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Many and One

From beginning to end, the civic liturgy known as the presidential inauguration circled back and forth between the one and the many, the collective and the individual, the universal and the particular, me and we, and the mysterious dependence of each on the other.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Richard Blanco’s evocative poem, “One Today.” – “one sun. . . one ground. . . one sky.”  Yet “my face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day.”  And finally, at the end, heading home “under one sky, our sky.  And always, “one moon

like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window of one country – all of us –
facing the stars
hope – a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it – together.

My generation has grown suspicious of one, enamored of many.  Our intellects, tuned to post-modern multiplicity rightly learned to mistrust unities that masked uniformities, especially hegemonies of white, male, Eurocentric origins.  We watched the horrors of collectivisms of all sorts, from the gulags of Stalin to the cruelties of Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the genocide of Pol Pot’s killing fields.  We relished particularities and individualities, unearthed distinctiveness and resurrected crushed particularity.  We have honored diversities, composing with dissonance, fearful of harmonies that constrict imaginations and condemn to rigid or bland prescriptions. We invite voices to be heard, any voice, every voice, and we privilege none.  We honed our hermeneutic of suspicion against dominating institutions and oppressive isms.  And it was good.  Much, if not most of it, was good.

But many can become idol just as much as one.  It can become identity politics and polarized politics, red and blue seen in the most absolute terms, rights without responsibility, individualism run amok, and “me-ism” of the first order.  It is the Tea Party railing against government of any sort and the NRA defending without compromise extreme rights that endanger us all. It is personal greed ascendant over the common good.  It is the triumph of now even at the expense of generations yet to come.   

It will take more than a public liturgy to reconstruct a notion of one that yet does justice to many.  It will take more than eloquent poetry or inspired rhetoric to help us form the more perfect union for this generation.  But Monday’s grand civic liturgy gave voice, at least for me, to the danger of many without one, a reminder that one and many, rights and responsibilities, diversity and unity, personal aspiration and common cause are always inextricably linked at the best moments of our national life.

E pluribus unam.  Out of many, one.  The familiar motto could be seen etched at the base of the statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome, while far below ideological enemies, political combatants and intellectual foes sat together, submitting to a common ritual that, for a moment at least, made them vulnerable to the possibility, the lure of one.  One today.  One sun.  One ground.  One sky.  One moon.  “All of us – facing the stars

hope – a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it – together.

John H. Thomas
January 24, 2013


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