or ideological differences. There are a few choices on how to approach this, ranging from forcing "Christian values" on a pluralistic society to abandoning religion-based morality to abandoning objective morality altogether. As terrifying as the third option may appear, in many ways tyrannical law is the only way to sustain a diverse population.

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