In case you hadn't noticed, I've been pretty damned outraged by Glenn Beck's attempt to steal the identity of the Civil Rights Movement. But there's no way he could pull it off all by his lonesome. And I'm not just talking about the conservative hegemony machine. I'm talking so-called liberals, too. I'm even talking our first black President.
This essay examines the rhetorical situation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." It argues that King's "Letter" was an essential response for civil rights to continue as a mass movement in Birmingham and beyond. At a broader level, King's "Letter" demonstrated the enactment of rhetorical transformation. By creative use of kairos and pathos the letter rebutted the claims of the moderate white clergy in Birmingham and changed King's rhetorical persona and presence. The "Letter" transformed the idea of reasonableness from the province of moderation alone and united it with justifications for direct civil disobedience. Consequently, the "Letter" as rhetorical response opened a new public frame for pragmatic, value-based identification with civil rights for historical and contemporary audiences.
Now, I didn't think that was a particularly profound insight. In fact, I'm citing it because of the opposite: it's really nothing more than a recasting of King's own words into scholarly discourse. This is not at all to belittle the effort involved, or its importance. Scholarly articles such as this are part of the process by which new ways of thinking and being are concretized, normalized, and rooted in the world. Still, the basic argument here is already quite clear in King's original text, where he explores in detail the vast gulf between the superficial negative peace of oppression and the profound positive peace of justice, especially in the particular nature of the struggle needed to move form one to the other:
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative....
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation....
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
Monologue vs. dialogue. This is certainly an apt way of seeing how Beck utterly fails to even begin understanding Martin Luther King. He has his own libertarian preconceptions of everything, and nothing that doesn't fit those preconceptions can even be vaguely imagined in his perpetually agitated mind. The entire Civil Rights Movement was bound up in visions of social justice, but Beck's ideology made him utterly blind to that historical reality.
But it also--sadly enough--describes Obama's outlook as well. Oh, he'll engage in legislative haggling behind closed doors. But precisely because of that, he sees a profound threat from a wider, public dialogue that includes the voices of the powerless, the excluded, his base... "the professional left" and the just plain left out. Such was the case when single-payer activists were excluded from the health care debate... and even arrested, like King had been in Birmingham. But it has also been the case on virtually every issue, though not usually so vividly.
And that monologic mode of discourse returned again last night, when he said:
This afternoon, I spoke to former President George W. Bush. It's well-known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one can doubt President Bush's support for our troops or his love of country and commitment to our security.
No one can doubt. It is not up for debate. There is no room for dialogue, much less for a critical dissent. This is the voice of suppressing dialogue, suppressing democracy, suppressing justice. Monologue displacing dialogue.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail 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 all 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.
How tragically sad it is that America's first African-American President should be so similar to the white ministers King was writing to, and so deaf to the words that he wrote. For he is nothing if not an upholder of "law and order" that stands in the way of justice--or even its possibility, in the form of an open and honest dialogue including those who have historically been shut out. He has portrayed himself as the embodiment of their hopes. But in the end, he is merely a simulacrum.