Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Fierce Urgency of Now

Yesterday, the forty-second anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, various commentators focused on one of his lesser known speeches. That speech was delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City; and it made him a pariah among the movers and shakers of his time. In the speech, King voiced his opposition to the War in Vietnam. His reasons were many. But, taken together, they added up to the fact that the war was an affront to justice. Admitting that truth, however, was not easy. "Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth," King said,

men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

The war was also an affront to King's faith in non-violence. But, more than that, it was "devastating the hopes of the poor at home" by transferring the resources that were originally targeted for the "war on poverty" to the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Citing a recently released report, "State of the Dream 2010: Drained," from the group United for a Fair Economy, Bill Moyers on Friday drew his viewers' attention to this sentence: "The Great Recession has pulled the plug on communities of color, draining jobs and homes at alarming rates while exacerbating persistent inequalities of wealth and income." Despite the election of Barack Obama, not much has changed for the people whose concerns King championed. "We are at a perilous moment," Moyers said:

The individualist, greed driven free market ideology that both our major parties have pursued is at odds with what most Americans really care about. Popular support for either party has struck bottom, as more and more agree that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power, that money in politics has corrupted our system, and that working families and poor communities need and deserve help because the free market has failed to generate shared prosperity -- its famous unseen hand has become a closed fist.

A year to the day after King delivered his Riverside speech, he was assassinated. He knew that anger was brewing in the ghettos of the country. It erupted after that rifle bullet ended his life. That was why he warned his audience that "tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now." That was also why Americans had to choose wisely. "The choice is ours," he said, "and, though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment in history."

The Vietnam War has come and gone; and it is now generally acknowledged to have been a colossal mistake. Like the financial meltdown, from which we are now emerging, it was the consequence of monumental arrogance and stupidity. But the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised remains the same -- in the United States and around the world. Once again we live at a crucial moment in history. King was a man for all seasons. Forty-two years after his death, he still asks us to choose justice.


muckraker said...

You often conclude your observations about the world's social or political ills by referring to the need for justice. This week's blog was no exception. Yet I've never known you to define the term "justice" in any meaningful way.

Surely it's not simply giving groups of people what they want, for example, or punishing those who do wrong.

What is your understanding of "justice", exactly?

Owen Gray said...

You've put me on the spot. It seems to me that justice has something to do with giving people what they deserve.

At a fundamental level, by virtue of their humanity, people deserve certain individual rights -- the right to speak, the right to assemble, the right to choose.

These rights are not boundless. As the old saw goes, the freedom to speak does not give one leave to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre.

There are other social rights -- to education, to economic opportunity and to health care.

Finally, there is the right to equal treatment. This is the most contentious of rights, because what one person sees as fair may be perceived as an imposition by someone else.

But the golden rule still applies:"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Anonymous said...

Please, lets not define justice definitively—at least not until I graduate and am comfortably tenured.

When it comes to justice, I tend to go with Kant’s “supreme principle of morality,” the categorical imperative. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (4:421). An action is unjust if the maxim of your action contradicts the universalized version of it.

This is why Kant thought that a lie is always wrong, however “right” your purpose may be. The problem is not that the world would be a horrible place if everyone lied. For Kant, the problem is that, in willing a lie, you also will that everyone else tell the truth—otherwise, your lie wouldn’t work. A lie will only further your end if everyone believes that people are truthful, at least for the most part.

Of course, what the Categorical Imperative means in particular cases, or from the point of view of particular policies, gets very complicated. One principle that can be derived is “the golden rule” (4:430, footnote). Though I’m particularly fond of the way Kant expresses this principle in his definition of arrogance:

Arrogance (superbia and, as this word expresses it, the desire to be always on top) is a kind of ambition (ambitio) in which we demand that others think little of themselves in comparison with us. It is, therefore, a vice opposed to the respect that every human being can lawfully claim. […] for arrogance demands from others a respect it denies them” (6:465).

So, to consider last week’s blog, the Tea Partiers shouting “Take our country back!” are not merely “standing ‘athwart history yelling STOP.’” They are also declaring that the country has been taken from them; that the country is properly theirs, that the country does not belong, or does not belong equally, to the other Americans (over 50% if measured by the last election) who voted for Obama and the Democrats. They are declaring their dissatisfaction with their electoral system—not in general, but only in cases when it produces results they disagree with. They are demanding a respect from others while simultaneously denying them that same respect.

And the only way one can justly demand and fight for this respect is to simultaneously accord it to one’s enemies. King seems to have been engaged in that sort of fight.


Owen Gray said...

I very much like your idea that justice means granting people the respect they deserve.

Of course, as King knew only too well, some people measure success -- economic, social, religious -- by the amount of distance they can put between themselves and others.

And one can only gain respect for someone if one has the capacity to -- as Atticus Finch told his daughter Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird -- "get inside someone else's skin and walk around in it."

Zero said...

These are time-worn notions of justice: the "Golden Rule", mutual respect, Kant's Categorical Imperative, and so on. They are so much alike! Who could argue with them as workable principles of justice?

One might pursue the definition of justice just a bit further to suggest that acts of justice, if they are to be considered more than political correctness or simple conformity, should be grounded in our private willingness to recognize that the same invisible spark of Creation present in us is also present in others - in no greater portions than in us, but in no lesser, either - regardless of our race, politics, education, social standing, or any other of the visible things by which we conveniently judge one another's worth.

But how does one apply any of these principles to the injustices which you point out?

Even if it really is an issue of "fierce urgency", as you claim, the issue of greed is not something which can be addressed by Congress or by any other government or organization. Dealing with greed is not like ending an unjust war or passing the civil rights legislation of the 60's. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights bill made for clear choices: either people were for or against them. How wonderful it would be if greed or excessive ambition could be relegated to the dust bin by an "up" or "down" vote!

What sweeping recommendation would Doctor King make if he were alive today? Short of urging a Marxist takeover of the American government, I can't imagine what he might say.

It's well enough to issue the clarion call of "now", but in this case, I fear we'll be living with the "fiery urgency of now" for a while yet - and given my view of human nature, we'll likely be living with it for a very long time indeed.

Owen Gray said...

Governments can change laws, like the old laws we used to call Jim Crowe.

But, as the recent racial slurs which were thrown at black congressmen and women make clear, governments can't change human hearts.

Justice demands a change of heart -- and that begins with a change in perspective. It demands the kind of change which allowed King, in his speech, to look at American actions through the eyes of the North Vietnamese.

He was getting inside a Vietnamese skin and walking around in it.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying we all should just do nothing but think beautiful thoughts about other people? and everything'll turn out the way it should be? I mean like a world where everybody's nice to everybody else? No poor people in it? No hate nor bad names if you know what I mean?

Just thinking of good things like how we shouldn't disrespect black people doesn't sound like doing anything much to me. It sounds foney. I thought there was an emergency to change a lot of things quick, or is that wrong? That things don't need to be changed too fast, I mean?

ChrisJ said...

Zero is right that we cannot legislate the end to greed and ambition by vote, but we can mitigate their effects through legislation.

We could make law with teeth to protect workers from the effects of corporate greed or investors from same.

I believe that we cannot change the hearts of some, but education does work to a degree. We have to keep trying, and that is what MLK would do.

Owen Gray said...

We are always faced with the problem of what we -- complete with our imperfections -- can do in an imperfect world.

I think it was Thornton Wilder who wrote, "Every child born into the world is Nature's attempt to make a perfect human being."

Nature hasn't succeeded yet. But that hasn't stopped the effort.

King knew that he lived in a fallen world. But that realization did not deter him. As Chris says, it convinced him that the task of building a just society became more urgent with each passing day.

ChrisJ said...

Owen, There is an award for you on my blog. I'm passing on one to blogs I think are especially worthwhile.


Owen Gray said...

Thanks very much for the recognition, Chris. I've been pleased with the quality of comments which readers have been offering lately.

You, as always, have insightful things to say -- not only as comments, but on your own blog. I hope that my readers are finding their way to your site.

Gaianicity said...

We live at a time where legalism often replaces and eclipses justice.

As far as Dr. King's 'controversial'anti-war sentiments are concerned, it always baffles me that people believe and enthusiastically support the idea that war can lead to peace. That is like arguing that hatred leads to love--an equally foolish notion.

The way to peace is by being peace. The way to "justice" is by being just. The denial of our individual responsibility to act peacefully and justly, prevents us to becoming response able.

By concentrating on past wrongs or future fears, we have no time for the fierce urgency of now and deny King's great vision: "I have seen the promised land."

Hollow men do not see that we are surrounded by miracles, if only we had eyes to see.

Owen Gray said...

If only we had eyes to see. King -- like his mentor, Ghandi -- knew that what seemed impossible, that is, that one day the British would walk out of India, was no vain hope.

He saw what others refused to see.