Kunin: On Unity

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(Host) The ongoing response of Vermonters to the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene has reminded commentator and former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin of what it means to be a good neighbor.

(Kunin) This past weekend, 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 – but 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 so abundant in our 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?

We’re all, basically made of the same stuff: generosity and selfishness, goodness and greed. But if we believe that the human condition is not that different from one place to another, how can we explain the recent agenda in Congress – to cut winter fuel subsidies, to chip away at 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.

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 new motto is: Each man and woman for him or herself. It’s become a form of social Darwinism – survival of the fittest, and forget about everybody else.

Why did programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and unemployment insurance come about 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.

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