“Seeking What No Other Man has Found or can Find”

I had coffee recently with an old friend and our discussion soon turned to the dangers now facing our Republic and other democracies around the world. As we shared our concerns, we both observed that while surely profound, those challenges were hardly new. Nor, were they unpredictable. Rather, they ultimately had their roots in human behavior and complexity. As melancholy a notion as it may be, human beings have always been predatory and unfathomably cruel, even as they have always simultaneously been capable of the most sublime beauty and kindness. Leaders likewise across human history have practiced and appealed to these different elements of human possibility to curry favor and acquire and maintain power in regimes of virtually every description. Some—tyrants and demagogues—have appealed to the worst in human kind. Others have sought to appeal to humanity’s highest possibilities and to realize what those could bring for social justice and freedom. Later that day, I began reading a volume that quoted Henry David Thoreau’s comments on the “Chatham Men,” denizens of that harbor community on Cape Cod. These were mariners who had made it their life’s work to profit from those who had perished at sea in the powerful storms off the Cape by dragging for the anchors those unfortunate seafarers had lost. As he watched one such sloop and crew working from the shore, Thoreau observed:

She had her boats out at the work while she shuffled about on various tacks, and when, anything was found, drew up to hoist it onboard, It is a singular employment, at which men are regularly hired and paid for their industry, to hunt to-day in pleasant weather for anchors which have been lost, -the sunken faith and hope of mariners, to which they trusted in vain.[1]

As he reflected on all he saw unfolding that day, Thoreau rejected such efforts both as physically manifest and as a metaphor for how to lead one’s life or proceed in one’s profession:

But that is not treasure for us which another man has lost; rather it is for us to seek what no other man has found or can find,¾not be Chatham men, dragging for anchors.[2]

By analogy, Americans today confront just the choice to which Thoreau pointed.  They can descend to the most base and cruel elements in their natures and seek to profit from the pain and suffering of others. Indeed, they may cause such conditions for others by depriving them of their dignity, rights and standing. Yet, as Thoreau well knew, history suggests that the costs of taking such actions to assuage fears and feed personal power cravings can be unfathomable. The 20th century alone saw the Holocaust and Stalin’s systematic extermination of millions in Russia during his rule, among many other examples. Try as one may, it is difficult not to view citizens in the United States who would support torture and the deprivation of others’ rights on the basis of their skin color, immigration status or other characteristic, for example, as descending to the malignancy that inheres in their natures. Profound difficulties for self-governance and human and civil rights arise when elected and would-be leaders curry such inclinations and citizens respond in undisciplined ways, usually borne of the omni-present triad of fear, hatred and ignorance. In Thoreau’s terms, these represent modern examples of what others have lost and not of what might be imagined or sought. Not surprisingly, these stands have routinely been embraced by demagogues around the world, including our current President. That fact should surprise no one.

Indeed, leadership as the equivalent of dragging for anchors finds those practicing it appealing to the worst in their constituents and preying on those instincts to secure support and a crude legitimacy. The costs of such actions are well known and surpassingly sad as they routinely result in death, deprivation of freedoms and socially approved ostracization and calumny. The results are likewise predictably anti-democratic and dehumanizing for those so attacked. There are alternative ways by which to exercise public leadership and American history has offered many individuals offering those, including George Washington, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Lucy Stone, Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and countless others.

This spring our nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of two of its most gifted modern leaders, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. These were individuals who looked ahead to “find what no other man has found or could find” in Thoreau’s terms, and who appealed to the better “angels” in the natures of Americans. Each eschewed hatred and violence and both offered compelling visions of a democratic society characterized by mutual empathy and a shared quest for the realization of social justice.

I quoted Kennedy’s legendary speech in Indianapolis, Indiana on learning of King’s death in April 1968 in the January 22, 2018 Soundings. He warned presciently in his remarks on that terrible night of potential social division and violence and called instead for comity and justice:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. ...

And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.[3]

In what many scholars regard as his most powerful and profound speech on democratic governance, given at the University of Cape Town in South Africa on June 6, 1966, Kennedy declared:

And most important of all, all of the panoply of government power has been committed to the goal of equality before the law, as we are now committing ourselves to the achievement of equal opportunity in fact. We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.[4]

Kennedy looked forward and asked his audience and Americans to reach out to one another to find their shared destiny amidst their heterogeneity. He appealed to the highest in his listeners’ natures.

King similarly appealed to the best in those he sought to lead by routinely asking them to practice nonviolence and to work for equality and justice for all. On accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace on December 10, 1964, King observed:

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down other-centered men can build up.[5]

These two leaders saw the virtues in Americans and sought to realize a vision of a society characterized by hope and equal rights. They worked to create a future that ensured the rights of all, even as both were deeply aware of how difficult that challenge would be to attain. They asked more of the nation’s citizens than a descent into cruelty, hatred and bigotry¾the touchstone of our President today¾and believed just as deeply that the citizenry could respond. The lessons that King and Kennedy taught are apparently simple, but their plainness hid grace and a complex and boundless passion in pursuit of justice for all. Americans now confront a choice concerning the people and nation they wish to be. King and Kennedy called for freedom and equality, despite the Sisyphean character of efforts to achieve those goals in the face of the passions and smallness of all human beings. One may hope citizens will realize how vital that possibility remains and how deeply it merits pursuit, and then will choose wisely in the coming electoral cycle.

 

Notes

[1] Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod (arranged with notes by D.C. Lunt). New Haven: College and University Press, 1951, pp.160-161.

[2] Thoreau, Cape Cod, pp. 160-161.

[3] Kennedy, Robert F. “Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1968, American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/rfkonmlkdeath.html.  Accessed April 14, 2018.

[4] Kennedy, Robert F. “Day of Affirmation Address at Cape Town University,” June 6, 1966, American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/rfkcapetown.htm. Accessed April 14, 2018.

[5] King, Martin Luther Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Nobel Peace Prize 1964 Acceptance Speech,” December 10, 1964, Nobel Prize.Org. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance_en.html Accessed 14, 2018.