Monday, January 21, 2013

MLK and Stonewall are the rejection of gradualism

A brief point, and one that is both exceedingly obvious and routinely ignored.

Today is the day we commemorate Martin Luther King. It also happens to be the day of Obama's second inauguration. (Why we have inaugurations for sitting presidents is beyond me.) During Obama's speech, for which he is receiving the typically polar response, he name checked the Stonewall riots, Selma, and Seneca Falls. What's worth saying, not so much in regards to Obama but to the liberals who zealously defend him, is that Martin Luther King was adamantly opposed to gradualism, and as Ned Resnikoff pointed out, those events of resistance represent the rejection of the political process due to the urgency of profound oppression. Gradualism has become the cudgel with which liberal Democrats beat left-wing critics, and the partisan political process is advanced not merely as the most important route to change but as the only valid route to change. To ask for change in the face of injustice and suffering is to be called naive and sanctimonious; to advocate resistance that transcends voting once every four years is to be called a traitor. Yet the man who we celebrate today, and the events referenced by the very president who is defended in those terms, speak to the profound poverty of conscience that resides in the doctrine of the lesser evil.

King once wrote, "cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right." That was not an idle position. It wasn't a rhetorical flourish. It wasn't some bit of starry idealism mixed in there for the crowds. It was an absolute linchpin of his moral philosophy, an existential attachment, a first principle. It appears in his published and public work again and again, for those who bother to actual read him, rather than to interpret him as some vague symbol of gravitas, robbed of his anger and his particularity. There can be so much disrespect hidden inside reverence. Well, many who insist on the doctrine of the lesser evil in all times and against all conscience no doubt today are celebrating King, just as they celebrate the memory of Stonewall, a wild and uncompromising expression of righteous anger and the rejection of "just a little bit better." How do these proud gradualists defend this tension, of taking as inspiration the people and movements who explicitly and angrily rejected the slow compromise the gradualists prefer? They don't. They never raise the people or the ideas to the level of critical discrimination, instead treating them as empty placeholders, as effigies to vague ideals. The right to never settle the contradictions within your own worldview-- such is the privilege of the status quo.

I'm told that Obama gave a liberal's speech. I now want him to govern like one. To get there, we are required to criticize him, as the most basic principles of democracy insist we do. With no elections left to win, will the pro-Obama liberals participate in that critical engagement, or will they continue to deny the validity of conscience, in defiance of the principles which have been celebrated today?

9 comments:

Ferny Reyes said...

This isn't the first time I've seen this sentiment today, but this is the first time I've had the forum to respond.

As one of the 'lesser evil' crowd and as someone who actively draws inspiration from the lessons of MLK, Malcolm, Chavez and the anguished youth of Stonewall, there is a precarious balance there.

Maybe in some way, it hinges that I don't see politics in the realm of immediate moral relevancy - in that, I am willing to commit myself and support immoral action at the function of a potentially larger moral goal.

This is problematic at times, but I don't know how else to operate. The same moral urgency of MLK that empowered him to transform his society also served as a limiting agent in his latter battles; the inability to turn from revolution to gradualism (I will accept that term, though I'd contest it) as necessary sometimes serve as a broader strategic error to the very urgency we promote.

I guess, the way that I'd summarize is as follows: I'm playing for keeps. I don't know what else to play for. So I don't expect my politics to my redeem me. They are messy, immoral, and I commit to actions that are quite possibly morally evil, but I'm not angel and I don't confuse the ethical with the tactical.

That's how I navigate that balance. Others can choose to do it differently. In doing so, I learn different lessons from those that you do. Perhaps you'd say I'm engaging in a betrayal of their actions, but I also find a crude cudgel used by white progressives (usually) to be attacked by those for whom their struggles continue to be mine.

Ferny Reyes said...

The last line is probably a bit unfair. It should be treated as claiming that you can't call bullshit, but I know that I'm no Dr. King. I can't be. Telling me repeatedly and that the answer to my political quandary is to be him seems to ignore all context ever.

Freddie said...

Fair or not, I take the sentiment well.

Ferny Reyes said...

Eh. That said, I would say this: criticism is fair and always is fair. I'm pretty harsh on election rhetoric on voting 3rd party, but I think it's healthy for the president to be attack by the left-wing.

I just find most of the attacks on political process to be stupid. But on civil liberties? He deserves to be attacked.

Anonymous said...

I know, b/c our political process has been working so fucking well for the last 30 odd years.

Don O'Neill said...

I think liberals are often bad at separating the role of political leaders from their own role as members of the public and activists. The President of a diverse democratic republic can't really operate as a radical, and probably shouldn't. But too often liberals conflate their role with their politicians' and end up acting like our job as activist members of the public is to follow and advocate for the most liberal politicians we think are "electable" because the need to keep the GOP out of political office trumps all other concerns.

Obviously this is BS, and stems from our obsessive media focus on electoral politics. MLK didn't accomplish anything through electoral politics. He didn't have a dream that one day Democrats would control the government and then they would prosecute Vietnam more kindly. He knew that real democratic reform doesn't come from people voting every couple of years, it comes from people uniting and taking collective and principled action.

His attitude toward politics is instructive here. He never endorsed a candidate because he knew electoral politics was not a useful tool to his cause. Privately, he voted for Kennedy as a practical matter. This is how I feel about Obama vs. 3rd party candidates. Privately, I voted for him. I hate the drone war, but in the election I had only two choices...help Obama get elected or help Romney get elected. I couldn't bring myself to pretend that 3rd party vote would amount to any real-world effect other than to help Romney. So, in the ballot box, I was not making a choice between continuing or ending the drone war any more than I was making a choice between sunshine and rain. It just wasn't part of the equation. The choice was about the differences, which meant it was about social programs, infrastructure investment and tax policy. So I chose Obama.

But I'm not going to hitch my principles to a politician. Opposing drones means vocally denouncing Obama's actions and taking meaningful action, such as non-violent resistance, civil disobedience, etc. And it means demonstrating to liberal Obama-loyalists that while every four years I have one day in which I have to decide between Obama and a Republican, they have *every other day* to decide between supporting or opposing the US's - and Obama's - injustices against Pakistan, Bradley Manning, and our civil liberties. Every day that is NOT an election is a day in which we must make THIS choice, and for people who defend the purveyors of violence against the powerless to get sanctimonious on election day is absurd.

amiri abu jamal said...

being for gay rights and mlk is the easiest kind of radicalism because it leaves capitalism intact.

Don O'Neill said...

You can't be both for MLK and for keeping capitalism in tact. Unless, of course, you're willing to ignore a huge portion of what the man said. For example:

"I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about Where do we go from here, that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, Who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, Who owns the iron ore? You begin to ask the question, Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water? These are questions that must be asked."

Those kinds of questions aren't any easier to ask today than they were in the 60's.

Knockout Ed said...

"I think liberals are often bad at separating the role of political leaders from their own role as members of the public and activists."

Bingo.

I don't understand this need by so many to make activists & politicians the same. They are not, and they never will be. Look at all the activists who became politicians. Not exactly radicals any more.