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The extreme shift to the right in American politics probably started most rapidly under Reagan, and has only increased under democratic and republican control alike. This rapid dance to the far right is poised to end only with civilization itself. Its opposition must be ready to last just as long.
Obama is probably the most “liberal” president of the post-Reagan era, which makes it useful to see how fast even his administration has marched to the right, indeed, in many areas as fast and hard as Bush II.
Under Obama, the U.S. has implemented a record number of oil and gas rigs, given an ominous 1 trillion dollar upgrade to the nuclear arsenal, deported more immigrants than all previous administrations combined, dropped 38 billion dollars in military aid on Israel’s slow motion genocide of the Palestinians, and conducted covert acts of war through the drone and targeted assassination campaign – including the targeting of American citizens without trial – in approximately seventy five countries, up from approximately twenty five countries under George W. Bush.
And there are more, and more, and more issues to point out. Put it this way: if we were not headed irreversibly in the direction of permanent suffering, permanent war and – in the language of climate change and nuclear weapons – the end of civilization as we know it under Obama, we can finally stop clinging to the destructive “hope” that was fed to us in his campaign cycles. Because now Donald Trump is the president. All those tools are in Trump’s hands now. All these tools, particularly under Bill Clinton and Obama, have been implemented with the rhetoric of good intentions. We are ruled by the slickest and smoothest talking criminals in human history.
The executive branch, inheriting the threatening policies enacted under a so-called liberal figure like Obama, is now to be run by ecocidal, hyper-masculine, racist, sexist, billionaire, conspiracy theorizing gangster-terrorist anti-intellectuals. There is no bottom anymore. There is now a strong chance that soon nothing will have ever resembled Hell more than God’s Grand Experiment.
This is no longer disputable. We lost. The brutality of our immigration policies, our foreign policies, the tyranny of the fossil fuel and industrial agriculture industries, the countless victories of our fraudulent banks, and our long dance with the nuclear devil, can all be understood with varying degrees of inevitability.
But that’s not what this piece is about. This piece is about how and why to continue fighting anyway.
In late August, 2016, E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote a piece for Truthdig entitled “Where is Our Martin Luther King, Jr.?” It’s a decent piece, mostly about the role of religious intellectual figures, or lack thereof, in the 21st century, how politics has reduced theology in mainstream dialogue, and how religion used to be a vital force in intellectual and political discourse, mostly driven by issues of morality and ethics. The piece got me thinking, however, about what distinguished King as a figure, both in theology and politics, and whether or not we have our own Martin Luther Kings, and if, in fact, we do, how we may join and shape the eternal struggle, embodied in figures like King, that exists today.
Dionne, Jr. never answers his own question – where is our Martin Luther King, Jr.? – which makes the more fitting title to his piece something like, “Why Don’t We Have our Own Martin Luther King, Jr.?” My first reaction to the piece was: what about Cornell West? Or bell hooks? Or Dionne, Jr.’s colleague Chris Hedges, all informed by a deep religious background, all of whom engage in very similar struggles in a very similar spirit to King, and who are all seemingly greatly inspired by the prophetic tradition.
That there is no mention of Cornell West in the piece was particularly striking, given his long and thorough inclusion of religious discourse in his arguments, his role as a civil rights leader, combined with his rigorous scholarship and, at times, rock-star-like status, particularly among young people. At first I thought maybe this was because of West’s unpopularity in academia right now, mostly due to a smear campaign by his former mentee Michael Eric Dyson, but then King was unpopular for much of his life as well. This was even true at the end of King’s life. So why the omission of West from the discussion? The point is that these figures and these struggles do exist today. They never went anywhere.
Let us consider why it is vital that those who struggle in the spirit of King begin to dominate American discourse and stir up American culture in the early 21st Century. And let us consider what is distinct about a figure like King, the nature of his struggle, and the meanings of his message.
The kind of struggle King engaged in goes back to the beginnings of philosophy: the belief that the fight for truth and justice is necessarily endless. Consider Socrates and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, speaking of the search for truth and justice,
“And truly, said I, [justice] appears to be in an inaccessible place, lying in deep shadows, [says Socrates].
It certainly is a dark covert, not easy to beat up, [says Glaucon].
But all the same, we must go on.
The search for the truth, and the effort to find or create the good, is a process and a dialogue that never ends yet still must be pursued. The truth, the good, justice, are always “inaccessible,” their attainment is forever in the future. The struggle for truth and justice is a struggle unto death, a struggle that only ends after the last bomb, the last hurricane, the last breath. Again, from The Republic: “But for the wise men this kind of discussion ends only with life itself.”
Plato understood, through the Socratic method, that the truth does not come in the form of an answer but in the form of a finer question. We can always ask more. There is always more to be learned. No matter how far we progress or how badly we lose, we are never finished struggling. There is always a better place to reach. The effort to reach that place is not motivated by an expectation that one will succeed, but by an understanding that it is the right place to try to reach, no matter how far away it is. And it is always as far away as it can be, no matter how far we’ve come. This is embodied in Christ’s words, “my kingdom is not of this world,” in Augustine’s “city of God,” in Camus’ understanding of the rebel, and many other figures and ideas throughout philosophy and history, and is still deployed as powerful venom from the left. (Consider Hedges’ comment: “I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.”) One does not fight for the possibility of victory, one fights for the affirmation of love, even in the face of certain defeat. One struggles toward a future that will necessarily never become the present.
King’s last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” is an incredible elucidation of this sentiment. Commenting on having firehoses set on the protests in Birmingham, he said, “there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.” King is talking about the struggle for truth and justice which, like the struggle for exploitation, power, and profit, ends only with life itself. Our faithful, hopeful struggle for truth and justice affirms our lives more the closer we become to the certainty of unjust death. Cornell West understands this when he shouts to the people, “It’s a beautiful thing to be on fire!”
In Birmingham, confronting the dogs, water hoses, police officers and jails, they walked on and sang on, and held fast to their vision together, even, perhaps especially, as they were crushed repeatedly in a sort of Sisyphean nightmare. It was at the end of “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” that King said,
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Days later he was murdered. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about these words is their timelessness. They could have been used to describe the struggle that King was a part of at any point in the long and brutal history of the human condition. A thousand years in the past or a thousand years in the future, these words could have been spoken. The good nature of rebellion imagines and insists upon a future that is vastly different from, and in stark opposition to, the future that really awaits us.
Paulo Friere wrote in the beginning of his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed about “rightist sectarians” and “leftist sectarians.” For Friere, the rightest sees “today,” as “linked to the past,” seeks to “domesticate the present” and “slow down the historical process,” essentially by idealizing the past, (“Make America great again”), while the leftists see the present as part of an inevitable, “preordained” future (“America is already great,” and “this is the American Century”). Both modes of thinking “negate freedom” by enclosing their ideas of the past and the future into what Friere called “circles of certainty” based on myth. There is a third category, however, not rightest or leftist, not sectarian, but “radical.” The radical’s definition of freedom is “the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.” Note that freedom is not in “human completion,” but in the “quest” for it, which for the radical never ends, contrasted to the sectarians, for whom such a “quest” never begins.
In her essay, “War Talk: Summer Games with Nuclear Bombs,” on the nuclear threat between India and Pakistan from 1998 to the time of the writing in 2002, Arundhati Roy beautifully describes the love of the world and the integral, though often meaningless, struggle for the future that makes us human, even, in this context, when the threat of the incineration of the world around us is real. Her description of meaning and struggle in a world that could end any second is stunning, and deserves to be quoted at length.
“My husband’s writing a book on trees. He has a section on how figs are pollinated. Each fig only by its own special fig wasp. There are nearly a thousand different species of fig wasps, each a precise, exquisite synchrony, the product of millions of years of evolution.
“All the fig wasps will be nuked. Zzzz. Ash. And my husband. And his book.
“A dear friend, who’s an activist in the anti-dam movement in the Narmada Valley, is on indefinite hunger strike. Today is the fourteenth day of her fast. She and the others fasting with her are weakening. They’re protesting because the Madhya Pradesh government is bulldozing schools, clear-felling forests, uprooting hand pumps, forcing people from their villages to make way for the Maan Dam. The people have nowhere to go. And so, the hunger strike.
“What an act of faith and hope! How brave it is to believe that in today’s world, reasoned, nonviolent protest will register, will matter. But will it? To governments that are comfortable with the notion of a wasted world, what’s a wasted valley?”
This is the spirit in which we must struggle. In spite of all we know, in spite of all we are up against, because we love every piece of the world, we must pretend, even believe, that our struggle is more permanent than our destruction, even though it is not. We must wholeheartedly fight a fight we will probably lose, may have lost already. We must refuse to cooperate with the annihilation of our own minds and bodies.
So as the Trump administration, inheriting all the tools it needs from the Obama administration to carry out its plans, spouts trash-talk behind the increasingly ominous nuclear arsenal, we must stand with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weaponsand other anti-nuclear weapons groups. As the U.S. has now sanctioned Israel’s war on Palestinian children and other civilians through the 38 billion dollar holler, as Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel has said he does not believe in a two state solution, and that Israel can “easily annex the West Bank,” all seemingly making the end of what’s left of Palestine a real possibility, now it is more important than ever, as the likelihood of success is lower than ever, to stand with Boycott-Divest-Sanctions. As the black population is brutalized every day behind the transparent mask of law and order, confronted with military equipment and locked in cages, as white nationalists begin to take over the executive branch, as the forces arrayed against civil rights leaders grow taller and stronger every day, it is as important as it has ever been to rage and love in the streets with groups like Black Lives Matter. As the War of Terror and the drone and targeted assassination campaign are poised to spawn more terrorists every day – and the situation will certainly grow worse under Trump’s racism – we must throw our support all the way behind Veterans for Peace. As, according to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the sea level is expected to rise by approximately nine feet by 2050, and the Trump administration seeks to accelerate this, bringing us quite literally to the brink of the end of civilization as we know it, we must throw our bodies on the pipelines and join the green groups, such as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Green Peace, the NRDC, permaculture farming, and other environmental trends and groups.
The more certain our destruction becomes, the more wholeheartedly we must resist. The more futile it looks, the more vital it is that we participate in opposition. We are not stuck with our oppressors. They are stuck with us.
We must not think of such activist groups and acts of resistance as movements, which arch and fall, but as ways of life, which ought to be passed down from one generation to the next. The political philosophy that dominates the 21st Century must be one of permanent resistance and action, one that always envisions a better world, no matter how well that vision is realized or how constantly it is crushed. Our survival is not all we are concerned with. If it were, it would be easy to lie down in the dark and wait.
Rather, it is not just our lives but our dignity, our morality, our very meaning itself that are at stake. Once the spectacles that cover up our real lives, our real moment in history, begin to cannibalize and we are left only with the choice between rebellion and suicide, then dignity, morality and meaning will be all we have left. To Mr. Dionne: rest assured. If you look, our Martin Luther King, Jr. is everywhere. Immortal.