Deep Democratic Tradition in America
[Ralph Waldo Emerson]
excerpted from the book
Winning the Fight Against Imperialism
by Cornell West
Penguin Books, 2004, paper
White suburbanites and middle-class blacks (and others) are preoccupied
with the daily pursuit of the comfort of their material lives.
In many cases they literally wall themselves off into comfortable
communities, both physical and social, in which they can safely
avert their eyes from the ugly realities that afflict so many
of our people. Because they are able to buy the cars and take
the vacations they want, they are all too willing to either disregard
the political and social dysfunctions afflicting the country or
accept facile explanations for them.
The emptiness of our political culture has driven a surge of civically
engaged religiosity in the form of the rise of the religious Right,
with its misguided righteousness and its narrow, exclusionary,
and punitive perspective on the country's social ills... So zealous
has this movement become that it has turned into a hugely divisive
and antidemocratic force in the country.
The violence-obsessed and greed-driven elements of American culture
project themselves out to the world so powerfully-and offensively-that
the world has developed a problematic love-hate relationship with
America, the ugly extremes of which we are now forced to confront.
The first grand democratic experiment in Athens was driven by
a movement of the demos-citizen- peasants-organizing to make the
Greek oligarchs who were abusing their power accountable. Democracy
is always a movement of an energized public to make elites responsible-it
is at its core and most basic foundation the taking back of one's
powers in the face of the misuse of elite power. In this sense,
democracy is more a verb than a noun-it is more a dynamic striving
and collective movement than a static order or stationary status
quo. Democracy is not just a system of governance, as we tend
to think of it, but a cultural way of being.
The indisputable godfather of the deep democratic tradition in
America is Emerson, a literary artist of dramatic and visionary
eloquence and the first full-blown democratic intellectual in
the United States. Emerson was an intellectual who hungered most
of all to communicate to broad publics. He reveled in the burning
social issues of his day (the annihilation of Native Americans,
slavery), highlighting the need for democratic individuals to
be nonconformist, courageous, and true to themselves. He believed
that within the limited framework of freedom in our lives, individuals
can and must create their own democratic individuality. He understood
that democracy is not only about the workings of the political
system but more profoundly about individuals being empowered and
enlightened (and suspicious of authorities) in order to help create
and sustain a genuine democratic community, a type of society
that was unprecedented in human history. And he knew that mission
required questioning prevailing dogmas as well as our own individual
beliefs and biases. A democratic public must continuously create
new attitudes, new vocabularies, new outlooks, and new visions-all
undergirded by individual commitment to scrutiny and volition.
He refused to accept the conventional wisdom of leaders and the
narrow pronouncements of experts. In his famous essay "Self-Reliance,"
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the
name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing
is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
There is a time in every man's education
when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that
imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for
worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of
good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through
his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him
to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and
none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know
until he has tried.
Emerson offered the empowering insight
that to be a democratic individual is to be flexible and fluid,
revisionary and reformational in one's dealings with fellow citizens
and the world, not adhering to comfortable dogmas or rigid party
lines. He posits that the core of being a democrat is to think
for one's self, judge for one's self, trust one's self, rely on
one's self, and be serene in one's own skin-without being self-indulgent,
narcissistic, or self-pitying. This was not a standard beyond
the enactment of everyday people, and the concerns of everyday
people were the proper focus of democratic inquiry. In "The
American Scholar," Emerson declares:
The literature of the poor, the feelings
of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household
life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is
a sign-is it not? of new vigor when the extremities are made active,
when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I
ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing
in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy;
I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar,
Emerson's democratic individual is a freedom
fighter against those obstacles that stand in the way of a rich
individuality, especially weighty dogma, crusty custom, and suffocating
prejudice. The dominant American ideal of individual upward mobility
was espoused by Herbert Hoover:
It is by the maintenance of equality
of opportunity and therefore of a society absolutely fluid in
freedom of the movement of its human particles that our individualism
departs from the individualism of Europe. We resent class distinction
because there can be no rise for the individual through the frozen
strata of classes and no stratification of class can take place
in a mass livened by the free rise of its particles.
Yet this is but a portion of Emerson's
ideal of deep democratic individuality. He indeed applauds equality
of opportunity, but he criticizes the narrow American dream of
material prosperity as a form of conformism and sleepwalking that
overlooks more fundamental goods like character and virtue. He
Men such as they are, very naturally
seek money or power; and power because it is as good as money
.... And why not? For they aspire to the highest, and this, in
their sleep-walking, they dream is highest. Wake them, and they
shall quit the false good and leap to the true .... This revolution
is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture.
The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is
the upbuilding of a man.
This invasion of nature by trade with
its money. threatens to upset the balance of man and establish
a new Universal Monarchy more tyrannical than Babylon or Rome.
Trade is the lord of the world nowadays-&
government only a parachute to this balloon.
There is nothing more important in the
culture of man than to resist the dangers of commerce.
Out of doors all seems a market.
In fact, in a low moment, Emerson quipped
that "my quarrel with America, of course, was that the geography
is sublime, but the men are not." He saw the country as infected
with pervasive "selfishness, fraud and conspiracy."
He mourned "the American people just as they are, with their
vast material interests, materialized intellect and low morals"
regulated by a capitalist "system of selfishness... of distrust,
of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving but of taking
advantage." He darkly concluded that "we are a puny
and feeble folk." Yet, though the nightside of America depressed
him, he never lost his democratic hope. Although he and America
might be "defeated everyday," Americans, he wrote, were
"born to victory." This struggle was intensified in
his famous efforts to oppose the "removal" of the Cherokee
from Georgia in 1835 and to contest the Fugitive Slave Act of
1850. In his public praise of John Brown after the raid on Harpers
Ferry and in his celebration of the emancipation of slaves in
the West Indies (when he shared the platform with the great Frederick
Douglass), Emerson demonstrated a sincere, yet cautious, commitment
Emerson devoted his life to inspiring
the public with his vision of the powers of self-enrichment that
our democracy offers and moving them to engage with the issues
of the day. He crafted a soaring and emotionally powerful rhetoric
that made him the most popular speaker of his time. He believed
deeply in the need for democratic intellectuals to exercise powers
of persuasion, to take back the public's attention from superficial
and unfulfilling diversions, and to hold our public officials
to a higher standard. To do just that, he trained his artistic
voice to sing in order to spark courage, confidence, and comfort
in our perennial struggles to become who we are and what America
can be. His inspirations in this regard were the Roman public
figures Quintilian and Cicero, who put forth seminal arguments
about the powers and the mandates of public rhetoric in terms
of keeping a government and society honest and inspiring the public
to be engaged.
As the linguist George Lakoff has argued,
the imperialist right wing in America today has crafted a conservative
rhetoric that has had a seductive effect on the American public,
and progressive democrats must come swinging back with a much
more persuasive and inspiring rhetoric that speaks to the democratic
issues of equality of opportunity, service to the poor, and a
focus on public interest.
Emerson took that rhetorical mission seriously,
writing prose songs that were meant to unsettle the public, to
jolt us out of our sleepwalking and inspire us to stay the democratic
course. For Emerson, to be a democratic individual is to speak
out on uncomfortable truths; to be an active player in public
discourse is to be thrown into life's contingency and fragility
with the heavy baggage of history and tradition, baggage like
the American legacies of race and empire.
And he put his philosophy of how to be
a deep democrat into practice. He left his Unitarian ministry
and pastorate because of his disagreement over doctrine. He refused
to serve communion due to his iconoclastic beliefs. He then literally
became a kind of secular intellectual minister who traveled throughout
the country (he gave more than sixty lectures in a year at the
age of sixty-two--with no airplanes or air-conditioned hotels!),
speaking at lyceums, theaters, forums, or community centers. For
over thirty years, Emerson spoke to his fellow citizens in their
towns and cities about literature, history, manners, politics,
and other sundry topics face-to-face and soul-to-soul. He was
banned from Harvard-his alma mater-for nearly thirty years after
his infamous lecture at the divinity school in 1838 that questioned
the divinity of Jesus. In that penetrating oration he raised issues
that are all too relevant to the crisis of Christianity in America
It is time that this ill-suppressed murmur
of all thoughtful men against the famine of our churches should
be heard through the sleep of indolence, and over the din of routine
The stationariness of religion; the assumption
that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed;
the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him
as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of
our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that
God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity-a
faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man,-is lost ....
Let me admonish you, first of all, to
go alone; to refuse the good models, even those most sacred in
the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator
or veil ....
Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost,-cast
behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with
Deity .... Look to it first and only... that fashion, custom,
authority, pleasure, and money are nothing to you,-are not bandages
over your eyes, that you cannot see,-but live with the privilege
of the immeasurable mind.
Though Emerson's outspoken truth telling
generated much elite scorn, the public embraced him. He went on
to become the most famous intellectual of his day and the most
influential American voice here and abroad. His books, essays,
poems, histories, and lectures struck at the heart of democracy
matters in nineteenth century America: his view was that we needed
a cultural declaration of independence that required a creative
appropriation of the humanist tradition for democratic aims. In
"The American Scholar," Emerson prophesies:
We have listened too long to the courtly
muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already
suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice
make the air we breathe thick and fat ....
We will walk on our own feet; we will
work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.
This ebullient proclamation for American
self-confidence is couched in a defense of the democratic intellectual-the
"Man Thinking"-who recognizes that "the invariable
mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common." The
great democratic order to take back their powers and take control
of their country. In his great essay "Fate," he writes:
Our America has a bad name for superficialness.
Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons,
but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves
to face it.
In his late essay "Intellect,"
'What is the hardest task in the world?
Also particularly relevant to today's
situation, Emerson's call for intellectual emancipation in America
is neither parochial nor provincial. His democratic sensibility
is cosmopolitan and international. He insists on being open to
cross-cultural perspectives, on understanding and respecting other
traditions from around the world:
The scholar is that man who must take
up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions
of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university
American self-confidence, he argued, should
be grounded not in a narrow chauvinistic claim about the superiority
of the American way but rather in a mature affirmation of America's
gifts to the world as well as candid acknowledgment of the "most
unhandsome part of our condition." Cheap American patriotism
not only reflects an immaturity and insecurity, he warned, but
also is an adolescent defense mechanism that reveals a fear to
engage the world and learn from others. Narrow nationalism is
a handmaiden of imperial rule, he argues-it keeps the populace
deferential and complacent. Hence it abhors critics and dissenters
like Emerson who unsettle and awaken the people. His shining example
of democratic intellectual work is a challenge to us today.