Democracy! Coming or Going?

30 years after fall of Berlin Wall, 2 women born in its shadow wrestle with  its legacy | CBC Radio

1989 I sat in the lobby of a hotel in Frankfurt/Germany and watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV, surrounded by co-workers and clients. The beginning of a new era. We were optimistic and full of joy. At the time is seemed that the influence of the U.S. and western European countries was expanding, and nothing could stop it.

Interesting enough, right about that time, Leonard Cohen started writing the lyrics to his song, “Democracy.”

We tend to think of the United States as a source of inspiration for other countries; even though we got downgraded to a ‘flawed democracy.” But that’s now, in the 90’s we were still perfect, weren’t we?

In the first line of Cohen’s song we learn that democracy is penetrating into the U.S. from holes in the air and in the walls, from the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, and a couple of lines later we realize that Cohen is referring to places within the U.S. -like Chevrolet workers- as sources of democratic ideas coming to America. So where exactly does the U.S. stand and where are the democratic ideas coming from?

If we follow the logic of the song we find that the U.S. is essentially a concept, an idea, a place not defined by its geographic borders but by its fundamental values. It is not the physical border of the U.S. that is important but the American way of life. In an interview after the song had been released Leonard Cohen said, “It is a song where there’s no inside and no outside. This is just the life of the democracy.” And what is the U.S.? Right now it’s a place where democratic ideas are truly tested. Democracy is not a steady state but a process, an infinite examination of ideas like equality, freedom, opportunities. The song compares the U.S. to a sailing ship, which must be vigilant against greed and hate.

From here Cohen attempts to define American culture. He first affirms America’s religious roots. “The Sermon on the Mount” is his point of departure, after which he provides a fascinating depiction of life in the U.S. Democracy, he argues, is not self-evident. It is acquired with effort, pain, it emerges from the sorrow in the streets, from inter-racial tension, from women kneeling down suffering, from a struggle about who would serve and who would eat – the song is full of descriptions of people in agony. Cohen’s U.S. is not a happy wealthy place, a place in which human rights are secured, instead it is a country where constant battles are taking place, the cradle of the best and of the worst, where people can achieve the best and fall into deepest darkness.

His observations of American individualism are especially interesting. The spirit that drives people to achieve their goals, also pushes them away from one another. “It’s here they got the spiritual thirst,” he says, but then he connects self-fulfillment with the breaking of the family. “It’s here the family’s broken.” In an ironic tone he elaborated on the loneliness so typical of life in the U.S., along with a denial of its source, and it’s here the lonely say that their heart has got to open in a fundamental way. Clearly loneliness is not a result of the lack of openness; it is a mechanism of denial, unwillingness to admit that there is a link between extreme individualism and loneliness. And though the American spirit has a pronounced sexual character, sensual and passionate, ultimately people are alone.

Then Cohen seems to break life in the U.S. into the smallest components, almost into the physical material it is made of. And I’m neither right nor left, I’m just staying home tonight, getting lost in that hopeless little screen. This is a reduction of high principles into a very simple, uncomplicated life. Many American are not concerned with politics or the fundamental principles of democracy, they completely withdraw into their private space, watching TV for hours. But the strong determined spirit of America is also embedded in these people, who seem so detached from the public sphere, they are like a garbage bag that time cannot decay.

There’s nothing like this metaphor to express a big idea with a small object. Not passionate speeches on the American spirit, not the American bald eagle or the hand on the heart while singing the national anthem – but a disposable garbage bag. It is man-made, lacks any elegance or grace, but endures forever.

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

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

It’s coming from the women and the men
O baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail onI’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That Time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA

Songwriters: Leonard Cohen Titel: Democracy

Artist: Leonard Cohen Album: The Future Released: 1992


 

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