Monday, January 18, 2010

King's Day...

and other things
on my mind

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and, while I consider Dr. King the most effective, progressive leader of my lifetime, my thoughts are only briefly on him, focused instead on a radio show that I’m going to guest on in Chicago on Saturday, the 23rd. Host Michael James, whose business card identifies him as an activist and an entrepreneur, is a former SDS member and co-owner, with Katie Hogan, of Rogers Park’s legendary Heartland Café. It’s worth noting, as an aside here, that SDS was not only basically correct in its political analysis and righteous in its fury, but also entrepreneurial to the core. There was not a soul running or sympathizing with SDS who was not themselves capable of falling out of line at any given moment.

Anyway, Michael wants a little summary of what I want to talk about. He will, he says, do his homework on whatever subject I choose. But that won’t be necessary. There’s nothing I want to talk about that he hasn’t thought about himself. There’s a high probability that we will talk about Chicago’s 1983 mayoral race, because the show originates at the Heartland Café on the city’s Northside, and because I am Bernie Epton’s son and because there is always more to say about that election and the people who made it what it was..

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to outline some other things to talk about. Here’s a list:

1. Politically, the real dangers of this moment are more compelling, lethal and closer to overwhelming, than were IMO the challenges of any other decade of my adult life.

2. Poverty and the failure of democratic institutions, like the public schools and mass transit, affect a larger number of people more severely than ever before.

3. Climate change, militarized agendas, market health care and the socialized liabilities of private capital are poised to sicken, maim, wound and kill more people in a single century than the total sickened and killed by similar means in the entire history of the world.

4. Inevitably, consider also the accuracy of the previous statements.

5. The people alive now, especially people under, say, forty years old, can not only stop the looming catastrophe, they can be the force that ushers in a global Golden Age.

6. What is there that we can offer from the perspective of those of us who once believed we would be the agents of some sort of similarly creative and humane epoch?

Also, time permitting, what might we say about the collapse of mainstream journalism enterprises, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the meaning of life?

From 1993 to very nearly the last day of 1999, Marrianne McMullen and I ran the Dayton Voice, aka Impact Weekly. In combining so much life and so much love, at least for me, the mini-decade of my life largely defined by my association with the Voice and my colleagues there and the whole city of Dayton, OH stands out in memory as seven fruitful and creative and satisfying years.

Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Voice would run a graphic image of King on the front page and excerpt one of his speeches. Here’s a brief quote from one of those speeches:

“It’s one of the strangest things that all the great military geniuses of the world have talked about peace. The conquerors of old who came killing in pursuit of peace, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, were akin in seeking a peaceful world order. If you will read Mein Kampf closely enough, you will discover that Hitler contended that everything he did in Germany was for peace. And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must admit that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon On Peace”
Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, December 1967


  1. Sounds like a great show; will there be an online version of it at some point, for those not in radio range of Heartland Cafe?

    As for your points, I think 1, 2 and 3 are correct, but the converse of all of them is also true.

    For 1: Not only the dangers, but the opportunities, of this time are almost overwhelming. Massachusetts notwithstanding, this is a Democratic moment - the most impressive politician in decades is newly in office, with large majorities in the House and Senate, all ostensibly on our side. Crisis moments offer the best opportunities to remake countries and organizations, and the Left is (hopefully still) ascendant, peaking perhaps at just the right minute.

    For 2: And yet, the standard of living around the globe is higher for more people than at any other point in history. Haiti shows us how far we have to go, but the hundreds of millions of new members of the middle class in China and India show us how far we've come. We have an entirely new medium of communication, infinitely more democratic than any that has come before it, that is reshaping the rest of the world to conform to its rules.

    For 3: Climate Change may yet force our hand, and cause us to hasten the end of our dependence on the fossil fuels that have wrecked so much of the planet for so long. Militarization can be rolled back, as the old enemies have fallen away and new, softer, forms of exerting influence on the world come into being. Health Care may soon become available to 30 million people who can't get it now, and an end to denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions could be imminent. Bankers may have overreached, finally, and the decades of predominance enjoyed by the financial industry may be headed for a reverse.

    All of the above is of course entirely optimistic, and none of it is remotely guaranteed. You're absolutely right to focus on the risks of the moment, and it's always better to be concerned than complacent.

    But being in the moment is always as confusing as illuminating, if not more so. Decades from now, what will we remember about today? That after 12 years of conservative Republicanism, 8 years of conservative Democratism and 8 more of ultraconservative Republicanism, the Republic began to slowly, in fits and spurts certainly, move in a different direction? Or that the fits and spurts overcame whatever momentum could be built, and swallowed up any progress before it could be realized?

  2. I can't agree with your take on my first three points, Abraham. Yes, "crisis moments offer the best opportunities to remake countries and organizations, and the Left is (hopefully still) ascendant, peaking perhaps at just the right minute," but (and this is the whole point of those statements), if the next decade is characterized by failure to meet the challenges outlined in my list, the consequences will be more lethal by orders of magnitude, than political failure has been in the past.

    I just heard James Fallows (former editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who is my age) say on the Diane Rehm show (which you can access at that the divisions that characterize our political culture are "the worst I can remember." He does note that they are not the worst in American history, citing the Civil War, but is also of the opinion that our institutions for governing are themselves near-liabilities in the effort to change that culture.

    Further, changing that culture gets us only to the starting point; the point at which we begin to develop viable responses to climate change and the inaccessibility or unavailability of what should be public goods, like quality public education and universal health care. Failure gets us to hugely consequential and sustained catastrophes on both global and genocidal scales that history has only hinted at in the past.

    Yes, success in effectively addressing these dangers could result in truly positive outcomes, like that outlined in point five: "The people alive now, especially people under, say, forty years old, can not only stop the looming catastrophe, they can be the force that ushers in a global Golden Age."

    And, sure, there are positive signs; renewable energy technologies may come to market and replace dependence on coal and oil sooner than most people imagine; equally dramatic improvements in carbon-sequestering technology might also have an impact on a large scale within the next decade. And, yes, there are hundreds of millions of Asians living a middle-class lifestyle that was unthinkable two decades ago. But, the political, social and climatological crises of this century will be only marginally addressed by market solutions--at least not the way I see it.

    What is called for here, in a general way, is a democratic renaissance. Both Fallows and Steven Flint seemed to be suggesting as much on the Dianne Rehm show I cited earlier. That is why my point five focuses on the critical importance of what people, especially young people, do next. I wish I could say something more specific than that now is a time for a reinvention of democracy and a revitalization of citizenship, but I can't. In fact, though I believe that there is an even chance that you and your peers will build a much enlarged and expanded democracy in the United States, I can imagine the outlines only vaguely and do not expect to live to see more than the beginnings of that new dawn.

    And, yes, again, Obama and his political team may help initiate some of the necessary changes. Personally, I've always believed that measuring voter participation tells us little about the real health of a democracy. It is reasonably likely that Obama, Axelrod, Emanuel and others think so, too. They are in the process of developing what Nation reporter Ari Melber calls a permanent policy campaign. You can find out more about that at this site:

  3. Good luck on the show and the trip in general. Perhaps you'd have time to read "The Long Emergency" in transit. It doesn't make for an optimistic discussion, but Kunstler's brooding talking points are certainly worth shedding more light on. My key concerns that I feel don't get realistic exposure is the topic of what the future holds for us in an energy-challenged world reaching the tipping point of human sustainability.

    I really like your MLK quote. You could take his keen exposure of the fallacy of making war to have peace and transfer the logic to green technology. It takes the laying down of arms and vast personal integrity to make peace, not aggressive fighting. For a more sustainable environment it takes consuming less and preserving more as opposed to funding technology to dispose of inefficient technology with only slightly better new products. The same vast cultural ah-hah moment required to truly buy into world peace is the scale of change needed to convince our Walmart-nation that our lifestyle is way out of line with anything mother nature can deal with much longer.

    I'm sure your talking points are more in line with the expectations of your host, though.

  4. Well, KP, we agree in general. But I don't expect to see huge advances in addressing climate change (or anything else) in the near future for two reasons:

    Huge advances come, when they come at all, only after large popular movements labor diligently for significant change. More important, I think, is that there are no real, popular movements for change right now and the institutional obstacles to the development of such movements are huge. What will it take to build a movement? First of all, it will take a mobilized generation, not exclusively 20- and 30-somethings, but significantly composed of young people in those age groups. They will have to believe, by the millions, that everything is at stake and that they have the power, courage and resolve to do it.

    And that movement will have to be mindful of the message at the heart of the King quote that you and I like so much:

    "We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends."

    A movement that is not built around such a message will not have the moral weight to mobilize fence-sitters and persuade or, at least, neutralize opponents. And it will be destroyed by its fiercest enemies.