Deep Democratic Tradition in America

[Ralph Waldo Emerson]

excerpted from the book

Democracy Matters

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," he writes:

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.

And also:

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, the low.

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 notes:

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 to activism.

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 today:

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," he notes:

'What is the hardest task in the world? To think.

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 of knowledges.

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.

Democracy Matters

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