Walt Whitman

Democratic Counterpoint


Detail from “Government.” Mural by Elihu Vedder. 1896. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Democracy is a tricky word, as noted at the end of Hunt the Devil. Whether we’ve too little of it or too much depends on what we mean by it.

To Walt Whitman, democracy meant not accepting anything except what everyone else can have their “counterpart of on the same terms” (Leaves of Grass). He could never get his fill of this kind of democracy, which resonated with overtones of equality among differences and resistance to privilege.

The standard definition of democracy refers to rule of the people primarily through their representatives, free and fair elections, and decisions by majority vote. Fair enough, so far as it goes, but lifeless.  (more…)


Democracy in Authoritarian Times


American poet Walt Whitman, September 1872, Brooklyn, New York. (Credit: G. Frank E. Pearsall)

We promote a mythic sensibility in this forum on the assumption that, for good or ill, myth is ubiquitous in human affairs. Our goal is not to debunk myth. We expose it where it harms polity and sustains war, but we also wish to cultivate myth to redeem democracy and promote peaceful pursuits.    

A culture of positive peace requires a democratic ethos. Democracy is not simply a matter of voting. It is an attitude, an outlook, a way of life that entails managing our serious differences robustly and constructively. It is not to be confused with the present outbreak of authoritarian populism and demonizing rhetoric.

As E. J. Dionne Jr. maintains, populism per se is not a villain nor is it necessarily hostile to democracy. The kind of populism that maintains faith with democracy does so by challenging “ruling elites to face up to injustices that undermine free institutions.” It does not define “the people” narrowly or treat political opponents as enemies. (more…)


"Spartacus' Death" by Hermann Vogel, 1882.

“Spartacus’ Death” by Hermann Vogel, 1882.

In 1960, just before a new administration under John F. Kennedy was taking office, heralding the vision of a “New Frontier,” Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus premiered in Hollywood. The film’s screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, based on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name, written in 1951. Both writers had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the national persecution of writers and artists with past communist associations (Trumbo was one of the original group of the Hollywood 10). Both had been imprisoned during the Cold War era. (more…)

New Democracy

View from Harney Peak, South Dakota. (Credit:  Navin75 / Wikimedia Commons)

View from Harney Peak, South Dakota. (Credit: Navin75 / Wikimedia Commons)

The New Democracy will be built like a medieval cathedral—step by step, brick by brick, with all and for the good of all. Foremost in the mind of the laborers will be Samuel Butler’s credo: “There is no way of making an aged art young again; it must be born anew and grow up from infancy as a new thing, working out its own salvation from effort to effort in all fear and trembling.”

As it is built, like in olden times when ships sailed to the seas buoyed by the chants of sailors, the song of Whitman will be heard among the workers:

I speak the password primeval … I give the sign of democracy;

By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counter-

part on the same terms.

And Dickinson’s hieroglyphic mysteries will illuminate the stained glass windows. (more…)

God and Country

First Presbyterian Church of Hartford City, Indiana sanctuary. (Credit:  TwoScarsUp / Wikimedia Commons)

First Presbyterian Church of Hartford City, Indiana sanctuary. (Credit: TwoScarsUp / Wikimedia Commons)

It is not uncommon in the United States to see both the Christian cross and the American flag displayed in the sanctuary of Christian churches. What does it mean to place two such powerful symbols side by side when one stands for a world religion and the other is an expression of nationalism? Does the state circumscribe one’s faith, and/or does one’s religious convictions transcend national boundaries?

The tension between church and state takes various forms. (more…)

Democratic Citizenship

Political World Map. (Credit: Ionut Cojocaru / Wikimedia Commons)

Political World Map. (Credit: Ionut Cojocaru / Wikimedia Commons)

Nationalism is on the decline.   Outbursts of patriotism are the forlorn growl of chauvinism in retreat. Globalization is ascendant, and with it we face a new set of challenges and opportunities for transforming the war state.

A narrow sense of American citizenship is yesterday’s reality. As a consequence of “the global diffusion of culture and democratic governance,” argues Peter Sapiro, political community is migrating beyond the confines of the nation-state. That does not mean that our troubles are over, however. It means “citizenship can no longer be addressed in comfortable isolation.” When “the state no longer dominates identity,” we are faced with “remapping the contours” of political community (Beyond Citizenship: American Identity after Globalization, 2008, pp. 5-6, 162).

Americans have prospered in the state-based world at the expense of others, and there is no global community ready to replace the old nationalism. It is a scary proposition to contemplate the descent of American exceptionalism and the prospect of chaos. (more…)

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. (more…)