Sunday, July 17, 2011


I have written some reactive posts lately. Things are spinning out of control, and it is satisfying to point fingers and say what is wrong. It is also tempting to tell the other side of what has become the official story, as did Howard Zinn, since he knew there was never a lack of apologists for the Establishment version of history.

I have realized this week, though, that the reason extreme-to-crazy right-wingers are dominating the conversation, while the world watches with its jaw agape [http://www.businessinsider​.com/its-official-the-whol​e-world-thinks-republicans​-are-dangerous-maniacs-201​1-7], is that there is a severe shortage of positive voices being heard. Those of us who are horrified by current events can feel helpless, not because we're unable to act or speak, but because we simply don't know what to do or say. I don't mind revealing that I have prayed about this, because the emptiness I've felt as an American liberal at this moment has left a spiritual void.

It is probably not coincidence, therefore, that the other night I stumbled across an unusually important podcast of Krista Tippett's "On Being" that had been sitting on my ipod since the week before July 4. "The Inward Work of Democracy" explores the thinking of American philosopher Jacob Needleman, whose book The American Soul has now joined my required reading list.

It takes some careful listening to realize how significant Needleman's ideas about American history are. For someone like me who has always loved this country and what it is supposed to represent, they offered a welcome balm to the spiritual sore delivered by my recent encounter with Zinn's writings, chronicled here earlier this month.

America, Needleman says, is necessary: not for the usually cited reasons - the glibly assumed exceptionalism that we have heard so often evoked - but because at its best it makes an appeal to human conscience that resonates with the deepest, timeless spiritual truths. Yes, America was new in the 18th century, but the responses it offered then were answers to eternal questions. Thomas Jefferson's evocation of "the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle" us was not just a formulaic appeal to an impersonal, deistic godhead. It was a statement that the answers to these eternal questions could be found outside of the traditional dogmatic frames of inquiry, and that looking for them there was a fulfillment of our deeper nature: the same nature that sages have always sought.

What Needleman calls the "inward work of democracy" is very different from the push and shove of public debate. It is the far more important process that goes on within the intimate souls of democratic citizens. It was their private musings - which Needleman admits no-one else can thoroughly understand - that led George Washington to renounce unlimited power and Lincoln to seek reconciliation at the end of a long and bitter war. As Walt Whitman said in an essay written at the end of that same war (see the "Particulars" on the website for this and other passages quoted by Needleman):

"I say the notion of government, henceforth in civilized lands, is not repression alone and not authority alone, not even of law, nor the rule of the best men, but higher than the highest arbitrary rule, to train communities through all their grades beginning with individuals and ending there again to rule themselves. To be a voter with the rest is not so much. And this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation and equal with the rest, to commence the grand experiment whose end may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman—that is something."

Needleman insightfully points out that the greatest reformers are always those who speak from within the system they are struggling to reform, and who thus knowingly share its imperfections. Thomas Jefferson never freed his slaves, but if not for the words he penned, the later effort to abolish slavery might not have had the intellectual foundation to succeed. Likewise, Frederick Douglass, who Needleman insists should be equally honored as a Founder, shamed America from within for its failure to live up to its ideals. He was able to do this because he too thought of himself as an American and loved those ideals enough to be willing to speak as he did.

Needleman also says that it is vitally important that we remythologize our founders by remembering the importance of this inner life. This is imperative because it is possible to speak about democracy, to honor its ideals - to "talk the talk," as it were - and still have absolutely no idea why this country is important and why the world still desperately needs what we have to give. That gift is what Needleman describes simply as "conscience." As a nation of self-determining individuals, we possess and always have possessed the ability to understand and accept the obligations that go with the rights we take for granted. We then have the moral responbility to challenge all that is wrong with the way society currently functions - and to do so precisely in the name of the ideals that freedom and democracy represent. That is conscience, and it is what American liberals need to articulate in order to recover our voice within this country, before - as I very much fear - the "slow motion coup d'état" by corporate power that Chris Hedges and others have eloquently discerned becomes complete and we are a fascist country in all but name. That point, I fear, is very close - and when it arrives, the familiar shibboleths about freedom, rights, and democracy will continue to be repeated without challenge by those who truly no longer understand the prodigious spiritual foundation on which those things must depend in order to be more than meaningless platitudes.

So here is the positive statement that I wish to make: I acknowledge that, like Jefferson, I am an imperfect reformer. I benefit from the work of the corporations that have made us progressively more unequal. I drive their cars and buy their food and watch their entertainment, and I do so because I have little choice if I am to participate in American society rather than withdrawing from it. That participation is my right, and with it I accept the responsibility of acting to expose the abuses that corporate power has increasingly wrought. I do this not because I hate America, but because I love it. When I speak for greater equality, and seek to shame America into not abandoning the poor and marginalized who no longer benefit from the corporate bonanza, I do so as an American first. I seek to help my country regain what has always made it necessary to the world: its conscience.

Whatever happens over the next few weeks and months as the tragi-comedy over the debt ceiling plays to its conclusion, that conscience is likely to be a victim. For America's sake, and for the world's, I declare that I will continue the inward work for as long as necessary, until I can join together with enough other full-grown men and women to remake the America of which Walt Whitman dreamed. It wasn't easy then either, which is why Whitman wrote as he did. It isn't easy now. Acting by one's conscience never is. This, though, is the inward work of democracy. Unless it is done, courageously and unstintingly, everything else is just for show.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, Robin. This is how I felt in 1980.