my mysteriously censored letter defending ralph waldo emerson

Even though we live in “the land of the free,” the following letter was never printed in the New York Times Magazine. I have a sense that powerful interests are conspiring here against Mr. Emerson, and it might ruffle too many feathers if, after being absolved by my letter, he is allowed to go on promoting self-reliance. Just yesterday, a flowerpot fell and shattered right in front of me. “The word is on the street, gumshoe,” a stranger whispered. “You’re getting too close.”

I’m responding to the article “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s Self-Reliance.” 


To The Editor:

Benjamin Anastas, in his article on the effects of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” makes a salient error: he blames Emerson for Emerson’s readers. I have no doubt that Mr. Anastas’s teacher, the redoubtable Mr. Sideways, believed himself to be well-liked when he wasn’t, and believed himself to be an Emersonian hero for trying to sell his students on a pyramid scheme. Nonetheless, Ralph Waldo Emerson is innocent.

A writer is not responsible for the foolish misapplication of his ideas. This is particularly evident when Mr. Anastas tries to blame Emerson for “our fetish for […] the flashes that meet the eye, the hunches that seize the gut” as well as “the plague of devices that keep us staring into the shallow puddle of our dopamine reactions.” Regardless of how one feels about touchscreen devices, dopamine (and our craving for it) is part of our brain chemistry — it’s a universal human trait, not an American peculiarity. The same is true of our preference for impulsive thinking. In Thinking Fast and Slow (which just made the Times‘s list of the best books of the year) Daniel Kahneman presents decades of research proving that human beings have an innate tendency to make quick judgements based on powerful memories. At the dawn of human history, this was necessary for our survival; if he were alive today, Emerson would be far too modest to accept all the credit.

As for Mr. Anantas’s satire of consumers who think of themselves as nonconformists, his words ring particularly hollow here at the end of 2011. After all, these were the same arguments that Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter made in 2004, when they lampooned the magazine Adbusters in the first chapter of their book Nation of Rebels. What they could not know, at the time, is that Kalle Lasn, one of the founders of Adbusters, would become part of the group that launched the Occupy Wall Street movement, which from the first has concerned itself with the common welfare, and not with a shortsighted, libertarian definition of “self-reliance.” We are very fortunate Kalle Lasn was Emersonian enough to shrug off Nation of Rebels, rather than closing his doors.

When George W. Bush said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, it did nothing to reduce my opinion of philosophy or the Bible. As Mr. Anantas suggests, Mitt Romney may indeed try to defend his contradictory statements by quoting “Self-Reliance” to the effect that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” But Barack Obama is the one who understands the power of that idea: he voted against raising the debt ceiling as a senator, and he fought tooth-and-nail for it as President, with our national economy at stake.

Mr. Anantas has apparently encountered quite a few examples of how not to read Emerson. If, however, he wants to find out what is Emersonian about America, he will have to go back to the writer’s own words. To decipher them, he would do well to rely less on the example of others, and more on himself.