EPISTEMIC ENCLOSURES: Was Dr. King right?

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 28, 2013

Part 3—Love of hate: Friend, might we liberals be in the grip of some epistemic enclosures?

We’re good at spotting the “epistemic closure” in the other tribe—and without any question, it’s there. But are any mental habits penning us in? Possibly holding us back?

We’d have to go with yes. One such epistemic enclosure would be the love of hate.

Are we liberals learning to hate the other tribe? Being encouraged to do so?

On Sunday, Maureen Dowd penned the first column of her ongoing makeup tour. She beat up on a no-name, accidental member of Congress while suggesting that he’s just a racist.

We liberals loved her pander! Below, you see the comment Dowd’s readers loved best among all the comments she received—the comment which was “recommended” by the most readers by far.

“Jarama Valley” is a reference to the Spanish Civil War:
COMMENTER FROM JARAMA VALLEY (8/24/13): Obama may be black, but it's not racism that is the cause of the hatred. 50 years ago this November, JFK was told not to fly to Texas, for the anger and vitriol down South was palpable, and there was a fear for the president's life.

There is a strange part of America that fears any change to the established order. There have always been politicians who prey on fear.

The far right is a clear and present danger to the health and welfare of the nation.

I've had enough. I hate the haters. I despise the bigots. My skin crawls when I listen to the likes of Ted Cruz open their mouths.
This commenter didn’t think the hatred of Obama was caused by racism, the sweet treat Dowd had dispensed. He recalled the hatred of President Kennedy, who was widely alleged to be white.

In fairness, he also said he despises the bigots, perhaps implying that Cruz is numbered among their kind.

“The only viable alternative is at the voting booth,” this commenter said as he ended his comment. “Vote out the haters,” he implored, shortly after he himself had possibly joined some such club.

Among the 505 comments the New York Times posted, this was the most recommended comment by far. We liberals thrilled to its war cry: “I hate the haters.”

The commenter said he hates and despises. We liberals roared our assent.This struck us as a limiting, perhaps self-defeating sentiment.

It also struck us as perhaps a bit strange at this particular moment.

This week, we’re all honoring, or pretending to honor, the memory of Dr. King. And yet, the most consequential of Dr. King’s teachings may have been his insistence that we shouldn’t, mustn’t hate those who aren’t in our tribe.

Needless to say, Dr. King said and did many things in the course of his career. But his rejection of hate was central. It may explain his success.

Mandela also rejected hate. Indeed, the greatest achievers of the last century seem to fit in this camp. And yet, we liberals are now being whipped into a familiar old stance, in which we assert the greatness of our own tribe and announce how much we hate The Others.

Indeed, The Others are so vile that we now feel free to invent ugly facts about them. This is the oldest pattern in human conduct. It’s also the pattern Dr. King explicitly chose to reject.

In Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, Taylor Branch describes the night in 1956 when Dr. King’s home in Montgomery was bombed for the first time. For what it's worth, Dr. King had just turned 27.

Dr. King was informed of the bombing while at a public meeting; it wasn’t known if his wife and baby daughter were safe. By the time he reached his home, the mayor and the police commissioner were present. Also present: an angry crowd, some of whom carried guns.

After ascertaining that his wife and daughter were safe, King walked onto the porch. Branch records what he said:
BRANCH (page 165): King walked out onto the front porch. Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. “Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the word will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”
One year later, Dr. King published Stride Toward Freedom, his own remarkable account of the Montgomery bus boycott. In the book, he describes the earlier search which finally took him to Gandhi’s concept of non-violent resistance, and to what he repeatedly called “the love ethic of Jesus.”

In that book, Dr. King also described what he said on the porch that night. This was his own account of what he said, written in his own words:
KING (page 137): In this atmosphere I walked out to the porch and asked the crowd to come to order. In less than a moment there was complete silence. Quietly I told them that I was all right and that my wife and baby were all right. “Now let’s not become panicky,” I continued. “If you have weapons, take them home. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ ” I then urged them to leave peacefully. “We must love our white brothers,” I said, “no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo through the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”
We must meet hate with love, Dr. King said. But then again, what did he know?

Dr. King had some advantages. He wasn’t running an on-line magazine or a cable channel. For that reason, he didn’t have a financial incentive to create a world built around the pleasurable loathing of Them.

He had also studied long and hard, looking for an approach that would actually work as he tried to challenge an entrenched order. In Stride Toward Freedom, he describes the process by which he came to believe that the aggressive rejection of hate would provide that winning approach.

For a lengthy chunk of his account of that search, just click here.

Was Dr. King right as a general matter? In a provocative gesture, we will quote a man from The Other Tribe, who ends this passage from yesterday's column with a slightly odd set of statistics:
BROOKS (8/27/13): The idea was to reduce ugliness in the world by reducing ugliness in yourself. King argued that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” It would uplift people involved in this kind of action. It would impose self-restraint. At their best, the leaders understood that even people in the middle of just causes can be corrupted. They can become self-righteous, knowing their cause is right. They can become smug as they move forward, cruel as they organize into groups, simplistic as they rely on propaganda to mobilize the masses. Their hearts can harden as their enemies become more vicious. The strategy of renunciation and the absorbing of suffering was meant to guard against all that.

In short, the method relied upon a very sophisticated set of paradoxes. It relied on leaders who had done a lot of deep theological and theoretical work before they took up the cause of public action. Nonviolent protest, King summarized, “rests upon two pillars. One, resistance, continuous military [sic] resistance. Second, it projects good will against ill will. In this way nonviolent resistance is a force against apathy in our own ranks.”

And yet it worked. And sometimes still does. It’s commonly said that nonviolent protests work only in a context in which your enemies and the watching nation have a conscience to be appealed to. But that is often enough, apparently. A study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in the journal International Security found that between 1900 and 2006, movements that used nonviolent means succeeded 53 percent of the time, while violent resistance campaigns succeeded only 26 percent of the time.
Can statistics like those really have meaning? We have no idea. By the way:

We’re fairly sure that the phrase is question (second paragraph above) is “continuous militant resistance.” One day later, the typo remains unchanged by the Times, a small example of what we’re discussing.

Can people involved in just causes become self-righteous, smug, simplistic? Can they end up relying on propaganda? Can they even be cruel?

Yes, we can, as Obama might say! We’ll suggest on this memorial day that this obvious drift may keep our tribe from being decent—and perhaps from being effective in the wider world.

In various ways, the other tribe is in the grip of a glaring epistemic closure. In our view, corrosive forces are helping us liberals create our own enclosures.

Tomorrow: The endless enclosure of dumb

Dr. King later that night: Later that night, Dr. King thought about what had happened. In this passage, he describes a way he caught himself:
KING (page 138): I could not go to sleep. While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, with a distant street lamp throwing a reassuring glow through the curtained window, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I thought about the city commissioners and all the statements that they had made about me and the Negro generally. I was once more on the verge of corroding anger. And once more I caught myself and said: “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.”
Dr. King fought against “corroding anger” on the night his home was bombed. On-line today, money changers will urge such anger on you in a wide number of ways.

Which of these various people was right? In our view, the greatest achievers of the last century tended toward Dr. King's view.

22 comments:

  1. Thank you for this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And the award for the best Freudian slip in re-typing a quote from MLK goes to:

    He who lives by the word will perish by the sword.

    ReplyDelete
  3. King obviously never heard of Dick Cheney.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No. King merely dealt with regular ole bombers and people with baseball bats, and politicians calling out dogs and water hoses.

      No one like the devil Dick Cheney.

      Delete
  4. This is an excellent piece.

    (I thought Oswald was a lefty.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The noise in advance of JFK's trip was coming from the right, not coming from people like Lee Harvey Oswald (who was a confused man and self-styled communist, not a "lefty" except in the broadest sense). On the extreme fringes, the left and right tend to merge. If you have an interest in who might have hired Oswald, look up Destiny Betrayed on Amazon.

      Delete
    2. Can you delineate right and left like that.

      You're generally talking about Southerns. Democrat and Republican. It was a horrible regional bias.

      Not that racism doesn't rear it's head elsewhere. My husband was watching something last night that showed a bunch of Bostonians getting down right epithet-spewing over busing during that era.

      (I'm not suggesting that is comparable to the response in the South.)

      Delete
    3. In that time period, conservative and liberal didn't map onto Republican and Democrat very well. In the South, conservatives were Democrats because the Republican party was the party of Lincoln and Reconstruction. In the North, Democrats were the party of civil rights, but also of immigrants, so Catholics supported Kennedy but not necessarily civil rights. Working class Bostonians and New Yorkers who are Irish Catholic had a long history of competition with African Americans for jobs, resentment over being drafted to fight in the Civil War to end slavery (while upper class whites bought their way out of service), and have traditionally been in police and government jobs where additional conflicts with African Americans have arisen. That history, coupled with concern over the inadequacy of local schools, not conservative vs liberal ideology, motivated the racial animosity over busing. Blaming this behavior on "racism" without taking into account historical context is superficial and ignores legitimate concerns of white people in complex situations. Now there has been a shift and conservative Democrats among working class people have tended to vote Independent or Republican (the Reagan Democrats and Bush voter shifts) while Southern Democrats have shifted to the Republican party and the South has started electing Republicans lately. Moderates have been purged from the Republican party and there is a similar shift from Republican to Democrat as the parties sort themselves out along more ideological lines. Just before the Civil War, there were pro and anti slavery wings of both the Republican and Democrat parties, forming four categories, not two, with plenty of bigotry to go around, but also legitimate concerns about economic interests and social disruption.

      Liberal Texans (regardless of party) were not spewing hate at Kennedy. Conservatives were. However, the likely reasons why Kennedy was shot may have nothing to do with civil rights or conservatism or how various subgroups of voters felt about Kennedy, which is the point of the book I suggested. If Oswald acted alone, you cannot map the motivations of a disturbed person onto any political ideology. If he acted as part of a plot, Kennedy's assassination was more likely motivated by specific instrumental goals, not racial or political hatred, in my opinion.

      Delete
    4. Well, I agree you about Oswald, I was making an ironic point about the Dowd column commenter.

      Neither Democrat nor Republican is the same animal as back in the sixties. That was another generation.

      I think you're right about Tea Party Republicians in the sense that they are not lead and are unschooled in the ways of politics. They do present a danger to the party and its candidates if they stay untempered and and uncompromising.

      I don't find their beliefs to be much different from standard conservatism drifting toward libertarianism.

      I wasn't suggesting that everyone against busing was racist. I did mention that there was some epithet spewing that certainly was evidence of a racist sentiment.

      I'm for immigration amnesty, but I certainly wish people could view opponents of that policy with the same nuance you extend to those Bostonians of decades ago.

      Delete
    5. It's hard to categrize with accuracy, but I think theTea Party is, to some degree, an outgrowth of the John Birch Society; the loony wing nuts from the 50's are catching on.

      Delete
  5. I'm thinking this could well be the best thing I'll read on this anniversary day.

    ReplyDelete
  6. One thing the 'New York Times liberals' may be missing is that Ted Cruz is opposed to a U.S. attack on Syria. I may disagree with them on most of domestic policy, but if sincere libertarians want to minimize government in anti-imperialistic ways I say "Welcome to the new Anti-imperialism League brothers and sisters!"

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks Bob - good one.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Obama's speech today said that the march reawakened our conscience and that there wouldn't have been any of the subsequent progress in civil rights without it. I think the march was evidence that progress was already occurring. The federal anti-lynching law, desegregation of the armed forces, Brown vs Board of Education, all happened before the march on Washington. I wish Obama hadn't assigned an intern to write his speech on such an important occasion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Part, and I emphasize part, of the reason for the whole Civil Rights Movement was not just to see important new legislation, but to get the federal government to enforce court decisions and laws already on the books.

      For example, it was nine years after Brown, but our nation's schools remained highly segregated. There were also court decisions and laws on the books prohibiting discrimination in public transportation and accommodations, but it took the Freedom Riders to show what the reality was.

      And, of course, we had all sorts of ways to prevent African-Americans from voting.

      The other point was right out of Gandhi -- Do not cooperate with an unjust law. Break them and accept the consequences for breaking them. Then you demonstrate how unjust and cruel those Jim Crow laws were.

      And in doing so, you awaken the conscience of a nation.


      Delete
  9. Just this morning, on the very anniversary of the March on Washington, I received in my Facebook newsfeed the latest "joke" about Obama.

    It was all about Baskin-Robbins' new flavor -- "Baracky Road," which went, "half-vanilla, half-chocolate, surrounded by fruits and nuts, bitter to the taste, and costing $100 a scoop leaving you broke."

    No, the joke wasn't entirely racial. But who can miss the racial overtones?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Channeling Dr King, Jesse Jackson told Politico that “The tea party is the resurrection of the Confederacy, it’s the Fort Sumter tea party.”

    http://www.politico.com/story/2013/08/barack-obama-race-class-95930.html

    ReplyDelete
  11. The Ed Schulz show has found its poll question of the day: "Are conservatives the new Confederates?"

    Vote now!

    http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/08/28/ed-show-poll-are-conservatives-the-new-confederates/

    ReplyDelete
  12. When your movement is on behalf of an historically enslaved people who are not only just a tenth of the population but easily identified, are you going to preach hate or love, violence or non-violence?

    I hold King up as a highly important moral political leader. But he was also practical.

    ReplyDelete