The Strangest MLK Day Of All

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

—Barack Obama, February 5, 2008

few Americans today know how deeply Martin Luther King, Jr., thought about the issues of his time and how to confront them. He had an intellectual’s curiosity about the world he experienced and, more important, about the world so many poor blacks—and whites—experienced in front of his eyes.

Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker tweeted today:

A good day to read MLK’s fascinating My Pilgrimage To Nonviolence. He learned from Enlightenment thinkers, rejected Marx, Nietzsche, and traditional Christianity, embraced a complex human nature, & of course Gandhi’s nonviolence (not the same as pacifism).

I took Pinker’s advice and read the piece. You should too. It was fascinating. Even if you disagree with some of King’s conclusions or his theological defenses, you will see just how lucky we were to have had this man among us during the tumultuous 1960s, when it was, until the election of Tr-mp, most recently possible to imagine our democratic experiment failing, or at least turning out much worse than it did.

I want to focus on two passages from the work Pinker cited. King greatly admired Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous American theologian and intellectual who was born right here in Missouri. Niebuhr’s thinking, King said, helped the future civil rights icon

to recognize the illusions of a superficial optimism concerning human nature and the dangers of a false idealism. While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well. Moreover, Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.

In so many ways, “the glaring reality of collective evil” is still with us today, not just with issues of race and bigotry, but with issues of economic justice and the exploitation or neglect of large segments of our population—citizens, quasi-citizens, and non-citizens. But I want to move on to another passage, this one critical of Niebuhr, that is even more relevant to our present condition:

My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.

I ask you to read that passage more than once. It is the heart of Dr. King’s strategy for confronting the “collective evil” he saw. He talks about a “true” pacifism that is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.” Agree or disagree with that philosophical position, but at least acknowledge that it proved to be a relatively effective way to bring about the “transformation and change of heart” that King desired. Our country did change for the better because of non-violent actions like the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and other acts of courage.

But the forces of reaction and racial angst and racism didn’t disappear. Obviously they are still with us today. And in some ways things seem to be worse now than at anytime since the death of Dr. King. Why? Well, look at what Dr. King’s rational non-violent strategy for confronting evil and changing hearts and minds depended on: “a sense of shame in the opponent.” In order for his approach to work, he counted on the people he was confronting, or at least those in power who tacitly supported such people, to have a sense of shame, an awareness of social responsibility built on a personal moral responsibility. Where, I ask you, is that requisite sense of shame in today’s Republican Party’s leadership or among its members or in the conservative media complex that supports Tr-mp and the Republican Party?

Republicans in Congress, Republican officials around the country, and conservative punditry, with very few exceptions, have constantly defended the indefensible bigotry and tolerated the intolerable ignorance and lied to protect the pathological liar in the White’s House. The latest shithole-gate fiasco is the perfect example. We all know Tr-mp said what he said and meant what he meant. But there has not been one Republican who was in the room, who heard Tr-mp talk trash about immigrants from non-white countries, come forward and confirm what most of us know. Even Lindsey Graham, who got credit from Dick Durbin for confronting Tr-mp in real time about the remarks, won’t just come out and say exactly what happened. All he will say are variations of, “The President and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel.” 

Worse, though, are Senators David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who Tr-mp is now relying on to buttress his desperate lie that he did not say what he said. Perdue and Cotton were both at the meeting, and after the nasty remarks were reported, they issued a joint statement saying they “do not recall” Tr-mp using such language. Just couldn’t remember. By Sunday, though, their tr-mpnesia had been cured. Perdue suddenly remembered that what Dick Durbin had told the world—that Tr-mp indeed used, repeatedly, the shithole comment about some non-Norwegian countries—was “a gross misrepresentation.” Cotton, also cured of his temporary “do not recall” disease, said, “I did not hear that word,” which is the same as calling Dick Durbin a liar, since Cotton made the point that he was the same distance from Tr-mp as Durbin had been.

Perhaps now is the time to remind you about David Perdue’s and Tom Cotton’s pasts. In June of 2016, Perdue was at one of those conservative Christian “Faith & Freedom” events when he suggested those gathered should “pray” for President Obama “like Psalms 109:8 says.” Everyone at that gathering knew what he meant by referencing that scripture. That passage had been often used to suggest death for Obama. Here’s Psalms 109:8-12:

Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.

It is true that Perdue only quoted the first verse in that horrific passage, but his cynical suggestion wasn’t lost on anyone. How do you appeal to a “sense of shame” in someone like that?

And then there’s the particularly shameless Tom Cotton. I will never forget what he did in his 2014 Senate race against Democrat incumbent Mark Pryor, who was a devout Christian and Bible-believer. In a response to a question about the infamous Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby “religious freedom” case, Cotton said:

Barack Obama and Mark Pryor think that faith is something that only happens at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. That’s when we worship but faith is what we live every single day.

Cotton, in true Tr-mp fashion, never apologized for that remark, not to President Obama or to Mark Pryor. Again, I ask you, especially given how Cotton just lied on national television in order to protect Tr-mp, how to you appeal to a sense of shame in someone so morally bankrupt?

Add to all that the many conservatives who have gone on television to defend Tr-mp’s remarks, whether they believe he made them or not. The “Christian” pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist Church, Robert Jeffress, told the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody:

Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.

I remind you: that man is a Baptist minister. Others with no discernible sense of shame include all those right-wing pundits, most of them Christians, who Media Matters quoted in a handy piece the other day. These and other folks on the right demonstrate not only a missing sense of shame, but their responses demonstrate just how little difference there is between their positions and the position of racist David Duke, who said:

Donald Trump questioned Thursday why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa rather than places like Norway.”Trump spoke Blunt, hard truth that makes PERFECT TRUTH! So, Mr. Prez -ACT ON IT – DON’T CAVE IN !

If you were a Republican or a conservative with a sense of shame, a sense of shame that is necessary if non-violent actions are to remain effective ways of changing hearts and minds, wouldn’t you at least consider Image result for moral compassthe possibility that your moral compass is broken if it points in the same direction as one wielded by a proud white supremacist? Huh?

Finally, on this day I will leave you with words from an interesting writer named Roxane Gay, a Haitian-American born in Omaha, Nebraska. In a piece related to the shithole scandal, which appeared in The New York Times last Friday (“No One Is Coming to Save Us From Tr-mp’s Racism“), she wrote:

Now, in response to the news about the reports of the vile remark, there are people saying “vote” and highlighting the importance of the 2018 midterm elections, as if American democracy is unfettered from interference and corruption. There is a lot of trite rambling about how the president isn’t really reflecting American values when, in fact, he is reflecting the values of many Americans.

That is the depressing part of all this. Even after the civil rights successes in the 1950s and 1960s, even after turning Dr. King into a cultural hero deserving of his own holiday, even after electing Barack Obama president, we are still at a point where vile racist remarks really do reflect the values of many Americans. Just how many Americans, time will tell. But Gay makes a point related to the “the glaring reality of collective evil” Dr. King non-violently opposed:

But the president is not alone in thinking so poorly of the developing world. He didn’t reveal any new racism. He, once again, revealed racism that has been there all along. It is grotesque and we must endure it for another three or seven years, given that the Republicans have a stranglehold on power right now and are more invested in holding onto that power than working for the greater good of all Americans.

There’s no doubt about that. The Republican Party is the country’s biggest problem right now. No, it is worse than that. The Republican Party, under Tr-mp and sold out to him, is the country’s biggest existential threat right now. And there are days when it is hard to generate any hope that things will change significantly anytime soon. Roxane Gay captures that feeling:

I am tired of comfortable lies. I have lost patience with the shock supposedly well-meaning people express every time Mr. Trump says or does something terrible but well in character. I don’t have any hope to offer. I am not going to turn this into a teaching moment to justify the existence of millions of Haitian or African or El Salvadoran people because of the gleeful, unchecked racism of a world leader. I am not going to make people feel better about the gilded idea of America that becomes more and more compromised and impoverished with each passing day of the Trump presidency.

This is a painful, uncomfortable moment. Instead of trying to get past this moment, we should sit with it, wrap ourselves in the sorrow, distress and humiliation of it. We need to sit with the discomfort of the president of the United States referring to several countries as “shitholes” during a meeting, a meeting that continued after his comments. No one is coming to save us. Before we can figure out how to save ourselves from this travesty, we need to sit with that, too.

Perhaps today, of all days, is a day to reflect on the fact that no sainted cavalry is coming over the hill to rescue us. The Republican Party is lost and irredeemable. The Democrats are trying but lack any power. Robert Mueller, no matter if he finds the worst, will not find a GOP-controlled legislative branch willing to take action. Roxane Gay is right. No one is coming to save the country.

This one is on us. You and me.



  1. Duane. I wanted to just “like” this and move on, but I do not like this post. I agree with it, but I do NOT like it. The deck has been stacked by gerrymandering, Citizens United, greed, racism, stupidity and the electoral college. Winter isn’t coming — it’s already here.


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