Emerson, Obama and Clinton


by David Safier

I’m taking another Sunday stroll through Meta-education Land (I’m planning to suggest Meta-Education Land as a new ride at Disneyland. The thrills! The Chills! The Erudition!). Today I’m taking a digression to one of my favorite essays of all time, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar.”

I was reminded of the essay when someone on a cable news show mentioned the historical uniqueness of the Democratic presidential primary, where the two candidates left standing happen to be African American in one case and female in the other. The commenter said something to this effect: “We have to think of these two, not as an African American or a woman running for president, but presidential candidates who happen to be African American and female.”

I thought these were wise words. Don’t place Obama’s and Clinton’s racial and gender identities as their primary identifiers. Make them secondary descriptors. Say, “Oh, by the way, Barack Obama, the presidential candidate with the following qualifications and positions on the issues . . . is also black,” not “Here is this black guy who thinks he can be president.” The same for Clinton. Put her positions and qualifications first, and her gender as something you would mention in the same way you say McCain is from Arizona. It’s relevant, but not critical to whether she is qualified to be president.

In “The American Scholar,” Emerson talks about the fable that there is actually one “Man” (He uses the prefeminist term “Man” to describe humanity, as did everyone at the time, rather than “Person,”), and we are all portions of that one being — fingers and toes, necks and stomachs, as it were. And he regrets that we refuse to acknowledge our Oneness but instead have become loose appendages severed from the whole:

Unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,–a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

In this world of “walking monsters,” the Person/Man who indulges in the noble act of farming “sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm.” And so it goes with others who are consumed by their professions and ignore their Human-ness: “the attorney [becomes] a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.”

Two People, two representatives of our greater Humanity, are running to be the Democratic candidate for president. Among the characteristics of these People, one happens to have some of his ancestry going back to Africa, and the other happens to be a female. The question we need to ask ourselves is, “Which of these two People is the best Democratic choice to become the next President of the United States?” Their genders and ancestry are part of the mix, just as the fact that McCain is white and male is relevant. To deny that would be ridiculous. But they should not be the primary considerations.

Are we ready to see these two candidates as People first, as Emerson suggests we should? It is a genuine, and troubling question that, once this election is over, will continue to be discussed for decades.


  1. I agree, with qualifications, that Obama being African American has advantages. The qualification is because I think the possible disadvantages are greater. And there is no question that he should, as he does, put his ancestry into his speeches and his list of qualifications.

    My concern is when all a voter sees is a candidate with a black face or a woman’s face. Put these parts of who these candidates are in their rightful place, as pieces of the mosaic that makes up these candidates, or any candidate, but not as the sole defining characteristic. Let’s not forget, to use Emerson’s imagery, that someone who works the land is a “Man who farms,” not simply a farmer. The Personhood should come first.

  2. “Their genders and ancestry are part of the mix, just as the fact that McCain is white and male is relevant. To deny that would be ridiculous. But they should not be the primary considerations.”

    David, I disagree, and I will try to explain.

    I think that Barack Obama being African American is a major advantage for us at this time, should we choose to recognize it.

    Barack Obama is from the first generation of African Americans who are the beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Movement. It is true that he is not a descendent of slaves and his life experience is very different from an African American who lived in the Deep South. But, he became a civil rights attorney rather than a corporate lawyer and it is clear that he is identified with that first generation of beneficiaries. These are people who do not take their civil rights and liberties for granted. They are just one generation removed from those who faced down the police with fire hoses and dogs and took the beatings.

    Barack Obama is uniquely qualified among the three candidates left standing to defend the US Constitution, in my opinion.

    Also, Barack Obama being an African American with a unique and diverse background sends a healing message to the world that the other candidates cannot.

    However, aside from the fact that I think his being African American is advantageous, I also think that he is the best candidate of the three left standing.