These events--especially the New York decision--are victories in the fight for gay and lesbian equality. New York has joined a handful of other states where people who love each other can make a legal commitment in a public ceremony and announce to the world at large: We are men and women with hopes and dreams. The promise of freedom, equality, and happiness in the Declaration of Independence applies to us, just as it applies to you.
And yet, as important as these victories are, and as critical to celebrate, they still leave me hoping that our country will live up to another ideal that struck me in Whitman's poetry. Not only should everyone be free to love whomever they want and marry anyone they wish, but they should be able to work when they need to.
Today's politicians and pundits seem to have forgotten the unemployed in their endless debates about wealth creation, capital gain reduction, and high corporate taxes. How rarely we hear about the factory worker, the contractor, the construction worker whose lives have been upended by the prolonged economic disaster. They're not on the morning talk shows, or called to congressional hearings. They don't write the op-ed pieces. Mostly they're forgotten and ignored.
But Whitman wouldn't have forgotten them. What's most shocking about his writing today is not that he loves men or describes "the body electric." What's stunning is his democratic sensibility. He loves everyone. "I contain multitudes," he wrote. He embraced the soul of democracy, its fundamental faith in humankind. He knew that the fate of each one of us is inextricably linked to the fate of all. "Whoever degrades another degrades me," he wrote. "I speak the password primeval, I give the sign of democracy./By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms."
Where does this deep devotion come from? This isn't someone who reduces the idea of democracy to an abstract concept like voting, or a knowledge of civics. He knows in his gut that people share so much, if only we had the eyes to see and the willingness to reach out to our fellow beings.
Whitman looks across America and sees himself in whomever he meets: "the horseman in his saddle,/Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,/The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles, and their wives waiting,/The female soothing a child--the farmer's daughter in the garden or cow-yard,/The young fellow hoeing corn."
It's ironic that Whitman chose to celebrate what we share at a time when Americans were less dependent on each other than we are today. Many more people lived on farms in the nineteenth century, and so they could be a lot more self-reliant: growing their own food, sewing their clothes, building their own homes. But rather than applauding what each American could do in isolation, Whitman embraced all of us together: "I hear America singing."