Sunday, April 13, 2008

Attacks on Obama as "Elitist" Replay Old Script that Seeks to Silence the "Uppity Black Man":

Lessons for Response from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (April 16, 1963)

“I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail")

The now raging debate over the decontextualized posting of Obama's words regarding the "bitterness" of American voters who have seen their jobs, their sources of livelihood, and their way of life continually chipped away over the last decade of Republican rule is amazing on several counts.

This media frenzy over a snippet of decontextualized words is amazing for the way it demonstrates how the politics of this campaign--even as the pundits claim they would like to begin a national "conversation about race"--can be so easily manipulated and framed by the worst kinds of media misrepresentation and pandering (by some unethical bloggers, followed by most of the media) to time-worn racialized cliches that would attempt to put the "uppity black man" back in his place for daring to critique the status quo of power and economic relations in this country.

This debate over a few decontextualized words is also amazing for the way it has helped to distract media coverage of the campaign away from the kind of substantive critique of Republican policies and their impacts on everyday people that is at the heart of Obama's campaign. This criticism of Republican policies and their bitter impact on the lives of everyday Americans was the basic context of the Obama conversation, which has now been completely silenced by the media distraction created by the unethical posting of a blogger who, without the knowledge of Obama, recorded and posted Obama’s conversation. And this blogger defends her right to do this by claiming she is a citizen-journalist, as if this label somehow frees her from the common decency and ethics that govern the behavior of other professional journalists.

This whole incident seems to have been perfectly designed to distract public debate and attention from precisely the criticisms of Republican policy that have been making the lives of many Americans so bitter over the last years. Obama has been focusing attention on the need to attack the sources of bitter impoverishment and injustice that many Americans in cities and small towns and rural areas across the country are suffering as a result of the policies of several decades that have neglected the economic interests of the vast majority of Americans in favor of the interests of the millionaires of the country!

And now, behold, we have a media spectacle that seems to have been created to suggest exactly the opposite: that Obama is an elitist who has no concern for, or understanding of, the things that have been causing Americans to suffer over the last decade. Thus does the manufactured spectacle of media coverage attempt to convert the one Presidential candidate with a background as community organizer and advocate for everyday people into an elitist. And who, we may ask, are the ones who are most likely to benefit from such distortions of the truth?

In order to deflate such manufactured distortions of reality, it would be nice if bloggers and the media would take up the challenge of serving their proper critical function in a democracy, by drawing the attention of the public back to what is really at stake in the current political campaign and this new incident of distortion. One excellent way of doing this would be to recall the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in response to similar attempts to silence and distort his message of change. King refused to be silent when he was criticized for daring to challenge the negative aspects of American reality that kept all Americans from realizing the Dream of American possibility. And King was called not simply an elitist, but an “extremist,” for advocating his message of change.

In 1963, when Dr. King was confronted by an organized group of mostly white church leaders who questioned the validity and wisdom of his nonviolent tactics for confronting racial segregation head-on in Birmingham, Alabama, King responded with his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (April 16, 1963). As we approach the 45th anniversary of this inspiring letter, we should note how it continues to ring with words and ideas prophetically relevant to any true attempt to begin a "national conversation on race."

Dr. King's Birmingham letter also reminds us how representatives of the status quo naturally seek to disguise their attempts to silence challenges to their power by representing themselves as defenders of tradition and “the people” against unwise, elitist and even extremist “outsiders” who would dare to criticize the present order of things.

King provided a clear and direct response to those who suggested that leaders of the civil rights movement were unpatriotic because they criticized the current structures of power and poverty in the country. King’s response provides a telling lesson for all who would today try to label Obama an “elitist” because he dares to suggest that the current structures of economic policy, power, and privilege are bringing bitterness to the lives of many Americans across the country (not just in Pennsylvania and Indiana).

Is it any surprise that Obama should be attacked by millionaires as an elitist at the very moment when it is becoming clear that his critical message of change is connecting with a majority of Americans?! Is it any surprise that Obama should be attacked as an elitist when it has become clear that his campaign consistently refuses to say that hard-working Americans should be asked to “wait” any longer to have their concerns and interests addressed?!

If the media really wants to contribute light rather than distracting heat to debates over what truly differentiates the presidential candidates, we challenge the media and other bloggers to draw attention to the exemplary power and lessons of King’s words for this year’s campaign. We challenge the media to use King’s words to draw attention to the real substance of what is at stake in the current election: Which candidate will be successful at redefining the character of this country? Which candidate will provide the kind of inspiration that will allow us to lead this country to a democratic future of well-being for all people?

King begins his letter by noting that his approach to change was being criticized by white church leaders as “unwise and untimely,” while he was also being painted as an “outsider coming in.” Critiques of King suggested he was not simply an “outsider,” but a very educated, well-spoken, and eloquent “outsider”—and attacked him as, in essence, a black “elitist” coming into a city like Birmingham to challenge and change the unjust structures of white power. Instead of responding directly to King’s challenge, white church leaders tried to change the subject by accusing King of being an unwise outsider who had no business involving himself in efforts to change the status quo.

This was the basic strategy of attacks directed at the entire civil rights movement throughout its insurgent history. And this remains the distracting strategy of many in power who wish to retain it by resisting change, as King noted: “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

In writing these words, King no doubt had in his mind the words of another deeply eloquent black civil rights and antislavery leader from the nineteenth century: In 1857, before the bloody Civil War finally abolished slavery and won a partial victory for African-American civil rights, Frederick Douglass spoke words that remain as true today as they have ever been (and I’m sure Douglass was also called an elitist for daring to criticize the system of slavery and the structures of national power that supported it):

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

In the great and eloquent tradition of Douglass and the long African-American struggle for civil rights that came after him (and made King’s struggle possible), King’s response to those who would have silenced him embodied the greatness of this critical tradition of struggle, while also referencing some of the greatest wisdom from the mid-twentieth century. Without any access to books, he filled his letter from jail with references not only to the Bible and the prophets and civil rights leaders of the past, but to some of the greatest theologians and thinkers of his own era, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the poet T.S. Eliot--

And King’s response to the basic claim that he was an outsider who had no business interfering with the way of things in Birmingham was cuttingly direct in order to slice through the obfuscation of attempts to divert attention from the central issue of INJUSTICE—

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . . Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Certainly this passage from King is more relevant to understanding what is truly at stake in attempts to paint Obama as an “elitist” today: Building on prior attempts to paint Obama as an outsider with foreign roots, a strange name, and to suggest he has an “extremist” background (through tactics of excerpting decontextualized snippets of speeches from his pastor), the Clinton campaign (and then the McCain campaign, which has been delighted to follow the Clinton lead on these attacks) has avoided any mention of its privileged background (the Clintons were both educated at elite ivy league schools, and have millionaire incomes) in order to try to paint Obama as an elitist!

Instead of blindly reiterating whatever the Clinton and McCain campaigns might like to say about Obama, is it too much to hope that the media could be a bit more creative and actually develop its own critical perspective on what is happening with this manufactured and staged debate? And perhaps both the media and the Obama campaign could learn some important lessons from looking carefully at the way King responded to attempts to silence him:

1) Instead of allowing those who accused him of being unpatriotic or “extremist” to deflect him from offering direct criticisms of his country’s unjust policies, King transformed attempts to silence him into opportunities to further his critical message:

“I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

2) To calls for him and the civil rights movement to wait or slow down its push for change, King replied: For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ …This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.”

3) And to the charge that Obama should silence any references to the “bitterness” of the experience of poverty and deprivation caused in this country by the unwise and unjust policies of the past, perhaps we can all learn something especially important from the way King responded--

Instead of turning away from such criticisms, King emphasized how the bitter experience of his “brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society,” along with the sense that “you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’," made it impossible for the civil rights movement to wait any longer. “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.” Instead of cooling his criticisms in response to such attacks upon him, King used his Birmingham letter to insist on the movement’s “legitimate and unavoidable impatience,” and the justice of its calls for immediate change:

In emphasizing the immediate necessity of the movement for change, King was not addressing this letter to the racists of the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizen’s Council, but to the “white moderates” who by their inaction in the face of injustice showed that they were “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” King argued that moderate whites who preferred “a negative peace [in] the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” had become a “great stumbling block” to the struggle for freedom.

King criticized moderates for believing that they could “paternalistically . . . set the timetable for another man's freedom,” and for living “by a mythical concept of time” that fundamentally misrepresented the relationship between social struggle and social change. This passage from King’s 1963 letter is worth quoting in its entirety because of its direct relevance to the campaign debates of 2008:

“I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: ‘All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.’ Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

“We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

4) And to the accusation that he, Rev. King, was an extremist, he replied:

“Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not [the prophet] Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ …So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? …Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

“I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

This was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963! So if you want to attack Rev. Wright for being extremist for his criticisms of the unjust policies of the United States, you will have to attack Reverend King as well! And we must ask of all Americans, “Do you hear your own prophets, O America?! Do you understand the words of your own Declaration of Independence?!

And lest the media think that opening up a “conversation about race” can be an easy thing accomplished in a 90-minute episode of MSNBC, we should pay attention again to the words from Dr. King’s 1963 letter:

“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

In 1963 King excoriated the lack of courage of the majority of the religious status quo, for failing to actively support the freedom and anti-poverty struggles:

“When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church… Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

“In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. …. [But instead] So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.”

But King did not end his letter from the Birmingham Jail on a note of despair. He always tried to frame his critiques within his greater message of creative challenge and critical hope. And this hope was not an unfounded hope because it was based in the history and example of the entire tradition of African-American struggle, perseverance, and victory in the face of the cruelest adversity:

“One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

May we all hope that in 2008, as this campaign progresses toward the November election, that the media will help the candidates and all of us to focus ever more directly on the real issues facing this country and the world: the threats of global warming and the savage inequalities caused by the persistent structures of poverty and war, and the dire need for change in policies that continue to reproduce structures of power so detrimental to the well-being of all humanity.

And may we hope that the media will live up to the democratic challenge of holding themselves and our candidates accountable for addressing these real issues in the campaign? Or should we give up hope and expect that the media will only continue to provide aid and comfort to the structures of power that prefer to manufacture superficial controversies in order to distract us from confronting the real issues of power that will determine the future of us all?


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