Unamerican: Introduction-The Sum of Zero

Crossposted over at the UPC.

“Imagine how difficult the concept of zero must have been to grasp.”

Of all the great teachers I’ve had whilst in school, my 8th grade math teacher had to be the best. You know it’s a good sign when the teacher introduces himself by providing his theory on learning; “learning is a pleasurable experience. I’m not talking about homework, or busy work, or anything like that, but the exact moment when you grasp a concept that you did not grasp before…there’s nothing like it in the world.” And he was right. Not about the learning being pleasurable bit. Well, he was right about that too, but I’m trying desperately to swerve off of this tangent and back on topic. He was, in my most humble of opinions, correct regarding the difficulty of the concept of zero.

(note: Yes, I’m eventually going to tie this in with politics eventually)

Positive quantities, conceptually speaking, are pretty rudimentary. If you have something, you have something. If you hold in your hand an apple, you have some quantity of an apple. Now even assuming you do not grasp a sequential system of numbers, it is understandable to the most basic of consciousness that if you hold one apple, but the person beside you holds two, that that person has MORE than you do. You may not necessarily have a complex enough intellect to understand that you have ONE, and she has TWO, but you know that you have SOME, and the person besides you has MORE. It is from basic thought process that one can reasonably assume the necessity of going from some, more and less, to definable numbers.

But zero.

My daughter is a year old, and my wife and I, both thinking highly of ourselves as intellectuals, read voraciously on her development. For the early months, as her intellect was really developing, an object only existed to her if she was able to sense it, more specifically, see it. Now if we take a very layman step and assume that the progress of the human mind over the eons is similar to that of a developing child today, than we can reasonably assume that at the very dawn of man’s intellect, he too experienced a similar phenomenon. If he could sense the item, then it existed. If he could not sense the item, it was not registered as an absence of the item, but instead, the item failed to exist completely. If our furthest ancestors held an apple, then threw it away, that apple would not only cease to exist, but the very archetype of apples in general would cease to exist until man came accross another.

So I agree with my former mentor in that it was a profound step for homo sapiens to make the logical conscious mental leap that the non existence of an item was in and of itself a tangible, tactile, idea, an idea that is represented as zero. Zero: the absense of an item.

It is this conceptual leap that allows for many mathematical applications that have extended to practical applications allowing you to enjoy a little bed time reading thanks to the glow of an electric lamp, or traverse great distances quickly in vehicles such as automobiles, trains, etc. But there is a very important social aspect to Zero as well. This concept allows us to characterize something not only by traits apparent in any given object, but also by the lack of traits.

For example, a person can be not just short, but also, “not tall”. Because once our minds were capable of understanding that there can be a lack of something, then it is possible for us to understand the universe around us in things that it lacks as well as those things that it has.

Which brings me to the very specific example that acts as the title of this article. It is a word that plagues the backwaters of political discourse in today’s day and age, one that seeks to undermine decent intentions and reasonable dissent by bringing in to question in a negative light the very motives that some may say drive a healthy democracy. Unamerican; the absence of all qualities American.

In a series of articles that follow, I intend to take a long hard look at the state of patriotism in modern America, and how the idea of Unamericanism has acted as a poison upon the state of true patriotism, society, and politics. But, just like our cavemen ancestors, to understand the absence of all qualities American, it is vital that we know what it means to be an American.

So what is an American? As a male am I required to drool over fast cars? Watch sports? Get misty eyed everytime the National Anthem is played at a sporting event? Am I supposed to get hooked on reality television, and fly an American Flag in my front lawn?

It’s not that hard. Not for me anyway. Since I was born in the USA, I am an American. That simple. My wife, who is first generation Chinese (meaning she was born here, but her parents weren’t) is also an American. In fact, for those of us born in America, it’s pretty hard not to be an American. I can’t simply say, “I’m no longer an American,” and poof, I become an ex-American, or Unamerican. As Bobby Fischer could probably tell you, you have to declare it by signing, in person, an oath renouncing your American Citizenship, on foreign soil, with an American Diplomat as a witness. And even then, it can be refused.

Now, going back to my wife’s family. They were born in China, so does that make them Unamerican? Actually, no, it doesn’t, because they are “naturalized,” meaning they met the requirements for becoming an American citizen. They speak English, have a knowledge of American History, have a decent disposition towards the US, are of decent moral fiber, and passed a test.

Then there is the whole marrying an American Citizen thing, but we’ll leave that one to romantic comedies and sitcoms.

So there you have it, what it means to be an American. You either had to be born here, or underwent naturalization. That’s it. Damn, my series is done isn’t it? I mean, if we look at the definition of an American, one can imply that an Unamerican is someone who does not meet one of these two (really three) requirements.

The End

But wait… if life were really that easy, whole sociology departments on college campuses would be shut down. Blind patriotism, and its use as a weapon in political discourse would be placid, if not non-existent. So what gives? Obviously my work isn’t done, and I hope you’ll join me over the following weeks, and maybe months as we explore exactly what it means to be Unamerican.

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