In the spring of 1967, after he went public with his strong and principled opposition to the Vietnam War, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was approached by liberal and left politicos to consider running for the United States Presidency. King turned the activists down, saying that he preferred to think of himself “as one trying desperately to be the conscience of all the political parties, rather being a political candidateâ€¦I’ve just never thought of myself as a politician” (1)
The minute he threw his hat in the American winner-take-all presidential ring, King knew, he would be encouraged to compromise his increasingly leftist and fundamentally moral message against racism, social inequality, and militarism. Reflecting his chastening confrontation with the concentrated black poverty and class oppression in the “liberal” urban North and the horrors of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, King had come to radical conclusions. “For years I have labored with the idea of refining the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there,” he told journalist David Halberstam that spring. “Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values”
The black freedom movement, King told a crowd at the university of California-Berkeley, had shifted from civil rights to human rights, involving “a struggle for genuine equality” that “demands a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” It would be hard to find mass political support for this goal, King said, “because many white Americans would like to have a nation which is simultaneously a democracy for White America and a dictatorship over Black Americans” (2).
By this time, King had identified the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence” in the world and denounced U.S. support for U.S.-investment-friendly Third World dictatorship, all part of what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic exploitation [capitalism], and militarism (3).
These were not winning ideas in the racist, plutocratic, and corporate-imperial U.S. electoral system. They were truth-based moral observations that contained openly acknowledged radical policy implications. They were richly consistent with what Frederick Douglass called “the Christianity of Christ,” very different from what Douglass considered the false American Christianity that justified slavery, Indian Removal, and other abominations and forms of oppression (4). As the prolific Catholic scholar Gary Wills notes in his recent book What Jesus Meant, the Jesus that emerges from a serious reading of the gospels is an uncompromising enemy of wealth and hierarchy who said that “it is easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a rich to enter into God’s reign” (Mark, 10.23-25) and counseled his followers to “protect yourself against every desire for having more” since “life does not lie in the abundance of things one owns” (Luke, 13.15). Opposed to all forms of hierarchy, not just economic inequality, the Jesus “rebuke[d] the followers who jockey[ed] for authority over each other and over others” (5), 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 was “absolute in his opposition to violence” (6) and remarkably indifferent to politics, saying “Caesar’s matters leave to Caesar” (Mark, 12.17)
Following the gospels’ radical message, which he knew quite well (7), King didn’t want to end up like the odious Barack Obama.
A former neighborhood organizer on Chicago’s impoverished South Side, Obama claims fealty to the ideals of Jesus and King. Still, he:
* “refuses to take any options,” including the supremely sinful strategy of preemptive nuclear war, “off the table” in attempting to deter Iran from doing something U.S. global strategy would seem to strongly recommend to that nation: developing nuclear weapons.
* voted to fill the nation’s top diplomatic jobs (of all offices) with a mendacious war-criminal named Condaleeza (“Chevron”) Rice.
* refuses to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from illegally and mass-murderously occupied Iraq, placing more value on maintaining America’s blood-soaked “military credibility” than on recognizing standard world norms of civilized state behavior or on honoring Jesus’ and King’s commitment to nonviolence.
* distanced himself from fellow Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-Illinois) courageous criticism of illegal U.S. torture practices in Guantanamo Bay.
* followed the counsel of the rich men of corporate America by backing a “tort reform” that makes it more difficult for ordinary people to attain just compensation from business that cheat and damage.
* voted to close filibuster proceedings that would have attempted to block the appointment of the reactionary Judge Alito – a known civil and women’s rights enemy.
* voted to re-authorize the Patriot Act, which uses real and imagined foreign threats created by empire to roll back liberty at home.
* fled fellow Senator Russ Feingold’s (D-Wisconsin) motion to officially censure the Bush administration for its monumentally criminal actions at home and abroad. * applies his campaign finance Midas touch to the reelection efforts of his “mentor,” the de facto Republican Senator Joe Liberman (“D”- Connecticut), a close ally of Bush’s occupation, and a leading architect of the nation’s oppressive and racist “welfare reform,” which slashed basic government assistance for the most disadvantaged members of the industrialized world’s most unequal, wealth-top-heavy society.
In the horrible 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote address that did so much to catapult him into national prominence, Obama set some centrist tone for his subsequent predictable betrayals of cherished principles and leaders. In that instantly celebrated speech, Obama:
* claimed that the U.S. is the ultimate “beacon for freedom and opportunity,” the “only country on earth” where “my story” (a supposedly Horatio-Alger-esque tale of climb from poverty to prominence and now [thanks to some generous book deals] prosperity) “is even possible.” This despite the fact that the U.S. is actually the most rigidly hierarchical nation in the industrialized world, home to a stultifying corporate plutocracy, massive persistent and highly racialized poverty, astonishing incarceration rates (also quite racially disparate) and low mobility from lower to upper segments in its steep socioeconomic pyramid.
* said that “every child in America” should “have a decent shot at life,” not that every kid deserves a full and decent life now and thereafter
* expected Americans to be ecstatic over the “miracle” (!) that they don’t live under the iron heel of open state repression (he made not exceptions for the nation’s 2 million prisoners, nearly half black), as if democracy is just the absence of a police state and not the power of the people to run their own society in an egalitarian fashion (talk about low expectations for freedom).
* praised a Marine enlisted in the racist and imperialist oil occupation of Iraq for (of all things) “defending the United States of America” and (supposedly) expressing “absolute faith in the country and its leaders.” Now there’s a nice democratic sentiment: such chilling “faith” is the stuff of the very police state whose absence in the U.S. Obama called a “miracle.”
* scaled new heights of cringing, pseudo-patriotic nausea-inducement by making disturbing “hope” parallels between: “the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs:” “the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta;” and the “hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him.”
The “lieutenant” referred to in his speech was Democratic presidential candidate John “I Participated in the Crucifixion of Southeast Asia” Kerry, whose government’s imperial right to “patrol” great rivers on the other side of the world during the 1960s Obama took as axiomatic. The “skinny kid” referred to a young Obama, grooming himself for a Harvard education while growing up with his white grandparents in sunny Hawaii.
The connection with “freedom”-singing slaves? A shared belief in what Obama called “God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation – a belief that there are better days ahead.”
Yes, the brutalized black slaves of racist antebellum America were looking forward to the glorious white-imperialist rape of Southeast Asia, when their faith in “better days” would find glorious realization in the napalming of Vietnamese children, the images of which shocked Martin King to denounce the Vietnam war in strident and forceful terms.
How unimaginably and hideously grotesque. For a more detailed critique of Obama’s great breakthrough speech, see my article [the most popular Internet piece I've ever published by far] “Keynote Reflections,” ZNet Magazine, July 29, 2004 (available at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=33&ItemID=5951)
In a recent New Yorker piece, Obama is quoted at length as an example of Democratic Party centrism. The community-organizer-turned-U.S.-Senator responds as follows to writer Jeffrey Goldberg’s query on whether the Democrats should focus on defending the American public against the U.S. government’s assault on its civil liberties: “Americans want to feel good about themselves and their government. They can be called upon to sacrifice and they can be ashamed when we fall short of our ideals but they don’t believe that the main lesson of the last five years is that America is an evil hegemon”( 8).
It’s hard to know how Obama thought that revealing passage addressed illegal federal wiretaps and the like, but his statement contains a revealing assumption that deserves consideration on its own ground. The assumption holds that the important question isn’t whether or not “America” (or perhaps its imperial government) is “an evil hegemon,” but rather whether “Americans” (translation: American voters and especially American campaign-financers) perceive their nation-state to be such a terrible entity. Political calculation trumps the quest for moral truth.
But what if “America” (or at least its government) is, wellâ€¦”an evil hegemon” (probably the majority world view of the U.S. state, for what that’s worth)? If true, that terrible fact, by Obama’s standpoint, should not be openly addressed because it works against Democrats efforts to enhance their chances of election and re-election by helping “Americans feel good about themselves and their government.”
The contrast with Martin King’s courageous left-Christian, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and democratic-socialist sentiments is quite pronounced. For King, the relevant calculations were very different. He was compelled to call “America” on its global violence and its related domestic injustices regardless of the difficulties the U.S. citizenry might face in acknowledging their own and their government’s role in the enforcement of empire, inequality, and oppression at home and abroad. The imperative was hardly to help “Americans” “feel good about themselves and their government.” It was to encourage them to be true to themselves, to each other, and to the rest of suffering humanity by facing up to “the triple evils that are interrelated.”
Obama’s descent into Hell is almost certainly about a desire to be an American Caesar. The path to the White House is not paved with na*ve crusades against the politically inconvenient truths that King felt compelled to expose and oppose. It requires regular reassurance to the rich and powerful few and to the militaristic instincts of Empire that the opulent minority seeks to inculcate among the marginalized multitude. Whatever Jesus is reputed to have said about who may enter heaven, the keys to the earthly kingdom are reserved for those who play by the rules set by the masters of wealth and war.
Obama is what happens when a young leader sells his soul for power, wealth, and personal advancement in a militantly hierarchical society. It’s what happens when you invest your energy in “jockey[ing] for authority over others.” It’s a very old story, making Obama one of many actors in a timeless and tragic drama. Paul Street ([email protected]) is a writer, speaker, and activist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004) and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005).
1. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [New York, NY: 1986], p. 562).
2.Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 562.
3. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?,” 1967, reproduced in James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: 1986), p. 250.
4. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), appendix.
5. Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant (New York, NY: 2006), p. 44
6. Wills, What Jesus Meant, p. 58.
7. Paul Street, “Martin Luther King, Jr., Democratic Socialist,” ZNet Sustainers Commentary, January 14, 2006, available at http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2006-01/14street.cfm)
8. Jeffrey Goldberg, “Central Casting,” The New Yorker (May 29, 2006),