My Fellow Citizens,
Leonard Cohen kept coming at me this week. I'm not his biggest fan, but I've figured out that he has something to teach us, something that's important to hear right now.
Cohen's song, "Democracy," has always played in the background of the National Academy for Civics and Government*. It fits the work of that persistently hopeful project. We are a community of people hoping to find the "crack in the wall," where democratic thought will break through and flood the USA.
Cohen first appeared to me when New Yorker magazine posted an animated version of his last interview. He reflects on being ready to die and accepting that several half-finished songs will remain unfinished.
The interview is a powerful rumination on being finished, at the end of one's life, and of accepting things that will never be finished, his half-written songs. Just as soon as you lean into that tension, he brushes it all away with the last line, "And maybe I'll get a second wind. I don't know."
That's when I remembered reading about the verses that didn't make it into "Democracy." Interviewing Cohen for his book Songwriters on Songwriting, Paul Zollo asked why he left out some particularly dark verses. Cohen answered:
"I didn't want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense."
We sit on the verge of four years of weekend protests and social newsfeeds full of calls-to-arms. What would all that look like if our aim was this "revelation in the heart?" I had never heard the hopefulness in "Democracy," but now I know it's there:
It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the USA.
Cohen understands something about democracy. It's something that's easy for us to lose sight of, and he has it wrapped up in a single phrase, "the cradle of the best and of the worst." That sounds like us. That's who we are and who we have always been.
What else is true? Perhaps we also have "the range and the machinery for change." Let's talk about how to open the heart "in a fundamental way."
There's an influential educator and activist who has written about democracy, the heart, and wholeness. In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer asks how "We the People" can call American politics "back to health." He offers five crucial habits of the heart, but Cohen seems to be pointing us to one in particular.
Parker advocates we develop "an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways." He advises us that contradictions can either "shut us down and take us out of action" or "expand our hearts… to new understandings of ourselves and our world." Coping with tension and resisting the want to shut down is part of our daily news cycle. Is there anyone who isn't feeling that right now?
The creative potential of this tension is where Cohen and Parker collide. They both want us to remember that democracy is a working hypothesis.
Parker describes American democracy as a "non-stop experiment in the strengths and weaknesses of our political institutions, local communities, and the human heart." In the interview about songwriting, Cohen wants us to see "Democracy" the way he does:
"I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. It's not an ironic song. It's a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding… This is the real laboratory of democracy."
And this video from PEN America is the perfect way to reconnect with the majesty in this mess that is today's laboratory. Neil Gaiman reads Cohen's lyrics while watercolors and symbols dance across the page.
Give yourself three minutes away from depositions, testimonies, and transcripts. Listen to "Democracy" and imagine that there is magic within us. And, yes, madness too.
That's the way democracy makes its way in the USA.
* Will Harris is a superfan. His love for Leonard Cohen and this song always makes me laugh. Even while writing this. 😁