E pluribus unum

by ericknight

National monuments are not a time for a nation to be modest. Think of Buckingham Palace, the Egyptian Pyramids, and the Eifel Tower. Americans, most of all, are enthusiatic subscribers to this philosophy which is why I was suprised to find my visit to the Capitol Building in Washington DC last December so enjoyable.

As the crowds of American tourists flooded into the auditorium for the 1.30pm screnning of E Pluribus Unum, I was sure that I had made a mistake. I like Americans, but not that much. The truth, though, was once the movie started I rather got into the swing of things.

E Pluribus Unum is the motto of the US. Latin scholars inform me it means ‘from many one’. The theme of the movie, as far as a pundit like me could discern, was that America – a nation built by immigrants - was united by the idea of freedom.

Waleed Aly, in his essay The Patriots Act, once said that Americans framed their national identity around a civic identity rather than a cultural one. The distinction deserves some explaning. Aly’s point was that America found its unity in an idea rather than the appearance of its people. It didn’t matter where you came from. It mattered how you treated your neighbour.

It is an admirable notion. Some might disagree that America embodies it but the Americans deserve points for trying.

The day before Australia Day, it is worth asking what Australia’s motto would be. Would it be cultural? Is it civic? Is Waltzing Matilda a song about a white ex-Englishmen or a man irreverent towards authority, or neither? I’m not sure. But if we ever did get a motto, my only vote is that it not be in Latin.

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