“When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.” These simple words, spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama’s Brown Chapel on March 15, 1965, deserve serious reflection on what passes for a left in the United States (U.S.) today.
King’s “who” were the particular “sick” and “misguided” white racists who killed civil rights activist James Reeb days earlier. The “what” referred to the structures, policies, and politics of oppression that produced the hatred that led to Reeb’s murder. The “what,” King felt, was a bigger and more serious question than the comparatively incidental “who.”
The most relevant causes of misery and brutality, King believed, are found beneath and beyond the character flaws and moral disease of even strategically placed individuals. They are structural and sociopolitical, reflecting the complicity and agency, both active and passive, of institutions and citizens. They are matters of deep and broad culpability shared even by many who might personally oppose terrible crimes like the murder of Reeb, the My Lai massacre, or, more recently, the U.S. killings in Haditha.
The guilt for Reeb’s death, King insisted, included inviduals, groups, and institutions who failed to act against deeply rooted social inequality. “To a Brown Chapel half-filled with prominent clergy,” Taylor Branch notes in his latest volume on the history of the civil rights movement, King “began his roll call of shame with indifferent religious leaders and irrelevant churches that kept ‘silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows.’” King then “went on to indict the demagoguery and brutality of local officials, the ‘timidity’ of the federal government and the broad apathy of citizens who nominally owned the country” (Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 [New York, NY: 2006]).
King’s unsparing sentiments in Brown Chapel echoed an all-too forgotten section of his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” where he criticized the conservatism and cowardace of the so-called moderate. “Over the last few years,” King wrote in that famous communiquÃ© (originally penned on the margins of an issue of the mildly half-liberal New York Times), “I have been gravely dissatisfied with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Council or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to the positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goals you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the [oppressed] to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will,” King added, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering that outright rejection” (see James Washington, Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. [San Francisco, 1986], p. 295).
Were he able to miraculously return to post-Civil Rights era America today, I suspect that King would feel compelled to remind many contemporary Democratic liberals and moderates (black as well as white) to look more deeply at “the [societal] “what” and focus less on the “who.” He would challenge them to look in the “who” mirror to confront their own role in the creation and enablement of disparities, tragedies, and policies they often claim to abhor.
It is understandable that liberals and Democrats seem practically obsessed these days with the wickedness, venality, and stupidity of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and the rest of Washington’s ruling cabal. The current right-wing administration’s combination of authoritarianism, arrogance, corruption, deception, and incompetence is astonishing. The terrible consequences of its malevolent and thick-headed actions include the notable exacerbation of already grave socioeconomic and racial inequities, increasing risks and realities of war, proliferation, and terror, a significantly accelerated upward distribution of wealth and power, an escalated assault on livable ecology, and a chilling attack on cherished civil liberties at home and abroad.
Amidst the depressing haze of madness, idiocy, and deception emanating from the current White House, however, it becomes easy to forget that Bush II and his policies are natural outcomes of a bipartisan corporate-plutocratic sociopolitical order that has long privileged empire, inequality, and the concentration of power over peace, justice, and democracy. That authoritarian system and Bush II himself have been deeply enabled by the slightly less repressive (“good cop”) “liberal” Democratic elites who work alongside their political co-managers from the more openly reactionary business party (the “bad cop” Republicans) to drain democracy of its egalitarian risks and opportunities.
With rare exceptions like the late Paul Wellstone — recently described as an unrealistic “gadfly” by the “moderate” Democratic Senator Barrack Obama — leading Democrats have consistently chosen order over justice. They have selected smooth deliberation behind closed doors over the messy, public struggle that drives meaningful democratic change. They have preferred aristocratic “patience,” and supposed “expertise” over direct and grassroots action and popular self-activity. They have consistently chosen the convenience of getting along with power over the discomfort (for them at least) of confronting authority. They have upheld “realism” over idealism and “working within the system” over challenging and disrupting the dominant order. They have insistently trumpeted superficial “small fixes” over substantive and democratic transformation of the dominant hiearchical sociopolitical regime.
Bill Clinton’s rapid corporate-neoliberal retreat from the populist promises (“Putting People First”) of his 1992 presidential campaign is one example of the “moderate” Democrats preference for conservative privilege preservation over actually democratic change. So was Al Gore’s refusal to meaningfully oppose Team Bush’s seizure of power by mobilizing masses to resist the right-wing electoral coup of November/December 2000. So was Gore’s milk-toast 2000 campaign, which could see nothing more useful to do with the federal government’s then-large budget surplus than to invest in “paying down the debt” held by wealthy bondholders even while more than 650,000 black children were discovered to be living in extreme poverty — at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level — in the wake of Clinton’s Republocratic elimination of the nation’s minimal public cash assistance entitlement (so-called “welfare reform”) for poor families struggling to get by in the industrialized world’s most unequal nation.
Then there was the willingness of numerous Democratic Congresspersons, including John F. Kerry, to support the transparently imperialist occupation of Iraq in that policy’s pivotal months of Orwellian preparation and launch.
Especially telling was the 2004 Kerry campaign’s embrace of empire and inequality. The multimillionaire candidate proudly told rich political funders that he was “not a redistribution Democrat,” downplayed the growing problem of extreme poverty in the U.S., and marketed himself to the citizenry as the more sophisticated and effective manager of the noble American Empire and its illegal invasion. The antiwar majority in the Democratic Party’s own delegate base was ordered to muzzle their peace sentiments while Kerry accepted his nomination with a military salute (“this is John Kerry reporting for duty”) and numerous glowing references to his supposedly noble participation in the criminal “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky) that had so horrified King.
The Democratic leadership’s refusal to articulate a forceful position on behalf of either a universal single-payer national health insurance health care plan or the minimally expeditious withdrawal of U.S. troops from occupied Mesopotamia are cases in point. Most Americans support both policies but leading Democrats are too privileged, corporate, conservative, and/or cowardly to fight for them. At the risk of delving too far into “the who,” it is worth noting that Obama removed an antiwar speech he’d given in downtown Chicago (in 2002) from his campaign web site when he began his run for the U.S. Senate in 2004. He has subsequently voted to give war criminal Condaleeza Race the job of (all things) Secretary of State. He has disseminated neoconservative doctrine on the need to maintain U.S “credibility” in the world by resisting the temptation to “unilaterally and precipitously draw troops down” in Iraq. When he isn’t distancing himself from the all-too rare courageous actions of some fellow Democrats —- e.g. Senator Feingold’s (D-Wisconsin) effort to censure Bush and Senator Durbin’s (D-IL) criticism of U.S. torture practices in Guantanamo Bay —- he’s busy aligning himself with business against citizen’s capacity to conduct effective class-action law suits and single-payer, which he says would throw millions of private insurance company employees out of work.
Policy positions aside, leading Democrats possess no evident concern or capacity to address the deep structural problems that do so much to create the human tragedies they are adept at pinning on big bad Republicans. As Lewis Lapham observes in a poignant reflection on the life of the late dissenting minister William Sloan Coffin (long-time pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church), Coffin’s relentless focus on those problems contrasts with “the election-year wisdom of a Democratic Party that over the last quarter of a century has come to resemble a troupe of performance artists capable of little else except the showing of emotion.”
The Democrats, Lapham notes, “can be relied on to weep on cue – for the homeless and oppressed, for endangered rain forests and disappearing Africans, for any aggrieved interest group that knows where to send the check. When, however, it comes to the work of restructuring the status quo,” Lapham acidly observes, “they find reasons not to fool around with the heavy machinery – to say nothing possibly unpatriotic or uncivil, to stay the course in Baghdad, vote for the bankruptcy and drug-prescription bills, endorse the windfall tax laws comforting the corporations and the top-tier rich. Best to let the Republicans lose the November elections on their own faith-based initiative” – focusing on “character issues” and the Republicans’ “sorry record of untrustworthiness and dishonesty” (Lapham, “Class Act,” Harpers, July 2006).
By Lapham’s observation, borrowing from a recent essay by Michael Tomasky in The American Prospect (certainly no radical-left journal ala Z Magazine or Counterpunch), the Democrats are “like dogs trained with electrical shocks to the condition of ‘learned helplessness.’ Crouching in the corners of ‘resignation and fear,’ clutching their ‘hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes,’ they are afraid to come forth with a broad and generous vision of the just society that might give the courage of their soidistant convictions” (Lapham, “Class Act”).
Well said Mr. Lapham, but is it fear of acting on egalitarian beliefs and values or —- as I argued in a ZNet Commentary some time ago (see my “Time to Scrape the Kerry Sticker Off: On Democrats, Values, and the Lakoff Thesis” at http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/ content/2005-06/30street.cfm) — the lack of such beliefs and values in the first place that most cripples the modern-day post-New Deal Democrats?
Whatever the answer to that critical question, Lapham is certainly correct to note that the party’s agenda-setters reject Coffin’s warning that “those who fear disorder more than injustice invariably produce more of both.”
By my experience, talking about all this in the company of over-educated Democrats leads to being told that political “realism” demands strategic silence about such uncomfortable matters. Bush, Rove, and Cheney and the vast right-wing conspiracy that supports them, I am instructed, are too powerful for “us” to get all “crazy” with “obsolete” ideas and sentiments like those expressed in the slogans “power to the people,” “people over profits,” and “troops out now.”
This “liberal”-Democratic tutorial in responsible quiescence comes even as Bush’s approval ratings remain stuck in the 30s and a majority of the supposedly “conservative” U.S. populace says that the invasion of Iraq was not “morally justified” and calls for a timetable for prompt withdrawal.
The democratic sails of peace and justice, I am told by liberal know-it-all/do-nothing intellectuals, must be trimmed so that the more sophisticated rulers — the slightly less plutocratic and militaristic Democratic elites who supposedly “understand” my quaint radical concerns for social justice — can gently grasp the captain’s wheel on the corporate-imperial ship of state at the appointed quadrennial winner-take-all hour granted by the dollar democracy.
This liberal-Democratic “realism” is a smokescreen for calculated captivity to concentrated wealth and power. It is a defense mechanism whereby privileged elites who wish to rule — only without the same amount of unseemly bloodshed that others of their class are willing to inflict on the world’s unworthy victims — avoid responsibility for terrible policies that result from authoritarian societal arrangements whose skewed material and psychic benefits they enjoy.
“Radical restructuring” of those arrangements, King (along with other radical democrats past and present) knew, is a “what” that matters immeasurably more than the “character” and “values” of the various “who” groups that happen to occupy the highest political offices from one narrow corporate-crafted electoral season to the next.
Paul Street ([email protected]) is a researcher, writer,speaker, and historian in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO; Paradigm Publishers, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Racial Apartheid in the Global Metropolis (forthcoming in 2007).