Boston Lessons and the Second America

Following the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the world turned its eyes to Massachusetts and watched with interest as a whole chain of events unfolded. The story reached a certain climax when the second suspect was apprehended by police. Soon after, media reported the reactions of some Americans at hearing news of his arrest.

There were images of people doing ‘victory’ dances, while others sang “Let’s Go Boston, Let’s Go!” and “B-P-D!” (Boston Police Department). Crowds in Boston chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, as did baseball fans in New York, who also sang ‘Sweet Caroline’, the traditional ballpark anthem of the Boston Red Sox. An NBC headline read, simply, “Nation Cheers Arrest of Boston Bombing Suspect.”[1]

To be sure, there were also images of other reactions: tears; flowers at the site of the bombings; long lines of people waiting patiently to pay respect to the families of those who died; a moment of silence before the start of the London Marathon.

At the same time, it is also worthwhile noting reactions from some officials. Soon after the arrest of the 19-year-old suspect, B.P.D. sent a message via Twitter that read: “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.” CNN reported that SWAT teams shouted over a loud speaker: “Thank you, thank you! It was a pleasure! USA! USA!”[2]

It did not take long to also learn that the suspect had not been read his Miranda rights upon his arrest – thus, he had no right to remain silent and no right to an attorney. This was supposedly in the interest of ‘public safety’.

In the wake of such events – and now, more than 11 years after the events of September 11, 2001 – the question that rides quickly on the back of ‘Why?’ must surely be ‘What have we learned?’ That is, ‘What have we in the West – what have we as human beings – learned about ourselves?’

Many in America are currently calling for the death penalty to be used in this case. One, a famous rock musician, has called for a public hanging in Boston Common, saying that is what would have happened “150 years ago…that would be justice.”[3]

Well, 150 years ago, also in Boston, another famous American had some things to say about justice, America and civilisation in general. In his lecture ‘Fortune of the Republic,’ Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the need to continue the Civil War until slavery was wiped from the face of America. He spoke of a ‘just war’ – one that aligned with leading thoughts for civilisation as a whole – namely, “universal liberty” and “a new era of equal rights.”[4]

In accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, Barak Obama also spoke of “just wars”; though it is hard to see any comparable leading thoughts guiding America’s campaigns in Afghanistan or Iraq.[5]

In this lecture, as in all his work, Emerson speaks to the highest possibilities of America – he speaks to, of and from the true Spirit of America – the America that wishes to become. In doing so, during the time of efforts to end slavery, Emerson had this to say to the once-world-leading nation of England:

“We [America] are coming…to a nationality. Put down your foot, and say to England, we know your merits. In past time, we have paid them the homage of ignoring your faults. We see them still. But it is time that you should hear the truth, – that you have failed in one of the great hours that put nations to the test. When the occasion of magnanimity arrived, you had none: you forgot your loud professions, you rubbed your hands with indecent joy, and saw only in our extreme danger the chance of humbling a rival and getting away his commerce. When it comes to divide an estate, the politest men will sometimes quarrel. Justice is above your aim. Stand aside. We have seen through you. Henceforth, you have lost the benefit of the old veneration which shut our eyes to altered facts. We shall not again give you any advantage of honour. We shall be compelled to look at the stern facts. And, we cannot count you great. Your inches are conspicuous, and we cannot count your inches against your miles, and leagues, and parallels of latitude. We are forced to analyse your greatness. We who saw you in a halo of honour which our affection made, now we must measure your means; your true dimensions; your population; we must compare the future of this country with that in a time when every prosperity of ours knocks away the stones from your foundation.”[6]

America took up such a challenge as Emerson laid down. It ended slavery on its own shores and eventually took up a role at the leading edge of civilisation itself. With this role, it carried – to a large extent – an economic task:

“England has long been the cashier of the world. The progress of trade threatens to supplant London by New York, and that England must cross to India, if she keeps it, and to China, by the Pacific Railroad; and the London merchant must lose his privilege of selling in all markets on the Exchange in London, and buy on the Exchange in New York. This hastens, and is only checked by the War…”[7]

Emerson played no small part in the end of slavery in America. Indeed, slavery, in its most heinous form, still exists in the world in our time. And yet, the far more prevalent, though subtle, form of slavery existing in the world today is that which arises through a one-sided global economic system that exploits the labour, land and capital of the many for the gains of the powerful few. America has played host to such a system, and has actively sought to promote its global expansion. This is a global economy – a global capitalism – that seeks not to work together to meet the real needs of human beings, but one that seeks to pit human beings in endless competition with one another. The chains as Emerson knew them may have disappeared from the necks of men in America and elsewhere, but now they have merely taken on another form – the chains of one-sided, neo-liberal globalisation.

The world has seen the reality of this, and has already begun to utter to America – in sentiment at least – words not dissimilar to those Emerson spoke to England on America’s behalf. And because America has had a global responsibility – such ‘words’ sound forth from the shores of all the Western world, and, indeed, from the world as a whole. (For there is no escaping the global nature of today’s economy.)

The ‘articulation’ of this sentiment has been varied, of course. It ranges from acts of violence and terror, to blowing the whistle on sensitive information, to street protests and occupations, to ‘culture jamming’, to works of art and literature, and so on. Some forms of criticism are more eloquent and, in themselves, ‘just’ than others. It is an interesting picture that the individual arrested in connection with the Boston bombings – the one everyone wants to hear from in order to know ‘why’ – is, because of a wound to his throat, currently unable to talk. He cannot physically articulate why he did what he did. His actions, in any case, speak much louder than anything he could eventually put into words. And they speak of misunderstanding and misdeeds. They speak of meeting the violence of the economic, political and, indeed, cultural slavery of our time, with more violence; and this cannot ultimately achieve anything. (Yet, is it not the same path that America and its allies currently walk in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world? – a kind of ‘tit for tat for tit’.)

Such wars and acts of violence hold no guiding star, no leading thought, as Emerson would have it:

“The guiding star of the arrangement and use of facts, is in your leading thought. You will have come to the perception that justice satisfies everybody, and justice alone. You will stand there for vast interests; North and South, East and West will present to your mind, and your vote will be as if they voted. And you well know that your vote secures the foundations of the state, and good will, and liberty, and security of traffic and production, and mutual increase of good will in the great interests, for no monopoly has been foisted in, no weak party or nationality has been sacrificed, no coward compromise has been conceded to a stronger partner. Every one of these is the seed of vice, or war, and national disorganization.”[8]

How often we hear similar words from governments and other leaders in our time, and yet how little do they carry the reality of the observations and thoughts Emerson expresses. From Emerson we hear a reality; from the majority of ‘leaders’ in our time we hear little other than jingoism; sloganism.

Just because Emerson says these things does not make them any more true; nor does it make them less true.[9] He articulates observations – observations about the guiding principles of humanity – observations that we ourselves are also able to make in our time; and so the final understanding and ‘articulation’ rest with us.

Some 60 years after Emerson spoke these words, another, slightly less-known, observer of progress also had some interesting things to say regarding the course of civilisation. Daniel Dunlop worked primarily towards a world economy that would meet the real needs of all people through individuals and organisations co-operating rather than competing with one another in economic life. Towards this end he founded, in 1924, while working in the British electricity industry, the World Power Conference (which later became the World Energy Council) – a non-governmental, non-commercial group of energy experts striving to “promote the sustainable supply and use of energy for the greatest benefit of all people“.[10] His efforts to expand this work into a co-operative world economy through practical initiatives was cut short by his death in 1935. In 1916 he wrote:

“Human life is a life of effort to attain understanding, to realize self-consciousness, to adjust environment to all the various needs of man’s nature. If his essential requirements are forgotten or hidden by superficial pursuits, a cataclysm of some sort is bound to occur sooner or later: this is not a moral percept, but a law of nature, a scientific fact. Cataclysms are self-adjusting processes of nature. History does not preserve the memory of any statesman, philosopher or thinker who is not really great; their fame does not survive the centuries unless they have enunciated and endeavoured to carry into practice those immortal Principles which inhere in Man and characterize the race. If they identify themselves with what is eternally true, they become part of the tradition of their country, and even of that of all countries, when their insight has been especially profound. These eternal Principles are the causes of existence, the source of all life; they are everywhere in operation; they are partially explained by mathematics and science, and are revealed to men when they begin to think impersonally and universally; they are that in which we live and move and have our being, and are secure even though continents become submerged. Principles never alter, though the understanding and interpretation of them necessarily changes as humanity evolves. The nation that interprets them most clearly leads evolution.”[11]

The question for our time must surely be, ‘Where is such a nation?’ ‘Where is the America that Emerson observed and described?’

Some of the articulations against the injustice at the heart of modern America come also from within America itself. As part of this we see individuals and organisations working together to realise something of the reality that Emerson saw 150 years ago. One of the strongest articulations for the true Spirit of America in our time comes from creative ways of working economically – community supported agriculture, community land trusts, social finance, social investing, income pooling, co-ops, crowd funding, other gifting of money to cultural life, pre-funded education, fair trade initiatives, business alliances, associative accounting, and so on – essentially, anywhere people are attempting to work associatively or collaboratively with money and, more generally, economics.[12] Here we have an articulation of the America Emerson also saw – an America that is, on the one hand, extremely eloquent and timely, and, on the other hand, stuttering into form. The really powerful articulations of this, it seems, are when co-operative economic organisations are able to begin to work with one another, including working with others across industries and, ultimately, across sectors. Here, the violence of our time is not met with more violence but with higher Principles, as Dunlop would have it.

Here we are able to see the America that was always supposed to be – one that carries a global task not for its own ends, nor for the ends of a powerful few within its borders, but for the betterment of civilisation – for the betterment of mankind as a whole. This is a kind of, what I would call, ‘Second America’ – an America that stretches around the world. It uses the existing global economy in order to replace the prevailing paradigm of competition with one of co-operation, and it does so for the betterment of all. It doing so it creates an economy that is not state driven, nor market driven, but driven by human beings under the Principles of justice and brotherhood in economic affairs.

In seeing the situation in this light, it is possible to see this Second America as living just below the surface of the land within that broad country between the Pacific and the Atlantic, and, from there, spreading out on the economic web of the world to the rest of the globe. It is a Second America – the one that Emerson and others have been waiting for – one that is able to take up its global responsibilities not in a one-sided and selfish way, but in a balanced and selfless manner based upon the Principles of cultural and spiritual freedom, equality of human rights, and co-operation of economic activity. It is the America – and with it, the world – that has been waiting to be made. It has been inside the world as we know it all along, and now it is gradually rising – moment to moment, thought to thought, human being to human being, initiative to initiative – from beneath our own feet. But it will only come into full realisation if human beings make it so.

It is an America – a world – that has no need for violent reprisals, because it is not built on the backs of the weaker and the exploited. It replaces such a world. For it is not the suffering of slaves alone that is so horrific, but the suffering of those who enslave – these are the real slaves in the long view of the Principles of life. The hidden, pain-filled, task of slaves – and all those who suffer – is to teach the enslaver, the unjust, something of their own humanity – of what it actually means to be a human being. Do we, as human beings today, when looking around the world, learn from such lessons and so strive to bring a better world into being?

Either we will, through the guiding Principle of Progress in our time, draw up, through our own will activity, this Second America, and with it, a new world – and quickly – or the Principles that guide human progress will find home elsewhere. It must be drawn up through the sub strata of the earth, in form and feature as identical with the physical characteristics and quantities of the current Earth, but in completely different, shining quality – as if it were a seed growing into the living organism it was always meant to become through the light and water of human attention and selfless deeds.

Either this happens soon – before the existing world tears itself apart or crumbles before the new one is in place – or, it would appear, the responsibility for the guidance of global civilisation will shift to Asia, which would have to learn rapidly how to care for the world at large while, more than likely, shaping a global economic system that will be in a radically different position than it is today.

Asia may be up to that challenge. Though it may not. In any case, the question remains, “Is America – and with it, the West and the rest of the world as we now know it – up to its challenge?” For things simply cannot and will not continue as they are. Change is upon us, and the time to act is now. As Emerson put it, “The times are dark, but heroic.”[13]

Emerson finished his lecture with the following words – words which are both as identical and as completely different from the jingoism and sloganism of our time, as the Second America – and the second Earth – is from the current one:

“In seeing this guidance of events, in seeing this felicity without example, that has rested on the Union thus far, – I find new confidence for the future. I could heartily wish that our will and endeavour were more active parties to the work. But I see in all directions the light breaking; that trade and government will not alone be the favoured aims of mankind, but every useful, every elegant art, every exercise of imagination, the height of Reason, the noblest affection, the purest religion will find their house in our institutions, and write our laws for the benefit of men.”[14]

This America has always been present, as much as a second world has always been present in the current one, and as much as a second human being has always been present within us. It will take this better human being in us to bring about this better world. And this better human being in us can find renewed strength and courage whenever we come together with our fellow human beings under the guiding star – under the true Spirit and Principle of Progress – of our time. It is this star, working in us, that will act, as though magnetically, to call up the world waiting to be made – the world that has so far been slumbering within the depths of the old – the world now inching its way through the surface crust to the light of day, as we too fill out our own bodies, all the way through the skin to that light and warmth which lives between us as human beings.

The new day is already upon us. Either we will become aware of the situation and work to shape it towards the just and the good or, as Dunlop expressed it, ‘self-adjusting cataclysms’ will increasingly make their presence felt on Earth and within the human being.


John Stubley

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Fortune of the Republic’ in The Political Emerson (Boston: Beacon, 2004, p. 204).

[5] If anything, it seems it is those America and its allies fight against who feel they have ‘justice’ on their side.

[6] Emerson, pp. 194-5.

[7] Emerson, p. 202.

[8] Emerson, p. 205.

[9] Indeed, he himself would say the same thing of other observers. See Emerson, p. 188.

[11] Daniel Dunlop, British Destiny: The Principles of Progress (London: The Path, 1916, pp. 2-3).

[12] Often, these new ways of working are born through new social processes – processes such as those being pioneered by individuals like Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge, professors at M.I.T. – the same university where a policeman died during a shootout with the bombers.

[13] Emerson, p. 204.

[14] Emerson, p. 205.

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