On Martin Luther King Day, it’s interesting to read different interpretations of different times in his life, his writings and try to puzzle out where we really stand in relation to his vision. Two perspectives really leapt out at me today, one from digby and the other from Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. Both are valid and yet, they’re nearly opposite.
Digby, writing on King’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, and this quote in particular:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, 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 Counciler 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.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
But the problem isn’t just the professionalization of the right wing. It’s the perennial problem that King elucidates so well in his letter: the unwillingness of the so-called moderates (today’s left leaning centrists and Democratic villagers) to put themselves on the line — their constant vigilance in policing the left against any sign of passion or colorful expression, the endless admonishments to calm down, be quiet, don’t paint with a broad brush, don’t speak clearly about what you see before your eyes. And in doing that they validate the idea that there is no right and wrong, that “both sides” are equally culpable, that the answer to irreconcilable principled differences is somewhere in the middle. The main result is a high sense of self-regard among the people who stay above it all and a continuation of a status quo which benefits only the privileged.
digby’s words and description of villagers certainly graze my left side a bit. I would argue that I have not shouted out for silence as much as strategic targeting, message-wise. It’s just not my style to take aim with personal criticism at the guy we elected. At the same time, President Obama’s style of leadership poses a dilemma for me. He is very much someone who works within the constraints of what he’s got and isn’t one to really break out of those, no matter how much I might want him to. At the same time, he is moving the ball forward without the confrontational in-your-face kind of politics many (including me, at times) wish he would use. It is seeing that ball inch forward that makes me want to hold up my hands and ask that we NOT hammer the guy from our side. It’s not a false equivalence I’m trying to set up as much as an environment where we’re not dissing what gains we get in one of the strangest political environments I can recall.
Melissa Harris-Perry chooses another observation of Dr. King’s for her essay on why Barack Obama and Martin Luther King top theGrio’s list of African-American leaders. Here it is, written shortly before his death and 4 years after his letter from a Birmingham jail. Writing of his fellow activists, who were becoming disillusioned and violent, he wrote this:
The minute hopes were blasted, the minute people realized that in spite of all these gains their conditions were still terrible, then violence became a part of the terminology of the movement in some segments. It is in this context that we must see what is happening now.
As early as the Democratic primaries, many Obama supporters desperately wanted him to fight back, to defend himself against what seemed to be racially motivated attacks, and to treat his political opponents as though they were personal enemies. Even as a candidate President Obama’s strategies were much like those of King. He, like King asked Americans to believe that only by absorbing blows and not reciprocating with viciousness can people reveal their attackers for what they are and create a more just world. In doing so he both inspired and frustrated his supporters. As President, Barack Obama continues to both inspire and frustrate as he develops a form of “nonviolent” political leadership that, at times, feels incapable of achieving victory in a bruising, no-holds barred partisan environment.
I believe that it is this crucial similarity that propels both men to the top of our experts’ list of black leaders. Dr. King was not victorious in every organizing effort. He often made choices to accommodate opponents. He sometimes cut deals when he thought the best outcome was not possible. He infuriated ideological purists who felt that he too frequently compromised. Certainly, President Obama has not achieved all of his policy goals. He too has anger[ed] many who felt that he is too frequently conciliatory. But despite their failures, our experts perceive both King and Obama as worthy of the highest ratings as leaders.
They’re both right. Speaking from my perspective as what digby would likely call a Democratic Villager, I have certainly written my share about the harm I feel some “colorful language” from the left toward the president has done. But what I think and do is less important than the larger perception from the African-American community toward those on the left who phrase criticism in personal terms toward our young African-American president. Meanwhile, white “mainstream” Democrats are fleeing the party in droves. In other words, there aren’t all that many white voters left standing for liberal things.
Ishmael Reed offered another perspective last month on criticism coming at President Obama from the left:
Progressives have been urging the president to “man up” in the face of the Republicans. Some want him to be like John Wayne. On horseback. Slapping people left and right.
One progressive commentator played an excerpt from a Harry Truman speech during which Truman screamed about the Republican Party to great applause. He recommended this style to Mr. Obama. If President Obama behaved that way, he’d be dismissed as an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people. His grade would go from a B- to a D.
What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called “paranoid,” “bitter,” “rowdy,” “angry,” “bullies,” and accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years. Very few of them would have been given a grade above D from most of my teachers.
When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama’s base, all they see is themselves. They ignore polls showing steadfast support for the president among blacks and Latinos. And now they are whispering about a primary challenge against the president. Brilliant! The kind of suicidal gesture that destroyed Jimmy Carter — and a way to lose the black vote forever.
Unlike white progressives, blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all. They know how it feels to be unemployed and unable to buy your children Christmas presents. They know when not to shout. The president, the coolest man in the room, who worked among the unemployed in Chicago, knows too.
Somewhere in between, there’s room for everyone to own a little piece of today’s truth. Digby is right when she says there’s no room for false equivalence. Harris-Perry is right when she says President Obama has earned a place at the top of the list of African-American leaders. So is Ishmael Reed, when he speaks of the consequences of the President assuming a combative, loud stance in order to get attention. He’d get attention, but not the kind he’d welcome.
Maybe the best observation comes via Dr. Cornel West at this weekend’s forum hosted by Tavis Smiley in Washington DC, where he says this: “Barack Obama is a fulfillment of King’s dream, not THE fulfillment.”
As long as we have the kind of rampant racism and efforts to de-legitimize Barack Obama as a “stranger”, as some kind of radical “socialist” who people think they have to “take their country back” from, Dr. King’s dream has not been realized. At the same time, I do see us coming several steps closer. It will take more work on all our parts. More education. More tolerance. More love. But I believe it will happen.
- Someone to watch over you
- Conscience is universal