It is very hard to be sitting here on 1 February, 2017—almost 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in Riverside Church to share the searing, heartfelt words of “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”—contemplating the Orange Disgrace occupying the White House, Dr. King’s “giant triplets of militarism, materialism, and racism” rolled into one.
For everyone I know, current reality has a split personality.
The good news is thrilling. In half a century of activism, I have never seen this level of outrage and rapid mobilization: the Women’s Marches; the airport demonstrations in response to the Muslim ban; countless petitions and phone-calling campaigns; and today, people again rising for the Water Protectors and against the Dakota Access Pipeline. My own work is primarily with artists and creative organizers, and everywhere I look, I see an unprecedented outpouring of creativity deployed to awaken empathy, social imagination, and healing action. I have no doubt this will continue and expand, because it is motivated by the same moral grandeur and compassion in action that inspired the first line of Dr. King’s speech: “my conscience leaves me no other choice.”
“Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us,” said Dr. King. “If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.”
The bad news is terrifying. An authoritarian government is taking shape, steamrolling over the checks and balances that are supposed to limit executive power, issuing an effluvium of executive orders targeting the most vulnerable and consolidating authority in one broken and vengeful man. Today, less than two weeks after the inauguration, some elected representatives are collaborating with this effort; others are tacitly allowing it to proceed; and a courageous few are protesting.
The question I am living into is this: can this tidal wave of opposition drown the Current Occupant’s ambition to be Dictator-in-Chief, or— after so many decades of racial, gender, environmental, cultural, and economic injustice—will our fragile democratic freedoms and institutions be swept under?
When Dr. King gave this speech, I was working in San Francisco as a draft counselor. (That profession was eliminated by the end of the military draft: we draft counselors helped young men, appalled at the prospect of being forced into service killing Vietnamese, find ways to obtain deferments or file for conscientious objector status.) The draft had brought the war home for every 18 year-old male. Some won automatic deferments as students. Others had disqualifying medical conditions or the resources to find a doctor who would say so.
All three triplets were in play, as they are today. Young men from low-income families, especially those of color, filled the ranks in disproportionate numbers, lacking the resources, connections, or even the information to know they had options. In the Bay Area, it became impossible to fill induction quotas, with large numbers refusing induction, failing physicals (sometimes due to baroque combinations of play-acting and bizarre diets or drug mixtures), or filing as conscientious objectors. It took a while, but in the end, the massive refusal to go along with an unjust war helped to bring that war to a close.
In the intervening years, it has been my privilege to witness the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States, and a raft of other developments that have increased human freedom through a massive refusal to go along with illegitimate authority and stirring, propositional advocacy for what is right. I cannot predict what coming months will bring—the shock and awe campaign emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has already beggared imagination—but of two things I am certain:
It is upon us to refuse to allow our minds and spirits to be colonized by the delusion that this is normal, and that with faith in the system, we will abide. “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
And it is upon us to inspire massive people-power not only to resist fraudulent and corrupt authority, but to continue—despite discouragement, rejecting cynicism—to propose and build the equitable, democratic, peaceful, and just alternatives to a system that has given birth (pace William Butler Yeats) to this “rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born.”
The United States has spawned myriad progressive movements, most devoted to a specific focus: racial justice, climate justice, gender justice, and so on. All are essential, important threads in the project of mending our society to strengthen our capacity to practice love and justice. As threats to democracy mount, more people are saying that now is the time to weave those threads into a fabric stronger than hate. This is from Black Lives Matter co-creator Alicia Garza just after January’s Women’s Marches:
No one is safe from the transition this country is undergoing. While many of us have faced hate, ignorance and greed in our daily lives, the period that we have entered is unlike anything that any of us has ever seen before.
We can build a movement in the millions, across difference. We will need to build a movement across divides of class, race, gender, age, documentation, religion and disability. Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you. Simply said, we need each other, and we need leadership and strategy.
The Jewish concept of t’shuvah is often translated as repentance, but the more literal meaning is turning, or as I think of it, reorientation. When we practice t’shuvah, we turn away from indifference and illusion, reorienting ourselves like so many compasses to the magnetic north that Dr. King described this way: “a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation.”
The conceptual roadmap he sketched out 50 years ago will still lead us to that destination. We have only to follow it:
“I am convinced,” he wrote, “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 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, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Which side are we on?
Our opponent is formidable, exploiting the political right’s advantage, which is a fanatical focus on nay-saying, tearing things down. The president’s program thus far consists almost entirely of abolishing, cutting, and forbidding, infinitely quicker to execute than building and creating, which take time. No one thinks it will be easy to counter this wild love of destruction with the power of love in the service of justice. But if we heed Dr. King, we will prevail.