The Democratic Self

Walt Whitman by Alexander Gardner, 1863. (Feinberg-Whitman Collection, Library of Congress)

Walt Whitman by Alexander Gardner, 1863. (Feinberg-Whitman Collection, Library of Congress)

True democracy is hard to imagine.  America is a land of individuals, but democracy places a high value on the commons, on equality and community, on the people collectively engaged in self-rule.  The democratic self is a multitude of selves, not a singular ego detached and isolated from others.

Reconciling individualism with democracy is a challenge crucial to defusing U.S. war culture.  Why?  Because the other is the enemy in war culture.  Diversity is threatening; difference is deviance; the other is evil.

Individuals are alien to one another.  The more they are different and distant from one another, the greater the likelihood they will distrust and despise each other.  A lack of diversity within the self amounts to an excess of animosity, first for fellow citizens and then foreigners.  Rampant individualism is a chronic condition of estrangement.

The enemy is them, not me, not even us.  The not-me is ugly, repulsive, demonic.  It is, as Umberto Eco has observed, that alien, slimy, polymorphous monster, that menacing barbarian that “represents our unconscious fears” and is “impossible to assimilate” because it is so dehumanized (On Ugliness, p. 201).

Walt Whitman understood that a country of individuals could not evolve into a true democracy without encompassing diversity.  He envisioned the realization of America’s democratic potential in the development over time of a democratic self.  He presumed the existence of individualism in the makeup of the country but worked from there toward a conception of the self that was more inclusive.  A self with a sense of community would be a composite or aggregate self, an ensemble of differences, that inner multiplicity in which the rejection of the other amounts to self-rejection.  “I am large,” he wrote.  “I contain multitudes” (“Song of Myself,” Part 51).  The enlarged democratic self is a network of interdependent and complementary differences.  It is dissonant at its intersections and dynamic in its connectedness, never fully composed or closed—a complex of diversity.

Democracy realized in the social self is not a tame affair.  Diversity is its dynamic, contestation its norm, which is cause for deliberation and dissent rather than combat.  Democracy is an ongoing negotiation of interconnected differences.  Differences are neither fully integrated nor totally alienated.  Enemies are harder to make of adversaries contained within the multitude of the democratic self.

Whitman was America’s great democratic poet who would reconcile individualism with a positive principle of society.  His nineteenth-century vision of the democratic self and the possibility of developing a true democracy are still unrealized.  Yet, the vision is a cultural legacy, and present exigencies lend it currency.

Whitman’s vision is evocative, an exercise in what Joseph Campbell called creative mythology (The Masks of God:  Creative Mythology, p. 4).  It is a myth we might come to live by, a public dream on which the moral order of society could be founded.  Old myths have lost their purchase.  They no longer serve “positive, life-furthering ends” (Myths to Live By, pp. 11, 14).  New myths are required to find our way out of the thicket of war culture.



One comment

  1. I love this. Thanks for this post and this blog. To me, the crucial move is to revise the mythos of American individualism (a key term that will most certainly never go away) to recognize that we become individuals through our relationship to the larger community– community creates individualism; the terms are not antagonistic. If we can think of ourselves as complex, democratic selves, rife with contradiction, then perhaps we can imagine those multitudes and contradictions as not only a necessary fact of life, but also as a positive benefit to being thinking, reasonable humans. Extrapolate that to the contradictions and differences inherent in democratic culture, and we have a way to think about people debating productively instead of warring with each other (both literally and figuratively).


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