Saturday, January 16, 2010

Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama

The links between Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama are hard to miss. Obama's historic election as the first African American President of the United States seemed to echo the stirring words of King's 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
Obama's inauguration took place on Tuesday, January 20th 2009, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This Monday—one year later—Martin Luther King Jr. Day will again be celebrated, and with the one-year mark of Obama's presidency imminent, connections between the two men will again be drawn—including the fact that both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But an examination of Obama's December-10th acceptance speech suggests some striking differences.

The Nobel committee's selection of Obama so early in his presidency was controversial. Fuel was added to the fire when, just nine days before accepting the prize, he announced that he was sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. His acceptance speech was unapologetic:
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
Yet he went on to say:
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
Can you feel a "but" coming?
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.
So there it is. King and Gandhi had great "moral force", but, apparently unlike them, Obama faces "the world as it is". This strikes me as a shocking distortion: King and Gandhi were deeply involved in practical action, and indeed were instrumental in bringing about change.

The rhetorical pattern we see here is repeated throughout Obama's speech. Moral principles are praised (as long as they remain principles), but "hard truth" is emphasized. Carefully crafted oratory is used to sell the Orwellian idea that "War is Peace". But the awkward fact remains that Martin Luther King Jr. was a proponent of non-violence. What does Obama make of that?
The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached -- their fundamental faith in human progress -- that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.
It would appear that non-violence can be dispensed with when required. What is apparently fundamental is something rather vague and comforting: "love" and "faith in human progress". Of course Martin Luther King Jr. did talk above love, but as a basis for moral decisions rather than a distraction from them.

King's 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is strikingly different from Obama's, as this excerpt suggests:
After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of [the civil rights movement] is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time - the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s words apply to the world as it is in 2010, just as they did in 1964.

Update (18-Jan-2010): Jeff Nall has written an excellent piece on "How Obama Betrays Reverend King’s Philosophy of Nonviolence".

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Blogger Joe said...

I wonder if one of the main reasons people even suggest Barack Obama is somewhat like King and Gandhi is because he follows George Bush.

Many also say that the is as the reason he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

9:42 AM, January 17, 2010  
Blogger AngieatWhatNewsShouldBe said...

Ah, the two men's names don't belong in the same sentence. As you indicate, King was a man of peace. Obama is a warmonger. King also knew that American had a responsibility to address global poverty and make it a thing of the past - download this free flyer here in that regard which quotes extensively from a sermon King gave just 4 days before he was gunned down -
Obama gives billions to banks and a measly 100 million to the most desperate of people in Haiti - people who were desperate even before the earthquake. Suffice it to say that the men have nothing in common.

10:40 AM, January 17, 2010  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...


I agree that the post-Bush factor is hugely important. Bush was such a disaster and many people were so hopeful about Obama that they were willing to ignore troubling signs. But he still needs to be held accountable.

4:35 PM, January 17, 2010  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...


Thanks, that flyer is interesting. King is such an inspiration!

4:42 PM, January 17, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has the "world as it is" changed radically since 1964? There are still divisions between political pragmatists and social idealists. It seems that Obama has swallowed a good dose of Niebuhrian realism since his election. The best he can do today is pay lip service to King and Gandhi and appreciate that their main roll is to occasionally "prick the conscience" of those who do not have the courage to envision a world where might no longer makes right. Nevertheless, there's an African American as President of the US - a change that can't be overlooked. But neither can the asinine comments of Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh regarding Haiti, which would simply be laughable if there were not so many people who agreed with them. If only they had a conscience to prick.

10:01 PM, January 17, 2010  
Blogger Matjaz said...

Obama realizes that some things cannot be defeated without force. Hitler could not have been stopped using non-violence. And curiously, that's the part of the speech you choose to not quote here.

The thing though is, that the War on terrorism that America is engaged in is based on a simple motivation: Save lives. Not Only in the United States but throughout the world. Because if you don't do nothing about them, jihadist Muslim terrorists will use nukes when they get them and it won't be pretty.

If always using non-violence would be the answer there would be no need for security, police and military. That's logical thinking.

4:01 PM, April 05, 2010  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Thanks for your comment Matjaz.

When war is called into question, the case of the Nazis is often cited. But as this recent article discusses, non-violent actions played an important part in opposing the Nazis.

The motivation for the so-called "War on terrorism" deserves scrutiny. Warmakers often propose bogus justifications (Hitler did so when he invaded the Sudetenland, Bush and Blair did so when they invaded Iraq).

The specter of nuclear weapons is indeed troubling. The peace movement has been arguing for nuclear disarmament for many years.

Finally, I don't see security and police as being in the same category as the military.

When it comes to logical thinking, the key ingredient is the assumptions we bring with us. This discussion demonstrates how different assumptions can lead to very different conclusions.

9:08 PM, April 05, 2010  
Blogger Matjaz said...

Security police and military use the same means to achieve their objective - force. Why? It's necessary. So in that sense they're absolutely in the same category.

The article made some solid points, but the fact remains that Hitler could not have been stopped using non-violence.

With jihadist Muslim terrorists you have an ideology that sets the conditions for people to blow themselves up for Allah, while killing 'infidels'. They worship death.

The troubling ideology is summed up by Bin Laden:
"There are only three choices in Islam: [1] either willing submission [conversion]; [2] or payment of the jizya, through physical, though not spiritual, submission to the authority of Islam; [3] or the sword — for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live. The matter is summed up for every person alive: Either submit, or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die. (The Al Qaeda Reader, p. 42)"

If I remember correctly Bin Laden offered the West to convert to his religion in 2007, in one of his videos. A refusal gives these fanatics even more right, in their mind, to slaughter 'infidels', as evidenced by the quote.

I don't think you had suicide bombers in Nazism even. So indeed, I rightly compare the evil of Jihad to Nazism.

The only difference is that Jihadists are spread all over the world, with most of them originating and concentrated in the middle east, hence the military action there.

Pacifism means being ignorant of the nature of the enemy, who doesn't want peace.. as Neville Chamberlain was. Neville foolishly signed a peace contract with Hitler, one day before WW2.

So if history thought us anything, it is to not be naive and assume that people are operating from logic and responsibility when they obviously are not.

And it looks like it's not gonna stop. A recent example was the Moscow Metro bombing. The bombers were inspired by Wahhabism. Based on Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab's ideology it's the basis of most if not all of Islam terrorism around the world in the last 2 centuries, because Wahhab basically returned to Mohhammed's "Holy War".

I think it will get worse, before it will get better. I hope I'm wrong about that, though.

7:08 AM, April 06, 2010  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Distinctions between security, police, and the military are interesting, and I plan to write more about this. Security and police have some coercive powers, but their fundamental purpose is not violent. Police have the authority to pull a driver over for running a red light, and if the driver turns out to be intoxicated, to arrest them. This clearly involves some infringement on liberty, and to the extent that the driver resists arrest, physical coercion. I would distinguish this from violence, however. In our society, deliberate (rather than accidental) harm to the driver would itself be treated as a criminal offense. By contrast, in warfare the explicit aim is to inflict harm.

I agree with you about the bane of terrorism—regardless of its religious or ideological foundations. I would argue however, that in our world, terrorism is predominantly committed by states. The logic and tools of this violence are easily picked up by the extremist groups you mention.

If you are interested in more about pacifism, I would point you to my new blog

10:44 PM, April 06, 2010  
Blogger Matjaz said...

You fail to distinguish between striving for peace of individuals in society and of governments who have the military force to stop violence and save lives.

If somebody goes postal on school campus and starts shooting people, the police will most likely take him down, if they can, to save lives. What sense would it make to let him run wild? A pacfist police cheif, for example, would cause even more deaths, by refusing to even harm the agressor.

So a pacifist's ideology, can in some positions, be an agressor's scott free pass and more lives would be lost as a result.

If you know there is a fanatical bunch of people - Jihadists - that strives to kill 'infedels', what sense does it make to let them run wild and control whole countries, so that they can use oil (money) to bomb everybody? It doesn't.

One can argue military strategy, but the fundamental principles of why the West is engaged in this war against jihad is to prevent more people from being killed. The goal is peace.

It is entierly possible that a non-violent movement speeds up the deterioration and collapse of terrorists organizations by, you know, converting Al-Qaida memebers from 'kill the infidel' to love people, or "even love your enemy", as was the case of the Palestinian-born author who wrote the book 'Son of Hamas'.

But in the meanwhile, It's just very naive to believe you can let them run wild and hope for the best. They've shown over and over that they will 'infidels', if given a chance.

9:07 AM, April 07, 2010  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

You wrote:

If somebody goes postal on school campus and starts shooting people, the police will most likely take him down, if they can, to save lives.

Situations like this tend to have terrible outcomes regardless of police action. The shooter will often take his (it usually is a man) own life. The euphemism "take him down" generally means to shoot (and often kill) the perpetrator. I wonder if violent police tactics in such situations may do more harm than good, fueling the perpetrator's paranoia and encouraging a "go-for-broke" attitude.

What sense would it make to let him run wild?

I certainly agree that such an individual needs to be stopped, but not deliberately harmed. For example, there may be situations where some kind of sleeping gas could be used. This would be a case of physical intervention, but not violence in the sense that I use it, namely deliberate harm. A variety of such non-violent interventions may have some utility. Still, I don't dispute that these are very difficult situations, nor do I claim to have all the answers.

But I do think that our culture often leads us to see violence as the only solution. Methods of nonviolent crisis intervention originally developed for staff working with psychiatric patients focus on "prevention, de-escalation, and the use of physical intervention only as a last resort when an individual presents a danger to self or others." Methods like these are increasingly being used in law enforcement.

11:13 PM, April 08, 2010  
Blogger Matjaz said...

..and it's important for police to act, in the 'gone postal on a school campus' situation because if they don't more people are going to get killed. It's no time to be wishy washy about how that will be done, or think of the perpetrator's rights.

I don't see any alternatives for defeating groups like Al-Qaida, other than being the best people we can be. The military will do it's part to limit them.

Unfortunately, a lot of these "peace loving people", curiously turn to hate US Presidents, while 'forgiving' terrorists and trying to understand them.

That tells me they're not being sincere in their compassion stance if they make such gross deliberate exceptions.

Also, most peace or anti-war protests seem to attract very vile people that often turn violent.

6:52 PM, April 09, 2010  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Military forces don't have a great track record dealing with terrorists. Quite the contrary: in some cases military forces themselves behave like terrorists (e.g. in employing carpet bombing tactics). If wrongful actions committed by terrorists and military forces around the world are countered by further military actions, we will find ourselves in an unending spiral of violence. Indeed, history provides ample evidence of this. For example, the conflict in Sri Lanka involved escalating atrocities from both sides.

Unfortunately, a lot of these "peace loving people", curiously turn to hate US Presidents, while 'forgiving' terrorists and trying to understand them.

A few distinctions should be made. First, criticizing US Presidents (as I have done) is not the same as hating them. Second, trying to understand the sources of terrorism is not the same as forgiving or making excuses for terrorists. There may be people who hate US Presidents and forgive terrorists, but I suspect they are few. It is also worth pointing out that as citizens of Western democracies, we have far more influence over our own leaders than we do over terrorists in other countries. Indeed we have a responsibility to hold our leaders accountable for their actions.

8:24 AM, April 10, 2010  
Blogger Matjaz said...

To not have to turn to war against terrorists, maybe sounds good on paper. But as I pointed out before, these people are not rational nor do they care about peace. Nothing was done to these people. All the excuses they cite is just a rationalization of their hate. The hate that was there prior to any rationalization. And some 'anti-war' or pro-peace' people naively pick that up as truth.

It reminds me of Osama Bin Laden recommending Chomsky, as, I'm paraphrasing "Hey, listen to this guy" in a 2007 video. Of course, Bil Laden will recommend articulate useful idiots to advance his agenda.

At the heart of Jihadist terrorism is killing people who refuse to convert.

That's why I pointed out the peace parade hypocrisy, because, from what I saw, you cite a movie from an organization 'New Brave World' that says it is for peace, but it has nothing but hate for the people (Bush administration) who decided it was in the best interest to fight terrorists, instead of just waiting for them to strike again.

The reason I say this: Robert Greenwald, the founder of that organization. In my view of it, if the founder is dishonest, I have little time for their material, that just reflects the dishonesty of it's founder.

4:04 PM, April 10, 2010  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

A recent article in the New York times, Words as Weapons: Dropping the ‘Terrorism’ Bomb, discusses how the use of the term "terrorism" can be highly selective. When right-wing Christians commit acts of terror, there is a reluctance to label it for what it is. The same reluctance is absent when the perpetrators are Muslim.

As others have pointed out, "one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter." The article refers to a 1986 radio address by Ronald Reagan:

Thinking of ends and not means, Mr. Reagan praised the Nicaraguan contra rebels, who had a bloody record fighting the Communist Sandinistas, as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” In the cold war contest with the Soviet Union, he armed and embraced the Afghan “freedom fighters” and their Arab allies, some of whom evolved into the terrorists of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

6:52 PM, April 12, 2010  
Blogger Matjaz said...

Sleight of hand - Al-Qaida, by definition are not freedom fighters. They blew up Iraqis, their own countrymen, when they went out to exercise their freedom to cast their ballot in the recent election. Al-Qaida wants 'Belive or die' theocracy, not freedom.

And I'm assuming you wouldn't call that kind of theocracy freedom.

In this context saying "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is like saying "Black is white and white is black".

Dishonesty of the New York Times Op-eds has become the norm.

You know what? I'd have a lot more respect for the 'peace movement' that you represent too, if it didn't resort to far-left distortions that vilify acts that are actually responses to terrorism itself. They attacked the Pentagon, almost succeeded in hitting the White House and slaughtered almost 3,000 people. More than in Pearl Harbor.

So, was FDR a terrorists too? Henry Truman? Of course not.

If a president values human lives he will not let killings go on, if he can do something about it. There is no sense in being passive and give away lives because you're afraid some people might be offended and think it's terrorism itself. It's not.

Even though they are very different, George Bush and Barak Obama agree on one thing: Al-Qaida would use nukes if it could.

In a hearbeat.

3:38 PM, April 13, 2010  
Blogger Tobi said...

wondering if you knew more specific examples of Barack Obama's explicit paralleling with King in his speeches etc.. :)

10:15 PM, May 12, 2010  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I'm not aware of this, but it wouldn't surprise me.

7:31 AM, May 15, 2010  
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