“Democracy is coming to the USA” is the real Leonard Cohen lyric we should be listening to

“It’s coming to America first / the cradle of the best and of the worst.”
“It’s coming to America first / the cradle of the best and of the worst.”
Image: AP Photo/Robb D. Cohen
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Ordinary words have failed Americans a lot over the last few months. It seems that too often, rational thought and logic have been rejected in favor of fake news arguments and internet troll hysteria.

In the midst of this chaos, however, other forms of language are becoming increasingly resonant. As Canadian columnist Elizabeth Renzetti recently said, “Perhaps poetry can shed light where polling data failed.” Poets are our prophets now, and songs our strength.

One such prophet was Leonard Cohen. This gruffly spoken man slyly and wisely brought his poetry a lot of publicity last week by dying right when we needed to hear him most. His fans have responded by playing “Hallelujah” on repeat and echoing the ironic comfort of his famous line from “Anthem,” There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.

But the song we should really be turning to is one from the 1990s: ”Democracy.”

I’m neither left or right / I’m just staying home tonight / Getting lost in that hopeless little screen. After months of an election campaign that gave us the feel / that this ain’t exactly real / or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there, and after years of a rising tide of the wars against disorder / the sirens night and day / the fires of the homeless / the ashes of the gay, Leonard Cohen prophesizes: Democracy is coming to the USA.

Like so many of us, Cohen cared about the idea of America (I love the country) but was horrified and revolted by what’s been happening to it (but I can’t stand the scene). He was a Canadian who believed in America’s founding principles: 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. 

According to Cohen’s prophecy, democracy will come not through laws or governments, but through a fresh wind, a hole in the air. Cohen even lists off the folks who, knowingly or not, will be the sources of this change:

  • from the left-behind workers of the industrial heartland: from the brave, the bold, the battered / heart of Chevrolet
  • from the protesters like Black Lives Matter: it’s coming from the sorrow in the street / the holy places where the races meet
  • from the Christians: some of whom pretend to understand but do not act on the staggering account / of the Sermon on the Mount
  • from the feminists who struggle against the patriarchy: from the homicidal bitchin’/ that goes down in every kitchen / to determine who will serve and who will eat
  • from the agony of women, especially the women of the desert lands of the Middle East, fleeing bombs and worse: 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

At a time when the US is in more danger of foundering than ever before, Cohen’s words are the perfect anthem for these times: Sail on, sail on / oh mighty ship of State, we’re dreading this voyage, not knowing if we’ll we make it to the shores of need / past the reefs of greed / through the squalls of hate. 

Poems and songs are full of an intense aliveness that tears open the heart, allowing for a deeper understanding. Even in the middle of an agonized, despoiled, garbage-strewn landscape, Cohen finds hope: 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.

So, what exactly did Leonard mean by all that? It’s too late to ask him now, but if we’re all junk, let’s be stubborn as garbage bags, and keep on holding up that little wild bouquet of hope for tomorrow.