- Exceptional Americanism
George Shulman has written a brilliant book that is at once both classic and timely. While offering new and undoubtedly enduring insights on American politics, political rhetoric, and democratic theory, Shulman also ably embraces one of the most enduring tasks of political theory: explaining the polity to herself. At a time when the election of America’s first black president has produced thousands of column inches, blog posts, and hours of cable-news punditry on the emergence of a supposedly ‘post-racial’ America, Shulman ably reminds us of both the persistence and costs of the trope of racially neutrality in American politics. It is, however, not only what Shulman does in American Prophecy that marks it out as an essential read for scholars of American politics and culture – regardless of their disciplines – but also the way in which he does it. One of Shulman’s central claims about prophetic criticism is that, contrary to the dominant understandings of the genre, it can open up and invigorate democratic debate in a way that brings life to the public sphere. In this sense, perhaps, Shulman’s measured tone, careful arguments, and provocative rereadings of key figures in the history of American thought, along with his compelling case for the inclusion of Toni Morrison within that canon, ultimately serve to make American Prophecy an example of the thing that it studies.
As Shulman notes, there are certain registers of voice that liberal democracy deems illegitimate, regardless of the moral righteousness of their cause. Such critics of the status quo often are condemned for their methods at the expense of a consideration of their claims: from Frederick Douglass’ 4th of July Address, through Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn.” Prophecy has long been considered an illegitimate register, understood as either a theistic genre concerned with seeking obedience to divinely given laws – Jonathan Edwards calling on sinners to come to the Christian God lest they be consumed by hellfire – or as the voice of fanatics or scolds unable to engage in the rational discourse of liberal-democratic society. In American Prophecy, Shulman convincingly recovers both types of prophecy for democracy, although it is the latter that he finds most intriguing.
While noting the scriptural and textual evidence for the theistic view of prophecy as a matter of conveying and establishing fidelity to objective laws – a view espoused by, among others, Leo Strauss, Norman Podhoretz, and Jerry Falwell – Shulman, drawing on William Blake and Martin Buber, nevertheless identifies the conditional registers of voice even in prophecy’s most theistic forms. This offers, in the process, a much broader definition of the genre. Prophecy, he argues, should be interpreted as an “office,” one “that involves making certain kinds of claims in certain registers of voice: as a messenger bearing truths we deny at great costs, as a witness giving testimony about the meaning and costs of conduct, as a watchman who forewarns of danger to forestall it, as a singer whose lamentations redeem the past for the present” (232). By opening up the definition of a genre that he calls “capacious,” Shulman is able to incorporate into it a number of figures who have previously been excluded from the canon. In so doing, Shulman offers a compelling account of prophecy as a source of “democratic authority;” one whose intense rhetorical register is that of the more traditional theistic account, but which nevertheless opens up democratic possibilities. By demanding recognition of the ways in which what appears given, natural, or normal, is constructed (often in deliberately exclusionary ways), Shulman suggests, prophecy seeks to overcome the “motivated blindness” that underpins the exclusions and contradictions of liberalism.
In American Prophecy, Shulman focuses on the ways race is excluded from the Eurocentric political thought that founded the nation, but his is also an argument that expands outwards towards, and resonates with, recent democratic theory. Indeed, citing an...