A Testament of Hope

As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day gives way to Barack Obama Day, I want to type in one of my favorite King quotes:

"Millions of American are coming to see that we are fighting an immoral war that costs nearly thirty billion dollars a year, that we are perpetuating racism, that we are tolerating almost forty million poor during an overflowing material abundance.  Yet they remain helpless to end the war, feed the hungry, to make brotherhood a reality; this has to shake our faith in ourselves.  If we look honestly at the realities of our national life, it is clear that we are not marching forward; we are groping and stumbling; we are divided and confused.  Our moral values and our spiritual confidence sink, even as our material wealth ascends.  In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes.  It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism.  It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced."

 — MLK, "A Testament of Hope," published posthumously in January 1969

The quote (and much else you can find in the King record: see David Garrow’s masterful biography Bearing the Cross) doesn’t fit very well with the officially domesticated history of Dr. King as merely a polite middle-class reformer who sought little more than the desegregation of lunch counters and the right of blacks to run for higher office.

I now there are lots of differences between the United States and its wars in the time of Dr. King’s execution and the same in the time of the"deeply conservative" Obama’s ascendancy. This is a time of recession and perhaps depression, not growth. Iraq (2003-present), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Vietnam (1962-1975) are very different imperial crucifixions. We need to add (at least) sexism and the war on livable ecology to Dr. King’s list of "America‘s interrelated flaws."

Still, I am struck by how relevant King’s words remain more than a generation later, how badly they fit the dominant historical image of King, and by how different King’s final perspective was from that of the militantly incrementalist and power-accommodating Obama. King would be 80 years old today. My sense is that his excitement over the election of an Obama would be strictly qualified in accord with these radical sentiments, which went far beyond the goal of making a superficial color shift in the executive branch.  For what it’s worth, Empire’s New Clothes has never been willing to call the U.S. war on Iraq immoral or criminal or to notice the fact that the U.S. government continues to be what King called it on April 4, 1967: "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world."

And we are still perpetuating — and dangersouly cloaking — racism. 

Expecting a calculating bourgeois politician ascending to the titular top of history’s greatest capitalist Empire to fulfill the legacy of a great progressive peace and justice leader is like expecting an orange to taste like an apple….maybe I should say its like expecting a plate of spare ribs to turn into a vegan meal. Still, I have NOT been able to turn on an American television in the last two days without hearing the official conflation of King and Obama – a conflation that is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of both.

This morning over coffee, my effort to take in some of the dominant media coverage of the inauguration extravaganza lasted all of five seconds.  I clicked on the television to see an aerial shot of the throngs in Washington and then heard ABC News anchor Charles Gibson say that "this is the meaning of democracy."

Off with the television. No, Charlie: democracy’s essence is widely based self-determining citizen participation in the hard and dedicated work of popular governance in accord with egalitarian principles on a daily basis and in numerous interrelated sphere of sociopolitical life; it’s meaning is not for millions to crowd together for quadrennial coronations of the "commander in chief." .

I must confess, while I have expected Obama to be the next president since late 2006, I did not know that the masters had such powerful diversionary and co-optive electoralist bullets left in their guns.

Finally, I will uncharacteristically (since I tend to agree with Noam Chomsky that "speaking truth to power" is a waste of time) offer Obama a bit of advice: Step down from the American Exceptionalist Imperial Hubris that ran so strongly in your campaign commentary to the foreign policy establishment, Mr. President.  Your only chance to leave the world better off (if that is your concern) starts with you standing down from all that ridiculous bullshit. Here’s the deal: If you show some global humility and do some half-reasonably pseudo-social democratic things at home, we’ll probably start advance-carving you a  new face on Mt. Rushmore, itself stolen from the Sioux. That’s what you want.  You will ony exacerbate tragedy and decline if you foolishly insist on expanding the criminal U.S. war on the imperial graveyard that is Afghanistan – replete with your newly inherited Blackhawk and Apache attack helicopters, the same models recently used to help kill 1300 Gazans (another racist-imperial tragedy on which you remained silent).  And Afghanistan carries over into nuclear Pakistan likeVietnam carried over into Cambodia.

Stand down, Obama, for your own sake and everyone else’s too.

That’s my advice for Obama.

Meanwhile, a new depression looms and the specter of ecological catstrophe grows ever more real and less a matter of dark imagination.  Under the totalitarian rules of corporate-"managed democracy," all the solutions to the deepening and perhaps final crisis of humanity are officially "irrelevant" and "unrealistic" and "ideological" and "obsolete." 

Still, I find glimmers of hope beneath and beyond the top-down spectacles for the weak of mind and heart: the Chicago factory occupation, the Oakland riots, the New School action, anti-eviction battles, union organizing triumphs, and the recent and ongoing left- and youth-led rebellion in Greece, the birthplace of Western democratic thought. There’s a lot of "unreported resistance" (Howard Zinn’s useful term) at home and abroad, people acting for the real meaning of democracy beneath and beyond top-down coordination and expert Expectation Management.  And there’s more to come – much more hope that cannot be contained by anything less than "the radical reconstruction of society itself…the real issue to be faced."





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