Another rejected oped. I have been trying to get McGilchrist and the divided-brain-model into the press with no success so far. It seems a waste to simply file them away. More to come from the past and, I expect more in the future.
What holds the United States together? This question has become very important in the face of the many rifts that have cropped up recently. The answer is not, as many might say, patriotism or nationalism or any other ideology. The glue lies in the many powers, rights, or duties that have been explicitly created through the ratification of the Constitution and subsequent law making. We are not so much a nation of laws as one built on all of the powers the laws have created. These powers are embedded in a multitude of what the American philosopher, John Searle, calls institutional facts. Unlike “brute” facts, like trees or houses or paper, institutional facts have no materiality. They exist simply because some powers have been assigned to an ordinary object, including people, by some authority simply by declaring it to be so. A chess piece is nothing more than a hunk of plastic that moves in certain ways determined by whoever invented the game. A judge is simply an ordinary human being who has certain powers because some authority has said so in the process of law-making.
The institutions that shape the norms by which we enact our quotidian activities, the things we do all the time, are made up by collections of such facts. The games we play are created by rules that give powers to ordinary objects, like a chess board and the various pieces. Life in a more complex institution, like a family, company, or nation, can be viewed as a more complicated game, with many pieces with similarly defined functions or powers. Our brains do not usually distinguish these institutional facts from “brute” facts, and we come to believe that they are just as real and permanent. But they are not, because created in language, they can be changed or erased by subsequent declarations. Searle calls these institutional facts and their powers the “glue that holds human civilization together.” And if these facts are ignored, the glue may lose its hold.
Our Nation is a huge institution created by a myriad of institutional facts. A few key ones include voter, citizen, taxpayer, President, Congress, and so on. Voters are simply persons who are empowered to cast a ballot from time to time. Ballot, itself, is another institutional fact—a piece of paper that counts for something. Political scientists and other specialists may argue about the relative importance of these facts, but if we are to call ourselves a democracy, one institutional fact stands out, voter. Only the voters can determine if we are being ruled by their consent. If citizens are stripped of their ability to vote, the glue the holds us together will fail sooner or later.
And if that should happen, the consequences will be both enormous and unknown. Those who are placing barriers on the ability to vote are playing with fire because, once the opportunity to express consent is lost, there is no way to know what will ensue. The nature of large complex systems like the United States confounds making predictions. One has only to study the events that occurred in Germany leading up to WWII. After citizenship was stripped from certain people, the nature of the polity changed in ways that fooled many pundits. Many institutional facts were created to serve the new masters, but the key event in the ungluing of Germany was the stripping of citizenship and the rights it carried.
The recent decisions of the Supreme Court and many state governments that condone the stripping away of voting rights ignore the danger. Our Founding Fathers limited the right to vote, presumably, in order to gather enough support to ratify the Constitution. Their error was major contributor to the Civil War. Continuing to play with it for political or any other incidental reason weakens the glue that binds us together, and may have effects that bode badly on even those who would appear to benefit. Our Justices and legislators who are playing with this foundational institutional fact should heed these chilling words from the German pastor, Martin Niemöller, uttered in the aftermath of WWII. The alarms are already ringing.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.