I wasn't sure I had a lot to say about Haiti that has not already been said — many times, elsewhere, better, less vociferously even — but I think I might have a few things to say about MLK.
In past years on this day, I noted that back in grade school, when we first got told about the bus protests and sit-ins, the thing that stayed with me most consistently was the photos of King being arrested, hustled into the van, and booked. Here's a man who is now a national hero, and yet in his time he had been thrown in jail. Contradiction?
That taught me several things from a young age.
- Things do change. The man we once threw in jail can be our hero. The change is not always within the span of our own lifetime, and not always outwardly, which is why it seems so distant and frustrating. As Barrows Dunham said: "Can we reach the goal [of a better world]? Well, maybe not you and I, who are aging under the strains of the present world. Our best hope will be to move Leviathan a little, so that our children and their children can being to see the dawn."
- They do not, however, change automatically.
- The effort required to make those changes comes with risk.
- The risk involved in taking those efforts must be carefully considered, so that you are not, for instance, inadvertently spreading that risk to others. This is something that seems to have been lost on, say, the WTO protesters who smashed shop windows in Seattle. (One person I know was of the opinion that such things did more real, palpable economic damage to the city than any of the free-trade agreements under discussion.)
The problem with most social disobedience after MLK is that it assumes the form, but not the content — and sometimes not even the form. Principled dissent is difficult, partly because it's easy for the work you do to get drowned out in favor of other, cheaper, lesser protests. It becomes tempting to adopt the same shrill voice for the sake of stealing some badly-needed (or maybe just -craved) attention.
I admired King not just for what he did, but the way he insisted that it be done with skeptical attention towards motives and end results. It has become all the harder to do that, not just because the temptations to stray are greater but because the goals themselves are all the muddier. If you want to "make change", doesn't it make sense to simply seize some power first? How else is change brought on? The problem, of course, is that once you have power of some kind it is easy to stop asking yourself what you're trying to do and why, and simply plunge headlong down the slope. You become everything you were fighting, and maybe never realize it.
Dunham, by the way, knew a thing or two as well about principled dissent. He wrote the above-quoted Man Against Myth in 1947, lost his position at Temple in 1963 for refusing to finger others in front of the HUAC, and died in 1995 at the age of ninety — more than long enough to witness King declare that his eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. All his books save Myth are out of print; few people even know his name. I know I won't forget it, and I will savor it a good deal longer than, say, Noam Chomsky's.