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".