Jim McClellan: E Pluribus Unum

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Our unofficial national motto is e pluribus unum, but Jim Mcclellan finds neither pluribus nor unum in our political discourse.

I have always loved the Latin phrase on our currency, e pluribus unum. Out of many, one. Though it’s not our official national motto, I have always thought it perfectly represented America. Even with divisions as deep as they are now, I still feel that way, though I’ve begun to think a little more about what unum and pluribus really mean today.

In school, I learned that pluribus referred to the 13 colonies, and that unum was America itself. But I think pluribus can refer to many things whose multiplicity we celebrate, like ethnicities, traditions, languages, values and ideas. The unum of America was always big enough for the pluribus of those who reached our shores.

But one thing I believe pluribus never referred to is something at the heart of our current divide, and that is, versions of the truth. Debating anything that’s debatable is a hallmark of American democracy, and it keeps us on our toes; it’s a healthy symbol of the constant energy of freedom. But debating about reality—about whether something actually happened—can fundamentally change the way one side sees the other. People on the other side cease to be mere opponents, and instead become angry deniers.

And when that mentality creeps in, the debate becomes a vehicle to dehumanize and humiliate the other. Victory in that sort of context is illusory, since it corrodes the foundation that so many generations have sacrificed to build.

I think the current obsession with shaming and humiliating the other side undermines both the pluribus and unum concepts. Multiple people from multiple places with multiple ideas made us what we are, and the greater the flow of fresh people and ideas, the stronger our alloyed country becomes.

E pluribus unum. To me, this phrase will always capture America’s essence, and remind me, as it does now, that there are some differences we should not celebrate, and some truths we must always share.

With a Perspective, I’m Jim McClellan.

Jim McClellan is co-founder of a logistics software company focused on the wine industry. He lives in Marin.