Martin Luther King, Jr., on the eve of his assassination, eerily voiced a premonition of his death:
I’ve been to the mountain top!… He’s allowed me to go up the mountain! and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight… that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything…. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
King, like Moses, never gets a chance to see the promised land. It’s both a truth and a metaphor. It’s a metaphor for leadership: There really is no leader beyond our own yearnings and dreams. While we hope to rest in the illusion that there exists someone wiser, greater, or more powerful who can lead us, our fate is to become the wise woman or man we crave.
Is it even possible to elect a leader, or a government that lives up to our ideals? Or, are our ideals ours to become? John Dewey predicted this when he said that, contrary to popular thought, the work of democracy was not to achieve common good and harmony, but was the work of individual self-realization. This is, as James Baldwin said, the real work of achieving our country.