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Righteousness and Dignity: Thoreau, Malcolm X and the Crisis of Leadership in America

One rarely hears words like righteousness and dignity in conversations among those on the secular, progressive left.  Unfortunately, in sidelining those words, along with honor, virtue, and even goodness,  with their serious religious and moral overtone, we have demeaned exactly the human qualities needed to respond to the dire and threatening times we live in.  While we are urged over and over by the those willing to report to us the full ongoing catastrophe, to take to the streets and protest, there is a prior action needed if the response is to be more than a return, politically, to “lesser evilism,”to the emptiness of so much of “progressive” politics.

We, the “bourgeois” ones with access to higher education,  were supposed to know the system has failed us, to be counter cultural. Thus, there is something of the chickens coming home to roost in this current abominable incarnation of national leadership.  We are the ones who could have understood the system in the way that leads one to act because one understands the system – in our case the neoliberal corporate capitalist system, the military industrial complex –  is injurious to the humanity of all of us.

We’ve heard the warnings, from Dr. King, from Eisenhower’s farewell address,  from James Baldwin, from Cornel West, from Noam Chomsky, from indigenous peoples.  We are supposed to have this understanding, and we did not get it.  We did not truly educate ourselves.  It was up to us, the educated and better off, to understand the system is corrupt, cannot be reformed, is harmful to the common good, and we evaded our responsibility.  Not with a shrug, perhaps with a sigh, we’ve said, Let someone else lead, I have my work and my family.

When the system has gone off the deep end, revolution is one option.  On the other hand, disobedience, in the manner of Henry David Thoreau’s act of opposition to slavery and to war with Mexico, is another.  Thoreau stated: “Know all men by these presents that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.”  That is, when your country is “no longer itself,” such an act of self-alienation is the justified action of a righteous man.

Thoreau’s act of disobedience, as Curtis White points out in The Spirit of Disobedience (2006), was not revolutionary.  It is rather, refusal:”I will live as if your world has ended, as indeed it deserves to end.  I will live as if my gesture of refusing your world has destroyed it.”   Thoreau’s self-imposed exile to Walden was based, says White,  in “the need to create a society…. that he could willingly join.”

That is, it was based first in a quite astonishing (if you think about it) level of trust in his own self worth. It was a moral position taken not in submission to a religious rule or shared understanding,  but in concert with his own instinctual being.  For first he had to make a choice independent of everyone else, including his friend, mentor and fellow Concord person of genius, Ralph Emerson, to do as his conscience bid.  Each of us has this option, as long as we can find in ourselves the place of righteous refusal in the manner of Thoreau.  We can participate in the building of the new world to replace this failed one.  Conscientious disobedience coming from one’s self-acknowledged dignity as a human being, is a very different act than that of partisan fighting over the Russians influencing our politics, absorbing as that is, or identity politics that depends for its energy on the victim condition of the individual or group.  It suggests that the important and necessary work for men and women is to locate our innate righteousness so we can turn to creating a society “we can willingly join.”

This is the work to be taken up once we have turned our servile, prostrate will away from its habitual customary deference to the given standards of “good behavior,” which, after all, are really no more demanding than do your job, don’t make waves, collect your salary and benefits, buy stuff, let your pesky passion be satisfied with deciding between android vs iphone, or Wall St.-approved Democrat vs. Wall St.-approved Republican.  Creating the new, human-worthy society awaits us once  we’ve confessed our powerlessness over our addiction to TV and mass media, an industry flourishing in the age of Trump, a bizarre celebrity who holds peoples’ fascination in the same way as do car wrecks or burning buildings.  When we avidly follow a national news that matches, in its effect on our adrenal system, the lurid ‘scoops’ promised on the covers of magazines at the checkout line at the supermarket,  we can be sure it is not information we’re after as responsible citizens, but a “turn on” to feed our addiction.

In these times when we are cut off from a context or a genuine culture that could  nourish and encourage our humanity, many of of us get trapped into taking what the consumer culture offers.  Captive in a dehumanizing culture, this is the way we take care of ourselves.  It is not the way free, dignified, sovereign people answer their rightful wants and needs.

Thus the first task is the daunting one; ending our existence as servile addicts and finding in ourselves the worthy and righteous man or woman who can refuse this America, and create the America (or more locally, our own town or city or farm, or home on the edge of a pond) worthy of our souls, and of the souls of all of us including those fervently joining in the politics of hate.  This is not survivalism; it cannot be undertaken in order to be among the post-apocalyptic remnant.  Being righteous is not being “more righteous than thou.” It is serving the greatness inherent in the lowly individual soul, acting as the expressive organ for its aberrant goodness,  a morality always checked against ego inflation by the “impossible” demand that one is – bottom line – supposed to counter and vanquish the crushing sense of personal unworthiness.

This weekend, thanks to nearby Hamilton College,  we got to see a production by The Acting Company of the play X, or Betty Shabazz vs. The Nation, by Marcus Gardley.  Seeing this outstanding production of a really excellent play, I was reminded of the passion I’d had for Malcolm X as a great man and a great leader after reading The Autobiography back in the 90’s.  In the play, Malcolm gradually and with difficulty reaches his decision to leave the Nation of Islam and his spiritual father Elijah Muhammad who had mentored Malcolm’s transformation from petty criminal to powerful leader.  We witnessed the struggle of the righteous man who must stand up for his righteousness even at the risk of opposing “God,” or he who, in one’s own mind, has occupied the place of perfection for so long it has become accepted truth.  It has become – in effect – dogma.

Being finally presented with incontrovertible evidence that Muhammad was not perfect, by means of his meeting, at his wife Betty’s urging, with several young women who’d been impregnated by the Nation’s leader,  Malcolm was forced to make a break that he did not want to make.  Loyalty to The Nation and to Elijah Muhammad was the guiding principle of a principled man; Malcolm’s personal popularity, which exceeded that of Elijah Muhammad – the celebrity which means so much in public life today – meant relatively little to him   He chose to separate himself when the organization had become unrecognizable to him; it was “no longer itself,” or what he had understood it as.  The action would not make him popular; it guaranteed he would be an ambivalent figure in history, as indeed he already was.  He was one of those geniuses whose path is not straight, but whose efforts to ‘self-correct,’ to challenge his own current dogma, never ceased. He did not understand himself as “perfect” and did not hold himself to that impossible standard, the trap in which Elijah Muhammad got caught.

Not his charisma or his eloquence, but his adhering faithfully to his own righteousness, to the inner moral compass, is what made him great (or honorable, as his wife calls him in the play), a great leader, and made his death – as well as that of ML King’s – a loss from which, in the area of leadership, America has never recovered. That I see these qualities in Malcolm X  may seem speculative to some, but perhaps they are difficult to see when we have learned to honor not virtue, not honor, not righteousness,  but those who can convince us that being crude louts “just like the rest of us,” lets the rest of us,  so reduced in our sense of personal worth, off the hook.

Obediently we have kept questions of moral and character development, the traditional realm of religion, at the fringe of our concerns.  We have been obediently religiophobic in a way that is not simply a critique of institutional religion but which frees us from any sense of a moral obligation to our own inner being, leaving it sequestered in shame. The success of Trump is attributable to our failure to understand and appreciate true greatness out of our sheepish inclination to be let off from our personal responsibility to realize the true genius each is born with and – in a human-worthy society – supposed to manifest. That our society has failed to teach us this means, as Thoreau and Malcolm exemplify, it is time to create the one we can willingly join.

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Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.

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