I believe in the integrity of the atom

On the morning of the 4th of July, a friend of mine [1] was greeted with a cheery, “Happy Birthday.”  I’m sure he responded to the sentiment in a gentle way, but inside, he felt himself strongly rejected the idea.  The birthday of a country like ours, mired in division and tiptoeing in the direction of fascism.  “Birthday of our country.  Hah!”  Or some such sentiment.

He was still in that mood later in the morning when he told me about it.  He and I have roughly similar political views, but it turns out that we differ a great deal on what I am calling, maybe just for this morning, “atomic integrity.”

I didn’t have that label handy while we were talking, but I must have had something similar in mind because I accused him, at one point, of being “anti-proton.” [2]  Before we get deep into atomic theory, which I make no pretense of understanding, let’s look at the kind of examples everyone will understand.

The Inauguration of the President of the United States

That is the title Donald Trump currently holds.  In my view, he demeans and tarnishes it every day, but he is the only person in the world who currently holds it and it was bestowed on him on inauguration day.  And our Congressman, Earl Blumenauer, made a point of refusing to attend it.  He didn’t slink off into some dark corner.  He didn’t say he needed to spend more time with the wife and kids.  He said he did not want to be “complicit” in the presidency of Donald Trump.

Earl [3] seriously misunderstands the role of inaugurations.  Inaugurations are the time4th of July 1 that Americans get together and celebrate the peaceful transfer of the executive power.  All the little routines that are staged surrounding the ceremony point to it.  The President and the First Lady meet with the President-elect and First-Lady-to be at the White House, but only the latter two return.

What is that for?  It is a dramatic statement that the White House and the Presidency belong to us all and that, while it is true that elsewhere in the world the losing candidate is put up against a wall and shot, that is not true here.  The Inauguration is our chance, as Americans, to support the legitimacy of the office.  There is always the chance, after all, that we will come some day to want the office to be held in high regard, don’t you think?  And how will we do that?  Well… not by turning the ceremony into a partisan celebration as Earl has done. There will be a lot of that in the White House later and people will cheer each other’s efforts and say, in one language or another, “We won!” or “We really showed the bastards, didn’t we” or whatever.  Earl and I will not be invited to such parties and would not go if we were.  Those are partisan celebrations and we belong to the other party.

But the inauguration is for everyone.

An American Culture is for everyone, too.

This is the kind of point that gets me into trouble, but stay with me.  We are just about to go nuclear.

4th of july 3

A society has a common core of values.  If it doesn’t, it is not a society.  It also has a range of values which differ from each other. It has both commonality and diversity.   My argument is that the more strongly the center is affirmed—not tolerated, but actively affirmed—the greater is the range of differences that can be tolerated [4]

Back in the old days, it was common to refer to America as a “melting pot.”  Disparate materials got put into the pot and melted and became all one substance.  People from various cultures became American and affirmed the common values and the common language of the new land.  It was an act of belonging.

In 1971, Michael Novak wrote a book with a truly memorable title: The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics.  His point was that the new immigrants, unlike the old, have no intention of “melting” into some generality Americanism.  They want to live here and remain “Old Country.” [5]  They want to keep the boundaries that define “us” by contrast with “them” and they want to add their own private identity to their identity as Americans or they want to completely substitute the private one for the public one.  The first would say, “Yes, I am an American.  I am also an Old Country Resident.”  See!  I told you it was going to get awkward.  Or he could say, “No, I am not an American (except technically), I am an Old Country Resident instead.  I just live in America.”

That’s what unmeltable means.

Nuclear Politics

Finally.   So here’s my idea.  The bigger the nucleus of an atom, the more electrons will remain in its orbit.  There is nothing really fancy about this idea.  It looks like this.

atom 1All you really need is the understanding that the nucleus is like the common values and practices and the electrons are like the diverse—unassimilable—parts that also define a healthy society.  Using this analogy commits us to all kinds of absurdities.  It allows us to imagine, for instance, that an atom might want to have more electrons than it can currently “afford”—at its current level of electromagnetic attraction—and decides to “add more protons and neutrons,” as if it were a squirrel adding nuts to the larder for the winter.

But at the level of society, it isn’t silly at all.  The Supreme Court is capable of saying that saluting the flag is absolutely mandatory in schools as World War II is approaching and fascism looks unstoppable (Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 1940)  and deciding that it is not mandatory after all, later in the war (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943) when it looks like things are going to come out all right after all.

Societies are perfectly capable of withstanding centrifugal elements—the orbit of theatom 5 electrons, for instance—if the intensity to the common core is strong and stable.  Societies feel, as the loyalty and trust begin to wane that they can no longer afford to have the norms challenged and they begin tightening up and get all anti-electron.

So what is only an exercise in absurdity as it relates to atoms is everyday common sense as it relates to societies, and where I live, many of us can remember such swings from challenge to trust and back.

Obvious implications

So if you are a liberal like my friend—and I don’t mean anything extreme by that—you are prone to partiality toward those parts of society that have the hardest time.  They have been “marginalized,” liberals say. [6]  They aren’t trying hard enough, conservatives say.  And if you have religious language available to you, you might find yourself referring to the people whom you would most like to see benefitted by public policy as “the least, the lost, and the last,” which, you have to admit, is nicely alliterative.

My friend would definitely be pro-electron.  He likes protest and dissent.  He likes diversity.  He likes “unmeltable ethnics.”  He likes, as a matter of moral principle, all the things which, if they are not counterbalanced by a strong and resolute commitment to the values we hold in common, are unsustainable.

But I think a case can be made for being “pro-atom.”  The atom is not going to hold together if the attractive force—technically, the “electronegativity,” I learned on an internet search—is not enough to keep the electrons in their orbits.  So if I want more electrons—those diverse and discrepant elements of society without which we would be Pleasantville—I also want a bigger stronger nucleus.  “You can’t have,” in a memorable phrase from my past, “one without the other.”

So every opportunity we have to augment the nucleus (and thereby the nuclear attractive force) should be seized upon.  National anthem, inaugurations, reverence for the flag, respect for our political forebears, even, at the extreme, a kind remark for straight white males.  The atomic model holds that the more strength the center has—the more we invest in common values and practices—the more diversity we can afford without destroying the integrity (literally, the wholeness) of the atom itself.

The fundamental perversity of the atomic model is that many fans of the nucleus imagine themselves as valuing the nucleus rather than the electrons.  Many supporters of the electrons imagine themselves to have “transcended” the mere nucleus.  But those of us who value atomic integrity understand that the more we contribute to the gravity of the nucleus, the more we can celebrate the diversity of the electrons.

I don’t think “perverse” is too strong an accolade  for that understanding of where we are.

[1]  And a fellow resident of Holladay Park Plaza (HPP) a continuing care retirement center (CCRC) in Portland, Oregon.

[2]  Very likely “anti-nucleus” would have been better but there are so many ways a name like that can go wrong.

[3]  Earl was my first political contact in Portland when I moved here in 1980.  I’m not pretending to an unrealistic familiarity with the representative of House District #3 in Oregon.  He also gave me one of the most consequential pieces of advice I have ever received.  We were out running on Terwilliger hill one morning and he said, “You have got to stop saying Yes to dead-end academic jobs.  If you want to get into public policy, just stop saying Yes when they call.”  So I did.

[4]  They can be “celebrated” too, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  You don’t want to celebrate differences that will blow the whole social cohesion sky high.  We already did that once and had almost done it several other times.  It isn’t pretty.

[5]  I tried several specific names—a specific name would pack a little more punch than “Old Country”—but in the context of this point, every one of them sounded derogatory to my ear, so I just left it out.  You may feel free to supply your own.

[6]  Often there is not much awareness that the -ized suffix means that someone has done this.  Saying that a group is marginal is not at all the same as saying that they have been marginalized any more than saying that someone has died is the same as saying that he was murdered.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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