Monday, January 15, 2018

A Dream As Yet Unfulfilled


This photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. hangs in my bedroom in Brooklyn.   Beyond liking the composition of the shot, I chose the photo for a couple of reasons. First, I was attracted to the intimacy of the image.  It does not capture King making a speech or leading a demonstration or meeting with world leaders, but rather hanging out in a hotel room reading the newspaper. For me, this is a reminder of King’s basic humanity; he was, at the end of the day, a normal person called to perform extraordinary deeds.

I also chose the photo for its historical significance.  King is pictured on the cusp of a major civil rights event: a march across the breadth of Mississippi that he undertook in 1966 after James Meredith (the man responsible for integrating the University of Mississippi) was shot by a would-be assassin. 

The Meredith March Against Fear was the subject of my college thesis, which argued that the demonstration was a pivotal event in the history of the civil rights movement – the moment when things began to fall apart.  Stokely Carmichael’s use of the slogan “black power” along the course of the march made national news, helping to expose a fault line between militant civil rights groups and those who were more interested in working with and within existing American institutions.

In many ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. was caught in the middle of this conflict.  King was both a radical and a moderate.  He was a fierce critic of American engagement in Vietnam and economic inequality at home.  At the same time, he never wavered from his commitment to non-violence and what he called “Negro-White unity.”  In my thesis, I wrote this:

King’s ability to avoid a retreat into bitterness and despair is testimony to the power of his idealism.  Throughout his life, King was motivated, in large part, by a sense of the possibilities of American democracy. He dreamed of creating a “beloved community” with a zeal that rivaled the Puritan longing for a shining city on a hill.  Although King would admit that the “the nation is sick,” he never abandoned his vision of American equality.  “In a real sense,” King said,

America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled.  It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream.

These are difficult days for those of us who still believe in the American dream.  Seemingly every day, there is a new assault on core American values like pluralism, tolerance, and civility.  All too often these assaults are coming from inside the White House itself -- the latest being the President’s denigration of immigrants from Haiti and other countries.  Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s rebuke of the President was admirably succinct: “America is an idea, not a race.”

Just a few things I am thinking about on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Crisis Reading List


One of words that I notice being used a lot these days is "unprecedented" (usually with regard to some violation of long-accepted "norms").  I understand the logic, and the emotion, behind this phenomenon. After all, the past 12 months have seen a number of events -- Nazis marching in Virginia, the threat of nuclear conflict with North Korea, attacks on the media and other crucial civic institutions, etc. -- that have felt uniquely destabilizing.

Perhaps for this reason, my reading list for 2017 veered toward non-fiction grounded in crisis.  I started the year with The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. The Undoing Project is an intellectual history of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the two academics credited with creating the field of behavioral economics. Their friendship was forged in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.  Even as he traces the arc of Kahneman and Tversky's career, Lewis takes pains to highlight the context that gave birth to their partnership: the sense of existential vulnerability experienced by Israelis during the early years of the country, which were marked by violence and conflict.

Next I turned to Thomas Ricks' Churchill and Orwell, a joint history of two legendary figures from England.  The context for the book is World War II, but Ricks seems to be writing with at least one eye on our present moment.  He lauds his two subjects for their shared commitment to truth over ideology and their willingness to take on political extremists on the Left and the Right.  In a way, it is a crazy book -- Ricks doesn't unearth any new historical material and his two central characters never actually interact with each other. But I thought the book worked on the strength of Ricks' storytelling and skill as a writer.  After reading the book, I saw that he went out of his way to credit his editor with helping him polish the manuscript.  Good on him.

I've written before about James Forman's Locking Up Our Own, my favorite criminal justice book of 2017, so I won't go into detail about it here, but it too describes a time and a place of crisis: Washington DC in the midst of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

My calamity reading list reached its apogee with Alwyn Turner's Crisis? What Crisis: Britain in the 1970s.  This was actually the second book I read on this topic, along with Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies.  Both books offer a helpful  perspective on the current emergencies in the United States.  The winter of discontent...three-day work weeks...a series of disruptive labor strikes...trash piling up in Leicester Square...declining trust in government combined with a rise in political extremism -- the sense of a country coming apart at the seams was, I would argue, stronger in the UK in the 70s than it is now in the US.

I can't say that I have figured out some grand unifying theory or tidy set of lessons from all of these books.  But I have taken some (perhaps perverse?) comfort.  The times we are living through are challenging to be sure, but they are not wholly without precedent.  I am enough of an optimist to believe that better days are ahead of us if we can, collectively, summon the better angels of our nature. Best wishes for the new year.