America is on the verge of enormous calamity – and people know it. Skyrocketing trade deficits; record levels of national debt; pathological fetishism; epic corporate greed – starring the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Not to mention the warming of the globe and endless war. The dollar is plummeting. Jobs are scarce. Families are scared of the future. America's international status is at an all time low and we sense the worst is yet to come.
But within this moment something transformative abounds. Something palpitating, an energy. Like the newness in the air before it snows. It gnaws at your conscience, it pounds in your gut. It's convulsing like an atrophied muscle. It's the ghost of Emerson, and he's speaking to us – in the language of a languished, American instinct.
"What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism," spoke American genius Ralph Waldo Emerson in a lecture at the Masonic Temple in Boston in 1842. "As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, the Materialists and the Idealists; the first class beginning on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell." (emphasis added)
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The senses realize the peril at our doorstep. The senses know our leadership is false. Experience, to our chagrin, provided political dynasty. And experience, we keep hearing, is the light. But the senses, says Emerson, only take us so far. Behind that which the senses "cannot tell" is this atrophied American consciousness; the embryonic manifestation of a cultural surge which "experience" can only mock. It is the magnitude of what is ours if we'll only reach out and claim it. The first authentic 21 st century presidency. This feeling – this American instinct – is the birth of a new national ideal. This, utters Emerson, is Transcendentalism. It is the promise of a Barack Obama White House.
As a populist, my heart has been with Dennis Kucinich. But, as John Nichols suggested, we live in a world comprised of reality – not some "political magic". And Obama is not perfect. I have criticized him in the past. But this election is about the end of Pangaea; an antiquated politics and social paralysis at the beginnings of an involuntary shift. Land mass-like divides of rising inequality and a culture of anti-intellectualism are drifting this country into a philosophical abyss. How, as a people, will we change that? The tectonic plates of global warming and the end of the age of oil have begun the rumblings of a violent admonition: "we're leaving whether you like it or not". When, as a nation, will we face it?
The emergence of Barack Obama signifies that change; the claim of that Emersonian consciousness. A nation on its feet, walking forward, not back, into challenges we can no longer ignore. Obama's ethnic and physical makeup, his academic attributes, represents the thrust of that transcendentalist doctrine in a way modern America has never seen it. Emerson was a culturalist, America's first pragmatist – but Emerson was not a politician. As a former organizer, professor and civil rights attorney, Barack Obama is a veritable babe inside the beltway. Yet, in no way is this man unprepared.
He stood at a microphone on a radiant, frigid morning in Lincoln 's own Springfield, Illinois: "You came here because you believe in what this country can be," declared Obama to a standing room crowd at the announcement of his presidential run. "This candidacy has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship; restoring our sense of common purpose. And, "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington," he admitted "but I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change." Obama speaks in a new vernacular, the likes of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. A language befit for the future – of a generation whose time has come.
Obama represents a political maturation – a mold the new America must embrace. Very much in the lineage of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he fans the flames of our brilliant social hope – sturdy yet fluid, tender yet strong, a "profusion of new sorts of human lives" writes Richard Rorty. Imagine what it would mean for a child in the projects who could see a black man become president. Picture a population –white and institutionally racist – which can pass the torch of common trust. Think of the impact, wrote Andrew Sullivan, of how the face of Barack Obama – a man "who attended a majority-Muslim school" – might make our "most effective weapon" against Islamic fundamentalism. This man, says Richard Cohen, is indeed "where the world is going".
Dr. Cornel West, writing of Emerson, brings to mind Obama-2008: "Emerson's evasion of modern philosophy is one of the ways in which he sets tradition aside; it is one of the means by which he exercises his own intellectual self-reliance. He refuses to be captive to or caught up in the problematic and vocabulary of those who came before. This Emersonian refusal sits at the core… to create himself as an organic intellectual and to constitute a constituency… [of] moral leadership." Replace philosophy for ideology and the concept sends chills up your spine.
America loves an underdog, but alas, we've love in vain – because, in the real world, America has remained on top. But our senses can tell, and our consciousness knows, this all may be about to change. The first step we could take – a nation in healing, together – should be in reclaiming our transcendentalist affirmations. Repossessing the whisper of Emerson's ghost; our multi-dimensional and democratic impulses in the power of popular absolution. This, America, is our grandest instinct.
And this underdog can actually win.
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