American Soul (and Empire)

by Shepherd Bliss

For over half a year now I have been trying to make meaning from the events surrounding the Sept. 11 Fall of the Towers. Grief, fear, and anger prompted this search. I have consumed hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, columns, analyses, and commentaries by journalists, pundits, political scientists and others.

None has helped me discern meaning as much as a book published early in 2002 that was written before that fateful day and focuses on the past. The American Soul by Jacob Needleman, professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, has stimulated me to see a larger picture. Subtitled “Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders,” this readable book has enabled me to imagine a positive post-Sept. 11 future for a re-newed America.

An admirer of America, its traditions, and possibilities, Needleman ponders the greatness of Washington and Jefferson and honors Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Crazy Horse, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He adds, “Real reflection throws dazzling light on the disappointments, mistakes, failures and even crimes of America.” He laments “the disease of materialism” and “the affliction visited upon us by our successes.” But he seeks to “neither revile nor to romanticize the actions and actors of America’s past.” “Nations, as such, come and go,” Needleman observes. “Persia, Rome, Byzantium all sunk into the ocean of time.” Needleman calls on Americans to recover “the inner meaning of democracy,” or lose it. He affirms America’s promises of freedom, equality, and social opportunity. Specific American virtues and their “shadows” are detailed–liberty, which can degenerate into self-gratification; independence, which can decline into individualism; practicality, which can regress into blind materialism; the rule of law, which can become an usurper; hard work, which can enslave; freedom of speech, which can deteriorate into empty talk.

Needleman wants us to “think in a new way about America.” Or “it will be an outer empire alone, an empire only of money or military power or empty promises. And such an empire will soon die.” Perhaps that is what is happening now. The U.S. Empire, at least as we have known it, may be declining. Or as the ancient saying goes, “The king is dead. Long live the king!”

The vicious Sept. 11 attack caught most Americans by surprise. Others were not as surprised. Many nations had experienced such deadly attacks, sometimes even by the U.S. The U.S. government chose a full spectrum military response to the Sept. 11 crime, thus compounding the crisis. Its first targets were the violent al Qaeda and the fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan. After their apparent rout–in which mainly innocent civilians were killed–the U.S. has threatened to widen its attack on the “Evil Axis of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.”

Last year a predator began killing chickens on my farm. After the initial taste of blood, this wolf-dog returned night after night to attack. As the mighty U.S. military threatens to expand its targets, much of the world sees it as a blood-thirsty predator. Boston Globe columnist James Carroll’s March 12 column notes that America has quickly gone from being a civilized and imaginative Athens to a bellicose Sparta which “define(s) itself so profoundly around war…we have reinvented ourselves as the most belligerent people on Earth.”

As the great American pacifist A.J. Muste observed after World War I, post-war problems can be greater for the victor than for the defeated. Full of its power, the U.S. has already expanded military activities in the Philippines and Colombia. Other countries at risk include Yemen, the Sudan, Georgia, and Somalia. How might the rest of the world feel as it hears the U.S. talk of its plans for nuclear attacks?

The U.S. may be acting like a wounded beast, still powerful, but perhaps mortally wounded–not so much by the Sept. 11 attacks as by its military response, which increasingly isolates it in the world. The current Administration seems willing to go-it-alone against perceived enemies. As the U.S. continues it vengeful attacks, it loses any moral claim and strengthens its so-called “enemies.” The Bush Administration may achieve what no one else has been able to do and unite the Arab world. As City Council member Larry Robinson in the Northern California city of Sebastopol has written, “Democracy is under attack in America. But the greatest threats are not from foreign terrorists.” They come from inside and from our own behavior. Needleman warns that “America needs the goodwill of the world for its survival.” Such goodwill is rapidly eroding as the U.S. military expands its deadly reach.

Walt Whitman is an American hero whom Needleman explores, noting, “To Whitman, who was emerging as America’s greatest visionary poet, Lincoln incarnated the essence of American democracy: the harmonious blending of the mystical and the pragmatic within the individual soul.” Whitman wrote about the great ideas of America–independence, freedom, equality, the people, and the individual. Needleman describes his “Democratic Vistas” as “the most powerful manifesto ever written about the inner meaning of American democracy.”

In his final chapter, “Toward a Community of Conscience,” Needleman turns to the future and America’s sustainability: “We need to discover how to look impartially at both the inner greatness that calls to us and the profound weaknesses that determine the life we actually live–with all its self-deception, arrogance and betrayal.” Whereas some are quick to condemn America, others rush to excuse it and tolerate no fault-finding. We need to find a balanced posture from which to allow appropriate self-criticism and comments from outside, or we will not make it through this darkness.

Some may find this book too abstract, too critical, or even too hopeful. The author, after all, is a philosopher, not an historian or political scientist. The conservative perspective in the U.S. often appeals to the spiritual and psychological longings and aspirations of people. Perhaps it is time that others gave more attention to deeper issues, as addressed in “The American Soul.”

America needs the soul-searching for which Needleman calls. Fortunately, some are engaged in such deep reflection. Columnist Carroll describes America’s “dark side.” He notes that by dealing directly with “grief, anger, and fear” we can get beyond revenge to “wisdom,” the word Needleman also uses to describe where soul-searching can arrive.

In “The American Soul’s” final words Needleman calls us to “both raise our heads in the vision of authentic human dignity and lower our heads in the vision of authentic remorse.” With such a posture we can step “into the future of the new America.”

Or as the soulful poet Deena Metzger writes,

They are trying to set fire to the world.
We are endangered.
There is time only to work slowly.
There is no time not to love.

Shepherd Bliss is a member of the North Bay Progressive Media Collective and can be reached at sb3@pon.net.











Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

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