One of the distinguishing features of early Athenian democracy was the “selection by lot” – the random appointment – of ordinary citizens for government offices and courts. One of the ideas behind this practice was very interesting from a radical left perspective. It held that no genuinely popular government would ever want to be ruled by people who have made it their life goal to, well, rule. Such people could be counted on to serve power and wealth – their own and that of influential others with the clout to enable them to gain and retain public office – over and against the common good. By encouraging the holding of public office by people who had not pursued it, some Athenians believed, public policy and the common good could be protected from the abuse of narcissistic tyrants. The early radical democrats of Athens didn’t want politicians.
By NOT making random assignments to office, these true democracy promoters knew, a polity opened the door to power-hungry assholes, insufferable narcissists and to endless corruption and dilution of the democratic ideal. Government opened itself up to people who saw public power as an end in itself and/or as a means to the enhancement of their own and privileged others' wealth and power. A democratic society had good and healthy reasons to be skeptical of anyone who goes out of his or her way to pursue power. It was a good theory, a big part of why so many of us intrinsically loathe politicians in our all-too secretly left-anarchist hearts.
One of the neat collateral aspects of the “selection by lot” idea is that it would create an enormous incentive to overcome contemporary society’s pervasive hierarchical and savagely unequal division of socially constructed skills, knowledge and labor. If all ordinary citizens (and yes I know that ancient Greece had slaves and sexism and that this compromised its democratic sincerity) are in theory candidates to hold public office, then it’s not functional to set things up so that only a relatively small section of the population enjoys access to the development of the sorts of skills that would be required to functionally serve the public interest.
I say “would be” because it seems that most of the advanced education received by our currently existing political and business classes is employed in funding new and better ways to fuck the public interest over and in helping human garbage (e.g. Dick Cheney) rise to the top of the societal heap.
Some centuries after the days of Aristotle, the historical character (real and/or fictional) named Jesus and portrayed in the New Testament "rebuke[d] the followers who jockey[ed] for authority over each other and over others,” saying that "everyone lifting himself up will be abased and anyone abasing himself will be lifted up" (Luke, 14.11). "There cannot be a clearer injunction of hierarchy of any kind," says the prolific Catholic scholar Garry Wills, in a chapter which accurately notes that Jesus was a dedicated opponent of socioeconomic inequality (Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant (New York, NY: Viking, 2006), chapter three, titled “The Radical Jesus,” pp.40-58.)
With all of that as some ancient historical background, please have a look at the latest issue of my Empire and Inequality Report, where I draw out an overly annotated contrast between the baldly opportunistic capitalist-imperialist centrism of Barack Obama (which strikes me as richly consistent with the warnings of early Athenian “lot” advocates) and the virtuous (for me) radical anti-racism/anticapitalism/anti-imperialism Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here is the opening and perhaps overly personal section of the report, which is titled “The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Meaning of the Black Revolution”:
“MY VERY EXISTENCE”
One of the most alarming things about Barack Obama’s March 4th 2007 speech at the legendary Brown Chapel AME in Selma, Alabama was the Senator’s recurrent self-reference. Sometimes it almost sounded as if Obama thought the essential purpose of the famous 1965 Selma Voting rights March (1) – formally commemorated each year at the Brown church – was to put the Great Barockstar on the national stage. In the fifth paragraph of his speech, Obama said “I’m not sure I’d be here today” if “it were not for” legendary civil rights activist and now congressman John Lewis. In the sixteenth paragraph, Obama credited the people who marched in the face of state repression for the fact that “I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois Senate and ultimately in the U.S Senate. It is because they marched,” Obama added, “that we [meaning black Americans] elected councilmen, congressmen.”
In the seventeenth paragraph, Obama said that “my very existence might not have been possible had it not been for some of the [civil rights veterans] here today.” Thanks to the civil rights movement, Obama claimed, his white mother and Kenyan father “got together and Barack Obama, Jr. was born…I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me.” “So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama,” Obama added. “Don’t tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama” ( Barack Obama, “Selma Voting Rights Commemoration,” Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, Selma, Alabama [March 4, 2007], available online at http://obama.senate. gov/speech/070304-selma_voting_rights_march_ commemoration/index.html).
Reading Obama’s speech the other day, I was reminded of one of the strangest passages I’ve ever read in the pages of political journalism. It came at the end of a laudatory essay on Obama in Atlantic Monthly in the summer of 2004. In the next to last paragraph of this article, titled “The Natural (Why is Barack Obama Generating More Excitement than John Kerry?),” Ryan Lizza offered a disturbing observation: “If there is a knock against Obama, it is that he is perhaps a little too enchanted with all the attention and acclaim. During the Democratic primary campaign he raised eyebrows by sweeping an opponent's wife into an embrace—a moment captured by a Chicago Tribune reporter. The opponent's staff was sufficiently piqued to complain. And I couldn't help noticing, when we sat down to talk in the dilapidated storefront that houses his Springfield campaign headquarters, that the blue-pen drawing he'd doodled on his newspaper during fundraising calls was a portrait of himself” (3)
[NOTES 1. The best account is David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1986), pp. 357-430.
2. Barack Obama, “Selma Voting Rights Commemoration,” Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, Selma, Alabama (March 4, 2007), available online at http://obama.senate. gov/speech/070304-selma_voting_rights_march_ commemoration/index.html.
3. Ryan Lizza, “The Natural: Why is Barack Obama Generating More Excitement than John Kerry?” Atlantic Monthly (September 2004), available online at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200409/lizza. ]
My report concludes, after a lot of evidence on Obama’s underestimated deep conservatism (including remarkable willingness to accommodate white racism in my opinion) and King’s underestimated radicalism, by arguing that part of the problem behind Obama’s narcissistic power worship (certainly no worse than the narcissistic power worship of Rudy, McCain, Hillary, Mitt at al.) is systemic, not personal. Still, the conclusion is to note the the difference between an individual who wants to achieve wealth and power (e.g. Obama) and one (e.g. King) who believed “that [in King’s words] radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced” (King, “A Testament of Hope,” 1968). It’s an ancient conflict, as far as I can tell.
Here is the concluding section of my report:
“NO INTEREST IN BEING PRESIDENT”
But this essay is perhaps overly focused on individuals. It is important to recognize that Obama speaks, writes and legislates in ways that are richly consistent with his objective of being selected for the presidency in an openly plutocratic and white majority post-Civil Rights nation where substantive democracy and its twin social justice are regularly trumped by concentrated economic power and the insidious, authoritarian logic of corporate-crafted winner-take-all politics. Obama’s determination to make a viable run for the White House in such a context pretty much requires him to be a pale reflection of King – and here I am referring to moral and ideological shades, NOT to skin-color. This would be the case even if Obama were predisposed – as would be very unusual and unlikely for a former editor of the Harvard Law Review and a longtime Constitutional Law professor at the legendarily conservative University of Chicago – to follow in the at once democratic-socialist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist footsteps of the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
King, it is worth recalling, had “no interest in being president.” He rejected progressive calls for him to head an anti-[Vietnam] war ticket in 1967. “I would rather think of myself as one trying desperately to be the conscience of all the political parties, rather than being a political candidate,” he told student petitioners. As King told his key left (and former Communist Party member) advisor Stanley Levison, “I need to be in the position of being my own man” (69) – something that would have been difficult indeed, given his left values – were he to try to run for the presidency.
“I’ve never had any political ambitions,” King told a Boston crowd (70), consistent with Jesus’ opposition to all forms of hierarchy, not just economic inequality. As Gary Wills has recently noted, Jesus "rebuke[d] the followers who jockey[ed] for authority over each other and over others,” saying that "everyone lifting himself up will be abased and anyone abasing himself will be lifted up" (Luke, 14.11). "There cannot be a clearer injunction of hierarchy of any kind," says Wills, adding that Jesus “never accepted violence as justified" - something that would forbid entertaining the possibility of a U.S. strike (“surgical” or otherwise) against Iran – and remarkably indifferent to politics (71).
Obama has been making a big point of being a devout Christian (72), but don’t look for him to cite these relevant passages from the New Testament. And don’t look for him to quote from any or many of the numerous passages in which King called for radical societal restructuring to overcome “the triple evils that are interrelated” (See my FINAL NOTE below for the meaning of this phrase). Obama cites and quotes King on a regular basis, but with the radical content deleted. During the same time he was rejecting entreaties to run for president (the spring of 1967),
King gave David Halberstram an interesting look at what he his “own man” believed on how to think and act in relation to the “triple evils.” As Garrow wrote in his magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King (73): “After [a] Cleveland stopover, King flew west for speaking engagements in San Francisco and Denver, accompanied by [Bernard S.] Lee and free-lance journalist David Halberstam.’For years I labored under the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there,’ King told Halberstam. ‘Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values,’ and perhaps the nationalization of some key industries. King expressed similar views to a crowd of seven thousand at Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, telling them that the movement’s new phase would be ‘a struggle for genuine equality,’ involving ‘issues that will demand a radical redistribution of economic and political power.’ Support for such changes would be difficult to muster, he warned, because ‘many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over black Americans.’ Scores of signs calling for a ‘King-[Dr. Benjamin] Spock’ ticket bobbed in the crowd, and King declared that ‘the clouds of a third world war are hovering mighty low.’ If such a cataclysm occurred, ‘our government will have to take the chief responsibility for making this a reality’”
King’s comments at Sproul Plaza are a reminder that King wedded his democratic socialism to a persistent attention to race and racism. In an age of racially disparate hyper-incarceration when one in three adult black males carries the lifelong mark of a felony record and roughly one in three black males youths can expect to spend time in prison during their adulthood (74), King’s fears of racial “dictatorship” seem less than hysterical and a bit prophetic. Like much else that King said and wrote in his final years, the last line sounds hauntingly relevant on the eve of the spring 2007 and a possible new imperialist adventure (75) by “the leading purveyor of violence in the world.”
69. Garrow, Bearing the Cross, pp. 558-559.
70. Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 558.
71. Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant (New York, NY: Viking, 2006), chapter three, titled “The Radical Jesus,” pp.40-58. The quoted passages are from pp.44, 45 and 54.
72. Obama, The Audacity of Hope, chapter six, titled “Faith,” pp, 195-226; Barack Obama, “ ‘ Call to Renewal’ Keynote Address,” Washington D.C. (June 28, 2006), available online at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060628-call_to_renewal_keynote_ address/index.html.
73. Garrow, Bearing the Cross, pp. 561-562.
74. Paul Street, “Racial Reparations in Reverse: Race, Place and the Vicious Circle of Mass Incarceration,” ZNet Magazine (March 4, 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12253.
75. Saman Sepehri, “The Pressure is On: The U.S. is Gearing Up for a Fight With Iran,” International Socialist Review (March-April 2007): 10-12. ]
FINAL NOTE: By 1966 and 1967, King was openly and repeatedly criticizing what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated:” racism, economic exploitation/poverty (class inequality) and militarism/imperialism (41). “The evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together,” King said, “and you really can’t get rid of one of them without getting rid of the others.” See Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 564.