Growing up in Atlanta meant Martin Luther King, Jr. was always a prominent historical, and local, figure. For the past five years I’ve lived within a mile of his birthplace. I pass by there and the King Center (also the site of his tomb) frequently.
This time of year functions as my hinge—the halfway point between birthdays. And winter is always the time when I am more internal—both in the literal sense of more time indoors, and also more introspective. I have been thinking a lot about how to debate, disagree, dissent, and criticize with grace. How to vocalize unpopular or unwelcome sentiments while respecting opposition.
MLK, of course, provides many examples of vocalizing unpopular and unwelcome ideas constructively—with the intention of using “soul force.” I did not realize until adulthood that I had learned unevenly about his work. In school, I had read the “I Have a Dream” speech dozens of times, yet had never read “Beyond Vietnam”—the latter also a speech so poignant and still so relevant today. I also knew little about the Poor People’s Campaign—another movement still completely relevant. His speech at the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign could have been spoken this morning, as much apropos then as it is now (emphasis added):
America is at a crossroads of history and it is critically important for us as a nation and a society to choose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage.
It is impossible to underestimate the crisis we face in America. The stability of a civilization, the potential of free government, and the simple honor of men are at stake. Those who serve in the human rights movement…are keenly aware of the increasing bitterness and despair and frustration that threaten the worst chaos, hatred, and violence any nation has ever encountered. In a sense, we are already at war with and among ourselves. Affluent Americans are locked in the suburbs of physical comfort and mental insecurity. Poor Americans are locked inside ghettos of material privation and spiritual debilitation. And all of us can almost feel the presence of a kind of social insanity which could lead to national ruin.
We have been at war with each other for quite some time, and I think everyone detects the insanities—wars, poverty, violence, health care, education. People are being shot in movie theaters. Elementary schoolchildren are not safe. Individuals, particularly women, often lack legal protection for control over their own bodies.
Constructive dialogue is vitally important. What and how and why—we need that dialogue now, with everyone involved. What, specifically, is terrible? What, specifically, works? How can we compromise? How can we respect multiple sides of a complicated issue? In contrast, sensationalist rhetoric (overt racism or sexism, inaccuracies, misinformation) is not only offensive, disrespectful, and unnecessary, but also completely unproductive.
Which is why I do my best to ignore it. For example, when the Affordable Care Act was passed, I never read beyond any overblown headlines or social media posts. Had I notice any that said “ACA will solve all of society’s problems” or “All Americans now in perfect health due to ACA,” I still would not have read them. Such statements, of course, are patently absurd. I did, however, scroll past many, many statements comparing the ACA to slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. And that is exactly how much I read. Definitely NOT constructive dialogue. Health care legislation, however unpalatable, is not human trafficking.
I believe in free speech; I support the right to praise and criticize. Mutliple opinions, whether pro or con, help shape society to its best form. Implementation of the ACA has been messy, exceedingly so in many cases. But change always is. I wasn’t alive for the end of segregation in schools, but the process required intervention from the National Guard—just for nine people, against a mob, to go to school.
But direct, functional dialogue would help far more than preposterous attacks. In the interests of constructive discourse—clearly, those comparing the ACA to slavery or the Fugitive Slave Act care nothing for useful debate—I prefer direct confrontation, not remarks so offensive that they are best left ignored. But outlandish people willing to make those statements simply wish to garner attention and perpetuate the quagmire we would all benefit to clean up.
The irony of comparing the ACA to slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act is that the most persistent, pervasive slavery in this country is the wealth gap. And not just financial wealth—but also wealth in terms of information, access to services (like health care), education. The social insanity of financial lack is at crisis proportions. People have debt they may never pay off; they will have those payments for decades, if not for life. They cannot change anything in their lives because they are already underwater with debt—they can’t afford to move to a new city in order to advance their careers. They can’t save enough money to buy a home or have a child. Many are literally a paycheck from insolvency.
(Certainly, some of this burden is self-imposed—plenty of people live beyond their means. However, many people go bankrupt due to job loss or unexpected healthcare costs, for example. One of the planks of the Poor People’s Campaign was a guaranteed income for those unable to do or find work.)
Poverty in all forms drains our system. Corporations cutting corners so that CEOs earn outrageous bonuses taxes (I use that word deliberately) the economy eventually, often at a higher cost. On a personal level, I am so, so fed up that amounts of money which stress my friends and I equate to inconsequential luxury goods. A coin purse is equivalent to more than half a month’s rent. More than a month’s expenses equates to a wallet. One ridiculous bar tab could easily cover living expenses of an upper middle-class family for a year, let alone multiple families living more frugally.
Truly, I find this ostentation offensive. Not because I hope my friends and I become so wealthy that we’re extravagantly wasteful. Rather, I know we could all do much more for the world were we not so deeply beholden to our financial circumstances.
Like the War on Drugs and the War on Terror™ which we are definitely, absolutely, utterly losing, so also are we losing the War on Poverty. MLK would not have supported either of the former two, on similar grounds that he opposed the Vietnam War: money that could be better spent domestically, deaths of US soldiers (disproportionately from poor backgrounds), among many other reasons. He demonstrated constructive, nonviolent ways to create useful debate—as opposed to BS “news” networks and “journalists” who rely on deception and reactionary production.
For me, his willingness not only to take unpopular stances on war and povery, as well as face public criticism for his views, is as compelling a legacy as anything else he did. And now, so desperately, in “the fierce urgency of now” (his words, not mine), we all need meaningful, compassionate conversation, so that everyone may thrive.
SK © 2014