MLK on How to Protest

Here are some useful and to me refreshing tactical procedures from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” What’s weird is that some of them may sound, to today’s geared-up young protestor, wimpily moderate or even weak, compared to chanting stuff like “Whose park? Our park!” and making fantastical claims of utter revolution, etc. But King thoroughly and invigoratingly blasts moderation in other parts of the letter. And his stuff worked. Not much else ever has.

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 had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

These and other parts of the letter bring home to me what I think is a problem for the Occupy movement (along with not having or probably even believing in having leadership like King’s): what it’s trying to change doesn’t come down to an evil law that can be lovingly broken. The goal is vast, the necessary change systemic. That doesn’t make it impossible, but even Occupy’s indirect civil disobedience — sleeping in parks, etc. — they insist is not lawbreaking at all, loving or otherwise, as they believe the first amendment gives them an absolute right to be there; they say the city is breaking the law. (That, and/or some protesters simply glory in temporarily breaking the law, unlovingly. I remember having that feeling, in the same streets of New York, too well to comment cogently on it right now. It’s seriously stupid, probably unavoidable.)

Mutual defiance ensues. Debate ends up devolving on whether the city is acting illegally in trying to disperse them (of course many other people — equally members of “the people” — are enraged at the city for not having moved them out earlier); and then naturally on whether the police are acting illegally in using violent tactics. Connections to the original goal of the protest can only be made via the familiar, non-usable accusation that all of society, at every level, is evilly combined in a well-oiled machine to oppress, and so must be constantly opposed at every turn. . . . And we’re back to business as usual.

Anyway: I like “I don’t see no riot here!/Take off your riot gear!” I hate “Whose park? Our park!”

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Liberal Hamiltonians (One Sect of) in “Vanity Fair” Get Whiskey Rebellion, Tea Party, Hamilton Himself Way Wrong

Or: How Liberalist Consensus Fails Both History and Politics

This is just classic:

With their steadfast resistance to taxes, their hostility toward central government, and their willingness to risk a national default, today’s Republican candidates tap into a different American tradition–one that begins not with tea but with whiskey: the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

To understand that rebellion and why President George Washington was willing to send troops to put it down, go back to the early days of the Revolution and look at what really motivated the founders.

So runs the apparent thesis statement — the straw man, really, since “that rebellion,” supposedly so important to understand, almost never comes up again in the piece — of an essay by Simon Johnson and James Kwak, intended to criticize Tea Party history and economics, in the current issue of Vanity Fair. In the top-five “most popular” online VF pieces, the essay is a perfect example of its (to me) dispiriting type: seemingly learned, reasonable-sounding, liberal; presented for a general readership by noted thinkers; glib, complacent, superficial, and therefore fatally flawed to the point of being just flat-out wrong in its effort to examine both the American populism of the 18th century and today’s populism, as represented by the Tea Party and other current right-wing sensibilities. (Or, for that matter, left-wing sensibilities.)

As such, the piece distills (ha! ha!) all the many ways in which highly informed, well-regarded, no-doubt well-meaning authors can so easily, almost reflexively, abuse history, especially when it comes to finance and economics.

Especially distressing about the piece is how many details the authors can get right, obvious and unexciting details to any student of the period, while somehow managing to ignore the all-important historical context that would give the piece any useful meaning for general readers. So they get all the big stuff, and indeed a certain number of critical facts, wrong, and wrong in a damaging way. Even as they tell their story, purportedly imparting historical wisdom to help us understand current debates, Johnson and Kwak prevent us from engaging with the realities of that history, or with today’s political conflicts over public debt and taxes, their ostensible subjects.

The main idea of the piece, right enough as far as it goes and as far as I’m concerned (and hardly meant to provoke Vanity Fair‘s readership to any new thought): the Tea Party is wrong about the founding-era history on which its claims are based. The Tea Party and the “constitutional conservatives” think the founding was about disempowering government, keeping taxes miniscule, and having no national debt. It wasn’t.

Because yes, yes, it’s true, as the authors say: Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, believed that a nation could thrive as such only if it enjoyed access to credit supported by reliable taxation. And yes: the Constitution enabled the Congress to tax, and the first Congress, advised by Hamilton, assumed all the state war debts in the federal one, levying taxes proposed by Hamilton to pay for the program. So yes: when Tea Party people say “the founders” excoriated debt and hated taxes, they’re not talking about Hamilton, or the Washington administration, or the first Congress, or even the Constitution as drafted, amended, and ratified.

Those observations are banal, but the piece is far worse than banal. The truisms lose all meaning when the authors try to develop their ideas both in terms of the founding period and in terms of today’s politics. Continue reading

“Occupy Wall Street” Reading List

Yes, reading. Might help with attempting coherence, distinguishing between a grievance and a demand, stuff like that. Call me a patronizing elitist — you won’t get any argument from me! — but in a world where sincerity is equated with the inarticulate and cogency is supposedly only a telltale sign of privilege and hierarchy, these readings show that sounding authoritative does not equal selling out to authority.

The Putney Debates. 1647. Rank and file in Cromwell’s Army believed they deserved the vote. Cromwell disagreed. The “Levellers” lost — but this is one of the first articulate demands for disconnecting rights from property.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr., argues for the validity of taking direct action in the street, not just waiting for courts to catch up.

The Port Huron Statement. 1962. In a time not of recession but of immense prosperity, students who had benefited from that very prosperity questioned its basis and demanded a renewal of American political values, at home and around the world. Prescient or self-fulfilling or both? Anyway, at once passionate and crystal clear.

The Populist Party Platform. 1892. “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists.”

Common Sense. 1776. Paine’s call not only for American independence but also, and more importantly — and this is the part routinely and deliberately ignored or marginalized by liberal “consensus” historians — for social equality, in a new kind of American republic.

That’s a start. . . .