Dr. King, Congressman Lewis & Other Creative Extremists
I was up in the air on the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Flying somewhere over Iowa, between Clinton and Waterloo, our flight pattern took us over the Skunk River. For some reason then my thoughts turned to the presidential inauguration this week.
What might Dr. King say about our nation’s current dilemma in leadership? Only a few days ago Congressman John Lewis indicated he would not be attending the presidential inauguration of Donal Trump and said he considered the election of the president-elect to be illegitimate.
What might Dr. King say? Would he agree with Mr. Lewis? No one can know for certain — however, let me respond as one who was around when Dr. King was active. If anything, Dr. King might say that John Lewis was too timid — that he should have said more about resisting the impending disregard for fair elections, truth and transparency on the part of anyone who would seek to serve as president.
I remember well Dr. King’s courage. I remember that at the time of his death most white folks in the United States thought he was too radical and disagreed with him. I remember his commitment to the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised. I remember his care for the U.S. Constitution and the need to stand against those who would seek to distort justice. Dr. King, like Mr. Lewis today, was considered by many well-intentioned persons to be an extremist for justice.
Writing from the Birmingham Jail in April 1963, Dr. King responds to eight clergymen who indicated that the activities in the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely.” Does this sound familiar? Aren’t we hearing the same thing about Congressman Lewis’ comments.
Here is a passage from Dr. King’s letter to the clergy in Birmingham in 1963:
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. [From “Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963]
Prior to re-reading the text of Dr. King’s famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail while flying 32,000 feet in the air, my tendency was to think that perhaps Congressman Lewis had overstated — gone too far. However, I now think Congressman Lewis’ statement was right, and was that of a courageous extremist.
For what might Mr. Lewis be called “an extremist?” For asking us to “love the neighbor?” For asking that our elections be fair and voter suppression to end? For thinking foreign governments shouldn’t meddle in our democracy, nor be invited to do so by any candidate? What about Donald Trump, where is he an extremist?
Always before in my adult life, when I disagreed with the incoming president, I made the distinction between the person and the office. However, what does it mean that most Americans today seem to respect the office of the presidency MORE than the man who was about to take the oath of office? What does it mean that patterns of lies and deceptions have become normative? What does it mean that this person will not be transparent with tax returns, seeks to find a dodge around potential conflicts of interest, challenges the intelligence experts of this nation, denies climate change, seeks to make alliances with known totalitarian practitioners and sees them as preferable to President Obama?
Reading an article by Ned Resnikoff in ThinkProgress (11/27/17) there was research that helped confirm my doubts and Congressmen Lewis’ concerns (see Ned Resnikoff, ThinkProgress, 11/27/16). What we are facing is a constitutional crisis. One that Dr. King would have recognized. Resnikoff speaks of the coming administration’s style as “managed democracy.” It is a perspective hostile to open, egalitarian standards of governance. It is the preferred way suggested by Steve Bannon, now White House Chief Strategist, who famously said, “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. That’s power.” Bannon hates a government based on compromise and consensus. Borrowing from Putin’s crony Valdimir Serkoff, it is an approach that seeks to destabilize, distort, encourage contradictions and lies — always pointing to another as the true enemy or liar.
What happens when no news is to be trusted and all news is called “fake.” What happens when press conferences turn into diversionary attacks on others or the media? What happens when judges are accused of bias if you disagree?
The strategy is not new to our electoral process. Karl Rove was a master at inversion or diversion whereby one’s own candidate’s weakness is projected on to the opponent preemptively. Okay, that is politics, and as they say “it ain’t beanbag!”
However, what is underway now, in our current experience, is so much more pernicious and dangerous. It has been called inverted totalitarianism: All news media are said to be fake, so trust your prejudices over facts. Who can know the truth? There are so many distortions and points of view… Or, all politicians are crooks and liars, our guy is so much more entertaining! He is, so to speak, “a crook, but our crook.” Reality television comes to Washington and truth is fractioned out of our institutions. Schools, courts, churches, scientists, the press — all civic institutions are not to be trusted.
When there is no truth to be trusted and when the people doubt their own moral compass with so many competing and confusing points of view — then those who can continue to distort and create confusion in a post-factual world, they can claim the power to keep their machinery going to their benefit. It is no wonder that Mr. Trump admires Mr. Putin so fully.
I believe Mr. Lewis spoke and continues to speak a courageous word. It is a word that is uncomfortable to hear. John Lewis still has a strong moral compass. He is still a creative extremist. I stand with Congressman Lewis.