15 January 2018

The uncomfortable King

It’s become something of a piety on the left (including here, on this blog) that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr has become a ‘Santa Clausified’ figure, in the words of Dr Jonathan Walton of Harvard Divinity School: a flag-draped, marble-bound idol of the American civic religion, who in that very transformation found his fundamental message to be effectively neutered. I fully agree there. It’s become a bit of a hobby-horse of mine to retrieve and present the Dr King whose messages were uncomfortable, particularly for the bourgeois white America who has come to see him as its own kind of magic uncle.

Dr King was particularly unsparing in his critique of the ‘white moderates’ in his own day – the people who today would be sporting ‘I’m With Her’ bumper stickers on the backs of their SUVs and listening to NPR while sending their kids to private schools in the safety of gentrified urban and suburban neighbourhoods, and who castigate young people and millennials poorer than themselves as ‘privileged’ and ‘selfish’. (Worthy of note is that Dr King himself never endorsed a single political candidate from either party.) His Letter from a Birmingham Gaol had this to say about the white liberals of his day, the people who made expediency and strategy, law and procedure, the measures of justice itself rather than the other way around:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’…
This is the necessary thing to understand. Dr King’s far-too-overused and -abused soundbite about ‘the arc of the moral universe… bend[ing] toward justice’ was not a blessing that he personally bestowed upon the contemporary liberal creed of Progress which even the ‘white moderates’ held to; moreover, it was far from an assurance to later generations that they could be complacent or forego vigilance against injustice. Nowadays when we hear that quote it has just a soporific effect, and one which would have appalled the Dr King who wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Gaol. He was not a historical determinist, and furthermore, as a personalist he would be profoundly insulted if you were to take that meaning away from this quote.

There are problems with America in 2018 which King had already seen as such in 1968. He would not take kindly to the fact that his warnings on this front have gone so long unheeded. America, still in the brazen grip of capitalism and the iron grip of militarism, once again goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy, to uphold the lie that she was the ‘indispensable nation’. It was the very topic of his impassioned plea to his own countrymen in Beyond Vietnam, a topic on which the great orator and good reverend refused to keep silent:
This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam… Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans…

it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam’. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that ‘America will be’ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land…

But even if it [this calling] were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy’, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
The Cold War, proxy-war logic that Dr King opposed so firmly in Beyond Vietnam has resurfaced in spots like Libya, Syria, the Ukraine and the Yemen, with some remarkably ugly consequences. The same people who today will be mouthing obsequies and eulogies to Dr King will tomorrow (or even sooner) be going back to repeating the same old State Department and FBI propaganda, treating the Russian people, the ‘enemy’, as non-white and less-than-human. It’s not enough to decry the president’s language, however foul and detestable, in discussing foreigners, when those of us who would never be so gauche as to make such an utterance still harbour these prejudices so tightly within ourselves.

This is not what Dr King himself taught. This is not what Dr King himself did. Dr King sought to visit Russia personally in 1958 (the trip never quite worked out), because he believed – rightly, as it turns out – that his Russian brothers and sisters were complete persons and human beings, that they had souls, and that they had not ever wholly given up on the Christian faith in spite of an atheist dogma being forced on them from above for four long decades previous.

Dr King was never a Russian stooge as the FBI believed, a charge which is now levelled at other people willing to humanise the Russians, like Dr Stephen Cohen. But he had, as my good friend Paul Grenier rightly says today, ‘the courage to converse’. Would that that same courage, that same conviction of the personhood even of our nation’s enemies, were more evident among us now!

And Dr King used the last year of his life to fight for the very same things that the social-democrats in this country are fighting for now (and more!), and are derided as ‘unrealistic’ by our current-day ‘white moderates’ for so doing. Full employment. Living wages. Affordable housing. Land grants for the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr, supported all of these initiatives not because they accorded with the received wisdom of the centrist technocracy. They didn’t – certainly not in his day and age any more than in ours. But he supported them because the demands of justice, of natural law and virtue rightly conceived, were that much weightier.

Repentance is something too often demanded of others and not of ourselves. I look at Dr King’s example and think of the opportunities I missed, myself, to speak on issues of importance, and am left to wonder if my own silence won’t be remembered by my friends in their hours of need. But for all that, I would deeply love to see it, if we could use this Martin Luther King Day to look to the example of one of our few civic, sæcular (and yet very far from sæcular) saints, and use that opportunity to both individually and collectively repent – both of what we have done wrong, and of what right we have left undone in the pursuit of lasting and just peace.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Matthew

    In response to what you say, I think we should be frank; the USA is bankrupt. So is neoliberal capitalism and social democracy. So are all the conventional forms of political economy that have prevailed over the last century. The federal debt quadrupled under Bush and Obama, which is to say nothing of the vast unfunded liabilities the Government has taken upon itself without any idea how to meet them. Those debts are much connected with social programs as they are with the military, if not more so. The only things that have averted collapse so far are massive fiddling of the finances and the fact that the dollar is the world's reserve currency; however, that second fact is likely to change as America ceases to be a serious country, and other lands reassess their arrangements. So, when one hears insistence on more spending and more borrowing, whether from right or left, one has to ask where the money will be found. Even if one confiscated the wealth of all the millionaires, let alone the billionaires, it still wouldn’t be enough to satisfy a leviathan that consumes money with a rapidity beyond comprehension. One doesn’t have to like the oligarchs to see this.

    From a longer perspective, the last 200 years has seen gargantuan efforts by left and right alike to engineer some kind of techno-New Jerusalem, and the state has been the chiliastic instrument chosen to accomplish this end in some way or another, whether through state socialism or state fashioned capitalism of various forms (e.g. limited liability). Well, those days are fast coming to an end; the eschaton did not arrive, and now the wheels are falling off. Whether we like it or not, it seems clear to me that people will have to adjust to living as their ancestors did, on a small scale, with small ambitions in a much harder world, where families hold together because they have to. I don’t deny that government can play a role in the public good, but I don’t know for how much longer that will be possible. But I do know, eschatological political economy, whether associated with King or Ayn Rand, no longer works and never did.