20 January 2014

The radical personalism of Dr King

Dr King at the Transport Workers Union conference, 1961

Personalism is a highly misunderstood school of philosophy and ethics, and many of its leading thinkers and proponents have been likewise misunderstood. At base, I fear that when most Americans hear or read the word ‘personalism’, they are immediately tempted to think of a bourgeois liberalism, a German-accented idealism or a libertarian political philosophy which sees individuals as atomised constellations of abstract rights. But this reading of personalism would certainly be a novelty: alien to the Thomistic Jacques Maritain, hideous to the Péguy-influenced Mounier, and downright anathema to the radically anti-materialist and anti-bourgeois Orthodox lay-theologian Nikolai Berdyaev!

More insightful commentators might make the deeper and generally more correct connexion between personalism and existentialism, but it would be laughable to suggest that the person as she exists is of any great interest to Nietzsche (concerned as he was for going ‘beyond’ good and evil, and ‘over’ mere personhood, whatever each was supposed to mean) - and the monstrosity of Nietzsche’s brute-force individualism would certainly put most personalists off him, since personalists are concerned with the person as she exists, in all of her messy and inconvenient social embeddedness. There is much more for the followers of Michael Sandel to make of the personalists than there is for the followers of John Rawls, let alone for the Nietzscheans.

Sadly, there is a tendency in the Boston school of Borden Parker Bowne to over-read personalism through a German-idealist lens, but the most famous personalists to come out of the American sphere are Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. - the last of whom was a Boston personalist, the student of Edgar Brightman (himself a student of Bowne). And Dr King was not averse to expressing his personalism in radical, concrete and highly un-German ways. This was a man who could write, on the one hand:
I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power. To say God is personal is not to make him an object among other objects or attribute to him the finiteness and limitations of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm its perfect existence in him. It is certainly true that human personality is limited, but personality as such involves no necessary limitations. It simply means self-consciousness and self-direction. So in the truest sense of the word, God is a living God.
And on the other, fusing these personalist ideas with those in the African-American spiritual tradition very closely mirroring Ruskin’s Unto This Last:
Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on. It is not man.
Or, with equal compatibility, with such pro-labour ideas as this:
The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.

Negroes in the United States read the history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the goodwill and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They deplore our discontent, they resent our will to organize, so that we may guarantee that humanity will prevail and equality will be exacted.
Or, of course, with outrage against the Vietnam War, as here:
This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.

Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home that can’t hardly live on the same block together.
Or (perhaps most controversially nowadays) with a strong and almost Patristic emphasis on the traditional family, encapsulated pithily here:
The group consisting of mother, father and child is the main educational agency of mankind.
Part of the reason that Dr King’s legacy evokes so much confusion in modern American political life is that he didn’t really see eye-to-eye with either organised (white) political party of his time. He would likely do so even less now, when his legacy faces co-opting both by economistic right-liberals, by retrograde old Trot militarists and by the pro-abort lobby, an ‘unseemly squabble’ over his corpse, as David Lindsay would no doubt term it. Neither major party embraces a personalist political philosophy (though arguably only the Democrats would grudgingly make a place for it), nor does either major party respect a politics at human scale.

But one can see that Dr King’s read of the personalist tradition led him to embrace a form of politics which was anti-capitalist, anti-materialist and anti-imperialist, but which was at the same time pro-union and pro-family. Dr King respected the whole person and only the person as ikon of the Almighty. Very clearly he was not an individualist, for he understood and insisted on the value of the family in upbuilding the person and of the government in protecting her and of the community (including labour unions) in joining with her to fight for justice. But also, equally clearly, he saw the danger of reducing the individual to something whose worth is to be reckoned in terms of or even comparable with the things she consumes.

I have long held that the best way to remember Dr King is to let him speak in his own words and his own voice; I still hold to that. And I hope that I have done so in a fitting way here.

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