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Beyond Viet Nam - April 4, 1967
January 15, 2007 10:29 AM   Subscribe

A year to the day before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered this speech at Riverside Church, New York City. In the last years of his life, King moved beyond anti-segregation activism to a broader indictment of American class structure and foreign policy. This is The Martin Luther King You Don't See on TV.
posted by Mister_A (56 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
The linked article is 12 years old, but it was news to me. Also, here's the I Have a Dream speech, surely a double, but it's beautiful.
posted by Mister_A at 10:30 AM on January 15, 2007


Fascinating. Thank you.
posted by loquacious at 10:42 AM on January 15, 2007


When I was little, my parents used to tell me, "They didn't kill him until he talked about class equality." And to think their hippy paranoid delusions actually were right.
posted by Gucky at 10:50 AM on January 15, 2007


I feel like a jerk for not being aware of this. I have even and way more respect for MLK now then I did before.
posted by Alex404 at 10:56 AM on January 15, 2007


Interesting , let me pick and choose some point
We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
That's some darn truth , can't win without first conquering unrestricted obsessive desire for more.
posted by elpapacito at 10:58 AM on January 15, 2007


now that's class warfare.

I read that speech a long time ago, but only heard a piece of it in the last couple of year on Unfiltered, I believe (maybe the Rachel Maddow show). Powerful, powerful stuff.

and it is a shame how wonderfully encapsulated they've made MLK.
posted by Busithoth at 11:03 AM on January 15, 2007


Thanks! What a great American--we still have a lot to learn from him.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail is my favorite thing of his--and Pam has a great thing on him and those of us fighting for rights now

... Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an 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. ...



(John Edwards spoke at Riverside today too, on the anniversary--about Iraq and injustice and about not keeping silent)
posted by amberglow at 11:03 AM on January 15, 2007


Surprised that FAIR piece leaves out King's statement that in order for the U.S. to achieve real equality it would have to "adopt a modified form of socialism."
posted by mediareport at 11:05 AM on January 15, 2007


While we're on the topic, Helen Keller was also socialist.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:06 AM on January 15, 2007


I did know about this but am glad for the post. Thanks.

Martin Luther King giving his I have a Dream speech on YouTube.
posted by nickyskye at 11:08 AM on January 15, 2007


from King's speech and completely important today (just substitute Iraq for Vietnam and "enemy"): ...Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
...
For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. ...

posted by amberglow at 11:08 AM on January 15, 2007


I linked to that speech in this thread, it's good to see a post about it.
Here's a few more links which reveal how misrepresented MLK usually is in the modern classroom.
And don't forget how the white supremacists of stormfront nabbed martinlutherking.org, apparently to screw with eighth grade kids' assignments. Classy, eh?
posted by eparchos at 11:10 AM on January 15, 2007


In short, Kdikng was very much on the target bujt the medfia ignored this because they are part and parcel of corporate America. King was loved in the South because he advocated passive resistance but his fellow black, Malcolm X had a message that could work only in the North--stand tall and take no crap. Malcolm would not have gotten anywhere with passive resistance in the North or South and MLK would not have gotten anywhere with passive resistence (no legal segregation0 in the North.

Now as to empire, economics, needs beyond legal right--King was right. What he said about Viet Nam we are now saying about Iraq
posted by Postroad at 11:22 AM on January 15, 2007


Public Defender has a roundup of legal blogs on King--Welcome to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Blawg Review--many many great links on all current issues
posted by amberglow at 11:32 AM on January 15, 2007


From the speech at Riverside Church:

"A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift, is approaching spiritual death."

Amen.
posted by amyms at 11:40 AM on January 15, 2007


I've never been much for hero worship, but for as long as I can remember Dr. King and Muhammad Ali have been my Superman and Spiderman- two true examples of speaking truth to power.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:45 AM on January 15, 2007


I heard this part of the speech on WBAI this morning: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by caddis at 11:45 AM on January 15, 2007


MLK had such beauty and eloquence when he spoke. But most importantly, his passion for the well being of others in the world really had a chance to shine. His ideas and observations are timeless and I can only hope that he realized in his lifetime what a truly great and respected man he was, and still is, today.


.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 11:56 AM on January 15, 2007


Holy foxy moxie batman!:
His ideas and observations are timeless

This is a very nice sentiment, but I have to disagree. It was certainly not Dr. King's hope that his ideas would be timeless, but that they would be timely -- that a better age, a different world would look back on them as relics of a past that was far worse. No observation is timeless, and the best way to honor Dr. King's fine words and sentiments would be to render them obsolete by making a more just world.
posted by graymouser at 12:04 PM on January 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


But our world is not by any means close to just. Many of the things he spoke about are still applicable to the world today. I agree, it was not Dr. King's hope that his ideas were timeless, and it is too bad that the world still exists in a similar form to his not to distant past. However it's nice that we can still hear the words of such a great man and the power is still there. As new generations progress, perhaps they will glean something from his words and take it to heart, and over time, the world that we know now will not be recognizable in the future.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 12:16 PM on January 15, 2007


I agree wholeheartedly; I just wanted to point out that a truly great speech like Dr. King's should not be relevant forty years on. (And I hope that it doesn't take generation after generation to get there.)
posted by graymouser at 12:21 PM on January 15, 2007


I guess what I was trying to say is that his words and thoughts are timeless because they will never go out of style so to speak. Equality and civil rights are something that will ALWAYS be important. No one is going to look at the world 100 years from now and say, “All the talk about equality; how disillusioned were those people thinking that was important.” Perhaps I shouldn’t say his words were timeless, perhaps I should say what he was fighting for is a timeless idea. It will always be important and it will always be relevant. Even when the day comes that we have what we were fighting for, chances are, there will be someone that will try to take it away again.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 12:26 PM on January 15, 2007


Wow, reading that last line I wrote, I sound like a pretty jaded individual.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 12:26 PM on January 15, 2007


Just heard this on NPR. Very moving. And very controversial... even by today's standards.

You could hear that even he felt his days were numbered. It's eerie, and so so sad, knowing he was killed two days later.

In a world seething with ignorance and hate there was not much King could do to stop somebody from getting to him and he knew it. And you can hear from the certainty of his own mortality his words drew real power.

We are missing that kind of selfless passion today. That "Fuck you I DARE you to shoot me" attitude. I can't think of a single leader today that comes out and really says the truth without worrying about their career and personal standing.


DERAIL: This is one reason why I feel the POTUS should only get minimal Secret Service protection.

You will only attract people willing to die for their principles. Not only that you avoid the rock-star "Generalissimo" effect where the executive is sequestered behind bunkers constantly - out of touch and treated like Aristocracy.

The POTUS SHOULD be nearly as "exposed" to the reality of his policies as the rest of us. We should be DARING our enemies to shoot the executive. We shouldn't give two shits about that. If the POTUS gets offed? Who cares? It shouldn't cripple the country. After all he is JUST another citizen, right? We got millions of citizens. Any of us should be able to step in there. It shouldn't be any bigger deal than setting up a new cubicle and lap top and moving a the next guy in there. Ideally speaking.
posted by tkchrist at 12:32 PM on January 15, 2007


I would suck as president.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:38 PM on January 15, 2007


tkchrist, that is the stupidest thing I have seen all day.
posted by caddis at 12:39 PM on January 15, 2007


tkchrist, that is the stupidest thing I have seen all day.

You look in mirror yet?
posted by tkchrist at 12:41 PM on January 15, 2007


good comeback
posted by caddis at 12:43 PM on January 15, 2007


good comeback

Yeah. You should have said "read." But then I would have said "Oh. So you must not be dotting the "i"s on your CV today."

Or. You COULD have said:

"While I agree many of leaders are out of touch and perhaps we have created something of a plutocracy, in light of the tragic assassination of Dr. King, inviting more violence on our leaders may not be the best solution. Rather encouraging tolerance and purging our existing institutions of their present corruptions would be a better focus of our energies."

Or something like that. But you went more for the "I'm gonna be a real insulting prick" treatment.
posted by tkchrist at 12:52 PM on January 15, 2007


Well, CBS thought it would be great to post a craptacular opinion piece by an author from the National Review (!!), which tells us that King can be embraced my conservatives, because there are a few parts of what he said that can be twisted to fit the modern Republican conservative world-view, and by cherry-picking those, Republicans can co-opt the King message. Oh, and Leftists have co-opted the true color-blind and altruistic nature of King, and that we would think him a dangerous theocrat. Really, conservatives are the true heirs of the King legacy, because Leftists are relativists and religion-haters, and favor affirmative action.

Yup, CBS posted this shit, today.

The Civil Rights movement did a lot to ameliorate the disgusting situation in the South. But holy smokes do we have long, long way to go.
posted by teece at 12:53 PM on January 15, 2007


Oops, the CBS pundit piece.
posted by teece at 12:55 PM on January 15, 2007


So Teece you obviously would have loved Linda Chavez (the so called chair of the "Center for Equal Opportunity") on To the Point. Though Warren Olney was good at calling her to the carpet - so it was not as one sided as a editorial.
posted by tkchrist at 1:00 PM on January 15, 2007


teece: there are a few parts of what he said that can be twisted to fit the modern Republican conservative world-view, and by cherry-picking those, Republicans can co-opt the King message.

As Mister_A's post makes clear, there are parts of King's philosophy with which most of today's conservatives would disagree. However, it is hardly cherry-picking to identify the following as key characteristics of King's approach:

1. emphasis on individual rights as justification for racial colourblindness
2. a universalist moral view informed by divine and natural law
3. rhetoric infused with religious sensibility and symbolism

These things were not mere window dressing on MLK's message, and they are all, to varying degrees, things that many contemporary leftists tend to have problems with.

This is not to support the appropriation of King for the right, or the left. He was a great and complex man, like Lincoln, who defies petty, partisan categories -- and he only really speaks to us when we rise above them as well.
posted by Urban Hermit at 1:13 PM on January 15, 2007


The one, true, and only great tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is here.

(Begging your pardon in advance, as I posted this late last night. Flame away if you must, but it just didn't get the attention I thought it deserved. And I can't wait another 365 days to bring it up again.)
posted by Kibbutz at 1:15 PM on January 15, 2007


"We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

They had computers in 1967? Wow, who'da thunk it.
posted by tehloki at 1:19 PM on January 15, 2007


Urban Hermit:
During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it. - V.I. Lenin
Now, you might not much care for Lenin (who was talking here about Marx), and while I would stop short of calling Dr. King a "revolutionary," the conservative who hails King today is doing the same thing that the German conservatives were doing at the time to Karl Marx. And their theoretical forbears were also savage to King, down to the point of his actual death. The content of King's last three years was more radical than most Democrats, much less Republicans, are comfortable with these days. And conservatives shouldn't be allowed to cover it up with a plastic Dr. King icon.
posted by graymouser at 1:24 PM on January 15, 2007


Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution--... This is why I felt the need of raising my voice against that war and working wherever I can to arouse the conscience of our nation on it. I remember so well when I first took a stand against the war in Vietnam. The critics took me on and they had their say in the most negative and sometimes most vicious way.

One day a newsman came to me and said, "Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?" I looked at him and I had to say, "Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion." Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "We ain’t goin’ study war no more." This is the challenge facing modern man. ...

posted by amberglow at 1:44 PM on January 15, 2007


1967: Although some activists and newspapers supported King's statement, most responded with criticism. King's civil rights colleagues began to disassociate themselves with his radical stance and the NAACP issued a statement against merging the civil rights movement and peace movement. King remained undeterred, stating that he was not fusing the civil rights and peace movements, as many had suggested.
posted by amberglow at 1:48 PM on January 15, 2007


graymouser,

I understand your concern that the conservative who hails King today is doing the same thing that the German conservatives were doing at the time to Karl Marx, but I would argue that if you support the three tenets of King's philosophy that I referred to above, the result is hardly a trite iconization of King, and in fact represents a substantial part of his teaching. Not all of it, of course - I agree with you that the content of King's last three years was more radical than most Democrats, much less Republicans, are comfortable with these days.

I just don't think it's fair to accuse all "conservatives" who commend King of doing so disingenuously. Yes, many are guilty of ignoring his radicalism -- but likewise many liberals prefer not to come to terms with King's deep and abiding faith. We should guard against this kind of intellectual shallowness and ideological rigidity -- wherever we find it.
posted by Urban Hermit at 2:29 PM on January 15, 2007


Sometime it is a good idea to remove any implicit , but hidden bias , by reading a text without knowing who wrote it.

It can be an enlightening experience, similar to the discovery of a book that changes one life or opens new mind blowing perspectives or insight.

Sometime it is also very useful to temporarily put aside our preconceptions, expecially if they are shared with many others. This way we may also avoid the false dicotomies, false dilemmas and problems without a solution that somebody may have thrown around to mess with us.
posted by elpapacito at 2:48 PM on January 15, 2007


... It’s easy to remember the easy parts of Martin Luther King’s legacy. Who today could object to his “I Have a Dream” speech? It’s a lot harder to act on the tough parts, the parts that riled up his political base, even though they were the right and moral things to do. Let’s honor Dr. King’s memory today by remembering the tough parts, the parts that challenge the conventional political wisdom. We can honor him even more by having the courage to act on these convictions.
posted by amberglow at 2:51 PM on January 15, 2007


However, it is hardly cherry-picking to identify the following as key characteristics of King's approach:

1. emphasis on individual rights as justification for racial colourblindness
2. a universalist moral view informed by divine and natural law
3. rhetoric infused with religious sensibility and symbolism


Urban Hermit:

I do not think a conservative has to cherry pick to appropriate King (although it is going to be very hard for a conservative to accept the radical, and King was advocating radical change, so it is never going to be an easy task), but the conservative I linked to most certainly does.

On your points:

#1: not a problem for leftists at all, and not particularly conservative, either. That really only relates to one, narrow issue: affirmative action. Is it acceptable to be color-sensitive to right past wrongs? The answer is yes, in all reality, and King thought it was, too. In an ideal world, color-blindness is the goal: we do not live in that world, nor will we for quite some time, if ever. The American Republican all too often feigns color-blindness to avoid paying any personal redress for past wrongs, and to further a "Southern Strategy" of covert racism, offered to Southerners with a wink and a nod. Leftists do not have any issues with racial color-blindness in the abstract, and it's silly and insulting to pretend they do. The issue is in the particular: that is, can the scar of 200 hundred years of horrible and overt racism simply be erased without any affirmative action towards doing so?

#2: This is the only point that many leftists would be wary of, but it is only a caricature of the left that completely rejects such concepts as divine and natural law.

#3: Nonsense on this point. Many leftists use religious sensibilities and symbolism in their rhetoric. Hell, leftists idolize King, religious underpinnings included. Any prominent leftist elected in America is quite likely to be a Christian, and quite likely to use religious symbolism in their rhetoric. King is a difference of degree, not kind.

It's a straw-man version of the left that finds problems in King's ideas for that world view, not the actual left. In any event, left and Democratic support for King's vision, although generally falling quite short, and all too often being far too tepid in its support, has been around for 40 years now as a staple of mainstream American leftism.

On the other hand, it is most certainly not a straw man version of American conservatism that has major problems with King. The conservative and Republican viewpoint vociferously and repeatedly savaged King, and only recently began to ease up on that. But they still can't resist the opportunity to belittle the man's vision, even on his holiday, in 2007 (see above). At best, modern American conservatism (as a movement) gives King lip service; at worst, they aim to co-opt his ideas and use them in ways diametrically opposed to the King vision. It's still rankles a good deal of conservatives that King is honored on this day, in 2007, when conservatism and Republicans are supposedly now full-fledged believers in racial equality and desegregation. Yet which modern conservatives have examined the errors in judgement that led them, and their world view, to accept racial segregation and Jim Crow as an acceptable and fine use of state power? Certainly none of the bozos at The National Review.

This is not to support the appropriation of King for the right, or the left. He was a great and complex man, like Lincoln, who defies petty, partisan categories -- and he only really speaks to us when we rise above them as well.

I really find this common trope to be utter hogwash. Partisan categories are not "petty," and a person or an idea does not need to rise above them to be great or appreciated.

There are stupid leftist ideas, there are stupid rightist ideas, and there are stupid centrist ideas. There are stupid and brilliant partisan ideas. One must actually use their brain to figure out which are which -- the labels themselves are simple categorization tools, and not something to be risen above. A lot of people use the labels as epithets, but that is a problem with people, not labels.

King was pretty far to what would be called the left in America, and the main support for his vision has always come from Democrats in the American political system. That's the reality that Republicans and conservatives need to come to terms with: they were 100% wrong on King and civil rights. Not only were they wrong then, they've only moderated their tone now, not fixed the fundamental error in thinking that led to the vociferous anti-King sentiments of their past.

We can not pretend that the wise old men of the Republican party, many still alive and active in that party today, did not viciously savage the ideas King stood for (there is even the occasional such bastard in the Democratic party, Dixiecrats that never fled to the Republican party for whatever reason).

It requires updating the world-view of the conservative, in order to fully internalize King's message, and the American conservative today has done very little of that.
posted by teece at 2:52 PM on January 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


King was pretty far to what would be called the left in America...

Wow... understatement of the decade, the man was a radical who went to jail several times for his aggressively progressive actions.
posted by eparchos at 3:07 PM on January 15, 2007


teece: There are stupid leftist ideas, there are stupid rightist ideas, and there are stupid centrist ideas. There are stupid and brilliant partisan ideas. One must actually use their brain to figure out which are which

Of course, and I believe this is essentially what I said in my response to graymouser:

Yes, many [conservatives] are guilty of ignoring his radicalism -- but likewise many liberals prefer not to come to terms with King's deep and abiding faith. We should guard against this kind of intellectual shallowness and ideological rigidity -- wherever we find it.

The question is, does attachment to a partisan cause really encourage us to do so? I believe, on balance, that it does not; thus, we still disagree on the following:

I really find this common trope to be utter hogwash. Partisan categories are not "petty"... the labels themselves are simple categorization tools, and not something to be risen above.

Would that this were true. Notwithstanding that it may be in the service of good ideas, rabid partisanship tends to polarize the public debate while lowering its overall tone and excluding more nuanced positions. You no doubt will find the preceding to be another "common trope," but remember that just because you have become tired of hearing an argument does not mean you have refuted it.

Perhaps I am not sufficiently attuned to the daily cut-and-thrust of American politics, but to me it does seem "petty" to express such blind, generalized contempt for one's partisan adversaries. It may be that contempt is deserved - the writers at the National Review may indeed be "bozos" (I happen to think some of them are), and their arguments may indeed be "craptacular" (and I agree, sometimes they are) - but to dismiss them in such terms is unseemly, and an all-too-common symptom of excessive partisanship.

As you say, it is much better to debate the merits - as you do to great effect re: my point #1 above (though I still disagree that many on the left are genuinely open to #2).

I also continue to maintain that truly great political figures do transcend any partisan labels, no matter how neutral or descriptive they purport to be. I can offer no better evidence than the continuing debate over the legacies of great political actors and thinkers like Jefferson, Lincoln, and of course, MLK.
posted by Urban Hermit at 4:03 PM on January 15, 2007



I also continue to maintain that truly great political figures do transcend any partisan labels,


So, without partisan labels, how would you describe Lenin, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini, or Castro?
By DEFINITION, a "great political figure" is partisan, if only to his own party. Jefferson was extremely partisan, in case you haven't heard of Jeffersonian philosophy and Hamiltonian philosophy, one of the most profound dichotomies in US history. Which brings us to Lincoln, a man who had such strong partisan beliefs that his actions helped bring about a Civil War in this country.
I just don't understand how you could possibly say that these men weren't partisan.
posted by eparchos at 4:38 PM on January 15, 2007


Most Americans today know that Reverand Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, but fewer know why he was there.
King went to Memphis to support African American garbage workers, who were on strike to protest unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages -- and to gain recognition for their union. Their picket signs relayed a simple but profound message: "I Am A Man." ...

posted by amberglow at 4:39 PM on January 15, 2007


I also continue to maintain that truly great political figures do transcend any partisan labels, no matter how neutral or descriptive they purport to be.

I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing. Yes, great political figures will transcend their own narrow, partisan categorization, many times. This is (one of) the ways to achieve political greatness: to get people of all stripes to follow you. This is more or less necessary in a political climate where people are deeply divided, relatively hard to move, and equally split.

The other way to achieve greatness is to convince a huge portion of the population to change their political views to that of the great leader. This, too, happens a lot (see, Mao, Lenin, FDR, others). Getting this kind of sea change in public opinion will often require very unsettled times.

But the labels have not been transcended in either case. Lenin is still a leftist and a communist. Lincoln was a Republican. The language you are using seems to buy into an idea I don't like. That idea is: something or someone must be non-partisan or centrist or universal (pick your term) to be timeless and great. This is simply not true.

FDR had ideas that were very leftist, for America at the time. He convinced most Americans to come around to his point of view, building the "entitlement system" that most modern American conservatives detest. He did not do it by "transcending" labels or partisanship: he did it by convincing a considerable majority of Americans that his ideas were right. Those ideas were, and still are, partisan, leftist, Democratic ideas.

Ditto with King: his ideas were progressive and radical, and still are (although some of them are no longer radical, thankfully).
posted by teece at 4:56 PM on January 15, 2007


The first segment on Tonight's Fresh Air discussed the Memphis sanitation strike (see Amberglow, previous).
posted by lodurr at 4:57 PM on January 15, 2007


eparchos,

I don't mean to suggest that great political figures aren't passionately committed to their own ideas (though I would quibble with the 'greatness' of couple of the names you have seen fit to include in your list). Of course they were. What I am saying is that for us to assign simplistic partisan labels to them does not help us to understand those ideas -- either as disinterested observers or as supporters/opponents of their efforts. Lenin was a Leninist. Mao was a Maoist. This tells us much about the propensity for great figures to spawn schools of thought, but nothing about what they actually thought.

Yes, Lincoln had strong beliefs, and yes they did ultimately precipitate a civil war. But to reduce those ideas and the subtle way he expressed them to a partisan formula is both to misunderstand the political situation at the time and reduce whatever guidance Lincoln's thought might provide us today.

Yes, Jefferson had strong beliefs, and came to be associated with a political party. But Jeffersonian philosophy, as you put it, was far more than this, as was his legacy. Jefferson wrote his own epitaph, and it does not contain a word about his entire time as President, let alone any particular partisan disputes:

"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia."
posted by Urban Hermit at 5:03 PM on January 15, 2007


Urban Hermit,

I'm sorry, but I still don't see how that transcends partisan labels.
Political ideologies are never simple, but we label people who follow them for ease of communication. Just because a scientist comes up with a great theory doesn't make him transcend the label of scientist, it simply means he was a great scientist. You appear to think that partisan labels are simple, and I put forth that anybody who would actually think that Jefferson, Mao, or MLK were simple because of a label used to describe them really needs to learn what that label means. If I described Mao as a communist, that does not mean that label describes Mao as a whole person, simply that he was a communist, and anybody who thinks that such a label is definitive for ANYBODY, great political figure or not, is a bit simple minded.
Note that I'm not trying to be offensive, I'm just trying to clarify.
posted by eparchos at 5:11 PM on January 15, 2007


"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence."

I'm sorry, but the Revolutionary War was indeed a partisan dispute. How much more partisan can you get than a frigging shooting war?
posted by davy at 5:57 PM on January 15, 2007


teece, I agree - we have probably not been talking about entirely the same thing.

The language you are using seems to buy into an idea I don't like. That idea is: something or someone must be non-partisan or centrist or universal (pick your term) to be timeless and great. This is simply not true.

You are right, it is not true. Many great things have only been achieved by trampling orthodoxy into the dust, and occasionally its purveyors along with it.

However, you have correctly picked up on my own bias - not so much for policies that are 'centrist', but for change that is moderate. I do have a vague mistrust of political radicalism general. I tend to think that there have been many Pol Pots for every Gandhi, many Calhouns for every Lincoln, and this has made me suspicious of our ability to tell the difference in time. This is to say nothing of the disastrous consequences that can attend even well-intentioned political reform.

eparchos, I think we have strayed into rather muddy semantic waters. Let me just say that I do not think that political labels are or should be definitive, but they are too often treated as such and that is part of my problem with them.

For example, I don't think it is prima facie absurd for conservatives to sympathize with some of the aims of a man as radical as MLK. teece seems to think that it is. teece does not think it is at all problematic for contemporary liberals to be the sole standardbearers of King's legacy despite its basis in natural law and religious teaching. I think that it is somewhat problematic.

Regardless of who you agree with (and I assume it's not me), both of our arguments depend on rejecting facile categorizations of King and his legacy.

Just because a scientist comes up with a great theory doesn't make him transcend the label of scientist, it simply means he was a great scientist.

It might mean that he was doing something qualitatively different than ordinary lab researchers, even if we choose to call both activities "science."


davy: please re-read the first paragraph of the comment you cite. I am not saying that great figures didn't take sides in defense of their own beliefs. I'm saying that they didn't necessarily take the "sides" (e.g. "left" and "right") that we have in mind when we claim to be their standardbearers.
posted by Urban Hermit at 6:11 PM on January 15, 2007


Americans are much more comfortable talking about race than class. We were just talking about this over dinner. Locally upper-class suburban schools have just about given up trying to field a cheerleading team. It remains an achievement to make the cheerleading squad in more working class areas. Our local HS is racially mixed, and the cheerleading squad is predominantly African-American. It's become a black thing in our town. The lack of cheerleaders in the better suburbs was reported on a local tv news show as "they are too busy studying to cheer". Sorry but no, it's become down-market. Girls try to succeed in field hockey and lacrosse which have a higher social value.
Only marketers use class distinctions, but they would never call it that - it's demographics.
Mentioning class is considered rude. Everyone in this country is middle class, doncha know. And we get the government we deserve by ignoring what is going on around us.

Other than that - What GUCKY said.
posted by readery at 6:33 PM on January 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


readery, I don't think the mapping is that simple. For one thing, I think you need to look at why we don't talk about class.

I'm not sure I agree with 'uncomfortable' as a characterization. I think we don't talk about class because we want to believe we don't believve in it. We believe in merit -- our "class" is an alleged or ostensive meritocracy. That goes back to the English Reformation roots of American culture, wherein material success (achieved, we would now say, though hard work) was a sign of elected status (to really massivly over-simplify it). We've lost the concept of predestination, but we retain the sense that our achievements (as measured materially, as by our posessions or the cost/prestige of our school, profession, neighborhoos, etc.) are indicators of our moral worth.

I still don't think we perceive it as 'discomfort', though; we're much, much more obviously uncomfortable talking about race than class. Class, in fact, is the dominant mode of discourse in American media -- viz "My Name Is Earl."

We've got enough Brits here that maybe we could get some help on this from them. I've had the impression that race, in Britain, is really secondary to class. If a white guy's daughter is dating a black guy, he's probably not going to like it, sure -- but if the black guy was at Oxford or worked in the City, it would ultimately be OK and the father wouldn't feel as though his child were being debauched. In America (gross generalizations abound in this post, mirabile!), the white father would be really uptight, regardless of how much money the black guy had or how he got it or where he got his sheepskin. That's my impression, at least, and I'd love to have it commented/corrected.
posted by lodurr at 7:38 AM on January 16, 2007



Mahalo for all the links related to MLK. I have been using MLK's "Time to Break Silence" speech in my college classes for the past five years. It is a useful tool to bring up conversations about american attitudes toward the Iraq war.

Every american should be reading this speech over and over.
posted by Surfurrus at 8:37 AM on January 16, 2007


Few also know that the fbi not only knew of the credible threat on King's life but actively suppressed this knowledge from King's supporters to facilitate its occurrence.

We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.

This is a very insightful statement. The war was long declared on Black and poor movements. Nearly every major black movement leader in the last half century has been murdered.
And with regard to the utter isolation in which elected officials have served for decades (no real stance against corporate tax evasion, no environmental reform, no health care, no efforts towards housing the poor, no realistic change of drug policy, numerous wars on behalf of vested interest... ) I have to side with tkchrist on the forcing leaders to put their balls and lives where their mouths and asses (usually indiscernable) are.
posted by sarcasman at 11:14 AM on January 16, 2007


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