The United People of America
We spend a lot of time talking about what it means to be American, if someone is part of the “real” America, whether someone believes in American exceptionalism, etc. One thing we don’t spend enough time talking about is the nature of America (“E pluribus unum”).
It’s unusual to live in a very diverse country with many different people that have many different ideas and ideologies and are descended from people that persecuted or were persecuted in many different places. We are all persecutors or the persecuted or some combination of the two. If you’re reading this you likely have at least one foot in the former, even if you identify more with the latter.
I think that we should be more cosmopolitan in our outlook and a good start on this is to take care of the people living in America. Social darwinism is not a prescription for a healthy democracy. It isn’t even a prescription for a healthy economy. The reason why you see such explosive growth in China and other developing countries is that they were incredibly poor to begin with. Our biggest potential lies not in those already served by great schools, universities and networks that will propel them into the middle and upper classes, but those least able to bootstrap themselves.
The children of the illegal immigrants will grow up and live here. The children of those who out of no fault of their own found their livelihoods reduced due to technological progress will grow up and live here. The children of those incarcerated for petty crimes will grow up and live here. Making their chances at having a better tomorrow is something we do far too little to ensure. And because their challenges are due to many different problems individual attempts to deal with isolated problems (test scores, nutrition, housing, etc.) inevitably find themselves less effective than their organizers would have predicted. All this makes it less likely that a child living in poverty will be able to do something amazing that benefits everyone.
The art we appreciate is made by a very small amount of people, so are the books, movies and music that we listen to. Technical innovation is something that a tiny number of people participate in. So is science, the underpinning of all of our creative arts. Yet the commons of our civilization that we all benefit from exists because people stand on the shoulders of giants, because they have the opportunity to see what has been done and what they can contribute.
Most people don’t, in the scheme of things, make lasting contributions that will be felt for generations to come beyond the families they raise. Most people, including the rich and middle class, will benefit far more from the commons than they will contribute to it. Even those that do contribute rely on the work of thousands or millions of others so that they can make their small dent in the universe.
In order to make more dents in the universe we must make life livable for the janitors, for the fast food workers, for the people that keep our civilization running. We must ensure that they can raise their children to be good citizens, that they can send their children to good schools that will nurture the gifts they may not know they have. Housing, transportation, education, nutrition, healthcare, energy production, mass incarceration, all these are challenges we must address to make a better country that offers everyone an opportunity to contribute and benefit from our society. It’s shortsighted to assume that because we and our friends and our children have it made that we can ignore the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Your children will live with the children of the people that made your coffee and we ignore their challenges at our peril.
Now is the time for out of many to become one. For the sake of our children we must create a united people of America. United not in ideology, not in religion, not in ethnicity, but united in our efforts to make this country better for everyone.