On our way to the museum a few MLK Days ago I asked my stepdaughter and sister-in-law, one in elementary school and the other in high school, if they knew who King was. “He freed the slaves,” replied the older girl half-confidently, with the younger one adding, “Yeah, he had a dream.”
As laughable as their answers were, I’d venture to guess that at least 50 percent (and I’m being generous) of the U.S. population knows nothing more about Dr. King than that he was a mustachioed black civil-rights leader who dreamed of racial harmony, preached nonviolence, and was shot for it. And why would they no more than that, seeing as it’s the official history spoon-fed to fourth graders across this enlightened land of ours? Only till their fourth or fifth year of college might they learn about King’s increasing focus on economic justice as opposed to strictly social justice, his calls to revolutionize the material lives of people of color rather than merely reform their social conditions. Only then, maybe, might new generations read what the nation’s patron saint had to say about its imperialist attack on the Vietnamese poor or the fight for better housing he waged on Chicago’s West Side. The media, society’s public historian, avoids any mention of the Poor People’s Campaign which King organized in the months leading to his death. Rarely will the polished newscaster refer to the sanitation workers’ strike for which King had flown to Memphis to march in solidarity.
The outgoing President Obama had a dream too, one much like King’s. In it the United States began healing the wounds still festering since slavery, the nation’s riches were more evenly enjoyed, a second Era of Good Feelings reigned in domestic politics, and relative world peace was at last achieved under an intercontinental neoliberal regime. But, as with all dreams, there were obstacles. Republicans in Congress and on the Supreme Court bench committed themselves to thwarting as much of the president’s agenda as they could get away with. And they got away with a lot. Plus much of what Obama promised turned out to be campaign rhetoric, or maybe we hadn’t read between the lines of his rousing speeches. He vowed to tackle immigration reform in his first year and then punted as soon as he got the ball. Not only did he bail out Wall Street, he failed to punish any one from its ranks for destroying the lives of millions of working families by robbing them and starving them, all while flinging the global economy toward the edge of collapse. Forgive me, he seemed to plead throughout his presidency. I want more for the country than I can deliver. The disappointment was almost entirely our doing though. Obama can rightfully be blamed for not knowing the country in which he was born, but so can we.
Whether true or not, history will remember Obama as one of the most intelligent, pragmatic and morally astute individuals ever elected to the nation’s highest office. Yet even he wasn’t enough. What has changed in the last eight years, really? You might jump to point out that gay marriage is now the law of the land, and a broader array of identities is more widely accepted. I would remind you, however, that laws can and do change, and that greater tolerance has only been achieved within the liberal bubble, while the conservative bubble is more and more froth-mouthed. One noticeable difference is how divided, how sectarian and partisan, the nation has become in the Obama era. Social media has splintered the world into a billion separate chatrooms, and news media is now little more than gossip and hype. Imagine what our would would be like today had Obama been a lesser president, a lesser man — or had McCain or Romney won.
Tens of millions of self-described liberals and Democrats pinned their hopes on Secretary Clinton as a natural sequel to the Obama years. Some even imagined she would surpass Obama by finishing what he started, starting what he promised to start, and adopting new ambitions. I spent much of last year trying to disabuse as many people as I could of that fantasy. I, along with a drowned out minority, tried reminding the average left-leaning voter that the Clintons aren’t as progressive or liberal as they claim to be; that Hillary was Obama’s hawkish, neoliberal opponent in the 2008 Democratic primaries; and that, as secretary of state, she backed a 2009 coup in Honduras and later said child refugees fleeing the carnage in Central America (partially her doing) should be detained at the border and sent back as a warning to their parents. Hateful comments and cold shoulders were all I got for the effort.
You and I both know what happened between then and now. Those who voted for Hillary — and even a lot of those who didn’t — are counting down the wistful days till President-elect Trump takes the oath of office. It’s this Friday, in fact. And when Trump lifts his right hand, placing the other on a first edition copy of Atlas Shrugged, I know what many of you will be thinking: man, I wish [Hillary/Jill Stein/Gary Johnson] woulda won. Shame on you. Eight years and you haven’t learned anything.
Obama, with all his intellectual talents and personal attributes, barely moved the needle toward progress, and even then in only superficial, mutable ways. Obama has spent nearly a decade building sandcastles for policy, and here comes the tide. Trump vows to erase nearly every one of Obama’s close to 250 executive orders. Having successfully gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for which Dr. King and plenty of others risked so much, a bulk of conservatives are hoping to erase the rights secured for LGBTs and marijuana smokers. They’re even gunning for Roe v. Wade. Come 2020, we might be living in 1973. Nevertheless, the Republicans and their newly elected commander-in-thief will build their own sandcastles on the backs of the working class and marginalized groups, who will eventually march to the polls and usher in a new tide, beginning the cycle anew. And round and round we’ll go till enough people puke.
The election of a Bernie, Hillary, or even a Jill Stein (my pick), would’ve been merely cosmetic. Bernie and Dr. Stein both had grand visions for the country, the second grander than the first, but no real plan for effecting their visions. What could Bernie have achieved with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress and a deadlock in the Supreme Court? Hillary would’ve accomplished more, but not in the way most liberals were hoping. Hers would’ve been the kind of reforms that look good and sound better but ultimately screw workers, people of color and immigrants in unforeseen ways, as her support for the 1994 crime law and the 1996 welfare and immigration reforms did. Hillary would’ve made our disillusionment with the Obama administration look like a honeymoon.
If the Democrats aren’t the lesser of two evils, and Obama was the most talented and progressive president the United States has ever known but still managed to fall short of what is needed, then it would seem our troubles cannot be solved through electoral politics. The dual crises of poverty and racism are systemic, as King increasingly realized toward the end of his life. A change in president will accomplish little. As Obama and the rest of us quickly learned, the president is basically a secular preacher, at most a check on the other two branches. He or she can only change the system in ways it allows itself to be changed, to make itself more palatable to the public and, thus, ensure its continued existence. Instead of concentrating our efforts on changing the people in power, we need to change the structure of power itself — that is, we need to change the system.
So it seems I too have a dream. I have a dream that one day the working class of 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, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
I have a dream that one day men and women won’t be judged by the color of their skin, their credit scores, their zip codes or the things they own, but by the content of their character. The United States will have a government of true representation, responsive to the people who vote delegates into office, pay their salaries and in whose interests said delegates make laws. Voters won’t have to choose between A or B, red or blue, but will have a variety of platforms and visions from which to choose and support. The United States will become a global purveyor of peace instead of a deliverer of devastation, and the money saved from cutting our war budget will go toward making sure our citizens are well housed, well fed, well educated and healthy. The thirst to create deadlier and deadlier weapons will be replaced by our desire to explore our cosmic neighborhood. I dream of a world in which the earth rightfully belongs to everyone and is safeguarded as common property, where a paycheck is worth its weight in sweat, where TV and the internet are used to enlighten and inform rather than deceive and sell, where Latino history, black history, European history and Native history are all taught together as part of our collective, human history.
This is my dream, but it’s more than a dream; it’s a necessity. We must live in a world like the one I describe or else we won’t have any world to live in much longer. Humans are a social animal, so it goes without saying that we must learn to live together peacefully and happily. That means sharing not only our resources, but sharing ourselves and receiving others with equal fervor. If we fail to regain our social attitude, we risk destroying not just our society but our planet and, thus, our species as well. If we’re going to make it, we need each other.
My dream is for you to stop dreaming, to look at the world around you as it is, not as you pretend it to be. Change will not come in 2018 or 2020. Change will come when we change ourselves. We, after all, are as much a part of the system as spark plugs in a car engine. Our belief in the system is was keeps it going. Whenever we choose between the lesser of two evils, believing we can have a revolution through gradual steps, we provide room for the system to work its evil magic. But sooner or later we’ll have to realize that the emperor is naked, and so are we.
Featured image: ash_crow/Flickr