Saturday, July 27, 2013

President Obama and Martin Luther King on war and morality

Lately critics of President Obama on the left have wanted to claim the mantle of Rev. Martin Luther King in their arguments against the use of drones and the war on al Qaeda. So I'd like to dig a little deeper and see if the critique holds up.

My first reaction is to put it all in the context of the fact that MLK's anti-war position was rooted in his adherence to non-violent resistance. I can't help but wonder if these critics make the same commitment. Are they suggesting that they are against all violence under any circumstances - as MLK was? Or is it just this particular form of violence?

While MLK is revered by almost everyone today as the father of the Civil Rights Movement, history tells us that not everyone involved in that struggle joined him in his commitment to non-violence. As a matter of fact, there are whole schools of thought that suggest that MLK's non-violence was aided in its success by the alternative of groups like the the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. As you know, some of the most quoted words from Malcolm X are " any means necessary."

And so we must start with a recognition that, while we all admire the legacy of MLK, even his most avid supporters know that to simply suggest that he would have spoken out against President Obama's actions in the war on al Qaeda does not mean that he would have found 100% agreement on that position.

The President himself acknowledged this back in 2009 in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing na├»ve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.
In other words, he was acknowledging that King would have disagreed with him. And he gives us a hint about the conversation they might have had. President Obama's response would have been grounded in the Niebuhrian conflict of having - as President - to deal with the world as it is rather than the world as we want it to be. I imagine it is a conversation Barack Obama has had in his head many times. What a fascinating thing that is to imagine!

Its interesting to note that many of President Obama's critics seem to rely on an appeal to authority and assume that no black President (or his supporters) should ever take a position that is different from what MLK would have championed. I will say that I tend to lean more towards King's position of non-violent resistance. But this is a deeply complex moral question that is degraded by a simple appeal to authoritarianism - even if that authority is the Rev. Martin Luther King.

But beyond the moral question, the biggest difference I see between King's approach and Obama critics is the audience they speak to. Whether its Cornell West or Tavis Smiley or Glenn Greenwald or David Sirota - the critique is always leveled at President Obama. In contrast, I suggest that you read Rev. Martin Luther King's seminal speech against the war in Vietnam given in 1967 when Lyndon Johnson was the president.  He didn't call Johnson a "war criminal" (even though the charges might have been valid) or accuse him of hypocrisy/mendacity. He doesn't even mention the president's name. That's because he wasn't speaking to politicians - not even the president. He was calling out the American people. For example:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. 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.
What a powerful statement that is as relevant today as it was in 1967! On that question of values and morality, both King and Obama agree.
Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."...

Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more -- and that's the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there's something irreducible that we all share.


  1. "Its interesting to note that many of President Obama's critics seem to rely on an appeal to authority and assume that no black President (or his supporters) should ever take a position that is different from what MLK would have championed."

    there is that dynamic for sure, but that's only one facet of a more encompassing dynamic.

    we've seen separately numerous repeated instances of Obama critics (white and black) complaining about Obama not being X-like enough (sometimes by name, sometimes by implication). For one example, take the time Michael Moore did his "I voted for the black guy but ended up with the white guy" schtick.

    So depending on what the context is, those critics will happily attack Obama from EITHER side of the King/X spectrum.

    But note that the thrust of either attack is the same. As you noted from the King side, the undercurrent of "this is even worse ESPECIALLY because Obama is black" is unmistakeable. And as the Michael Moore example from the other direction clearly indicates, precisely the same blackness-natured attack forms the main theme.

    So the upshot of it all is that the critics require of Obama that he be all things and nothing, because that's what BEING BLACK morally requires.

    1. Wow! Thanks for a "made-me-think" comment!!!!!!

      Another way to look at this is that they're saying that if you're the BLACK president, you must fit into a mold we've created for what black men are supposed to be. What that requires of you depends on whether we want an MLK or Malcolm. But you never get to be "you."

    2. couple of other things:

      1) the "it's especially bad because Obama is black (and hence should 'get it'" line of thought is another way to say "if a white guy did this same thing, it wouldn't be as bad". i.e., for folks adhering to such a thought, being black is per se an aggravating factor in whatever perceived crime is being complained about. obviously that notion is abominable. whatever the merits of the underlying issue, one does NOT merit more punishment for it simply by virtue of being black.

      2) as you indicate, yah these critics have evolved beyond the old "all black folks think the same", but only so far as to admit TWO (or some similarly small number) of archetypes within which Obama must fall into, else he is a failure. the concept of Obama succeeding/failing AS OBAMA doesn't enter sirota's mind any more than it does the mind of the hickiest of west virginian yokels.

      3) on the white side of the critcs, there is an issue of them re-writing history in more or less the same abominably racist fashion that it has always been done: to lessen black folks (Obama and supporters). You and others have previously noted the sirotas of the world stealing black heroes, and declaring them white progressive heroes. the point here is several-fold:

      a) to enable white progressives to yell at nearly all current-day black folks with a thin layer of totally-not-racist shielding.

      b) to avoid talking about the perfectly well-known reality that 90%+ of all problems in America are the result of us white folks. we all know it, but it's funner to avoid the subject. (see also: "stop being mean to the south" whines)

      c) lastly, the blithe but internally conflicted nature of using BOTH X and King as protagonists to Obama's antagonism indicates that such critics are simply indifferent to reality. compare with pre-Obama republicans WANTING what is now known as Obamacare, but the second Obama puts it up, WHOOPS CAN'T HAVE THIS TYRANNY. the conclusion in both cases (and the oodles of other similar cases) is the same: their goal - their ONLY goal - is to be against whatever Obama says or does. that is the only role they are interested in fulfilling. the tools and mechanisms they use may vary depending on which actor we're talking about - but the question of what is their real goal, may be adequately answered by the inconsistent nature of their criticisms.

    3. Drop some science, sherrifruitfly!


  2. Simply a great post, SP. And the comments are equally as thoughtful and thought-provoking.

    Per sherrifruitfly, add Bill Mahrer's name next to Michael Moore's. On some of his Real Time shows in 2010-11, Mahrer repeatedly said how disappointed he was that Obama didn't go after Republicans more aggressively. More specifically, he said he had expected Obama to "go all gangsta" on them.

    WTF? Did he think Obama wrote rhymes for Public Enemy? The constant unconscious racism with too many Caucasian progressives is appalling.

    As a white male in his late 60's, who also wrote speeches for President Clinton, I believe strongly Barack Obama is the best president we've had since FDR.

  3. You can't really compare Obama to leaders from that era. America was radically different from what it was back then. As gifted as they were, no one from that era could be president. We're all beneficiaries of their sacrifices. Anyone that wants to compare Obama to Malcolm/Martin is playing games. Nobody can compete with a myth. When those comparisons are made Malcolm/Martin stop being human and Obama's made to look worse than he is. The way some guys tell it, the leaders from that era could do no wrong and Obama gets nothing right. Anybody can be president.

    If you want to make comparisons, let's use the last democratic president. We get a better picture of the man when we do that.


  4. The whole criticism is so disingenuous. The real problem is the violence. The fact that the violence is conducted through drones as opposed to a gun in an American soldier's hands is hardly a meaningful distinction.

    The only reason DRONES! have become the new BENGHAZI! is because they can be uniquely tied to Obama (an accident of the evolution of technology).

    Every liberal who whines about drones is doing nothing other than naively biting the right wing anti-Obama bait.

  5. loving yr blog as always, smartypants and today, the comments are as smart and interesting as the post that generated them! thanx to SP and friends. :)