Giving the people what they want

«Who are you that wanted only to be told what you knew before?/ Who are you that wanted only a book to join you in your nonsense?» Walt Whitman demanded of his readers in an 1850s poem. In it, the literary giant of a still young USA set out the principles that would make the country great. This entailed the country expressing what was great within it and – like its idealistic poet – without being influenced by others nor by the past. It ought to look at its future, rely on the individual and his inner resources, pursue greatness and not depend on what is known. A few years later, the USA nearly fell apart in its Civil War. But after the victory of Union forces, it raced ahead on the highway of development and prosperity. «By Blue Ontario’s Shores,» is not one of Whitman’s best poems and its memory has almost been brushed aside by his many masterpieces. But it’s useful to remember it today when America is plagued by a return to virulent partisanship and because, due to the mushrooming of new media, everyone can find the newspaper, TV station, website or blog that suits him or her best. With the individual moving away from any type of collective vision and parties pursuing the votes of individuals who are often isolated and angry, voters are asking to be told what they already know, what they expect, what makes them comfortable. This is what Whitman raged against, this is what makes his poem important. I remembered his anger as I watched the televised debates of Greece’s party leaders last week. All were better than we expected but each stuck closely to his or her closely scripted role. Watching them, I realized why they all took part in these strictly regulated parallel dialogues. It’s not just the party leaders who want to play it safe and stick to the well-trodden path, it’s the voters too, who want the protagonists to keep recreating the fake world that we like to believe we live in. We don’t want to focus on the problems. But when we all turn our backs on reality, we cannot know who we are, what we want, nor where we are headed.