Since 2018’s 242nd anniversary of the signing of our country’s Declaration of Independence last year, the corollary concept of interdependence has been on my mind. The occasion of another Independence Day presents an opportunity to meditate on the nature of dependence, independence, and interdependence in their many manifestations.
Let us begin with the creation of the political entity known as the United States of America, which was enacted in writing. The holiday justly celebrates the document’s call for rights and protection from unjust rule and the endeavor to create a state ruled by law and not by the whims of a tyrant. Its rousing language and masterful turns of phrase deserve continued study not only by politicians and legal scholars, but by aspiring writers and rhetoricians. Generations, whether born on American or foreign soil, have benefitted from the Declaration and its companion documents, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Our revolution inspired those of other nations. Today we remember our history.
As sparklers wave in the hands of children and mortars of many colors explode high over the cool, slow waters of the Willamette, do not forget that this act of political independence is itself not independent. Had the revolution never taken place, the abolition of slavery may have followed a course similar to that in England and continental Europe. Instead, it was written into the foundational laws. Today we remember our history.
Without separating from Britain, the Louisiana Purchase may not have transpired; the sale of a vast, tactically valuable territory to Britain during the Napoleonic Wars is unlikely. Perhaps the Anglophone British colonies and the Francophone Louisiana Territory would have aggregated into a bilingual state similar to Canada. The restriction of the Anglophone North American political entity to the area east of the Mississippi would have never permitted the so-called manifest destiny philosophy to arise. Thus the genocides of Native Americans living west of the Mississippi might never have occurred. Today we remember our history.
Perhaps a North American nation that had never broken with Britain would now be part of the Commonwealth of Nations with India, Canada, Australia, and others. Such an association would mean a different set of American interests and alliances. Perhaps The Long War of the twentieth century (a classification encompassing the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and other conflicts from 1914 through 1990 all fought over the same set of concerns) would have been less gruesome with a less equivocal, neutral North American nation. Today we remember our history.
Conjecturing on alternate courses of history shows the interdependence of all phenomena. Nothing arises in a void. Nor is it true that any development is wholly good or bad because the ramifications are too numerous and far-reaching for simple classification. This examination of one instance of political independence shows how it is one facet of interdependence-dependence-independence, a phenomenon of existence with many faces.
This thinking can also be extended to other aspects of life. Although the dominant cultural discourse focuses on the individual, each person is part of a web stretching across the planet and back through our heritage into prehistoric times. Our focus on personal independence stems in part from the individualist language of the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and the antecedent formation of the same principles (life, liberty, and property).
Neither independence nor interdependence are problems; they are different aspects of the relations between all phenomena (organisms, events, ideas, physical objects, etc). One is not more important than another, nor is either ever in deficit or surplus. When value systems subsume one or the other, there is not more or less independence or interdependence, but instability results. Interdependence is not something on which to work; it simply is.
As I begin to write this article on 29 June in a certain well-known coffee chain bearing the name of a character in Moby-Dick, a march goes by my window. They shout unintelligible slogans and wave signs. A white U-Haul pickup truck with an external sound system blasting stops at the intersection of SW 3rd and Jefferson; a thin blonde woman wearing a tight pink minidress gyrates in the back and a man holds up a fuschia sign. When the light changes it makes a right turn onto Jefferson from the middle lane. Other groups with their own trappings and theatrics will be there to meet them, wherever there is. A few hours later the Portland Police rule the violent confrontations of today’s groups a civil disturbance.
The unrest, confusion, anxiety, and fear that seem to so permeate our time—as evidenced by the now routine clashes in which discourse and civility have broken down to the point of planned and glorified bouts of violence and mockery—are symptoms of the misdirection of values and effort. We are as interdependent as always, but the general malaise and discontent comes from having lost sight of this and treating large swaths of society as irredeemable foes while remaining myopically focused on immediate, glittering amusement and online vilification of the unorthodox passed off as social interaction, all taking place on small tracking devices marketed as luxury goods.
With the mind surveying history and the present day, the course is clear. Do not work on independence/interdependence, but act in accord with the dual verity. By fully meditating on and studying what most benefits the family, the city, the nation, the world (and all the living beings on it)—all of existence—the way to act in accordance with independence/interdependence will be revealed.
We are many, and yet we are all one. Each must stand alone, but we all must stand together. As the inscription on our American money says, E Pluribus Unum. From the many, one.