From "I have a dream" to "I will seek authorization for the use of force," the final week of August 2013 was an intense one.
"I have a dream"
We had the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington reminding us of how far our nation has and hasn't come in achieving race equality, putting us in a self-reflective mood and highlighting the conflict between those who climbed up and, as a part of the establishment, are now standing on the shoulders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other heroic civil rights advocates versus those who see such leaders as sellouts rather than as examples of the movement's successes.
Fifty years is not much time, in the grand scope of things; yet, because of the increasingly accelerated speed of change in modern society, it constitutes a huge generational gap in which the synergy of King's life and work has become subtly diluted.
The untimely death of Martin Luther King Jr. – he was just 39 when he was assassinated – marked the end of an era of major advancements for blacks in the United States. Although the movement had been gaining steam well before King, a fresh, new face among the clergy in Montgomery, Alabama, was asked by activists to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 when other clergy were afraid to expand the spiritual and moral missions of the church to the broader social issues of racism and injustice, his personal magnetism along with his skills as an orator and wielder of the power of nonviolent direct action launched him to the forefront of a movement whose moment had arrived.
After his death, the pace of racial social change switched gears, shifting into a slow progress of everyday integration through social experiments like desegregation busing and affirmative action quotas for the next twenty years. Angela Glover Blackwell reminds us that black people, half a century ago, were "the face of discrimination." In the two decades after King's death, the nation's nonwhite minority diversified and grew as urban situations changed, until a tipping point was reached and the tide was turned. On a growing swell of resentment and fear of loss of status and culture, public support for mandatory integration programs began to fizzle out. They were reactions to the gains that had been made that allowed many blacks to join the middle class and a few to join the wealthy and influential.
Defending the dream
Three decades after the turning of the tide, we have come to another tipping point, when the nation's black and brown youths are reinvigorating the "fierce urgency of now" that King had elucidated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago. The leaders of the Dream Defenders began their social activism on college campuses in Florida in 2006, outraged that 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson had been beaten to death at a Florida boot camp. Their 33-hour sit-in of Governor Jeb Bush's office helped bring national attention to Tallahassee and to force the resignation of the state's top cop. It was these same activists who, in April 2012, insisted that Trayvon Martin's death at the hands of George Zimmerman would not be just another statistic of a black youth's life being preempted in the name of safety and security. They saw the Trayvon Martin case as more than a source of reactionary outrage; it was a wakeup call to take the long view, to look beyond the results of a single trial among so many similarly unjust trials and build a movement focused on pushing for racial progress and righting the systematic inequalities that plague so many communities in the United States today.
These activists are building an expanding network of social activism in defense of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, in defense of undocumented immigrants' dream, in defense of all dreamers who know they are not the only ones.
Once again in Tallahassee, they have been fighting for the repeal of Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which, in its wildly uneven implementation, tends to be a sorry excuse for racism. But their mission is far greater than that. They recognize the crisis of the moment:
Across the country we find our communities trapped in a vicious cycle of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and depression.
They feel the weight of a society that not only criminalizes, to a staggering degree, dark-skinned youths, but also profits from this criminalization through the "private prison menace." And as they have made clear in their #OurMarch campaign, they understand, as did Martin Luther King Jr., the connection between racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.
This is the new generation of social justice leaders. They are the real deal – not just diminutive "youth" activists. They are savvy in the use of social media, and they are powerful communicators. They are inspiring in their passion. They are contagious. They are "dreamers, fighters, lovers, defenders, builders bubbling, bubbling, bubbling beneath the rubble." They are ready to change the world. And by taking the long view, they are making a connection that is vital to building a movement that will be successful at producing real social change, the connection between the individual and the universal.
The central point of my essay Honoring the Truth of Martin Luther King's Life is that King was eliciting this connection when he said, "I haven't lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," and he found in this connection a source of strength and joy.
It is a spiritual connection with metaphysical forces that are greater than the self. It is a connection to a flowing current of positive energy, of moral imperative, of universal love, which sparks the synergy that elevates the various aspects of an engaged individual's life to a level of greatness that exceeds the sum of its parts. This spiritual connection with this magnificent energy, this essence of the processes of nature and the flow of humanity, transcends religion, and the power that comes from sensing one's connection with the grander schemes of the universe manifests itself in the charisma, persuasiveness, and fearlessness that people like Martin Luther King Jr. are able to apply toward positive social change.
But Martin Luther King Jr. possessed something else, as well: historical consciousness. As his eloquent Letter from Birmingham Jail reveals, it was King's vast knowledge of social and religious history that informed his understanding of the "urgency of now." His keen awareness of the arc of history allowed him to tie the actions taken in the present with the progression of humanity, through the tireless efforts of social activists, toward the ideals of Justice, Beauty, and Truth.
What motivated me to write my article about honoring King's life was a disconcerting cynicism – cynicism that had crept into the celebration of the March on Washington, cynicism that would bend the meaning of King's uplifting words and disrespect his legacy by making assumptions as to what he would and wouldn't do today, cynicism that is in direct contradiction to what his life was all about. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a fear monger and he was not a cynic. Rather, he spread fearlessness and faith in people's ability to create a better future.
King preached the gospel of nonviolent resistance that requires courage and the willingness to suffer, seeks reconciliation rather than defeat of an adversary, eliminates evil rather than destroying the evildoer, rejects hatred, animosity, and violence – both spiritual and physical – and most importantly, necessitates faith that justice will, in the long run, prevail.
His conception of nonviolent social action is that it should be used to create tension and confrontation that opens the door to negotiation when it has been denied.
His philosophy is greatly influenced by Paul Tillich's idea that separation is sin and unity is grace.
Standing on this deeply spiritual and philosophical foundation, King was at once principled and pragmatic, always treating his adversaries with respect and making compromises in order to reach higher goals.
In securing major gains such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King counted among his allies both JFK, who had directed the CIA to attempt the assassinations of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and LBJ, who escalated the Vietnam War. In his focus on improving the lives of blacks in the United States, King never confronted them on other issues such as these. It was not until 1967, four years after the March on Washington, that he finally expanded the scope of his fight for social justice in his speech, Beyond Vietnam, doing so at the cost of support from many of his white allies, including LBJ. He could no longer hold his silence on Vietnam, he said. He had come to see the connection between racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States, he realized, was part of a worldwide revolutionary movement, but
...because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.
The West, he was saying, was preventing social justice causes from moving forward in countries across the globe by subjugating the world's poorest under the dark shadows of dictatorial regimes as well as corroding the values of the wealthier societies that were out to protect their own capitalist commerce.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," King had said about racism in Birmingham, Alabama. His leap into the antiwar movement was an expansion of this philosophy that was globalist and socialist in nature. Therefore, using King's opposition to the Vietnam War to back up libertarian small-government and isolationist antiwar sentiments is in direct contradiction with what the man's life was all about.
So, it is with great consternation that I observe some among the younger generations of social justice activists twisting Martin Luther King Jr.'s words toward anger at this nation's president and other black leaders who are standing on the foundation laid by activists who came before them. It pains me to see the divisiveness between people who, according to King's teachings, should reject anger and refrain from the use of vitriolic or demeaning language. Although some prominent figures have claimed that he would have been banned from the celebration for insisting on speaking out against Obama's use of drones, the truth is that nobody could possibly know what Martin Luther King Jr. would have done to help celebrate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After all, the original, too, had been limited in its scope and tone, due to pressure from the Kennedy administration, with criticism of the federal government being set aside, and King might very well have acted in this same spirit.
"I will seek authorization for the use of force"
Then there is the second-guessing the president. Probably the greatest irony of Obama's presidency has been the fact that, in the so-called information age, when one would think that knowledge would set us all free and people would become smarter because of it, what David Corn from Mother Jones Magazine calls "that trademarked Obama nuance-ism that blends pragmatism and principle in a manner that hardly lends itself to crystal-clear messaging" only encourages confirmation bias to take wild speculation further toward the fringes of lunacy.
From assumptions that President Obama is acting on behalf of the Israelis to accusations that he orchestrated the chemical weapons attack in Syria as a false flag operation to bring on US military intervention because of a gas pipeline, the supposed reasons for the president's push for military action in Syria are widely conspiratorial while it seems that those who believe that his intentions are, as he says, to enforce the international norm banning the use of chemical weapons are in the minority. The fact that the president decided to seek authorization from Congress for the use of force doesn't appear to have much of an effect on the fear mongers and haters of everything about President Obama.
When I heard the president speak those nine astounding words on 31 August, I couldn't have been more proud of him. The implications of this surprise decision to hand power from the executive branch to the legislature are enormous. As David Corn's source, a former Obama administration official, concludes, the only answer to why the president did this that makes any sense is that he did it because he believes that it's the right thing to do to strengthen our democracy.
Opposition for the right reasons
While in support of the desire to take action against the Assad regime for the unconscionable act of unleashing chemical weapons on innocent human beings and citizens of his own country, I was conflicted and didn't come to a coherent position on military action in Syria until Obama encouraged a national conversation with the decision to defer to Congress. After briefly toying with the idea that Obama, knowing full well that he could not win over Congress, was really just fulfilling his role as commander in chief of the world's most powerful military and projecting signals of strength without actually intending to attack, I rejected the idea, sensing that the push to gain authorization for a military strike was authentic.
Then, remembering how regretful I was after supporting Obama in his decision to go with the troop surge in Afghanistan back in 2009 instead of drawing down, and, having to accept the fact that I was coming down on the same side of this argument as vicious civil libertarians whipped into a frenzy by Glenn Greenwald's irresponsible reporting on Snowden's NSA leaks and Tea Party obstructionists who see Obama as the enemy of Freedom, I came to my senses and decided that the United States should be pursuing viable alternatives to military strikes, instead.
My greatest concern is that opposition to the Obama administration's military action be for the right reasons, and denying Obama the moral authority on the basis of this nation's past actions or even on the basis of his own less-than-exemplary record is not right. When an actor is doing something in good faith, regardless of other failings they may have, it is called "progress," not "hypocrisy," as the latter only applies when someone criticizes another of doing something that they, themselves also do.
I am arguing that President Obama does have the moral authority to take some punitive action, and more importantly, to prevent the Syrian army and other actors from being emboldened by inaction to use chemical weapons in the future. The authorization by both the US Congress and the UN Security Council would provide legitimacy for military strikes, but that does not mean that it is the right way to go about achieving the purported goals – and that is the only truly durable foundation for opposition to military action.
Another objection that has been put forward is that Obama lacks the moral authority to launch a military strike against Assad. But I reject this argument because no person and no nation is absolutely moral in every regard, nor can any person or nation be expected to be – so the issue of moral authority needs to be applied narrowly, in the specific area of concern.
In this case, Assad's army is accused, backed by much more reliable intelligence, this time around, of unleashing the chemical weapon sarin, a type of nerve gas, on its own people. Of course, it is true that the United States has its own deplorable record of crimes against humanity, and the Obama administration has continued to indulge in several very controversial programs, such as the manufacture, use, and/or sale of land mines, cluster munitions, and targeted drone killings. However, the United States does not currently use chemical weapons, according to international treaties to which it is a signatory, and the issue here is the use of chemical weapons, which have been recognized since as far back as the 1675 Strasbourg Agreement between France and the Holy Roman Empire, followed by 11 more multiparty treaties, as something that should be banned from military use. Whereas other munitions can be argued to have legitimate limited military utility, chemical weapons simply step over the line – that "red line" that Obama was referring to.
Alternatives to military options
So the strongest progressive argument against military strikes is one based on their ineffectiveness, and progressives must also present alternative courses of action rather than retreating to inaction. The most ethical thing for the United States to do is to be engaged in international efforts to bring about a solution to the crisis in Syria.
In her powerful piece on alternatives to military strikes, Sarah van Gelder explains why, instead of seeking congressional approval for military action, Obama should be pursuing peaceful solutions:
By applying the rule of law through existing international institutions, we can work to isolate the wrongdoers on all sides of the conflict in Syria from their bases of support around the world. We can support those in Syria working for peaceful change and offer humanitarian assistance. And we will move beyond the limitations of responding to lawbreaking with violence.
MLK and redemption
To emphasize the point about narrowing of the application of moral authority, let me use Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. He pushed for racial justice, making connections to other issues that are intertwined with it and, through the years, expanding the scope of his focus. His is a moral argument for justice; yet some question his moral authority because he was a womanizer, a philanderer, and he often plagiarized other people's work and ideas.
Although the social context of King's failings – that his wife supported him, even in the knowledge of his philandering, and that his plagiarism was not a clear-cut case of knowingly committing an academic crime – may be mitigating factors, I believe it is wrong to apply those moral failings, to whatever the degree, to the entirety of the man's life and work, as they don't in any way diminish King's moral authority in the area of social justice.
The moral of this story is to judge not too broadly. King was not the first to teach the principle of hating not the sinner but the sin. By loving those whose actions and ideas we wish to change, we leave open the possibility of redemption, without which there can be no social progress at all.