Monday, January 17, 2011

For Martin Luther King day

He who has done his best for his own time has lived for all times. - Johann Friedrich Von Schiller

Today, Monday, is of course Martin Luther King day. To observe the occasion, I've decided to post a modified version of something I wrote on a previous MLK day which contained a statement of belief linked with various bits and pieces of things I had written (and in some cases posted) earlier.

If you recognize any of what follows from things posted previously, just realize that I have little shame about recycling my stuff if I think it makes the point, which is that instead of another session of grousing and griping, denouncing and decrying, I thought I would try to be positive for once.

Despite that intent, I have to say at the start that even at this distance, even after all these years, I can't watch the video of his famous "I have a dream" speech and even more the end of his last speech, the one he gave the night before he was murdered, without choking up at the memory.

And I'm no softy. I'm no John Boner. I don't get weepy easily or commonly. But the hope, the hope, the hope he embodied and gave to so many, the hope that was drained away drop by bitter drop in the years since as we achieved our "post-racial" society where blacks still are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed and the poverty rate among both blacks and Hispanics is still two and a-half times that of whites and even Harvard professors still need to know to say "Yassuh" and "Nosuh" to white cops, the memory of just how great the hope was at that moment, that brief span of years, that memory can still haunt me and still move me.

Watching the video of his last speech - and I believe this is without the benefit of hindsight, but of course I can't prove that - I can see the weariness in his face. This is a tired man, a man who needs some time away from the arena but who knows he is unlikely to allowed it. And I can hear the resignation in his tone and in his words, the magnificent resignation of his namesake, who, not knowing what the future would hold and even possibly doubting he would have one, still stood before the assembled power of the Catholic Church in 1521 at the Diet of Worms and said "it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience" and added, at least according to tradition (although probably not in fact), "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in the halls of conscience and could do no other. Unlike his namesake, his resignation, sadly, proved well-founded and we are the lesser for it. But what we are called on to do, still called on to do these decades later, is in the words of a different sort of martyr, "Don't mourn. Organize." To respect the messenger and even more to uphold the message while denying both to the bigots, buffoons, bozos, and bastards of the rabid right who try to reinvent Martin Luther King as Allen West and as well as to the usurpers of history who would mold a preacher of nonviolence into a practitioner of perpetual war.

It's with all that and particularly the last part in mind that I mark the day not by memories or memorials but by again, trying to be positive: offering my own personal credo; not what I'm against but what I'm for. I know that some may find this an inappropriate time to write about what I believe rather than what MLK believed; I hope you understand that my intent is to honor, by embracing, the concept of the dream and the hope that he represented. And I realize what follows may sound pompous; please know that this sort of thing, this sort of sweeping, overarching statement of moral conviction does not come easily to me. I can swing a club of moral condemnation with the best, but I'm not nearly as practiced at "yes" as I am at "no." Be kind.

Anyway. In my very first post here, over seven years ago, I referred to a conversation I'd just had with a friend in which I said
"The truth is, my hope is nearly gone. My anger is the only thing that keeps me going."

So now I have an outlet to express that anger, to discuss what I'm angry about, why I'm angry, and, in my calmer moments, to try to rediscover that hope and offer a different vision of what we as a people, a nation, a culture, might do, might be, might become.
I haven't done as much of that rediscovering as I should, at least not overtly. Still, as I said a long time ago,
[e]ven many professional grouches (like me) are actually unregenerate romantics whose sharp words are honed on the inexplicable, indefensible, yet utterly unshakable conviction that things not only can be but must be better than they are.
Equally to the point, quoting yet another thing I wrote a long time ago and quoting as accurately as I can from memory, "our strongest, surest beliefs are those we don't even know we have until we find them within us." That is, our deepest, most abiding beliefs and commitments are not born consciously of careful philosophical argumentation and reasoned analysis but grow naturally from our root moral and ethical convictions - and they sometimes take us by surprise. That argumentation, those analyses, can give form to those convictions, they can provide them with substance and weight, but they do not drive them - rather, they are driven by them.

So despite my tendency to intellectualization, to try to argue my points rationally with facts and figures and references, still it's important - for me if not for those who may hear or see what I say or write - to drop away on occasion from "here's the data, here's the logic, here's the conclusion" to that fundamental, baseline, radical place, that place where there is no logic, no empirical data, no linear reasoning, that place where I say, I can only say, simply, I believe.

I believe, at root, that life is our highest good and embracing life, growth, and learning is our highest ideal. I believe that whatever advances life, improves life, is an expression of the crystal-glitter quality of being “human,” of that self-awareness, that capacity for love, that reach for hope that separates us from other animals. I believe that which opposes life, which rejects growth, which denies learning, that which advances hunger, oppression, and violence, is a rejection of that quality, a rejection of our humanity. I believe that to be human is to reach for life, for our potential, to reject death and all that advances death, death of the spirit, the if you will soul, as well as death of the body.

I believe in family, a broad, deep sense of family, family as based on commitment, not on ceremonies, as based on ties of the heart, not on ties of the blood. I believe we as human beings, as embracers of life, growth, and learning, are required to reach beyond the personal to the public; beyond self to others; beyond us and them to we; beyond the individual to the community. I believe we have social obligations, moral commitments to a type of extended family that includes even strangers, people who we'll never see, never meet, never have any contact with, but with who we share a mutual obligation, a mutual moral duty, a community that extends even to the community of humanity.

I believe that we must ultimately reject the right of so few to have so much when so many have so little, the power of so few to control so much when so many control so little. I believe in the right of every human being to a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression and in the duty of society, of community, of us, to strive to guarantee that right. I believe that while we should have no desire to place a ceiling over anyone’s aspirations, we are called by our shared humanity to put a floor under everyone’s needs.

I believe, ultimately, in justice: not in perfection or idealized utopias, but in simple human justice, a justice that elevates bread over bombs, public good over private greed, and people over profits. A justice that centers on the preciousness of life and will fight to maintain and expand that preciousness. A full justice, one that embraces the economic, the social, and the political. And finally, I believe in the indivisibility of that justice: It must be justice for “them” as well as for “us,” for enemy the same as for friend, or it’s not justice at all but mere favoritism.

I may sound like a philosopher, but the fact is that what I’m interested in is change: not slogans, not philosophies, but getting-the-job-done type change. That means being hard-nosed, practical, and factual in our programs. It was the Italian pacifist Danilo Dolci who said “Faith does not move mountains. Work, exacting work, moves mountains.”

But when I say “practical,” I don’t mean practical in the sense of the trimmers who, lacking even the minimal courage to stand by the label "liberal" instead falsely claim to be "progressives" while lowering their sights, hardening their hearts, darkening their vision, and then congratulating themselves on their “realism.” No, I mean something different. You know the saying “I dream dreams of things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” What we have to do is dream dreams of things that never were and ask “How?” How? What are the practical steps we can take right now, today? We have to approach the world with steel in our eyes.

But at the same time we can’t let the steel in our eyes cloud the dream in our hearts. We have to hold to the vision of what we as individuals, what we as a community, what we as a people, a nation, can do, what we can be, and not settle, as so many do, for the mere hope that it will get no worse. We have to be, we are called on to be, our humanity requires us to be, steely-eyed dreamers, people who know the hard, factual work to be done but who never for an instant forget just where that work is supposed to take them.

Achieving the sort of wide-ranging justice I envision will not be easy. It will not be cheap. It will not be convenient. But it is possible - and when all is said and done it is simply the right thing, the moral thing, the human thing, to do.

Over the years I've tried to be a steely-eyed dreamer with varying degrees of success; as I said in a different way at the top, usually it was if anything a little long on the steel and a little short on the dream, a position that makes unnecessary compromise a little too easy and risk a little too - well, risky.

I've come to a point in my life when I've begun to slow down; I know it, I can feel it. I haven't spent as much time on the streets as I did in earlier years (nor as much as I'd like to) and my energy level simply isn't what it was. I find it harder to keep my spirits up and many discouraged days I don't regret that I won't live to experience the world I see coming at such times.

But goddam it, despite it all, despite all logic, despite a mountain of evidence, and without any good damn reason, I still believe that things can be, must be, better than they are, that it is possible. I just do. And will. Because - and thank you, Dr. King, for all of it but most of all for the hope - I, too, have a dream. And - although I have come perilously close to doing so on more than one occasion - at the end of the day and to the end of my life I will not give up on it.

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