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What does democracy look like to you?

There’s a lot of talk about democracy these days. How fragile it is, how we must work to keep it. But what, actually, is democracy? What does it look like in everyday life?

I recall talking about democracy with my students as we were reading Walt Whitman, the great poet of American democracy. Self-publishing Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman celebrated the common man and woman and called for a society where all are of equal value.


In “Song of Myself” he marveled at the grass, the green, democratic grass, “growing among black folks and among white. Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.”


Yes, democracy is voting, he would say, but it’s more than that.

In a fledgling nation that just eight decades earlier had broken from feudalism—at least in principle—Whitman believed we should be democratic in all aspects of our lives. In the work place. And in church. Even in the military.


But, first of all, in the home.


The friend of suffragists, Whitman was way ahead of his patriarchal society, which limited gender roles. Wives must be subservient to their husbands. Daughters need little education.

Whitman wrote: “The wife, and she is not one jot less than the husband. The daughter, and she is just as good as the son. The mother, and she is every bit as much as the father.”

Born on Long Island to a Quaker mother, the poet saw clearly the Light that invigorates all life and all people. He saw God everywhere and in everyone. Yet, he said, “I understand God not in the least.”


Whitman’s poetry was a radical departure from the rhyming verse of the Old World. New in form and content, it celebrated the best of the American spirit. Its optimism, however, ran smack into the horror and devastation of the Civil War. Had democracy utterly failed? Was violence inevitable?


During the war Whitman, now in his forties, spent long hours in the hospitals of Washington, D. C., nursing wounded soldiers, writing letters, holding the hands of the dying. Racism and greed were taking their awful toll.


The war finally over, Whitman continued to proclaim democracy. American would have a second chance. The great experiment would continue. Democracy, if we could keep it.

A century and a half later, we, too, are proud of our form of government and our laws. Yet to realize our full potential, Whitman would tell us, we need something more. We need a natural affection for each other. We need a friendly and open spirit, one that eschews rank and rancor.


In “For You O Democracy,” Whitman wrote: “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,/ I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks.”


This month, the Stoneham for Social Justice group is looking for art work on the theme of democracy. We’re calling for photos, drawings, paintings and poems that show us new perspectives on democracy. Send your photos and scanned art by March 5 to stonehamsocialjustice@gmail.com.



What does democracy look like to you?

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