Martin Luther King

Going low with Donald Trump

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I do not like this man.

Every day, if you walk by my office, you just might hear me mutter the words “motherfucker” or “racist asshole” or “stupid fucking man” or something like that, because as is often the case, I listen to the news while I work. And since Donald Trump is the news, then when you hear these words coming out of my mouth, it is likely that you’re hearing me disparage the GOP candidate. Or his surrogates. Or his apologists. Or some man or woman who intends to vote for him. Or some reporter who has failed, yet once again, to ask follow-up questions about Trump that are not only (in my mind, anyway) obvious questions to ask, but that are also absolutely important if we are ever to get out of the bind in which the GOP has put us.

More than once I have scanned the Internet for that t-shirt worn by the character in the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the t-shirt that reads “Fuck you you fucking fuck.” Ever since Donald Trump became the GOP nominee, I’ve thought: that shirt is a perfect expression of my (and others’) perfectly reasonable outrage not only at all of the deplorable things the GOP candidate has said and continues to say, but also at the racist, sexist, xenophobic, white nationalist fascist free-for-all Trump’s candidacy has inspired, and nurtured, and thrived on.

I’ve even imagined myself wearing that t-shirt at a Trump rally, daring some fucking fuck to say some fucked up thing to me so that I could…

Never mind.

“Oh, yeah?” I shouted while watching Trump recently on CNN. “You say you want to send your goons to ‘some other place’ on November 8 so that they can ‘make sure’ that the election is ‘on the up-and-up’ in those ‘other communities’? Bring it on, then! Motherfucker, bring it on!” After saying that I reflected fondly on a day back in the 1980s when the Ku Klux Klan – all twelve of them (was it even that much?) – came to March on what was then a much more chocolate Washington, DC. Thousands of outraged citizens, some of whom (not me) were armed with pipes and sticks and god knows what else, showed up to welcome the Klansmen, who got off their bus in an undisclosed location, said a few words, and then quickly – wisely – got the hell out of Dodge.

Those of us who were outraged, on the other hand, occupied the streets long after the Klan escaped, wreaking havoc until the police launched their tear gas canisters.

I say all of this to confess that I have been spending too much of my daily life going “low”– indulging in precisely the kind of nastiness that Michelle Obama implicitly counseled all of us against this past summer when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention about the ways her family has coped and continues to cope with the hatred directed its way. “I will never forget,” Michelle recalled,

“that winter morning as I watched our girls, just seven and ten years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, ‘What have we done?’  See, because at that moment, I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who they would become, and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them.

That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight — how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level -– no, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

Since the DNC, I’ve often used Obama’s counsel to “go high” as a check on my frequent forays in the muck. But I have to admit that I have been content to stay mostly in shallow waters, where going high merely means that I should refrain from acting “like a bully” and from using “hateful language” to denigrate others – where going high means claiming the moral high ground not on the basis of any humble spiritual practice, but instead on the basis of my sense of superiority to those [deplorable] people. For me (and for others, I suspect), going high became a practice of smug self-satisfaction and condescension – spoken in polite terms, of course.

I am certain that Michelle Obama did not mean for me – for us – to be so shallow. And I know this because of the ground in which her counsel is rooted.

“If I respond to hate with reciprocal hate,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Montgomery Bus Boycott memoir Stride Toward Freedom (1958),

“I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love. If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community. Booker T. Washington was right: ‘Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.’ When he pulls you that low he brings you to the point of defying creation, and thereby becoming depersonalized.

In the final analysis…all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.”

As King’s critique makes clear, to go high is actually a profound spiritual practice of “nonviolence to everything,” a practice that should – if it is authentic – shatter you to slivers. The slivers are the pieces of yourself that keep you from calling your so-called enemy your sister, that deny just how bounded is your humanity even to those who hate you, that widen and deepen the gap in our broken community, that make you feel high and mighty in relation to women and men willing to live and act and think in deplorable ways, that make you blind to your own deplorable everyday ways of being.

And the slivers, too, are the pieces of yourself that see an orange Cheeto instead of a broken man who honestly believes his brokenness is the mark of his power and greatness.

In truth, to go high is to go vulnerable, to be willing to love – to radically love – in the midst of your outrage and your fear.

“I’m happy that [Jesus] didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies,’” King preached on Christmas Eve in 1967 – just months before he was assassinated – “because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men.”

To go high is to have the kind of compassion that comes from recognizing in one who hates your own hungry ghosts – your willingness to hold a grudge, to belittle, to deflect criticism, to name-call, to be utterly selfish, to offer only grudging apologies, to retaliate, to be absolutely unwilling to see in the smallness, in the pettiness of others a frightening vulnerability and astonishing lack of self-love, respect, and care. To go high is to cultivate the kind of compassion that completely unsettles who you are, that disturbs and disrupts the narratives you tell yourself so you don’t have to face or question your own inner Trump.

And get this: to go high is to have the humility to see in the one who hates his essential Buddha self, the Christ she is capable of being. In other words, to go high is really fucking hard spiritual labor, a practice in danger of being cheapened by campaign politics. It is work crucial to our quest to make a world great with justice and peace. It is absolutely required in order for us to meet, with great dignity, the most pressing crisis our species has ever known (climate change). Without question, it is work that is easier not to do because it is so damn fun, so wildly entertaining, to call Donald Trump an orange Cheeto motherfucker.

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Sitting on my living room mantel piece is a small statute of a black Buddha that I greet every day before my morning meditation. It is the last thing that I see when I close the front door to go to work. It’s the first thing I notice when I open the door, home at last, after a stressful day of buses and BART and a tired, cranky three year-old and a growling, howling empty stomach and a series of my own raging riffs about Trump campaign drama.

This Buddha used to sit on my mother’s nightstand during the final year of her life. I imagine that, along with her Bible (like Thich Nhat Hanh, my mother found deep affinity between the teachings of Christ and the Buddha), this statue gave her great comfort after her cancer treatments. I imagine that it reminded her during the course of the 2012 election cycle (which she followed closely) to be outraged, absolutely – but to be so without hate. I imagine that it inspired her to continue to speak of justice in terms that excluded no one. And I imagine that this Buddha gave her further motivation to say – as she and my father often did when they discussed a politician or pundit who peddles hate – “Bless his heart.”

When I went to her room after she died, I noticed that next to her Buddha my mother had placed – carefully and intentionally, I am sure – a 2012 campaign button of Michelle Obama’s face.

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Onto that Buddha now clings (heaven help me) a photograph of Donald Trump’s face. Around its neck is a gold necklace to which I attached a locket that contains a lock of my mother’s hair.

May I shatter into a million pieces.

May we all — including Donald Trump as well as the men and women who support him – shatter into pieces too numerous to count.

And may we all, finally, be free from suffering.

Beyond Identity Politics: MLK’s scathing critique of the Vietnam War in his “most radical speech” troubles today’s identity politics [REPOST]

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In the compendium of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, articles, books and sermons, “Beyond Vietnam” stands out to many on the left as the definitive evidence that King had finally become a full-blown radical. King’s speech, they argue, signified his “formal break with…political moderation” because, unlike his previous speeches – which focused primarily on the issue of civil rights – “Beyond Vietnam” took aim (as one critic put it) at “the global struggle of the rich vs. poor.” Even more, it is a speech in which King tied “the American orthodoxy on foreign policy to the structures which perpetrate racial inequality domestically and also to much of the world’s suffering,” as it is also a speech in which he “linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism.”

For these critics and others, not only did such a critique make “Beyond Vietnam” radical (and King’s “most radical speech” to date); it also made the speech “dangerous” – both to the “political and economic power brokers of America” and ultimately to King himself. Aidan Brown O’Shea, for instance, observed that after delivering “Beyond Vietnam,” King “went from being an admired voice for acceptable racial progress in the form of the end of legal segregation among white moderates,” to being “a truly oppositional figure.” His speech may have even “accelerated,” another critic theorized, “the efforts of those who felt so threatened by” King’s “audacity that they murdered him a year after he delivered it.” In other words, “Beyond Vietnam” was ultimately “the speech that killed” him.

It is to “Beyond Vietnam,” then, that many on the left often turn when they talk about King, and it is the speech they are likely to call upon in order to counter the commemorative “whitewashing” of King’s politics that frequently occurs on August 28 – the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington – as well as every January, when King’s birthday is celebrated. “Beyond Vietnam,” moreover, is the evidence they provide to rebut conservative efforts to appropriate King’s legacy and to expose the hypocrisy of government officials and others who evoke King to counsel nonviolence and political quietism in the face of injustice. It is even used by some to resist allies’ calls for nonviolence as a way to respond to and organize against unjust governmental action. Ultimately, “Beyond Vietnam” expresses “the real King,” a man who, at the end of his life, was an “anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist political dissident,” the “ultimate anti-establishment man,” a man who had been moving “slowly toward the philosophy of Malcolm X,” and a “democratic socialist.”

Without a doubt “Beyond Vietnam” is a powerful speech, and in my view it is indeed King’s most powerful. Delivered before a gathering of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 – exactly one year before his assassination – the speech is, as John M. Murphy and James Jasinski argued, King’s “most comprehensive indictment of the American war effort,” an indictment through which he construed the war as a war on the poor and as a colonialist project that fed what he called the “giant triplets,” i.e., “racism, materialism, and militarism.” As such, the speech belies efforts to harness King to a conservative, status-quo supporting agenda (which, as is most often the case, tends to be solidly grounded in racism, materialism and militarism).

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Moreover, because of this speech, King did face a tremendous and unrelenting backlash from the media, from political elites, from the government, and even from allies in the civil rights community – a backlash that, according to historian Taylor Branch, often reduced King to tears.

The Washington Post, for example, pronounced that by taking a stand against the Vietnam War, “‘King had diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people,’” while Life magazine – engaging in a bit of red-baiting – declared the speech a “‘demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.’” The Board of Directors for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “passed a resolution against what it saw as an attempt” on the part of King “to merge the civil rights and antiwar movements,” and Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, chided King for making “‘a serious tactical error’” by speaking out against the war. Already treating King as an “enemy” of the state, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover stepped up the Bureau’s surveillance and smear campaign against King, all with the blessing of President Lyndon Johnson who viewed King’s speech as both a personal betrayal as well as an affront to all the work he had done on behalf of civil rights.

Yet, the left’s embrace of “Beyond Vietnam” as a radical text and of King as a full-on radical suffers from its own kind of whitewashing, namely, the subtle cleansing of King of his commitment to nonviolence and love. Almost without fail, when many speak of “Beyond Vietnam” and, more broadly, the “radical King,” they do so either by giving short shrift to King’s continued advocacy of nonviolence and love, or as is most often the case, by subordinating them altogether to King’s “more radical” critique.

In an article where he draws significantly from “Beyond Vietnam” to challenge the “character and political assassination” of King’s work, Eric Mann, for example, tells us that “King was from the outset a Black Militant and revolutionary who advocated non-violent direct action but saw ‘the Negro revolution’ as the overriding objective.” Mann explains that “while” King “strongly argued for non-violence as both a tactical and ethical perspective,” he nevertheless “supported the right of Black people to armed self-defense and allied with advocates of armed self-defense and even armed struggle in the Black movement.”

Notice the way Mann subordinates – through his use of the words “but” and “while” – to “the Negro revolution,” to King’s presumed support for African Americans’ right to “armed self-defense,” and to King’s alliance with those who advocated armed self-defense and armed struggle, King’s commitment to nonviolence. By so doing, Mann gives the impression that King himself subordinated his commitment to nonviolence to all of these other, more pressing issues – or that, at the very least, he put nonviolence and the right of self-defense on equal footing. Mann also implies that King had no quarrel whatsoever with his allies’ calls for self-defense or of armed revolution.

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But the truth is a little more complicated. Yes, King did support the right of self-defense, and in his 1959 article “The Social Organization of Nonviolence” – which he wrote in response to NAACP leader Robert F. Williams’ article challenging “turn-the-other-cheekism” as a strategy for confronting white violence – he pointed out that even Gandhi sanctioned self-defense “involving weapons and bloodshed” for “those unable to master pure nonviolence.”

However, King also argued in “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” (1966) that “it is extremely dangerous to organize a movement around self-defense” because “the line between defensive violence and aggressive or retaliatory violence is a fine line indeed.” Moreover, it is “ridiculous,” King asserted, “for a Negro to raise the question of self-defense in relation to nonviolence” – just as it would be ridiculous “for a soldier on the battlefield to say he is not going to take any risks.” The soldier is on the battlefield, King pointed out, because “he believes that the freedom of his country is worth the risk of his life. The same is true of the nonviolent demonstrator. He sees the misery of his people so clearly that he volunteers to suffer in their behalf and put an end to their plight.”

And in “Where Do We Go From Here,” a speech King delivered before a convening of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference four months after “Beyond Vietnam,” King specifically criticized those who championed armed struggle as an option for African Americans. “When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective,” King asserted, “the answers are blatently illogical.” Those who “talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments” as well as “talk of guerrilla warfare…fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States.” Declaring that “this is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom,” King went on to call for the strategies “offered by the nonviolent movement” and to assert more forcefully that he “still” stood “by nonviolence.”

What’s clear is that for Mann, subordinating King’s advocacy of nonviolence is critical to his project of claiming King as a Black Militant and revolutionary. Yes, King “advocated for non-violent direct action,” Mann seems to suggest, but he kept armed self-defense and armed struggle on the table.

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We see the same kind of rhetorical strategy as Mann’s at play in law professor Camille A. Nelson’s “The Radical King: Perspectives of One Born in the Shadow of a King.” Nelson writes, for example, that society “has captured and marketed Dr. King’s message to minimize the revolutionary impetus of much of his work. But the breadth of Dr. King’s work is vast. He taught about Ghandi-esque principles of love and non-violence. But he also chastised the ugly underbelly of American capitalism with its marginalizing consequences for many people of color and poor whites.”

Nelson’s uses of the word “but” locates King’s nonviolence outside of the “revolutionary impetus of much of his work.” Indeed, in one footnote where she discusses how a watered down King is taught in primary and secondary schools, she makes explicit that his nonviolence is anything but radical. She writes, “children are typically taught that King’s nonviolence, rather than his radical message, led him to achieve great success.”

In his article “King’s Transition from the Struggle for Black Political Rights to Economic Rights for All to Death by Hatred, 1955-1968,” Emmanuel Konde didn’t even bother to use – not even once – the word “nonviolence” in describing King’s political “transition.” Given the span of Konde’s analysis, this omission is both remarkable and troubling – and even more so given Konde’s focus on King’s transition to economic rights, for King’s final project – the Poor People’s Campaign – was one he envisioned in terms of “militant nonviolence.” As King explained in “Showdown for Nonviolence” (published twelve days after his assassination), “We need to put pressure on Congress to get things done. We will do this with First Amendment activity. If Congress is unresponsive, we’ll have to escalate in order to keep the issue [of economic inequality] alive and before it. This action may take on disruptive dimensions, but not violent in the sense of destroying life or property: it will be militant nonviolence.”

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Konde is not alone in omitting nonviolence from consideration of King’s politics. The word is also conspicuously absent from Geoff Gilbert’s “MLK’s radical vision got distorted,” an article in which Gilbert examines, among other things, how King’s “real legacy on militarism & inequality,” as expressed in “Beyond Vietnam,” has been recaptured by current activists (the protests that Gilbert examines in this article were, ironically enough, nonviolent protests).

One unschooled in King’s work could walk away from these texts and others like it with the distinct impression that nonviolence was no longer important to King and that, prior to his assassination, he may very well have been on the cusp of taking up the call for armed revolutionary struggle.

And yet, not only did King begin to advocate more forcefully for militant nonviolence, which he viewed as both a “positive constructive force” by which the “rage of the ghetto” could be “transmuted” and as an effective means to curb the feverish preparations “for repression” by the “police, national guard and other armed bodies”; but in “Beyond Vietnam” specifically King framed and criticized the war in terms of nonviolence. In fact, in this “most radical” speech he distilled the issues of militarism, racism, and materialism to a question of love.

Identifying the “giant triplets” as symptoms of a “deeper malady within the American spirit,” King argued that the nation needed to heal itself by reclaiming its “revolutionary spirit” and declaring “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” But in order to do so the American people, he asserted, would have to undergo “a genuine revolution of values,” that is, to develop “an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole” and thus answer the “call for a world-wide fellowship” that “lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation” – a call that is, “in reality” (King argued), “a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.”

So why is there all of this whitewashing of King’s commitment to nonviolence and love by some on the left?

It’s fair to say, I think, that conservatives’, government officials’ and other elites’ appropriation of King’s work and image go far to explain why some on the left have erased King’s nonviolence and love. These, after all, are often what conservatives and other elites tend to champion about King’s legacy – though what they offer is empty of anything resembling King’s politics of resistance and ultimately constitutes the kind of “emotional bosh” that King rejected outright. Moreover, the love and nonviolence that conservatives offer are often nothing less than barely disguised expressions of hostility toward African Americans and others.

This hostility was expressed, for example, by talk show host Glen Beck’s call last year for a March on Washington – the 52nd anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington – to protest, under the banner “ALL LIVES MATTER,” “discrimination” against Christians who reject gay marriage (Beck specifically invoked King’s “name to announce” his march and campaign). Not only did Beck attempt to harness the nonviolent 1963 MOW and King’s moral stature to his anti-gay agenda, but he did so by specifically targeting and belittling the organizing that had been taking place – under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter – against police killings of unarmed African American children, women and men. “ALL LIVES MATTER,” as many have pointed out, signifies a refusal to hear and to redress African Americans’ calls for justice and a radical change in how policing is conducted in this country.

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Considering efforts such as Beck’s, reclaiming King from conservative elite appropriation is, I think, an important cultural and political project.

But the conservative game doesn’t explain entirely what many on the left have been doing with King’s work. After all, it’s not as if the latter have, in the face of the conservative onslaught, defended King’s nonviolence and love or exposed the ways that conservatives actually reframe nonviolence in terms that make it compatible with state power and political quietism. If anything, some on the left have, as part of their reclamation project, conceded by omission nonviolence and love to conservative elites.

What I think is driving this whitewashing of King’s commitment – at least in part – is the rather longstanding and yet oft-unspoken assumption among some on the left about what does and does not constitute “radical” politics. As demonstrated above, some assume, in particular, that radical politics cannot possibly include nonviolence; that nonviolence and love are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of critique that King offered; that both nonviolence and love signify, in fact, the absence of radical politics. Indeed, for too many on the left, radicalism is “necessarily bound up with violence” (to borrow from Yale Professor Chris Lebron’s “Time for a New Black Radicalism”).

Viewed in this light, King’s critique of the giant triplets and the war necessarily indicated that he was beginning to abandon nonviolence and love, since one cannot be both radical and nonviolent at the same time. It is therefore entirely in order to excise King’s nonviolence from his critique of the war, materialism, racism, and militarism as well as to align King, even if subtly, with an idea of radicalism he believed was neither revolutionary nor rational.

King, however, challenged outright such a skewed idea of radicalism. Indeed, by marrying in “Beyond Vietnam” his critique of the giant triplets to his philosophy of nonviolence and love, King explicitly defined love itself as the ultimate form of radicalism and as the means by which to reconstruct our society from the bottom-up. “History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued” the “self-defeating path of hate,” King lamented in his call for a “genuine revolution of values.” But “love,” he proclaimed (quoting Arnold Toynbee), “‘is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.’”

For King, what made love especially radical was not only that it was the absolute antithesis of the status quo of violence – i.e., militarism, materialism, racism and, of course, the Vietnam War itself; but that it was also, in his view, the means by which we could embrace “sonship and brotherhood” as our “vocation” and thus move “beyond the calling of race or nation or creed” – beyond, that is, the narrow allegiances defined by our political and social identities.

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This idea of moving “beyond” such identities (King deployed the word “beyond” several times when he talked about these) and of being “bound” together through and on the basis of love is – more than anything else, I believe – what has compelled some on the left to cleanse King of his commitment to nonviolence and love. King’s construction of both in his “most radical speech” and elsewhere was a clear rejection of what many clearly embrace: a politics grounded in and driven by the reification and reproduction of political and social identities. King implied that not only was such a politics completely inadequate to the task of ending the war in Vietnam; but it was also, he inferred, not a viable basis for radically transforming our society since it embraced the very divisions and ideas of separateness upon which the war, as well as the giant triplets, absolutely depended. For King, this politics of identity put us all on the wrong side of “the world revolution” against the “old systems of exploitation and oppression.” To get on the “right side,” we would have to undergo a “positive revolution of values,” a revolution through which we would come to see ourselves as “bound by allegiances and loyalties” much “broader and deeper” than those prescribed by our social and political identities.

“Beyond Vietnam,” then, is a speech that stands against the kind of identitarian politics that many on the left champion and that ultimately underlie their efforts to “reclaim” King. It was a speech through which he called for the creation of a different form of self – or, rather, called for our embrace of self as love and thus as opposition to, at the level of everyday life, our violent society – which is to say, really, that “Beyond Vietnam” is truly a call to nonviolence, to be the full expression of it and, in the process, to be a force that will reconstruct radically our society into one grounded in and expressive of peace and “brotherhood.”

This is not to argue, as many conservatives would have it, that King advocated or laid claim to some kind of transcendence over race, class, and the like, nor is it to claim that he never embraced these identities. “We must stand up and say, ‘I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful” King declared, for example, in “Where Do We Go From Here.” Reflecting the sexist black power discourse of his day, he declared as well that to “offset…cultural homicide, the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood.”

Yet, King did insist that we are, fundamentally, spirit or love – “that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life,” the “key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality” and which has been grasped by “Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist” belief systems. Thus, even as our lives are undeniably materially and politically shaped by structures that reinforce and perpetuate race, class, nation, and other political/social identities and divisions – necessitating, as King made clear throughout his life, that we organize to dismantle the structural inequalities that these produce and the violence they enact – we are not bound by them. In fact, not only can we move “beyond” them; we must do so, King suggested, for it is our failure to recognize that we are “interrelated,” i.e., connected in spirit and in love (or, as King put it, that we are all “sons of God”), that has set us on a path to “co-annihilation.”

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We are still on that path, as our open-ended “war on terror,” our race-to-the-bottom neoliberal economic policies, and the nihilism of our refusal to address climate change all make abundantly clear. In this context, King’s message of love is surely a radical one, a message that asks us to reconstruct completely our society – beginning with ourselves. And it is the King who spoke of love and nonviolence as the path to peaceful coexistence – that radical, unwashed King, whom we must “reclaim” so that we might think more deeply and critically about what is required of us, what kind of revolution of values we must undergo or redefinition of self we must undertake, in order to make a more just and peaceful world. But that reclamation project ultimately requires us to take a hard look at our politics of identity and ask whether or not they are placing us firmly on the wrong side of history.

 

References

All sources for this article can be found in the original post.

My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)

Love, Death and ISIS: A view from the mountaintop

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When Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his final speech on April 3, 1968 – a speech in which he urged support for the labor strike of Memphis, Tennessee’s African American sanitation workers – he spoke candidly about having received death threats prior to his arrival in Memphis. Because of the threats, King told his audience, the plane upon which he arrived had to be (according to the pilot) “‘protected and guarded all night,’” and the bags of the other passengers on his plane subjected to heightened security checks.

“I got into Memphis,” King continued,

“And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to 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 so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

What was significant about this speech, and this moment, was not – as many have speculated –that King had some kind of sixth sense about his impending assassination. Instead, what made this moment important was that King modeled the capacity we all have to transform into a source of power our physical vulnerability to others’ violence; to claim as “our” brothers and sisters those who want to harm us and, in the process, to recognize their need for healing; and, to let go of our attachment to “longevity” – indeed, to our fear of death – precisely because these attachments keep us from seeing, and erecting, our vision of a better society.

King was not special. He was just a man, one who decided that he would not let his vulnerability distort his vision, turn him against others, and compromise his highest ideals and deeply held beliefs. He died for them, yes. But he also lived for them.

The “current threat of terrorism,” wrote Leela Fernandes in Transforming Feminist Practice, “is a real one and the fear which people feel is also real.” Consequently, “if progressive activist-thinkers gloss over this reality they will not be able to reach a wider public base.” The “difficulty,” Fernades continued, “is to provide a courageous alternative at precisely the point where individuals feel their own personal safety is at risk, for it is usually at this point of perceived vulnerability that we are most willing to put up our fences, lash out at others and forsake our deepest ideals.” Indeed, the “question of security poses the deepest possible spiritual challenge to individuals, communities and nations – for it is an area which has created the most distortion around the meaning of self-preservation. From a spiritual perspective, any act that causes harm to another can never ultimately be an act of self-preservation.”

King’s demonstration – “a spiritualized practice of nonviolence,” to use Fernandes’ words – is the stuff from which we can create “a courageous alternative,” one that will allow us to attend with an open heart to our countrymen and women’s (and our) growing hysteria, fear, and utter sense of vulnerability concerning both the emergence of ISIS and the continued threats of “terrorism,” as well as the warmongering and hate that are feeding all of it. Instead of submitting to vulnerability and fear, and consequently closing ranks, we could use both to engage and resist ISIS as well as others who do terrorism (and that includes our countrymen and women) in ways that claim them, absolutely, as “our” sick brothers and sisters in need of healing. We dare to see ourselves in them, in fact – to pursue policies rendered unthinkable by our belief that a Self/Other view of the world is the only realistic vision we can have for humankind. By daring to step into this kind of vulnerability, we might very well break the cycle of carnage and counter-carnage that passes as both self-preservation and foreign policy.

And I say this conceding that, by now, the men and women whom we call “terrorists” – and certainly ISIS – are probably beyond our reach. To use the words of South African theologian Allen Aubrey Boesak, “I am painfully aware that deeply complex situations arise where nonviolent intervention comes too late, where the world, for various reasons, has hesitated too long, has erred fatally on the side of greed, neglect, or indifference, has invested too vastly and for too long in the entrenchment of tyrants of all kinds.”

However, it is not too late to examine ourselves and to look at the question of terrorism – foreign and domestic – in terms of our having failed to choose nonviolence in the first instance (by, for example, refusing to underwrite tyrants, to sacrifice the needs of the many for the benefit of the few, to hoard resources, to live with great indifference in the midst of profound poverty and despair). It is not too late to see self-preservation as inextricably bound to the well-being of others, or to see in the violence around us the harm we have caused.

And it is certainly not too late to reject our politicians’ invitation to retributive justice and joyful, sacred violence.

But all of that self-examination requires that we ultimately let go of our attachment to the longevity of this empire, does it not? We must look at death – the death of our bodies, the death of our idea of self, the death of nation, the death of anything and everything that makes it impossible for us to speak in terms of I and I – and fearlessly say, as did King, that we are “not concerned about that now.” For the place we want to get to – peace – is the place we must bring into being with a willingness to pay the price if we must, so that we can one day sit and break bread with all of our sisters and brothers – all of them, without exception.

 

For Joanie, my mother (d. 11/24/2012)

 

My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)

You can order directly from Amazon and Lantern books.

TOWARD A NONVIOLENT DEMOCRACY: BERNIE SANDERS’ RACIAL JUSTICE PLATFORM

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While there are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders’ adoption of a Racial Justice platform that tackles violence against African Americans is both extraordinary and unprecedented, certainly one reason must be that the platform in effect charges our government with the responsibility to practice nonviolence toward African Americans in particular and people of color generally. In fact, Sanders’ platform – the adoption of which was instigated by #BlackLivesMatter activists – presupposes that folks of color deserve nonviolence, both from the government and from private citizens. We deserve it, the platform suggests, because we are a valuable part of the body politic – “we must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color” – and because it is right and just.

The platform is not, as one might imagine, merely a recitation of platitudes about racism and justice (though it certainly includes many); instead, it offers specific policy changes that Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists hope will help to make African Americans’ and others’ lived experiences of violence a thing of the past: police retraining, expanding the franchise, ending the War on Drugs, banning “prisons for profit,” investing in youth employment programs. These are just a few of the proposals that the platform outlines.

Of course, the word “nonviolence” does not actually appear in Sanders’ Racial Justice platform, even though the platform refers to and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the section dedicated to economic violence.

Nevertheless, with its focus on “the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans – physical, political, legal and economic,” it is hard not to see that what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists have done is something quite in keeping with what King did in “Beyond Vietnam,” his crucial 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: denounce the government’s violence and require from it something radically different. For King, that radically different something was for the government to conduct domestic and foreign policy in ways that reinforce “brotherhood,” and thus for it to choose “nonviolent coexistence” over “violent co-annihilation.” For Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists, that something is for the government to refrain from waging violence against black and brown people.

Because Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists produced a platform that expresses in great measure the spirit of King’s challenge, they accomplished something rather remarkable: they inadvertently produced a framework by which we can construct a platform that commits us to making nonviolence the crux of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Physical, political, legal and economic violence – these categories certainly capture what we justify nationally and internationally as in our national interest, and thus they provide us an opportunity to offer the kind of nonviolent alternatives we sorely need. Our undeclared war against ISIS, the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people, the horrific attack in Paris, the everyday violence we suffer at the hands of one another – what else do we need to add in order to see, finally, that we really must choose between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation? What other kind of mass shooting, suicide bombing, war – what other kind of atrocity do you require?

So, forgive me for having the audacity to offer a nonviolent political platform – a work-in-progress that builds upon (and borrows from) what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists started. I offer this because it is clear to me that unless and until ordinary citizens step up to put forward alternatives to our culture of violence, we will continue to be mired in bloodshed, hate, and conflict both here and abroad until we destroy ourselves. It is my hope that you will comment, critique, talk about and add to what I have written here. It is my hope that you will even imagine a platform more daring, one that shifts this superpower inexorably toward militant nonviolence and to which you will, through bold action, hold every single candidate accountable from now until November 2016.

And beyond.

ON VIOLENCE

[follow this link]

Oregon and our routine violence

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“Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.”

Yes, Mr. President. “Somehow” these terrible mass killings like the one in Oregon this past week have become – to our shame – mind-numbingly routine.

But context is everything.

This past Sunday, a U.S.-drone strike killed 85 suspected ISIL militants located in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan.

On Monday night, another unarmed man was shot by a police officer – this time, in Baltimore.

The following day, U.S. forces launched airstrikes in the outskirts of Kunduz, a northern Afghanistan city seized by the Taliban.

Early Wednesday morning, Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner. Richard Glossip, scheduled for execution in the state of Oklahoma, received a last minute stay because the physician whose job it was to kill him noticed that his cocktail of death was incorrect. Virginia, however, executed serial killer Alfredo Prieto on Thursday – the day a young man decided to go on a killing rampage at Umpqua Community College.

The broader and perhaps more pernicious routine to which we are subject, it seems to me, is our national violence, which we have by and large rendered mundane and certainly less important, less worthy of our consideration and reflection, than Donald Trump’s hair. As a nation-state, we kill and maim and bomb and torture and execute as if the free exercise of violence – whenever and wherever we choose – is the meaning and measure of democracy. We view our constitution’s Second, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments as doctrines that enshrine a right to kill (a right too many of us consider blessed by a god who – quiet as it’s kept – commanded unequivocally: “thou shalt not kill”) and thus as above critique and correction.

And so it is preposterous to decry the violence of our ordinary, everyday citizens, for if we are honest with ourselves – and we are not – we must admit that they perform the very essence of our national character.

So let’s just say it: we are a violent society. What we do the world over collectively through the state we do as well individually in our small towns, our suburbs, our urban centers. And unless and until we as a nation take up the challenge to undergo what Martin Luther King, Jr. called (in his critical speech on Vietnam) a “radical revolution of values” – a willingness, that is, to be outraged enough about our hate and violence to love one another into peaceful coexistence, with all of the economic and political policies that that requires (including an all-out ban on guns as well as the adoption of a foreign policy premised on nonviolence and reparations for the damage we have caused from our proxy wars) – then these terrible routines will surely destroy us all.

I invite you to explore my recently published book, Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books, 2015), at www.amazon.com/author/alyceelane.

Beyond Identity Politics: MLK’s scathing critique of the Vietnam War in his “most radical speech” troubles today’s identity politics

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In the compendium of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, articles, books and sermons, “Beyond Vietnam” stands out to many on the left as the definitive evidence that King had finally become a full-blown radical. King’s speech, they argue, signified his “formal break with…political moderation”[i] because, unlike his previous speeches – which focused primarily on the issue of civil rights – “Beyond Vietnam” took aim (as one critic put it) at “the global struggle of the rich vs. poor.” [ii] Even more, it is a speech in which King tied “the American orthodoxy on foreign policy to the structures which perpetrate racial inequality domestically and also to much of the world’s suffering,”[iii] as it is also a speech in which he “linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism.”[iv]

For these critics and others, not only did such a critique make “Beyond Vietnam” radical (and King’s “most radical speech” to date);[v] it also made the speech “dangerous”[vi] – both to the “political and economic power brokers of America” and ultimately to King himself. [vii] Aidan Brown O’Shea observed that, after delivering “Beyond Vietnam,” King “went from being an admired voice for acceptable racial progress in the form of the end of legal segregation among white moderates,” to being “a truly oppositional figure.”[viii] His speech may have even “accelerated,” another critic theorized, “the efforts of those who felt so threatened by” King’s “audacity that they murdered him a year after he delivered it.”[ix] In other words, “Beyond Vietnam” was ultimately “the speech that killed” him.[x]

It is to “Beyond Vietnam,” then, that many on the left often turn when they talk about King, and it is the speech they are likely to call upon in order to counter the commemorative “whitewashing” of King’s politics that frequently occurs on August 28 – the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington – as well as every January, when King’s birthday is celebrated. “Beyond Vietnam,” moreover, is the evidence they provide to rebut conservative efforts to appropriate King’s legacy; expose the hypocrisy of government officials and others who evoke King to counsel nonviolence and political quietism in the face of injustice. It is even used by some to resist allies’ calls for nonviolence as a way to respond to and organize against unjust governmental action. Ultimately, “Beyond Vietnam” expresses “the real King,” a man who, at the end of his life, was an “anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist political dissident,”[xi] the “ultimate anti-establishment man,”[xii] a man who had been moving “slowly toward the philosophy of Malcolm X,”[xiii] and a “democratic socialist.”[xiv]

Without a doubt “Beyond Vietnam” is a powerful speech, and in my view it is indeed King’s most powerful. Delivered before a gathering of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 – exactly one year before his assassination – the speech is, as John M. Murphy and James Jasinski argued, King’s “most comprehensive indictment of the American war effort,”[xv] an indictment through which he construed the war as a war on the poor and as a colonialist project that fed what he called the “giant triplets,” i.e., “racism, materialism, and militarism.” As such, the speech belies efforts to harness King to a conservative, status-quo supporting agenda (which, as is most often the case, tends to be solidly grounded in racism, materialism and militarism).

Moreover, because of this speech, King did face a tremendous and unrelenting backlash from the media, from political elites, from the government, and even from allies in the civil rights community – a backlash that, according to historian Taylor Branch, often reduced King to tears.

The Washington Post, for example, pronounced that by taking a stand against the Vietnam War, “‘King had diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people,’” while Life magazine – engaging in a bit of red-baiting – declared the speech a “‘demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.’” [xvi] The Board of Directors for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “passed a resolution against what it saw as an attempt” on the part of King “to merge the civil rights and antiwar movements,” and Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, chided King for making “‘a serious tactical error’” by speaking out against the war.[xvii] Already treating King as an “enemy” of the state, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover stepped up the Bureau’s surveillance and smear campaign against King, all with the blessing of President Lyndon Johnson who viewed King’s speech as both a personal betrayal as well as an affront to all the work he had done on behalf of civil rights.

Yet, the left’s embrace of “Beyond Vietnam” as a radical text and of King as a full on-radical suffers from its own kind of whitewashing, namely, the subtle cleansing of King of his commitment to nonviolence and love. Almost without fail, when many speak of “Beyond Vietnam” and, more broadly, the “radical King,” they do so either by giving short shrift to King’s continued advocacy of nonviolence and love, or as is most often the case, by subordinating them altogether to King’s “more radical” critique.

In an article where he draws significantly from “Beyond Vietnam” to challenge the “character and political assassination” of King’s work, Eric Mann, for example, tells us that “King was from the outset a Black Militant and revolutionary who advocated non-violent direct action but saw ‘the Negro revolution’ as the overriding objective.”[xviii] Mann explains that “while” King “strongly argued for non-violence as both a tactical and ethical perspective,” he nevertheless “supported the right of Black people to armed self-defense and allied with advocates of armed self-defense and even armed struggle in the Black movement.”

Notice the way Mann subordinates – through his use of the words “but” and “while” – to “the Negro revolution,” to King’s presumed support for African Americans’ right to “armed self-defense,” and to King’s alliance with those who advocated armed self-defense and armed struggle, King’s commitment to nonviolence. By so doing, Mann gives the impression that King himself subordinated his commitment to nonviolence to all of these or that, at the very least, he put nonviolence and the right of self-defense on equal footing. Mann also implies that King had no quarrel whatsoever with his allies’ calls for self-defense or of armed revolution.

But the truth is a little more complicated. Yes, King did support the right of self-defense, and in his 1959 article “The Social Organization of Nonviolence” – which he wrote in response to NAACP leader Robert F. Williams’ article challenging “turn-the-other-cheekism” as a strategy for confronting white violence – he pointed out that even Gandhi sanctioned self-defense “involving weapons and bloodshed” for “those unable to master pure nonviolence.”[xix]

However, King also argued in “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” (1966) that “it is extremely dangerous to organize a movement around self-defense” because “the line between defensive violence and aggressive or retaliatory violence is a fine line indeed.” Moreover, it is “ridiculous,” King asserted, “for a Negro to raise the question of self-defense in relation to nonviolence” – just as it would be ridiculous “for a soldier on the battlefield to say he is not going to take any risks.” The soldier is on the battlefield, King pointed out, because “he believes that the freedom of his country is worth the risk of his life. The same is true of the nonviolent demonstrator. He sees the misery of his people so clearly that he volunteers to suffer in their behalf and put an end to their plight.”[xx]

And in “Where Do We Go From Here,” a speech King delivered before a convening of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference four months after “Beyond Vietnam,” King specifically criticized those who championed armed struggle as an option for African Americans. “When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective,” King asserted, “the answers are blatently illogical.” Those who “talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments” as well as “talk of guerrilla warfare…fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States.” Declaring that “this is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom,” King went on to call for the strategies “offered by the nonviolent movement” and to assert more forcefully that he “still” stood “by nonviolence.”

What’s clear is that for Mann, subordinating King’s advocacy of nonviolence is critical to his project of claiming King as a Black Militant and revolutionary. Yes, King “advocated for non-violent direct action,” Mann seems to suggest, but he kept armed self-defense and armed struggle on the table.

We see the same kind of rhetorical strategy as Mann’s at play in law professor Camille A. Nelson’s “The Radical King: Perspectives of One Born in the Shadow of a King.” Nelson writes, for example, that society “has captured and marketed Dr. King’s message to minimize the revolutionary impetus of much of his work. But the breadth of Dr. King’s work is vast. He taught about Ghandi-esque principles of love and non-violence. But he also chastised the ugly underbelly of American capitalism with its marginalizing consequences for many people of color and poor whites.”

Nelson’s uses of the word “but” locates King’s nonviolence outside of the “revolutionary impetus of much of his work.” Indeed, in one footnote where she discusses how a watered down King is taught in primary and secondary schools, she makes explicit that his nonviolence is anything but radical. She writes, “children are typically taught that King’s nonviolence, rather than his radical message, led him to achieve great success.”

In his article “King’s Transition from the Struggle for Black Political Rights to Economic Rights for All to Death by Hatred, 1955-1968,” Emmanuel Konde didn’t even bother to use – not even once – the word “nonviolence” in describing King’s political “transition.” Given the span of Konde’s analysis, this omission is both remarkable and troubling – and even more so given Konde’s focus on King’s transition to economic rights, for King’s final project – the Poor People’s Campaign – was one he envisioned in terms of “militant nonviolence.” As King explained in “Showdown for Nonviolence” (published twelve days after his assassination), “We need to put pressure on Congress to get things done. We will do this with First Amendment activity. If Congress is unresponsive, we’ll have to escalate in order to keep the issue [of economic inequality] alive and before it. This action may take on disruptive dimensions, but not violent in the sense of destroying life or property: it will be militant nonviolence.”

Konde is not alone in omitting nonviolence from consideration of King’s politics. The word is also conspicuously absent from Geoff Gilbert’s “MLK’s radical vision got distorted,” an article in which Gilbert examines, among other things, how King’s “real legacy on militarism & inequality,” as expressed in “Beyond Vietnam,” has been recaptured by current activists (the protests that Gilbert examines in this article were, ironically enough, nonviolent protests). [xxi]

One unschooled in King’s work could walk away from these texts and others like it with the distinct impression that nonviolence was no longer important to King and that, prior to his assassination, he may very well have been on the cusp of aligning with calls for armed revolutionary struggle.

And yet, not only did King begin to advocate more forcefully for militant nonviolence, which he viewed as both a “positive constructive force” by which the “rage of the ghetto” could be “transmuted”[xxii] and as an effective means to curb the feverish preparations “for repression” by the “police, national guard and other armed bodies”[xxiii]; but in “Beyond Vietnam” specifically King framed and criticized the war in terms of nonviolence. In fact, in this “most radical” speech he distilled the issues of militarism, racism, and materialism to a question of love.

Identifying the “giant triplets” as symptoms of a “deeper malady within the American spirit,” King argued that the nation needed to heal itself by reclaiming its “revolutionary spirit” and declaring “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” But in order to do so the American people, he asserted, would have to undergo “a genuine revolution of values,” that is, to develop “an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole” and thus answer the “call for a world-wide fellowship” that “lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation” – a call that is, “in reality” (King argued), “a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.”

So why is there all of this whitewashing of King’s commitment to nonviolence and love by some on the left?

It’s fair to say, I think, that conservatives’, government officials’ and other elites’ appropriation of King’s work and image go far to explain why some on the left have erased King’s nonviolence and love. These, after all, are often what conservatives and other elites tend to champion about King’s legacy – though what they offer is empty of anything resembling King’s politics of resistance and ultimately constitutes the kind of “emotional bosh” that King rejected outright. Moreover, the love and nonviolence that conservatives offer are often nothing less than barely disguised expressions of hostility toward African Americans and others.

This hostility is expressed, for example, by talk show host Glen Beck’s call for a March on Washington this August 28 – the 52nd anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington – to protest, under the banner “ALL LIVES MATTER,” “discrimination” against Christians who reject gay marriage (Beck specifically invoked King’s “name to announce” his march and campaign).[xxiv] Not only is Beck attempting to harness the nonviolent 1963 march and King’s moral stature to his anti-gay agenda, but he does so by specifically targeting and belittling the organizing that has been taking place, under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, against police killings of unarmed African American children, women and men. “ALL LIVES MATTER,” as many have pointed out, signifies a refusal to hear and to redress African Americans’ calls for justice and a radical change in how policing is conducted in this country.

Considering efforts such as Beck’s, reclaiming King from conservative elite appropriation is, I think, an important cultural and political project.

But the conservative game doesn’t explain entirely what many on the left have been doing with King’s work. After all, it’s not as if the latter have, in the face of the conservative onslaught, defended King’s nonviolence and love or exposed the ways that conservatives actually reframe nonviolence in terms that make it compatible with state power and political quietism. If anything, some on the left have, as part of their reclamation project, conceded by omission nonviolence and love to conservative elites.

What I think is driving this whitewashing of King’s commitment – at least in part – is the rather longstanding and yet oft-unspoken assumption among some on the left about what does and does not constitute “radical” politics. As demonstrated above, some assume, in particular, that radical politics cannot possibly include nonviolence; that nonviolence and love are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of critique that King offered; that both nonviolence and love signify, in fact, the absence of radical politics. Indeed, for too many on the left, radicalism is “necessarily bound up with violence” (to borrow from Yale Professor Chris Lebron’s “Time for a New Black Radicalism”).[xxv]

Viewed in this light, King’s critique of the giant triplets and the war necessarily indicated that he was beginning to abandon nonviolence and love, since one cannot be both radical and nonviolent at the same time. It is therefore entirely in order to excise King’s nonviolence from his critique of the war, materialism, racism, and militarism as well as to align King, even if subtly, with an idea of radicalism he believed was neither revolutionary nor rational.

King, however, challenged outright such a skewed idea of radicalism. Indeed, by marrying in “Beyond Vietnam” his critique of the giant triplets to his philosophy of nonviolence and love, King explicitly defined love itself as the ultimate form of radicalism and as the means by which to reconstruct our society from the bottom-up. “History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued” the “self-defeating path of hate,” King lamented in his call for a “genuine revolution of values.” But “love,” he proclaimed (quoting Arnold Toynbee), “‘is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.’”

For King, what made love especially radical was not only that it was the absolute antithesis of the status quo of violence – i.e., militarism, materialism, racism and, of course, the Vietnam War itself; but that it was also, in his view, the means by which we could embrace “sonship and brotherhood” as our “vocation” and thus move “beyond the calling of race or nation or creed” – beyond, that is, the narrow allegiances defined by our political and social identities.

This idea of moving “beyond” such identities (King deployed the word “beyond” several times when he talked about these) and of being “bound” together through and on the basis of love is – more than anything else, I believe – what has compelled some on the left to cleanse King of his commitment to nonviolence and love. King’s construction of both in his “most radical speech” and elsewhere was a clear rejection of what many clearly embrace: a politics grounded in and driven by the reification and reproduction of political and social identities. King implied that not only was such a politics completely inadequate to the task of ending the war in Vietnam; but it was also, he inferred, not a viable basis for radically transforming our society since it embraced the very divisions and ideas of separateness upon which the war, as well as the giant triplets, absolutely depended. For King, this politics of identity put us all on the wrong side of “the world revolution” against the “old systems of exploitation and oppression.” To get on the “right side,” we would have to undergo a “positive revolution of values,” a revolution through which we would come to see ourselves as “bound by allegiances and loyalties” much “broader and deeper” than those prescribed by our social and political identities.

“Beyond Vietnam,” then, is a speech that stands against the kind of identitarian politics that many on the left champion and that ultimately underlie their efforts to “reclaim” King. It was a speech through which he called for the creation of a different form of self – or, rather, called for our embrace of self as love and thus as opposition to, at the level of everyday life, our violent society – which is to say, really, that “Beyond Vietnam” is truly a call to nonviolence, to be the full expression of it and, in the process, to be a force that will reconstruct radically our society into one grounded in and expressive of peace and “brotherhood.”

This is not to argue, as many conservatives would have it, that King advocated or laid claim to some kind of transcendence over race, class, and the like, nor is it to claim that he never embraced these identities. “We must stand up and say, ‘I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful” King declared, for example, in “Where Do We Go From Here.” Reflecting the sexist black power discourse of his day, he declared as well that to “offset…cultural homicide, the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood.”

Yet, King did insist that we are, fundamentally, spirit or love – “that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life,” the “key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality” and which has been grasped by “Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist” belief systems. Thus, even as our lives are undeniably materially and politically shaped by structures that reinforce and perpetuate race, class, nation, and other political/social identities and divisions – necessitating, as King made clear throughout his life, that we organize to dismantle the structural inequalities that these produce and the violence they enact – we are not bound by them. In fact, not only can we move “beyond” them; we must do so, King suggested, for it is our failure to recognize that we are “interrelated,” i.e., connected in spirit and in love (or, as King put it, that we are all “sons of God”), that has set us on a path to “co-annihilation.”

We are still on that path, as our open-ended “war on terror,” our race-to-the-bottom neoliberal economic policies, and the nihilism of our refusal to address climate change all make abundantly clear. In this context, King’s message of love is surely a radical one, a message that asks us to reconstruct completely our society – beginning with ourselves. And it is the King who spoke of love and nonviolence as the path to peaceful coexistence – that radical, unwashed King, whom we must “reclaim” so that we might think more deeply and critically about what is required of us, what kind of revolution of values we must undergo or redefinition of self we must undertake, in order to make a more just and peaceful world. But that reclamation project ultimately requires us to take a hard look at our politics of identity and ask whether or not they are placing us firmly on the wrong side of history.

[i] Peniel E. Joseph, “MLK’s Radicalism Speaks to Contemporary Protests.” http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2015/04/on_the_anniversary_of_mlk_s_assassination_remember_his_militant_stands_against.html.

[ii] “Beyond Vietnam: The Speech That Killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” http://everythingishistory.com/337/beyond-vietnam-the-speech-that-killed-dr-martin-luther-king-jr/

[iii] Aidan Brown O’Shea, “Worshiping to Control: The Public Memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Political Right” (2011). Dickson College Honors Theses. Paper 114, p. 21.

[iv] Peter Dreier, “Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/martin-luther-king-was-a-_1_b_6498740.html.

[v] “Beyond Vietnam: The Speech That Killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” op. cit

[vi] Ed Ciaccio, “‘A Radical Revolution of Values’: Dr. King’s Most Important Speech.” http://www.opednews.com/articles/-A-Radical-Revolution-of-V-by-ED-CIACCIO-090115-872.html

[vii] Emmanuel Konde, “King’s Transition from the Struggle for Black Political Rights to Economic Rights for All to Death by Hatred, 1955-1968.” http://ramscholar.openrepository.com/ramscholar/bitstream/10675.1/312069/1/Martin%20Luther%20King%20-%20Transition%20from%20Political%20to%20Economic%20Struggle%20to%20Death%20by%20Hatred%20(2013).pdf

[viii] O’Shea, op. cit

[ix] Ciaccio, op. cit

[x] “Beyond Vietnam: The Speech That Killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” op. cit

[xi] Marcie Bianco, “Reclaim MLK wants to remind the world of Martin Luther King’s real legacy.” http://mic.com/articles/108710/reclaim-mlk-wants-to-remind-the-world-of-martin-luther-king-s-real-legacy.

[xii] Konde, op. cit.

[xiii] Camille A. Nelson, “The Radical King: Perspectives of One Born in the Shadow of a King,” 32 N.Y.U. Rev. L & Soc. Change 485, p. 503.

[xiv] Cornel West, “The radical King was a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies,” in The Radical King” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited and introduced by Dr. Cornel West. (Beacon Press, 2015), intro. See also Douglas Sturm, “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Democratic Socialist.” Journal of Religious Ethics V. 18, No. 2 (Fall, 1990), pp. 79-105.

[xv] John M. Murphy and James Jasinski, “Time, Space, and Generic Reconstruction: Martin Luther King’s ‘A Time to Break Silence’ as Radical Jeremiad,” Public Address and Moral Judgment: Critical Studies in Ethical Tensions, ed. Trevor Parry Giles (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2009), pp. 97-125.

[xvi] Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, “The Martin Luther King You Don’t See on TV.” http://fair.org/media-beat-column/the-martin-luther-king-you-dont-see-on-tv/.

[xvii] George N. Dionisopoulos, Victoria J. Gallagher, Steven R. Goldzwig and David Zarefsky, “Martin Luther King: The American Dream and Vietnam: A Collision of Rhetorical Trajectories.” Western Journal of Communication, 56 (Spring 1992), 91-107.

[xviii] Eric Mann, Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition.” http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/01/19/martin-luther-king-and-the-black-revolutionary-tradition/

[xix] Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Social Organization of Nonviolence,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington. San Francisco: Harper, 1986, p. 33.

[xx] King, “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” in Washington, op. cit., p. 57.

[xxi] Geoff Gilbert, “MLK’S radical vision got distorted: Here’s his real legacy on militarism & inequaility.” http://www.salon.com/2015/01/19/mlks_radical_vision_got_distorted_heres_his_real_legacy_on_militarism_inequality/

[xxii] King, “Conversation with Martin Luther King,” in Washington, op. cit., pp. 674-5.

[xxiii] King, “Showdown for Nonviolence,” in Washington, op. cit., p. 64.

[xxiv] Matt Wilstein, “Glen Beck Wants to Be the MLK of Opposing Marriage Equality.” http://www.mediaite.com/online/glenn-beck-wants-to-be-the-mlk-of-opposing-marriage-equality/.

[xxv] Chris Lebron, “Time for a New Black Radicalism. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/time-for-a-new-black-radicalism/?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=Moth-Visible&module=inside-nyt-region&region=inside-nyt-region&WT.nav=inside-nyt-region&_r=0

We deserve nonviolence

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“The Christmas season,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1967 sermon, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” “finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power.”

This good will is meaningless, and peace is impossible, I believe, if we are not committed to the idea that we all, every one of us, deserve nonviolence. That is to say, we deserve radical care and regard, deserve one another’s active, purposeful, personal commitment to practices through which we communicate – in no uncertain terms – that we must, and are absolutely called upon to matter to each other. Our collective bewilderment, the absence of “peace within” and “without,” our paralyzing fears, our wars – large and small – are the stuff of our disregard, enacted daily, for example, in small slights and discourtesies, enacted by proxy through systems of subordination, through drone-launched missiles that tear the limbs off, and hearts out of five year-old little girls and boys. It is destroying us, this disregard. It is destroying other sentient beings, the planet itself.

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Even out of unimaginable suffering, we can reach out in order to touch the lives of others near and far, to say “you matter to me,” to say that, even though I suffer, I see your suffering and so I suffer with you. Radical care knows no boundaries of nation or tribe, knows the absolute necessity of love to peace.

When we claim the truth that we all, every one of us, deserve nonviolence, we embrace the responsibility that it places on us, namely, that we must not only practice nonviolence ourselves, but we must also actively and unflinchingly require it of each other. Indeed, we are bound both to call forth and to stand ready to witness each other’s capacity to give and to love beyond measure. And when some of us fall short by choosing to be our smaller selves, we stand ready anyway, because we must also stand witness to – so that we can deepen – our own capacity for faith, generosity and loving kindness.

“Utopias,” writes Leela Fernandes in Transforming Feminist Practice, “are inconvenient because they necessitate deep-seated changes in ourselves and in the ways in which we live our lives.” Indeed, utopias “require labor.” And it is through this labor that we come to realize this important truth: “utopia exists at the moment when suffering is transformed into love. Utopia is the labor itself which enables such transformation, not, as is mistakenly assumed, the outcome that results from this labor.”

“Peace and good will toward all,” if it is to be more than simply a thing hoped for, depends on the work each and every one of us is willing to do, from the everyday and often mundane “labor” of compassion, kindness and radical care, to the labor of die-ins staged to demand that killers of children and torturers be brought to justice. It is that work, and because this is so, peace and good will toward all is available to us not only during the Christmas season, but always.