A Sad Tale of Two Unions The Signing of the American Constitution in Philadelphia on 17 September 1787
n the 18th century, on the North American continent a union was formed by 13 English colonies who had declared independence from their mother country and sealed it in blood by war, the so called war of independence. A new nation on a new continent was born which called itself the United States of America. In 1787 a Constitution was drafted and signed. Via that constitution the new nation established a national government and fundamental laws, and guaranteed certain basic rights for its citizens.

The constitution provides for three branches–executive, legislative and judicial–along with a system of checks and balances to ensure no single branch would have too much power. It was in short a political confederacy predicated on democratic ideals of liberty and solidarity and a fair division and balance of power; a sort of one for all and all for one system. There was, and continues to be, a fair amount of distribution of wealth and contingency financial help in times of natural disasters. E.g., even today, 5% of the gross budget of the prosperous state of Connecticut goes to the coffers of the Federal Government to help poor States like Mississippi. That’s what it takes to be a confederacy.

But there was a vexing problem, a sort of snake in the beautiful garden, and it was this: while the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution spoke of egalitarian democratic principles respecting the dignity of all citizens, there were some states in the union which wished to ignore those ideals. They deemed their pragmatic economic interests as more important and relevant than the union itself. To protect those economic interests they decided that those universal ideals of solidarity and democracy simply did not apply to one third of the population, their African-American slaves. To be sure some founding fathers themselves, such as Washington and Jefferson, did not provide any kind of shiny example in this regard. For personal economic reasons they too kept their slaves.

So there ensued an obvious dichotomy between the exemplary political theory written on paper and the day-to-day social and democratic practices of the new nation; which is to say, the economy ended up trumpeting the solidarity among all citizens, and the ideals expressed in the constitution, and so the foundations of “a more perfect union” and its vision for the future began to slowly erode till some 80 years later the union, not unlike a house built on weak foundations, almost collapsed via a destructive civil war which took the lives of half a million combatants. That was surely an exorbitant price to pay for the selfish short term economic interests of the rich and privileged, for an original fundamental disagreement which was kicked down the road, but could have been easily settled by duly honoring those ideals spelled out in the constitution.

There is another union created on the European continent in the 20th century, some sixty years ago. In some way it paralleled the one on the American continent some 200 years before. It too was predicated on democratic ideals of solidarity. It was called the European Union. It began as a merely economic union but eventually became a political cultural entity, a sort of confederacy of one for all and all for one as exemplified by the original union of the American British colonies.

This union too grew by leaps and bounds and the honor of membership in it enticed many European countries. It grew fast to arrive at 27 participating States by the end of the 20th century. One such states, England, has since withdrawn from the union. In any case, as in a confederacy the States (or nations) kept their internal sovereignty while belonging to a greater union called EU. There was no common language to be sure but there was, at least for some, a common currency and a common culture in as much as they all identified themselves as Europeans, even if the interpretation of what may mean varies greatly from nation to nation and individual to individual. The common currency as adopted by the eurozone as a portent of an inevitable future prosperity was found especially attractive by the late joiners, the countries of Eastern Europe once satellites of the Soviet Union. The assumption all along was that the union would forever be governed by principles of solidarity and distributive justice as stipulated by its constitution.

It’s important to remember that the whole union belonged to NATO, a defense agreement with that other union across the Atlantic which had by now become the most powerful super-power on earth; membership in NATO remains, in fact, a condition for joining the Union. Under the Marshall Plan which was set up after World War II to help the devastated countries of Europe, especially Germany which had provoked the war, and with the protection of the US nuclear umbrella during the Cold War that ensued World War II, the union prospered enormously and became, for a while at least, a beacon of democracy, freedom and solidarity to the rest of the world. That’s no longer the case as one observes countries such as Hungary and the various right-wing groups all over Europe, close their borders and their hearts to new immigrants and refugees.

It appears that the original lesson of the original 13 US colonies has been all but forgotten, for here too there is a snake in the garden and this garden is situated in Greece, one of the States of the union where Democracy had been born and that could have provided at least part of the cultural glue for the whole union. When this tiny country of some 11 million people found itself in financial troubles however, far from receiving help and solidarity, it was rescued with questionable shark loans by the EU bankers at exorbitant interest rates.

It had in effect failed its first test just as had happened in the union across the Atlantic when it failed the first test of declaring that all men are created equal not just in theory but in practice. In this case too practical economic considerations trumped the political solidarity expressed on paper. The bankers of the union such as the IMF or the EUCB kept demanding, and are still demanding, repayment of a debt which they know full well can never be repaid. Solutions such as the Marshall Plan and debt forgiveness by which Germany had been generously helped and restored to financial health in the late forties were not even contemplated, never mind implemented. That too had been forgotten. Generosity and magnanimity were simply trumped by financial greed. Savage capitalism had won the day.

The lessons to be learned by the tragic experience of a civil war by that other union across the Atlantic, alas, has been all but forgotten by a crucial member of the Union (Germany) who once again financially and politically has come to dominate the whole European continent.

Now, let the reader fill in the dots of this tale of two unions keeping in mind the parallels above delineated. That should not be too hard to accomplish. The common moral of this tale of two unions is that a union founded on ideals on paper which are then forgotten and disrespected in practice, will not last very long. It may rhetorically remain on paper for a while but it will fail in practice. History confirms it. Centrifugal forces will eventually win over. That too should not be very hard to imagine, given the resulting hard lesson of the American civil war.

Now, one may call this tale a rant, or one may call it a prophecy, a warning of terrible things still to come, unless the warning is heeded and a turn-around occurs. Time is running out. History will eventually have the last word. Let those who have ears, let them hear.

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.