Like a lot of people these days, philosopher and ethicist Jacob Needleman can
wax poetic about his love for the United States of America; it represents for
him just what it did for Abraham Lincoln: "Our last, best hope."
But unlike so many folks -- who've turned the wound of Sept. 11 into a deification
of an often-contradictory nation -- Needleman harbors the kind of love for his
country that partners can develop in a long marriage: a mature, informed and realistic
love that recognizes vices as well as virtues, mistakes as well as successes,
responsibilities as well as privileges.
Any less realized a love, says the San Francisco State University professor,
is not only unworthy of a great nation, it's dangerous.
"Sept. 11 was a tragedy, but the shock awakened us and allowed us to rediscover
a feeling for our country that had been obscured by all sorts of things, from
our obsession with money to the Clinton scandals," said Needleman.
"A love of America is a very precious thing, but if it turns into a kind of
regressive jingoism, we could lose that good energy of Sept. 11. We could become
a worse nation."
The author of 11 books -- including "Money and the Meaning of Life" -- Needleman
is an institution at San Francisco State, where he's taught for nearly 40 years.
Space in his religion and philosophy courses is always wait- listed. This year
is no exception, particularly for a new course, "The Meaning of America," which
is based in part on Needleman's most recent book, "The American Soul: Discovering
the Wisdom of the Founders" (Tarcher/Putnam).
Needleman wrote the book before Sept. 11, but its message is even more relevant
a year later: As individuals, as a country, we need to "reanimate the idea of
"The meaning of democracy was always rooted in a vision of human nature as
both fallen and perfectible -- inwardly fallen and inwardly perfectible," he writes
in "The American Soul."
Without the inner strength that comes from each of us striving to be better
people -- accepting that we cannot get from money "what can only be gotten from
a relationship to love and truth" -- democracy loses its power. It becomes, "as
Plato and Aristotle pointed out 2,500 years ago, a celebration of disorder and
In other words, as goes the spiritual and intellectual health of the individual,
so goes the health of the nation.
"Wisdom teaches us to be neither foolishly discouraged by America's failings
nor foolishly enthusiastic about its stated ideals, and the accidents of geography
and natural resources that have contributed so much to its physical and economic
strength over the past two centuries. America has murdered and cheated and broken
its promises and betrayed its ideals in ways that are not so different from the
first history of mankind as a whole."
What does makes us better (potentially anyway) are the mythic ideas on which
the United States was created. Yes, America's founders were flawed -- as all humans
are -- "but they did have high ideals," said Needleman in an interview. "Many
of them were spiritual seekers, deep thinkers, seekers of truth. Most of the best
of them searched for the inner conscience. It wasn't just, 'Let's get a country
and get rich.' It was, 'Let's get a country where we can be secure and serve God.'
Unlike any place that had come before it, the United States was not founded
on the whim of a king, conquest by an invading army, the purchase or annexation
of a prized piece of real estate, an arranged marriage or even a perceived order
"America was founded on ideas," said Needleman, "and those ideas need to be
thought about deeply. We need to study them and ponder them beyond the first cliches."
If his students are any indication, this exercise could find a large and enthusiastic
"Just on the first day of class when we talked about the Bill of Rights, they
came alive in an extraordinary way," he said. "I asked them to think about the
right to free speech, that, as with every right, it also carries a duty. What
is that duty? What is our obligation? That something is required of us in return
for a right is a new idea for them."
And a forgotten idea for many of us -- especially those who heap unqualified
scorn and criticism on our nation. To Needleman, they commit just as grave and
destructive a sin as do the knee-jerk patriots.
"People defend America in stupid ways and they attack it in stupid ways," he
said. "A lot of people who hate America haven't really thought about it. They
characterize it as a monolithic evil empire, but it's a mixed bag. What would
you do with 300 million people in a country with all the money and resources this
one has? How would you go about governing?"
Fortunately, says Needleman, we don't have to invent the answer to that question.
The founders already did. It's called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
-- designed to mitigate a basic truth: "No one is going to do the right thing
all the time."
"But whatever you say against America, it's still intrinsically capable of
correcting itself . . .," he says. "We're an incredibly rich country that's survived
some of the stupidest mistakes, some of the dopiest presidents. Everything depends
on our deep reflection, right now, on what it is we are protecting besides our
bodies and our money. Something else is at stake."
Borrowing from a federal judge who last month admonished the Bush administration
for its secret deliberations on jailed immigrants, Needleman said:
"Democracy dies behind closed doors. Much more dies behind closed minds."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle