Doing something a little different today with The Word Wizard. There’s lots of radical ideas, both in the ‘awesome’ definition of the word, and the ‘whoa, that’s way too out there for me’ definition. I’m hoping that, rather than digging our heels in further, we can find some agreement on solving current problems to better the world for future generations. It starts with being honest about our own shortcomings, and the gaps in between ideology and practice.
[Still relevant for presidential elections, Obama vs. Romney, in October 2012…]
“The disenchanted, the disadvantaged, and the disinherited seem, at times of great crisis, to summon up some sort of genius that enables them to perceive and capture the appropriate weapons to carve out their destiny.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait
“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to ensure the rule of law and the rights of man…Those ideals still light up the world, and we [America] will not give them up for expediency’s sake.” –Barack Obama, The Inaugural Address 2009
During his remarkable campaign for President, Barack Obama was positioned as the next Great Man in American political history. He was marketed as an icon, and comparisons to Martin Luther King, Jr. were commonplace. There are certainly many parallels between the political paths of Obama and King: they led sweeping grassroots movements in the face of local and national criticism. They both reflected America’s hope for the possibilities of the future, and both proclaimed a personal dedication to human rights. When Obama clinched the election, he seemed poised to be remembered as the next Token African-American Leader, the historical successor of MLK, Jr.
I canvassed for Obama in the 2008 primaries, and I took part in the wonder and satisfaction of his supporters that November. Nevertheless, I’m very uncomfortable with the possibility of Obama being memorialized as the next Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on his recent policy decisions, Obama has lost his way from the grassroots that elected him and the tradition of civil rights to which we are all indebted.
On top of the record deportations and extrajudicial assassinations, the recently-enacted National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) legalizes indefinite detention without trial and confirms Obama’s abandonment of his principles. He pledged to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within the first year of his presidency, and last week the Gitmo torture facility marked its tenth anniversary. Combined with the NDAA, I am overwhelmed by disgust and rage when I think about how the U.S. treats its prisoners and the audacity of Obama’s political hypocrisy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. earned his spot in history through an unwavering commitment to social justice, even in the face of imminent physical danger. President Obama seems to have forgotten what his leadership embodies: that America’s “security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, and the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”Instead, he set aside his allegiance to ‘the rights of man.’ Instead, he signed into law Bush-era mistakes based on violence, ignorance and xenophobia.
The 99% movement is in desperate need of practical strategy, and I think frustrated, jaded Americans are equally in need of a salve for their political wounds. Until Barack Obama reveals a Snape-style character twist, I don’t think we can rely on him for inspiring leadership. So… let’s just upcycle the reverend doctor’s legacy then, shall we?
Thanks to recording technology, people born after 1968 can still hear King speak. Obama is an outstanding orator himself, but there’s something especially captivating about King’s delivery that Obama’s measured warmth can’t match. Even reading King’s words, his voice jumps off of the page, inviting me to read them aloud, to better understand. His clarity and wisdom soothe my anger, and they remind me of our individual and collective capacity to overcome injustice.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice offers more than just inspiration, and his power goes beyond his well-remembered Dream. In his written works, King offers a pragmatic approach to planning, training, and demonstrating that the Occupy protests have yet to develop. He gives detailed explanations of the decisions and strategies behind coordinating a “nonviolent army.” Even the title of his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, speaks to the core of widespread uncertainty about Occupy’s trajectory. Until biological science catches up with Matt Groening’s imagination, connecting with King’s spoken and written voice is the best way to access his nuanced social insights.
To help my own political recovery, I’ve drafted a post-Obama doctrine of hope. I hope new grassroots organizers adapt King’s strategies to direct 21st century activism. I hope Americans will restore a profound commitment to human rights within U.S. federal policy. I hope my fellow millenials can learn that a campaign does not make a presidency, and a protest does not make a community. I hope the textbooks we write will not remember King and Obama as mere tokens, but will distinguish between them based on the content of their character. I hope Americans who are frustrated, jaded, and skeptical will rediscover their potential to enact social change. At the very least, I hope we can find some better presidential candidates by 2016.
Jargon used by institutional funders can alienate grassroots organizers. After reading an academic article explaining social movements, I wrote this haiku to poke fun at grandiose language.
Injustice! says Marx
This was originally a Facebook note addressed to approximately 30 friends and posted October 8, 2011, three weeks after the start of Occupy Wall Street. To view their comments, please visit the link above.
What do you think about the Occupy movements? I’ve got a lot more mixed feelings than a single post can iterate, and I don’t think I’m the only one. I’m curious to hear your support/criticism/undecided misgivings.
What I’ve been pondering over: Community organizers (and members) work incredibly hard to fight systemic inequalities every day through painstaking mediation, long-term education programs, and legislative lobbying. These undertakings are far more nuanced, and I think challenging, than protesting in the street. Protest, however, has played a crucial role in our country’s political history. Can a movement affect lasting change without unified goals or a decision-making body? Is the act of speaking up more important than having a clear strategy for implementing policy?
If you’ve been tagged in this post, it’s because I value your political opinions and have appreciated your thoughtful input in the past. Comment as you wish, and let’s see if this experiment works.
Originally published in The Daily Nexus, UC Santa Barbara’s official student newspaper, on November 19, 2008.
“Courts Will Right Unjust Laws”
Everywhere I look, people are angry about Prop 8. I’m not entirely sure where it came from. Yes, there is now an amendment to our constitution that defines marriage as only between one man and one woman, but since when did legislation mean the death of an issue? This is the ultimate beauty and frustration of our legislative system: People who disagree with you can also influence the law.
There is no final answer to questions regarding gay marriage, abortion, immigration law, rights of the accused, etc. Do I disagree with changing our state constitution to deny privileges to citizens based on their sexuality? Absolutely. Do I think that people shouting about injustice in the middle of a bike loop is going to change voters’ approval of Prop 8? No way. Why? Election Day happened. Now it’s checks and balances time, when contestations to unfair legislation through appeals to the court system can overturn unjust laws. How freaking cool is that?
Maybe it’s just ’cause I have a nerdy crush on the law, but I think my excitement about law working in favor of traditionally disadvantaged identities – like people who have alternative sexualities – comes from spending the summer reading the thoroughly racist, sexist, xenophobic language in the last 150 years of U.S. Supreme Court rulings and realizing that, holy shit, we’re making progress. How so? Because the California Supreme Court decided on May 16, 2008 that “an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual’s sexual orientation.” Also, “An individual’s sexual orientation — like a person’s race or gender — does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.” This from the court that will be presiding over the cases challenging Prop 8. It’s pretty damn exciting. Even with judges like this, however, the debate will not be over.
The law does not create social change. It can help, it can coerce and it can even be a firm “shut the hell up” to certain oppressive forms of expression, but legal battles do nothing to solve the struggles of individuals who live in fear of violence because of who they are. By fostering a discussion – not a screaming match – with people who disagree with us, we can hopefully break up the back-and-forth struggle and raise awareness about the real dangers of homophobic thinking.
But erasing stereotypes around sexuality also involves individual choices to stop demonizing the opponent. Not everyone who voted for Prop 8 is an ignorant gay-bashing lunatic, but those are the images we’ve been presented. And those who support gay rights need to be aware of the image being given to the other side. Are we concerned citizens, earnestly trying to promote equality and recognize committed, loving interpersonal relationships? Or have we merely joined the fray, determined-to-be-proven right?
Public assembly in the form of protest has been an integral part of social change in this country, but method matters. The greatest advantage of gathering to protest Prop 8 is the political pressure it puts on the California Supreme Court through sheer numerical representation. By all means, get out there and support the people you know and love who want to get married and are presently not able to do so. But please, keep in mind that the back-and-forth about ‘moral’ issues is not softened by one-liner reactionary slogans. In terms of social injustice, we have come a very long way from where we were, but it is essential to recognize what goes into the process of social change. We must start by listening to those who disagree with us, understanding their position and acknowledging their concerns while respectfully offering our own.