“A nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Strength to Love
By Jim Miller
A few years ago, I made use of this space on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to discuss my favorite speech of his, “Where Do We Go From Here?” and ponder its relevance to the present:
When dealing with the issue of poverty, King notes that, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” For Dr. King, this meant looking at the entire society and asking questions about “the economic system [and] the broader distribution of wealth.” It meant thinking about “the restructuring of the whole of American society.”
Coming to terms with accusations of communism in the midst of the Cold War, he was blunt: “I’m not talking about communism. What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
King then ended his speech with a stirring call to move forward with a “divine dissatisfaction”:
So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.” Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
What King is doing here is challenging us to think beyond the stale duality of the Cold War—Stalinism versus Capitalism–-because the American religion of anti-communism makes it nearly impossible to seriously talk about economic inequality without being red-baited. Ironically, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin wall, the American right has managed to translate Cold War anti-communism into a radical embrace of the free market that questions the very value of government, period. Even the most benign reformist measures are assailed as the rebirth of the Soviet Empire in some circles.
If we can leave this pervasive stupidity behind for a moment, however, what King’s words challenge us to do today is think beyond the neoliberal economic dogma that asserts that the market can solve all problems. If there is a radicalism afoot today, it is these ideas—that all public institutions are suspect, that taxes are inherently evil, and that business models and yet more privatization can solve everything from how to educate our children to how to treat patients in the hospital.
If we are afraid to say this, we may as well pack up and go home. As long as the game is played on neoliberal turf, ordinary folks will lose. Our standard of living will continue to decline, the gap between the rich and the poor will grow, and our politics will become less and less democratic as corporate money floods into the pockets of the politicians on both sides of the aisle. The road we are currently on leads to a dead-end. Thinking that we can outwit the right by repositioning ourselves on their playing field is a fool’s errand.
Today we are at that dead-end with Trump’s administration full of revanchist billionaires, right-wing demagogues, and military strongmen representing the triumph of market fundamentalism married to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and authoritarian militarism. Simply put, in Trump Nation, King’s “triple evils” are akin to the holy trinity.
They mean us real ill and we are in for a hell of a fight.
But as last week’s vote on Bernie Sanders’ effort to lower prescription drug prices in order to soften the blow of the Republicans’ impending gutting of the Affordable Care Act illustrated, there are still too many Democrats in the pockets of corporate interests who aren’t ready for the long struggle ahead. Indeed, all 13 Democratic Senators who joined with the majority of the Republican wrecking crew to kill Sanders’ amendment had received lots of cash from Big Pharma. This stood in stark contrast to the ruthless efficiency with which the Republicans set the stage to dismantle Obama’s signature program, putting 20 million Americans at risk of losing their health care before he was even formally out of office.
What this shows is that we cannot continue to count on the political system as it is currently constituted to turn the tide against the radical rush toward permanent oligarchy with all its attendant costs that we are already witnessing. We don’t need to find the right Democratic leader to save us, we need to, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., start a movement aimed at restructuring the whole of American society and reinvigorating our democracy.
This means coming to terms with the fact that fighting the triple evils that King cited requires us to get out of our single-issue silos and see how the whole menu of social justice causes intersect rather than insisting that one is more important than the other. In the “beloved community” everyone’s voice and issues matter.
Finally, what King’s legacy suggests, more than anything else, is that the struggle against unjust power is a moral struggle. At present, we have no real institutional power and no significant formal means with which to resist. But when we stand against the politics of greed, destruction, and division, we have moral power. We have the power to say NO in the most uncompromising fashion we can muster.
And our refusal should be based on an unrelenting opposition to a regime that is morally bankrupt rather than on mere partisanship. To save what we love, we first must say no to the forces of hate and to those who would compromise with them. This will require clarity of vision, but with that it should not be hard to maintain our sense of “divine dissatisfaction,” be steadfast in our refusal, and keep pounding away at the bastions of corrupt power with the battering rams of the forces of justice.