In 1890 W.E.B. DuBois delivered a commencement address at Harvard in which he tackled the issue of the impact that leadership has on society. He brilliantly foreshadows the work of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou – 1923). More importantly, his words ring ominously true today as we start 2017 in the United States. In the piece, he reflects on the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis:
I wish to consider not the man, but the type of civilization which his life represented: its foundation is the idea of the strong man—Individualism coupled with the rule of might
DuBois goes on to caution that:
The Strong Man and his mighty Right Arm has become the Strong Nation with its armies. Under whatever guise, however, a Jefferson Davis may appear as man, as race, or as nation, his life can only logically mean this: the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole; the overweening sense of the I, and the consequent forgetting of the Thou. It has thus happened, that advance in civilization has always been handicapped by shortsighted national selfishness.
Today, we are facing a New Year and a new government and sadly a new shortsightedness. The choice is stark: are we, as a society, a nation and individuals, going to be an isolated “I” or are we going to be partners in cultivating a world of “I-Thou”?
The incoming US Government administration has utilized a “post-truth”, bully posture to convince the American people that the schoolyard will be better for everyone as long as the chief punk is in charge. This has ushered in a new dark age in American idealism that finds its greatest motivation in fear…fear of exclusion from the club, fear of the other, fear of appearing weak, etc. It backs up a nouveau belligerence that has no grounding in facts or integrity. “Because I say so” has become the default bargaining phrase of the day and the “deals” that are already being struck are less about negotiation and more about coercion and self-aggrandizement. In this equation there is only “I”. The “I” of the “strong man” who only functions for himself* and the “I” of the minions responding to the source of their intimidation, each one trying to see a small part of the big bully/strong man reflected in themselves.
But there is also the dangerous “I” of apathetic immobilized malcontents who refuse to fight back because they believe the system will correct itself. These are the same people who in 1868 allowed Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Southern aggressors in the civil war to be pardoned “with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have been made in pursuance thereof.” The result was Jefferson Davis and his “Strong Man” never being called to task for defending the institutionalized possession, abuse, rape and murder of other human beings in servitude. This laid the groundwork for the next 150 years of political apologists who still don’t understand why blacks don’t just “get over” slavery and the legacy of Jim Crow. The “I” of apathy does more damage because it is the “I” of retreat and acquiescence with the full knowledge that grave wrong is being committed. This is the same “I” that quickly defaults to assumptions of sameness as a rationale for inaction. It proudly proclaims on one hand that “All Lives Matter” and that it does not see race, but it refers to “the Hispanics” or “the gays” as if they are entirely different species. This is the “I” who will see you as long as they see themselves in you first.
But, I-Thou does not function based on sameness; it is not a filter. Instead, I-Thou is a manifestation of interconnectedness. I-Thou asks us to be in relationship regardless of our ability to agree. It says that there is no I without Thou. The great advantage here is the elimination of in-groups and out-groups and the true nourishment and safety of all. The challenge for us then today is to avoid being swept up in the wave of “Strong Man” individualism based on assumptions about how we are all the same and instead embrace the importance of being able to submit strength, individual or national to the benefit of all in celebration of our collective uniquenesses. In truth, the more the “Strong Man” abandons his relationship with “Thou”, he is not only weak, but an utter coward, afraid of his own human frailty and need. I cannot improve upon the words DuBois uses to drive home our greatest calling, particularly now at the dawn of an era that will challenge our most basic potential for interconnectedness:
What then is the change made in the conception of civilization, by adding to the idea of the Strong Man, that of the Submissive Man? It is this: The submission of the strength of the Strong to the advance of all—not in mere aimless sacrifice, but recognizing the fact that, “To no one type of mind is it given to discern the totality of Truth,” that civilization cannot afford to lose the contribution of the very least of nations for its full development: that not only the assertion of the I, but also the submission to the Thou is the highest individualism.
Happy New Year!
*I have intentionally retained the limited masculine language of “he/him/his” in this piece to reflect the original language used by both DuBois and Buber from which I have drawn my analysis.