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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Thursday, February 08, 2007


I'll Always Want My Country Back

posted by Nonpartisan at Thursday, February 08, 2007 permalink View blog reactions
[Cross-posted from ProgressiveHistorians.]

I want my country back!  We want our country back!  I'm tired of being divided!  I don't want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers any more!  I want an America that looks like America, where we're all included, hand in hand, walking down, we have a dream, we can only reach the dream if we're all together, black and white, gay and straight, man and woman, America, the Democratic Party, we're going to win in 2004, thank you very very much, thank you very very much, stand up to America, stand up to America, stand up to America!

-- Howard Dean, March 15, 2003, Sacramento, California

If you have a fast enough connection, listen to the last minute or so of this video.  (Hat-tip Renee in Ohio, who keeps the faith.)  I found it while trying to explain to Strandsofpearl what was so moving about Dean's speeches; she had never seen one, and I, incredibly enough, had never before seen this one, though I had heard it was Dean's greatest.  Since I first watched it, I have watched it over and over without ceasing, tears streaming down my cheeks.  Even now, the clarion call of "I want my country back!" blared from those magnificent pipes, awakes in me the cascade of emotion that made me a blogger, a sentiment that I can barely express in words.  This essay is an attempt to do just that.

I believe that all human beings, in some sense or other, hunger for the collective rush of an inspirational leader drawing hope and faith and dreams out of a unified group of people.  Certainly, most will tell you if you ask them that this is far from the case; but I deem those people so cynical, or else so naive, that they cannot recognize the signs within themselves.  Whatever the case, the reaction when such a leader arrives on the scene is astonishing, the multitudes that flock to his guidance enormous.

There was such a Biblical prophet in mid-nineteenth-century America.  They called him "the Sage of Concord," not because that was the end goal of his philosophy, though it was, but because that was where he lived, in Concord, Massachusetts.  His name was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson was America's first truly original philosopher.  His essays are still read today with all the wonder they inspired when they were written.  But perhaps his boldest step was to delineate the outline of a new religion, Transcendentalism.

Emerson first came upon the idea of Transcendentalism by observing the effect the natural world had upon his own emotions.  In his 1836 essay Nature, commonly considered the initial explication of Transcendentalism, he discussed this process in more depth:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune,  I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.I am glad to the brink of fear.  In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough , and at what period soever of life, is always a child.  In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,)  which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,  -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.  The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate  than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. 

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.  I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.

Having at once experienced and defined this "delight" at being one with nature, Emerson sought to draw moral lessons from the natural world.  From the same essay:

The exercise of the Will or the lesson of power is taught in every event. From the child's successive possession of his several senses up to the hour when he saith, "Thy will be done!" he is learning the secret, that he can reduce under his will, not only particular events, but great classes, nay the whole series of events, and so conform all facts to his character. Nature is thoroughly mediate.  Man is never weary of working it up. He forges the subtile and delicate air into wise and melodious words, and gives them wing as angels of persuasion and command. One after another, his victorious thought comes up with and reduces all things, until the world becomes, at last, only a realized will, -- the double of the man.

Yes, Weeping, this was written before Nietzsche.  As I said, Emerson was an original thinker.


Sensible objects conform to the premonitions of Reason and reflect the conscience. All things are moral;  and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature. Therefore is nature glorious with form, color, and motion, that every globe in the remotest heaven; every chemical change from the rudest crystal up to the laws of life; every change of vegetation from the first principle of growth in the eye of a leaf, to the tropical forest and antediluvian coal-mine; every animal function from the sponge up to Hercules, shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments. Therefore is nature ever the ally of Religion: lends all her pomp and riches to the religious sentiment. Prophet and priest, David, Isaiah, Jesus, have drawn deeply from this source.

This ethical character so penetrates the bone and marrow of nature, as to seem the end for which it was made. Whatever private purpose is answered by any member or part, this is its public and universal function, and is never omitted. Nothing in nature is exhausted in its first use. When a thing has served an end to the uttermost, it is wholly new for an ulterior service. In God, every end is converted into a new means. Thus the use of commodity, regarded by itself, is mean and squalid. But it is to the mind an education in the doctrine of Use, namely, that a thing is good only so far as it serves;  that a conspiring of parts and efforts to the production of an end, is essential to any being. The first and gross manifestation of this truth, is our inevitable and hated training in values and wants, in corn and meat.

It has already been illustrated, that every natural process is a version of a moral sentence. The moral law lies at the centre of nature and radiates to the circumference. It is the pith and marrow of every substance, every relation, and every process. All things with which we deal, preach to us. What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, weeds and plants, blight, rain, insects, sun, -- it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields. But the sailor, the shepherd, the miner, the merchant, in their several resorts, have each an experience precisely parallel, and leading to the same conclusion: because all organizations are radically alike. Nor can it be doubted that this moral sentiment which thus scents the air, grows in the grain, and impregnates the waters of the world, is caught by man and sinks into his soul. The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him. Who can estimate this? Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman? how much tranquillity has been reflected to man from the azure sky, over whose unspotted deeps the winds forevermore drive flocks of stormy clouds, and leave no wrinkle or stain? how much industry and providence and affection we have caught from the pantomime of brutes? What a searching preacher of self-command is the varying phenomenon of Health!

Herein is especially apprehended the unity of Nature, -- the unity in variety, -- which meets us everywhere. All the endless variety of things make an identical impression. Xenophanes complained in his old age, that, look where he would, all things hastened back to Unity. He was weary of seeing the same entity in the tedious variety of forms. The fable of Proteus has a cordial truth. A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.

In his own verbose manner, you can hear Emerson zeroing in on the central principle of Transcendentalism.  With his discussion of "unity in variety," he was hinting at an idea that he would make explicit six years later, in his eponymous essay -- the concept of the Oversoul.

The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other;that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith.

To Emerson, the Oversoul, the collective consciousness of the whole people, was in itself the essence of divinity.  But leaving aside the notion of the divine, it is indisputable that this collective consciousness is experienced at some time or another by virtually everyone.  The feeling of good will that encircles our culture like a halo during the Christmas holidays; the unity of perception that is a mosh pit at a hard-rock concert; the mutuality of love and sorrow that graced our country after 9/11 -- all these are shadows of the collective experience that became the Oversoul in Emerson's thought.  Such experiences, while seemingly fleeting, can make or break the emotional health of a culture.  And when they are out of balance, thus threatening the continued existence of that culture, they can be manipulated back into their proper order with an intentional infusion of inspiration.

The art of causing a multitude of hearts to fill with simultaneous and identical emotions is perhaps the most powerful known to man.  It is practiced with varying degrees of success by artists, writers, composers, motivational speakers, ministers, and politicians.  Of these, only the last have the potential to appeal to the whole of the people with a universal call to action and hope.  The artist's brush is ultimately stymied by the divergent artistic tastes of those who experience his creation; the minister's voice is silent to those who do not share his creed.  Only the politician, who speaks for the entirety of his people as their elected leader, can hope to create a moment of cultural unity broad and deep enough to penetrate and change a culture's social balance.

At its best, then, a political moment can be a sort of religious vision, a revelation of the Oversoul by one who seeks to occupy a place at its head.  Transformational leaders in this view are preachers to the Oversoul, great bullhorns whose end goal is nothing less than the reorientation of society with an uplifting vision of renewal.

Do you believe there is nothing more important than passing beneficial legislation, reorganizing ppartisan power, ending a cruel war, or restoring civility to political discourse?  If you do, then you have never experienced a historical moment when the whole people seem to rise up with one magnificent voice and proclaim a new dawning of enlightened peace for the world.  I have experienced such a moment, Dean's "I want my country back!" and I cannot but seek to replicate it, if it takes forever to do so.

We hear Dean's words, most of us, remember the passion they kindled, with a kind of nostalgia, as if they were already ancient history, missed but unimportant to the ongoing experience of our culture.  But there are some moments in history that should not be allowed to rest, their journey over, content to remain in museums, a reminder of things past.  These are the historical moments that need to be continually resurrected, reenacted with different, better endings -- the cries for justice, the visions of a brighter future, the experiences of collective rebirth.  These are moments that transcend reason, that speak to Emerson's Oversoul, that collective human consciousness that comes near to attaining divinity.  Like Dean's words in California, these moments are fleeting and rare, replaced all too quickly by the mundane world of everyday life.

I understand now why it is that people like Lisa spend their whole lives trying to discover the truth about why America was cruelly deprived of an entire generation of transformational leaders in the 1960's.  In a sense, the experience of life is that of striving to regain in adulthood the harmony and oneness with the universe lost with the innocence of youth.  Political leadership is the only truly universal method of reclaiming the Oversoul when we have lost it as a culture; and when our great political visionaries are cut down in their prime, our hope for cultural redemption dies with them.

But the hunger for the collective rebirth of the Oversoul does not die, but is carried undying from age to age, generation to generation.  In every time the call to realize our collective promise is different.  For Theodore Roosevelt's generation, it was "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord; for John Kennedy and Martin Luther King's generation, it was "Ask what your country can do for you" and "I have a dream today;" for my generatiion, born to political consciousness amid the depths of cultural depression, it was "I want my country back!"  Embodied in that simple phrase, so stirringly delivered on the Ides of March four years ago, is much more than a political victory; it is a spiritual renewal, the uplifting of American culture, the rekindling of dreams and visions and hopes.  It is inspiration writ large on the American consciousness.  It is transformation fairly embodied in leadership so that the two are one.

I want my country back.  I want my country back.  I will always want my country back, until this sad and heartless world has learned, finally, to transcend its petty differences and embrace the beauty of its Oversoul, the final fulfillment of the promise of humankind.  Or, as Howard Dean said,

I want an America that looks like America, where we're all included, hand in hand, walking down, we have a dream, we can only reach the dream if we're all together, black and white, gay and straight, man and woman, America.

Someday, someday, that America Howard Dean dreamed of on that chilly day in California will truly be born.  And on that day, we will speak in the words of Martin Luther King, and say of our dream, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!"


Wow this takes me back. Remember we were in the thick of Dean blogging back then. Here's the transcript of the CA speech on Dean Nation, posted by Karl. Here's the link to the video form our archives, too, though I havent tried that link in years. Wow.. its just so.. historic, in retrospect. To think that we were there.


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.