Jacob Needleman

A book looks to great minds of the past to illuminate the present

By Shepherd Bliss

Prompted by grief, fear, and anger, I have been trying to make meaning from events surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attack for over half a year. 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 The American Soul, a book written before that fateful day-and about events that took place before airplanes and skyscrapers even existed. Author Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, paints a larger picture. Subtitled Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, this readable book has enabled me to imagine a positive postÐSept. 11 future for a renewed 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 seeks to “neither revile nor to romanticize the actions and actors of America’s past.” But 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.”

“Nations, as such, come and go,” Needleman observes. “Persia, Rome, Byzantium all sunk into the ocean of time.” Needleman calls 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 cautions that unless we think about America in a new way, “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, despite its current apparent military successes. 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. military. 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 Qaida and the fundamentalist Taliban. After their apparent rout-in which mainly innocent civilians were killed-the United States has threatened to widen its attack to the “evil axis of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea,” even with first-strike nuclear weapons.

As the great American pacifist A. J. Muste observed after World War I, postwar problems can be greater for the victor than for the defeated. Full of its power, the United States 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 about U.S. plans for nuclear attacks?

“Democracy is under attack in America,” declares Sebastopol City Council member Larry Robinson. “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.

The United States may be acting like a wounded beast, particularly in its vengeful military responses to Sept. 11. The current administration seems to want to go it alone against perceived enemies. As the United States escalates its threats and attacks, it loses any moral claim, strengthens its so-called enemies, and becomes increasingly isolated in the world. The Bush administration may achieve what no one else has been able to do: unite the Arab and Muslim worlds against a common enemy.

Walt Whitman is an American hero whom Needleman praises, 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.

In his final chapter, “Toward a Community of Conscience,” Needleman turns to America’s future: “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 faultfinding. We need to find a balanced posture from which to allow appropriate self-criticism and comments from outside.

Some may find this book too abstract, too critical, or even too hopeful. The author, after all, is a philosopher, not a historian or political scientist. The survival of American democracy requires the soul-searching that Needleman advocates.

The American Soul concludes with a call 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.”

From the April 18-24, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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