Whitman wrote “Song of Myself” in the period of great socio-political strife tearing the United States apart in the lead-up to the Civil War. Two hundred years after Whitman’s birth, this country is again in the midst of increasing socio-economic and ideological division, which manifested itself most clearly in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, businessman and reality TV star, as President. Mr. Trump represents the antithesis of values and virtues expressed by Whitman in his poem.
Central to my understanding of Whitman’s epic poem is the phrase, “Whoever degrades another degrades me…..” Those words speak of diversity, empathy and compassion, which are fundamental elements in the ideological rifts in the U.S. today. Mr. Trump and his people would build a wall on our southern border to keep “the other” out. In the Civil War, southern states seceded from the Union to try to keep “the other” – their slaves – in.
Empathy and compassion are criminalized rather than lauded. Thousands of migrants have died crossing the border into US deserts, as they try to reach points further north in the country and build a better life. Yet it is illegal, and can result in arrest and prison time, for people to leave food and water for them at points in the desert. Aiding fugitive slaves was also a crime.
In one of his many lists in the poem, Whitman wrote of “the quadroon girl… sold at the auction-stand.” Yet even now, long after the end of the Civil War, human trafficking – modern slavery – is alive and well in the U.S. and around the world. Refugees are particularly vulnerable to traffickers who recognize their fears and vulnerabilities and lure them into the trafficking network. Trying to escape is dangerous and sometimes fatal.
Whitman CELEBRATED himself for being connected to all of humanity. In this time of a President who embodies adoration of self as unique and singular, apart from “the other(s),” it is time to seriously revisit Whitman’s embrace of the diverse self eternally connected to all life.