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Madeleine M. Kunin Headshot

E Pluribus Unum or Social Darwinism?

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This past weekend, hundreds and hundreds of Vermonters responded to the governor's call to help clean up the debris left behind by the onslaught of tropical storm Irene. We may never get the exact count -- it doesn't matter. What we got was another affirmation of the Vermont sense of community. Ever since the rivers overflowed their banks many Vermonters brimmed over with empathy for their neighbors, and often, for complete strangers.

Why did they leave their own comfort zone to comfort others? And why does this generous spirit seem to only surface in our small state, when the country at large is in need of a similar sense of neighborliness? Is it because we are a small state where a lot of people know one another; is it because we can see the devastation with our own eyes, and do not rely on anonymous photographs and statistics that are scrubbed of all emotion? Or is it, as we may be tempted to conclude, that we in Vermont are simply better than those in other far-flung states?

I doubt that we're that much better. We're all, basically made of the same stuff: generosity and selfishness, goodness and greed. If we believe that the human condition is not that different from one place to another, how can we accept or explain the recent agenda in the Congress -- to cut winter fuel subsidies, to chip away at the Medicare and Medicaid, to cut food programs, at a time when the coming winter will again be cold, people will continue to get sick, and a shameful percentage of Americans -- especially children -- have to go to bed with gnawing tummies.

Why can't that sense of neighborliness, which works locally, work nationally? In theory, it should. The great seal of the United States of America has spelled out the Latin words, E pluribus Unum, since it was adopted in 1782. Out of many one.

The state of Vermont's seal is similar. "Freedom and Unity."

Unity is our local and national theme. Whatever conditions confront us -- good times or bad -- the message is, we are in this together. For better or worse, we stand side by side.

In Vermont we've had the opportunity to translate those words into action. In Washington, the translation of E Pluribus Unum has been lost. The belief that we are one nation -- united in purpose -- caring about and for one another is no longer the practice. The budget battles reveal that the new motto is: Each man and woman for him or herself has become a form of social Darwinism -- survival of the fittest and forget everybody else. Providing help to those who need it is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Why did programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and unemployment insurance exist in the first place? It was not because we were a rich nation; it was because we were a caring nation. We knew how to walk in someone else's shoes and could feel where they pinched. It is time to resurrect that sense of neighborliness on a national scale, so that E Pluribus Unum gains meaning once again.