Walt Whitman’s I contain multitudes gets its fair share of shares, and for good reason: it’s exuberant and ironic and sincere and boastful all at the same time, a declaration and excuse and an invitation to the tumult of life.
It’s easy to think of that tumult as a kind of playful churning, a shotgunning through rapids in which you are tossed and soaked but ultimately delivered, safely, to the sandy shore. It’s a ride, not a tsunami, not a hurricane; a volunteer thrill, not a crashing terror.
It is, of course, both.
I often forget this, that the multitude, the mix, the plural, contains not just joy but fear, that it’s not just a condition of freedom but the grounding of fear. I like to say about New York that we don’t all love one another, but we do, somehow, manage, mostly, to live with one another.
This is an accomplishment, albeit a fragile one.
Well, okay, not just fragile: there is a sturdiness to this and other places like this. There is a sturdiness to this country. But in taking for granted this sturdiness I have too often treated its fragility as a remnant, or mere theoretical possibility. I’d forgotten that if anything is possible, then anything is possible.
I don’t think we’re on the way to fascism, and do think that our many, varied, institutions, formal and informal, can serve as bulwarks against authoritarianism—emphasis on can. While inertia has its own force, there is nothing automatic in a defense of plural democracy: we have to act.
It’s hard, defending the tumult amidst the tumult. I don’t want everything to be political, everything to be are-you-with-us-or-against-us, even as I see the necessity of holding the line. I want to defend my side but since my side declares that everyone gets to pick their own side, do I end up defending those who would harm me?
I won’t hold to a principle which requires its own extinction, but neither will I abandon it for its practical difficulty.
This will take some doing, and some contradiction, too, probably. There is the theory, and the practice, and both will need some work.