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October's Presidential Speech Discussion

October 28, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

As usual, I reaped the biggest benefit from organizing and leading the Quarterly Discussion program. In light of the upcoming election, I devoted October's discussion to presidential speeches. It was not surprising to hear discord, but the places that it arose did surprise me. All participants stated clear, direct, thoughtful comments that just happened to disagree in certain things. As a result, I learned two very important lessons from this discussion.

First, for this discussion, I did not choose any blatantly controversial speeches. I chose the usuals: the Washingtons and Jeffersons and Lincolns. And even within these foundational speeches of our society, our group found debate. The Presidents ask that each individual identify with the national spirit. In order to maintain one nation, we must feel a part of it, feel pride in it. However, one participant claimed that Washington's idea of unity was misguided. This participant claimed that in his “Farewell Address,” President Washington should have dedicated the part of his speech regarding unity to honest opinion and generosity instead. In other words, President Washington should have called for generosity of spirit instead of unity of spirit. While Washington does ask for generosity in other sections, he clearly finds that unity is vital in creating a single country. He writes, “[I]t is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness.... Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections.” Therefore, I found the participant's comment profoundly insightful. What if Washington had asked that the United States be united in the spirit of generosity, asking that we listen to those who disagree with us and vice versa?

And second, I learned that persuasive speech bent upon the idea of unity, will often arrive at exactly the opposite. The idea of a unified public is so controversial, so difficult to understand and always changing, that when a President attempts to label American ideals, they are met with naysayers who do not wish to be a part of such a group. Rhetoric that deals with unity, then, often unites or divides, but rarely finds a middle ground. This is something that Lincoln addresses in his “Second Inaugural Address” when he states, “[L]et us judge not lest we be judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully." Lincoln defers ultimate judgement to God, in whom he trusts to make the right decision. This attempt to unify a broken people, is bound to fail in some respects. But ultimately, was this the right speech at the right time? By deferring to God, does Lincoln make too passive a stance? Does Lincoln place the power in God's hands simply because this is the most efficient way forward, even though it is an indefensible argument?

Reading these speeches reminds me just how precious balance is. Each of us left this conversation having understood another's opinion, but perhaps all still agreeing to disagree. I find that we are the better for it. And perhaps, therein lies our unity, not in arguing to agreement, but agreeing to understand, acknowledge and listen to another point of view. When we discuss with respect, I always learn something invaluable. It is my way of learning.

I do regret that we could not touch upon the idea of changing times. A number of the speeches note that it is 'a special time', or a 'time of change' and that the country is entering a 'new era'. This is discussed by Lyndon B. Johnson during the racial strife. This is also discussed by Franklin D. Roosevelt as he contemplates the implications of global war. President Woodrow Wilson claims that “We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among individual citizens of a civilized state.” I am fascinated by the idea that governments must address rights in terms of individuals, in terms of global economies and in terms of a single “self” such as a government must be. I also want to understand the play of past and future within the single moment caught in these speeches. I will have to follow up on these ideas in the future. Until then, I feel that we found an interesting agreement in disagreeing, and I feel a growing awareness and understanding of unity. My gratitude to all of the participants. Thank you!

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E Pluribus Unum

August 26, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

For the past few weeks, I have been reading presidential speeches. If you want inspiration at a time when – as many claim – spirit regarding politics is at a low point, I encourage you to read presidential speeches. Many of these addresses were given in times of great need, heartache, danger or fear. The leader's voice comes through in these speeches as a leader of the many. This theme is constant in all of the speeches that I have read – the reinforcement that we are a unified peoples. The Great Seal of the United States of America still reads: e pluribus unum. Out of one, many. In De Offficiis, Cicero writes, “Nothing, moreover, is more conducive to love and intimacy than compatibility of character in good men; for when two people have the same ideals and the same tastes, it is a natural consequence that each loves the other as himself; and the result is, as Pythagoras requires of ideal friendship, that several are united in one.”(1) And much moreso when we are speaking of nations. Maintaining unity and friendship is much more complicated than it would appear. Constant pressures and changes affect every citizen in a variety of ways, independent of the events themselves. Perhaps this is the reason for the repeated emphasis upon the idea of unity as it pertains to the United States of America.

Though President Eisenhower changed the motto to In God We Trust in 1956, unity must be on the minds of most Americans as well. A Google search for “e pluribus unum” yields innumerable projects, businesses and technologies. What do all of these projects have in common? How do a many become a one? What is unity, singularity and why do we continue to rely on the evasive structure provided by this Latin phrase? This phrase founds businesses as diverse as a tattoo artist, construction company, and even one artist's project dedicated toward understanding a nation within a nation. That we need to come together has never been questioned, but how to create unity is always in doubt.

In 1956, Eisenhower approved the motto change from e pluribus unum to In God We Trust. Though the Great Seal remains unchanged, In God We Trust is the official motto of United States. In Dwight D. Eisenhower's Military-Industrial speech from 1961, he notes that “We face a hostile ideology – global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.” Perhaps this idea is one which influenced the change in mottoes. Later in the same speech, he continues:

“Down the long lane of history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
“Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” (Watch the entire speech here).

I am drawn to the complex idea of unity that Eisenhower presents in this speech. At once he discusses the vast global changes, changes in technology and access to the world, and also to our own specific American identity within that globe. There is fear. There is pride. There is hope. But he also expresses great sadness. I think that all peoples can identify with these emotions as some sort of foundations of being itself.

As President in a time following war and also internal social struggles, Eisenhower's speech shows both wisdom and an informed perspective. It is only one of ten speeches that we will read for Harrison Middleton University's upcoming October Quarterly Discussion. Each speech discusses values and principles that are intended to unite a mass of unique individuals and inspire all of us with a sense of nation and self. We look forward to discussing values, identity, unity, and more with you. To join the conversation, email asimon@hmu.edu .

(1) http://www.constitution.org/rom/de_officiis.htm

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