Fifty-five years ago this month, Martin Luther King, Jr. published his fourth and final book: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” In it he described the turmoil then engulfing American cities as representing a new phase in the struggle for freedom: as a shift from a primary focus on dismantling Southern apartheid to a broader grappling with racism and economic inequality nationwide. Extending his analysis globally, Dr. King called for an end to the madness of the Vietnam War, for an eradication of global poverty, and for a recognition of nonviolence as the only sane path forward.
Dr. King’s ideas and words resonate today, but it is the last phrase of the title, “chaos or community,” that speaks most sharply to our time.
The word “chaos” is understood as meaning “disorder” and “confusion,” and when it flourishes, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve socially desirable goals. Chaos grows when powerful economic interests dominate the public sphere – and when democracy is impaired both by that domination and by institutional barriers such as the filibuster. It grows when conditions grow ripe for the emergence of demagogic leadership.
Community, on the other hand, is rooted in a recognition of the interrelations of all persons and living beings, and in a sense of responsibility toward the thriving of those beings. It manifests in pro-social behaviors that can range from participating in a beach cleanup to more extensive and sustained forms of social and public service.
Inasmuch as we recently passed the grievous milestone marking the death by Covid of one million Americans, it merits a brief review of our recent history to see how both chaos and community continue to contend in our nation.
To its credit, the Trump administration authorized the development of vaccines that have done much to blunt the lethality of the coronavirus. And yet, as many analysts have noted, the lies and inconsistent messaging emanating from that administration did much to exacerbate the crisis. Early on, when information about the seriousness of the virus became available, Mr. Trump acknowledged its lethal nature when he was interviewed by journalist Bob Woodward. Yet soon after, and in many subsequent messages, he said that the virus would “miraculously go away” in a few months’ time, that it was “like a flu” and was “very mild.”
Mr. Trump falsely claimed that the FDA had deemed the anti-malarial drug chloroquine as effective against the coronavirus, and he disparaged the mask wearing that was deemed as essential by many health experts, going so far as to hold large indoor, and largely unmasked, rallies in Nevada and other states, flouting local public health rules limiting such gatherings. After the November 3, 2020 election, Mr. Trump checked out of any personal involvement in the fight against Covid, focusing instead on the false and destructive search for votes that could overturn that election. By January 20, 2021, more than 400,000 Americans had died from the virus.
By contrast, other nations, such as Australia, benefited from relatively high levels of interpersonal trust, concern for others, and trust in public agencies – all reinforced by generally well-coordinated and rational public health measures. Combined, all these elements help to limit the loss of life in Australia to proportionately one-tenth that of the U.S.
Yet all was not disorder and confusion in our own country. Other forms and manifestations of community were clear and present in the year 2020, including unprecedented efforts to register voters and record their votes accurately. Despite the constraints of the pandemic and increasing restrictions on voting itself, groups like unions and other organizations (e.g. the New Georgia Project) canvassed hundreds of thousands of homes, engaging citizens in the democratic process.
Ultimately, 81,284,666 Americans cast their votes for change. Though it’s not apparent how many did so primarily to repudiate the chaos in the administration’s handling of the pandemic, polling at the time indicates that 55% of voters polled after the election said that the Trump administration “did not do a good enough job handling the coronavirus outbreak.”
The flourishing of community requires different kinds of work, different kinds of sacrifice, at different times. At one historical moment, it may mean getting on a bus to eradicate apartheid on interstate transportation. At another, it may mean joining a school walkout to say “no” to the madness of unregulated firearms. And at still other times, it may simply entail a certain kind of choosing: to read and listen carefully, to choose civil discourse over hateful cacophony, and to take a quiet moment in marking a ballot on behalf of those persons and measures that best represent the possibility and hope of deepened community.