And what is yet untried and afterward is for you and me and all.
I do not know what is untried and afterward.
But I know it is sure and alive, and sufficient.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. - Ronald Reagan, 1981Using Whitman as a guide through the thickets, I have been attempting to address what I believe is the central social and political fact of our current moment: an objectless fear that permeates our public life, rendering us incapable of addressing the serious imbalances in our institutions between the needs of the commonweal and the needs of particular interests who, through what amounts to legalized corruption, have distorted the functions of public institutions so much they no longer seem to serve us.
That there are many objections to the diagnosis, the possible course of treatment, and the prognosis should go without saying. Precisely because I seem to elide so much that occupies our public time; seem to set to one side the vigorous objections, in particular from those who see in our current social and political structures effective barriers to any true populist democratic protest; because I seem to offer no place safe upon which we can stand to claim what has always been ours; because I offer no plan, no policy, no strategy, no ideology; all these combine to reduce the potential seriousness, the possible efficacy, any credible coherence of what I've been writing to nothing. Like Whitman, it seems I revel in Romanticist idyll, celebrating vague word-pictures of the banal and carnal without saying anything that might show itself useful.
Certainly we are not without our critics who have clarity of vision both on what ails us and what should cure us. We are told it is corporations or money or a lack of moral vigor or adherence to the Christian religion. We are told those who conspire against us are evil, the embodiment of all that opposes the only true path out of our current nettle-infested way. We are offered a vision of self-sacrifice, perhaps. From whichever end of the largely phony and irrelevant public spectrum the voices seem to come, we are told again and again that we should only heed those voices whose words echo the world around them. We must consider only those who have a plan ready in hand, a detailed policy that may yet save us from the wrath to come.
We have become lovers of plans. We make a fetish of policy. We all seem to bow before whoever insists theirs is the voice of reason, of single-minded, common-sense description and prescription. Even though we understand, in some vague way to which we cannot yet give words this is all dumb-show, the mime-troupe of lies whose words deafen our ears to the emptiness at the heart of it all, we nod in agreement that, at least, someone gives us an object for our fear as well as a way to overcome it. For too long, we have been told we must buy what others are selling in order to keep this beast alive, forgetting that this beast called America does not live on buying and selling. We know it's all a surd, yet we seem to have lost the words that would make clear how that is so.
Which is why Whitman, more than many, is our best guide. His is the anti-policy. His vision sees no need to bow before any description of the world that doesn't celebrate who we are. He reminds us that we Americans are an emergent phenomenon; greater than any sum of the things we call "American", it is we the people, in our variety, who are more powerful, thus more dangerous, than any weapon. We can celebrate all that we are, yet never surrender who we are before any altar built by those who insist that only here do we find truth. Before most anyone else, it was Whitman who recognized and celebrated and gave to us the only answer to the objection that what we need is a plan, a map, some kind of guide through the maze and haze:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.In the joyous celebration of what is, of seeing in all things no need of more than this upon which to found and move forward, Whitman offers us the chance to laugh and cry and work and raise our families and have sex and argue about politics and struggle over such things as race and slavery and religion without ever forgetting that, in all of it, we are alive. Whitman saw no need to ground all this before moving forward because in its vitality, in the warp and weft of our lives lie all we need to find our strength and beauty and, perhaps, our greatness.
More than all the manifestos and monographs, the plans and party platforms, the researches and recommendations, Whitman sees America as transcending all those things that some among us would offer up to divide us. Without ever once denying the multiplicity, the plurality that "America" really is, Whitman would insist this singular word holds within itself not only all that was and is, but most importantly and powerfully of all - all of what may yet be. We need not fear, precisely because we may yet look around us and see . . . ourselves.
Rather than play the game of power, however that may be played, Whitman sneaks past and offers a different game: We are all what we are. In that is all we need to know. We need not be smart or talented or educated or moral; we need not be average or fumbling or illiterate or chaste. These words only describe who we may be right now. They tell us who we are as we are, and that is good enough. Not to judge, not to measure or limit so as to divide, this is what Whitman whispers in our ear, over and over again.
Should we heed his voice and play his game, our common life might yet look upon what passes for our public life and not so much protest against it as laugh at its pretensions. To those who insist we must needs organize and criticize and valorize so as not to temporize, not to say lie defeated, we can only insist with Whitman that we first must recognize that we, in all our differences, in all that makes us who we are, we are united in just this - we are. In that lies our power and hope.
For those seeking guarantees, Whitman doesn't even offer the grave as a place of rest, knowing as he did that death is nothing more than food for life. Thus it is there are no guarantees. Which is precisely why, even at his gloomiest, he could yet hold out hope for us.
Whitman offers us the greatest weapon those who feed upon fear despise: We need not fear because there is no end to the unfolding of the promise that America is. Even now, in our fear, we are America as we have been, and are, and will be; the contradiction at the heart of Whitman's vision is the source of our strength. Should we take a breath, laugh at ourselves, and embrace even that fear, that terrifies those who need that to sustain their own power.