Archive for January, 2016

The Politics of Alternate Realities

January 30th, 2016 No comments


I found it interesting that those people who want to turn the Bird Sanctuary Patriot who was killed resisting arrest into a martyr have processed the video provided by the FBI which shows Finicum doing that and dismissed it because it doesn’t agree with their narrative. Just to be clear, the video does show Finicum with his hands in the air as he leaves his vehicle, but the video also clearly shows that as agents closed in on him he reached for his waist. Whether or not he was going for his gun (he did have one), how often have we heard the apologetic that if the cop hesitates he might lose his life? Is that only true if the suspect is someone we don’t like? It occurred to me that those who are convinced Michael Brown is a martyr also wouldn’t concede their point even if there was evidence to show it. And that summarizes the state of our discourse. We don’t have differing interpretations of the same reality, we have competing realities in which factual evidence is only a nuisance unless it agrees with our narrative. If we can’t even agree on indisputable evidence, how can we find our way out of the dark?

What Kind of Extremists Will We Be?

January 18th, 2016 No comments


The life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been woven into a narrative that serves the interests of the status quo. It is not that the ways he is portrayed are entirely inaccurate, but they are misleading. Our narrative celebrates his life as a triumph of civil rights; that after marching across the Pettus bridge to Washington he gave a speech declaring “Let my people go!” and the racial divide closed. Whew. Glad that’s over with. And now we have a black president we can despise and our racial issue has been solved. Or so it once seemed.

King has been tamed like all of our heroes have been tamed. But Dr. King was not a tame man. And he was not a moderate. If he had been a tame moderate he would not have been able to concentrate enough ill will against him to warrant assassination. Dr. King was dangerous.

The first misconception is that King’s concern was focused or even mainly focused on racial justice. It is true that he entered the stage of public action in support of a movement to remove demeaning racial barriers in Montgomery. King’s activism challenged and demolished the system of Jim Crow segregation, the maintenance of a legally enforced inferior class based on race. And for that we rightly celebrate his life.

But even in the midst of that struggle his vision was greater and more dangerous. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail King writes about a conversation with his white guards where he observed that rather than opposing him poor whites should support his cause, because the system created a false sense of superiority in whites that left them content to be little or no better off than their black neighbors. Their economic and social plight was almost identical, but they were content to allow it by the logic that at least they weren’t black. Racism in America was fostered as a means of social control — of both blacks and whites. King’s vision wasn’t simply justice for black people. It was justice for everyone. That’s what made him so dangerous.

I once was lulled like many others into the false belief that because of King’s work our national racial divisions had been set on a course of inevitable solution. Yes, there was still work to do, but we were making progress. The final vision of a racially blind society was inevitable. But in the last couple of years I have been forced to acknowledge, as have many others, that my torpor only served to perpetuate injustices that have yet to be addressed. Racism may be illegal but it is nevertheless still enshrined in the hearts and practices of many, even some who deny (even with sincerity) they are racist.

Less than three weeks before he was murdered Dr. King delivered remarks that addressed the civil unrest plaguing America at that time. Here is what he said:

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.[1]

Does it not seem that these words could be spoken today? The injustices that King fought against are still with us.

King’s ultimate goal was the creation of what he called “The Beloved Community.” The Beloved Community would consist of a world without division; all people living in harmony through the love of God (agape) as expressed in the human heart. If we pigeon-hole King into the Civil Rights box and leave him there we really don’t know him at all, and we do him great disservice.

The world has changed too little since King’s assassination. King never spoke in favor of violence, he never advocated division, he decried economic and social injustice, and he sought a world community based on true brotherhood. And for boldly proclaiming that dangerous vision he ended on the balcony of a motel in Memphis in a pool of blood. Today we see throngs cheering the extremist voices of violence and fear and exclusion and division and hate. And I’m not referring to foreign despots and jihadists, I’m pointing the finger at our own political “leaders.” It seems we have little to celebrate on the day we commemorate Martin Luther King.

But the fact that we do remember says that at some level we still value his vision. It is something still to strive for. It won’t be realized by following the fear-laden siren song of our contemporary culture, and it won’t come into existence by denying the ugliness of the world as it is. It can only be made real by opposing extreme hate with extreme love. In response to being labelled an extremist by his fellow clergymen for his desegregation efforts in Birmingham, Dr. King wrote:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?[2]

The world moves through the motivation of extremism. If we want to create the world of brotherhood King envisioned, we too must be extremists. Even our inaction is an extremist act. What kind of extremists will we be?


[1] Martin Luther King, “The Other America” (Speech, Grosse Pointe High School, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, March 14, 1968), accessed January 18, 2016,

[2] Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” The King Center, accessed January 18, 2016,

A Convention of Lunatics

January 9th, 2016 No comments


On January 8, 2016 Texas Governor Greg Abbot announced his support for a “Convention of States” for the purpose, as the title of his 70-page document states, of “Restoring the Rule of Law with States Leading the Way.” The proposal is neither illegal nor particularly radical. Article V of the Constitution provides for the calling of a Constitutional Convention upon petition by two thirds of the states. Like almost everything about the Federal Constitution, the process for amendment is slow and deliberative, reflecting the desire of the founders that the National government not be too efficient.

But as a history professor I couldn’t help reflecting on the rhetoric that accompanies this call for a Convention of States. “Restoring the Rule of Law” pretty much sums it up. Right wing extremists and Tea Partiers and Bird Sanctuary Patriots are convinced that the Federal government has overstepped its authority under the Constitution, straying from the original intent which was to create a loose confederacy of independent nations bound together by love of liberty. The relationship between the States and the National government has been controversial from the very beginning. Southern States in particular were reluctant to join the Union and only did so with the (mistaken, as it turned out) understanding that they could leave the Union if their interests were not supported in the Union.

It was indeed this idea that drove the Southern States to secession in 1861 and plunged the nation into civil war. One of the major consequences of the Civil War was the recognition of the supremacy of the National government over the States. The argument was temporarily settled. The assertion of States’ rights to supersede Federal Law historically has usually arisen in cases where the Federal government threatened the rights of the States to deny equal citizenship rights to certain citizens. So, one of the rhetorical arguments against Federal intervention in the Civil Rights Movement cried out for “interposition” and “nullification”: the right of the States to declare Federal laws unconstitutional, and to refuse to comply. This is a right the States simply do not have. That is Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

So, it’s about liberty. And we all love liberty. But here’s an interesting thing. Knowledge of history gives a perspective on current events that helps to contextualize issues. Knowledge of history can help us to see the similarities between what is happening now and what happened in the past. With the insight gained from hindsight, we might better understand the issues facing us and do better than our ancestors.

I urge you to consider a document titled A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union which can be found here. It is a remarkable document that proudly proclaims the ideal of liberty as the cause of secession. But at the same time it leaves little doubt that the liberty Texans felt they were being denied was the right to keep their fellow human beings enslaved. On the one hand, the document reeks of high-minded platitudes about sovereignty and rights, on the other it blatantly calls for the denial of sovereignty and rights to a group based on geographical origin (actually, the distinction is between “whites” and “Africans”).

I have no doubt that many people in Texas (and elsewhere, presently Malheur Bird Sanctuary in Oregon, for example) are convinced their rights are being abridged by the National government. Recall that last summer the Governor of Texas called out the National Guard to oppose the rumored invasion of Texas by Obama’s army disguised as a routine military exercise called Jade Helm. Good thing they did too because the invasion was apparently foiled. It never happened.

One may presume that seriously deluded people can be convinced their delusions are real. But that doesn’t make them real. And the last thing we need is a convention where people who have denounced reality as a basis for action can tinker with the Constitution.

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