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King and the Modern Left

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A thought provoking discussion here about what the legacy of Martin Luther King, and in particular his late life move toward democratic socialism and anti-imperialism, should mean to a modern left that is getting its feet underneath it but which also suffers from some very real shallowness.

I will always identify proudly with the radical camp. I don’t think there can be any compromise with white supremacy or entrenched corporate power. But I do still wonder whether my side is really as radical as it claims to be. I worry about performative wokeness and virtue signaling and the kind of celebrity activism that these days is often fueled by Hollywood and hedge fund money (in some ways reenacting the much-derided radical chic of the 1960s).

It’s painful to have to say it, and in no way do I intend to give aid and comfort to the howling hyenas of the Right who now focus their attacks on Critical Race Theory, but representation by itself can never substitute for reparation, let alone revolution. All of the elite institutions that are striving for diversity and inclusion will not disturb the peace of the Corporate State in the slightest degree. A more diverse elite is still an elite. There’s even a name for what we see emerging now (and an illuminating new book about it): identity capitalism. King long ago recognized this trap; he said he feared “integrating my people into a burning house.” 

To be clear, I have no doubt that if he were here today, Dr. King would celebrate the way in which race and the toxic legacy of white supremacy have been moved front and center in the national conversation. But I also think he might have hard questions for us oldsters who are still trying to fight the good fight as well as for the young woke ones.

Among those questions:

How serious are you about building power—about using the political levers that remain the primary means for changing things—while also practicing radical nonviolence and exercising message discipline? Put another way, what’s your strategy (because your enemies definitely have one)? 

How prepared are you to challenge the still-standing structure of American imperialism—the enormous military and “intelligence” footprint of this country—which is just as much an expression of white supremacy as is domestic police terrorism and anti-Black repression? (It would surely strike King as odd that the cost of maintaining this footprint hardly enters into today’s political conversation and that nearly everyone seems to be more or less okay with dropping $6.4 trillion—and killing at least 800,000 people—in an ineffective and counterproductive “war on terror.” When will we understand that defunding the police and defunding the Pentagon reflect one and the same struggle?)

Finally, given how the practice of radical nonviolence implies a willingness to sacrifice, how much are you personally willing to sacrifice for the achievement of the long-awaited radical revolution of values?

This last question is clearly the hardest to answer. King himself was spiritually prepared all his life to make the ultimate sacrifice. Not all of us need to go to that limit, but all of us do need to ask ourselves whether we really believe there can be fundamental transformation without sacrifice. For me, and especially during this Easter week, the answer is obvious.

There’s a bit I might push back upon here, particularly because the entire of radical nonviolence has been distorted out of proportion to which the civil rights movement was in fact nonviolent and what that really meant at the time. I’d also push back a little bit on how proper actions seem to be portrayed here. There’s certainly a place for walking onto a military base to protest imperialism and getting yourself arrested but that has also become theater and doesn’t change anything. And if you are that committed to nonviolence, how much farther do you go than that? So I think there’s a bit of softness to the argument.

But there’s also a lot of good here. I definitely agree that a lot of self-styled radicals are in fact not nearly as radical as they claim, but are mostly just New Deal left-liberals with disdain for the contemporary Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real radicals out there, but that kind of radicalism really isn’t where the conversation is at, except within the police abolition movement, which is a genuinely radical demand. There are indeed limits on what representation really means and how it can stand in for actual progress. If we think that Condoleeza Rice’s appointments in the Bush administration were a real accomplishment, I think there’s a real shallowness in the politics there.

The bigger questions though are about what messages can or should we take from the past to inform our politics. King’s memory has become such a caricature of his actual life (something promoted by his own family for that matter) that we’ve lost his actual radicalism. All I can say for what we should from it is to actual study his ideas and actions and take from it what we will.

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