The Political Philosophy of Vision and Rebellion in the 21st Century
The essay first appeared in Counterpunch
The extreme shift to the right in American politics probably started most rapidly under Reagan, and has only increased under democratic and republican control alike. This rapid dance to the far right is poised to end only with civilization itself. Its opposition must be ready to last just as long.
Obama is probably the most "liberal" president of the post-Reagan era, which makes it useful to see how fast even his administration has marched to the right, indeed, in many areas as fast and hard as Bush II.
Under Obama, the U.S. has implemented a record number of oil and gas rigs, given an ominous 1 trillion dollar upgrade to the nuclear arsenal, deported more immigrants than all previous administrations combined, dropped 38 billion dollars in military aid on Israel's slow motion genocide of the Palestinians, and conducted covert acts of war through the drone and targeted assassination campaign -- including the targeting of American citizens without trial -- in approximately seventy five countries, up from approximately twenty five countries under George W. Bush.
And there are more, and more, and more issues to point out. Put it this way: if we were not headed irreversibly in the direction of permanent suffering, permanent war and -- in the language of climate change and nuclear weapons -- the end of civilization as we know it under Obama, we can finally stop clinging to the destructive "hope" that was fed to us in his campaign cycles. Because now Donald Trump is the president. All those tools are in Trump's hands now. All these tools, particularly under Bill Clinton and Obama, have been implemented with the rhetoric of good intentions. We are ruled by the slickest and smoothest talking criminals in human history.
The executive branch, inheriting the threatening policies enacted under a so-called liberal figure like Obama, is now to be run by ecocidal, hyper-masculine, racist, sexist, billionaire, conspiracy theorizing gangster-terrorist anti-intellectuals. There is no bottom anymore. There is now a strong chance that soon nothing will have ever resembled Hell more than God's Grand Experiment.
This is no longer disputable. We lost. The brutality of our immigration policies, our foreign policies, the tyranny of the fossil fuel and industrial agriculture industries, the countless victories of our fraudulent banks, and our long dance with the nuclear devil, can all be understood with varying degrees of inevitability.
But that's not what this piece is about. This piece is about how and why to continue fighting anyway.
In late August, 2016, E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote a piece for Truthdig entitled "Where is Our Martin Luther King, Jr.?" It's a decent piece, mostly about the role of religious intellectual figures, or lack thereof, in the 21st century, how politics has reduced theology in mainstream dialogue, and how religion used to be a vital force in intellectual and political discourse, mostly driven by issues of morality and ethics. The piece got me thinking, however, about what distinguished King as a figure, both in theology and politics, and whether or not we have our own Martin Luther Kings, and if, in fact, we do, how we may join and shape the eternal struggle, embodied in figures like King, that exists today.
Dionne, Jr. never answers his own question -- where is our Martin Luther King, Jr.? -- which makes the more fitting title to his piece something like, "Why Don't We Have our Own Martin Luther King, Jr.?" My first reaction to the piece was: what about Cornell West? Or bell hooks? Or Dionne, Jr.'s colleague Chris Hedges, all informed by a deep religious background, all of whom engage in very similar struggles in a very similar spirit to King, and who are all seemingly greatly inspired by the prophetic tradition.
That there is no mention of Cornell West in the piece was particularly striking, given his long and thorough inclusion of religious discourse in his arguments, his role as a civil rights leader, combined with his rigorous scholarship and, at times, rock-star-like status, particularly among young people. At first I thought maybe this was because of West's unpopularity in academia right now, mostly due to a smear campaign by his former mentee Michael Eric Dyson, but then King was unpopular for much of his life as well. This was even true at the end of King's life. So why the omission of West from the discussion? The point is that these figures and these struggles do exist today. They never went anywhere.
Let us consider why it is vital that those who struggle in the spirit of King begin to dominate American discourse and stir up American culture in the early 21st Century. And let us consider what is distinct about a figure like King, the nature of his struggle, and the meanings of his message.
The kind of struggle King engaged in goes back to the beginnings of philosophy: the belief that the fight for truth and justice is necessarily endless. Consider Socrates and Glaucon in Plato's Republic, speaking of the search for truth and justice,
"And truly, said I, [justice] appears to be in an inaccessible place, lying in deep shadows, [says Socrates].