Dr. Martin Luther King wrote:
"America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."
Today is January 19, 2004, the national holiday dedicated to celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. I had never read his "I Have a Dream" speech until now. It is short, simple and moving. Given from the steps of the Lincoln monument, in the "shadow" of the Great Emancipator, Dr. King chose the traditional language of debt and payments. For people who have been bought and sold as property from the foundations of this nation, who have been dogged by scheming white thieves with their company stores and low-money-down deals, it was an acceptable choice of metaphor.
We can easily imagine the sea of faces Dr. King addressed that day, and the hopes of conflicting millions eager to hear what he would say. Although he is now thought of as a man who showed great patience, he warned his fellows against indulging in the "drug of gradualism." That is a timely phrase for those involved in changing any negative, oppressive structure. Why?
Because if anything is so unjust that it demands change, it should be changed now. If a man is beating a child, he must stop now. We can't say, "Let him change his habits gradually, and continue beating the child moderately, finally less and less, and at last not at all." Of course, we see many child abuse cases where welfare workers have taken just this gradualistic attitude, to the sorrow and shame of our entire society, when children are pulled out of closets chained and stained with shit and pee, or when their tiny bodies are buried, covered with cigarette burns and bruises. Gradually, all hope expired for those poor ones.
Of course, I choose a stark example, but if you put the idea to the test you find it is invariably true. The only types of changes that should be made gradually are those that cannot be done immediately. If you suddenly realize you're driving 80 mph on a snowy road, don't slam on the brakes! But if you're collaborating with an oppressive system, you need to stop collaborating now. If you're tolerating abuse, you need to end your tolerance now. We tolerate good things, we reject evil things as soon as we recognize them.
Much like those who try to get Ambu to "moderate her criticism," Dr. King was constantly told that if he pressed for "too much, too fast," it would stimulate "white backlash" and things would end up worse than ever. After all, slavery had ended. Black people had made progress. Official segregation was limited to the deep south. Lynching had been greatly reduced in number. Why, a black man was even permitted to speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial! How much more progress do you need?
Dr. King wrote:
"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote."
As long as you are being insulted and subjected to unequal treatment, you know you have not arrived. Dr. King understood that he and all black Americans were being oppressed unfairly. When he told his followers not to drink the drug of gradualism, he was negotiating with his own people for a position of "no more compromise." It is hard to reach that point of no-compromise, demanding change now. It remains difficult for African-Americans today. Nowadays, like everyone else, African-Americans are busy running in place, with heavier burdens, less government aid, and lower paying jobs than white people. But in those days, Dr. King had a huge crowd of people in front of the Lincoln Memorial to demand justice for themselves and their loved ones.
People want to believe we've made some progress since Dr. King was murdered, but actually there's been a disgusting assault on black culture in the form of the cruel system of drug prosecution, with its use of informants and financial rewards for poor young men, literally sending federal agents into poor areas to foment drug crime. As a federal public defender, I was shocked to learn of the amount of money the government pours into the drug trade and never recovers. Then drugs are resold out of the evidence lockers, so they're not taken off the street.
White Americans don't face racial oppression, and they bury all symptoms of their economic inequality. The average white American arms himself against the reality that the Very Rich exploit the shit out of everyone who is Not Very Rich, keeping the moderately talented in a real-life Matrix that measures your productivity, credit ratings, profitability, and future prospects, as well as making the clock run faster when you're sleeping, and slower when you're working. We live in a machine, and even make big movies about how it hasn't happened yet.
Of course, there's a myth that we've made much progress toward racial equality. Racial equality apparently means that now, instead of country music, "gangsta" rap grinds out of every orifice in the nation, advertising some sick image of the black man that has been bought into by the likes of "P. Diddy" and other assorted fools. You can still see the total cultural divide. Black kids, statistically, spend a lot of time in prison, living off the real consequences of being what some record producer said they should be, or maybe framed by some sick cops. For white kids, the Generation X, slacker, MTV generation caricatures are sometimes painfully accurate, accounting for the current lost generation of non-voters. Dilbert is a real person. Dancing yourself silly in an ecstasy den is considered a reasonable activity for young white people. And political participation among young people is not going to take off until someone starts a campaign to get out the vote, directed at young women, with the theme, "I can't resist men who vote." Even more effective would be a negative campaign, with pretty girls dropping slogans like these: "Not voting? What a turnoff!"
So regular folks try to ignore the sting of economic inequality, which leads to restricted life choices and opportunities, bathing in media fantasy and not giving a thought to political action. Spiritual seekers go even farther. In fact, many seekers of Eastern Wisdom are pretty comfortable financially, which is why they're very desirable devotees. They have enough time to invest in spiritual practice, and they have money to pay for teachings. Best of all, they are so comfortable with their social situation that they are ready to do something really creative -- by renouncing their right to receive equal treatment.
The spiritual seeker who sets a guru above himself, handing them the power to guide the course of their life, is in a position that seems very different from that of the thousands who stood listening to Dr. King's speech, knowing how badly they wanted freedom. Does Dr. King's lecture on the importance of demanding immediate freedom from oppression have meaning for someone looking to assume an inferior position?
I think so, because Dr. King was speaking to the impulse to self-subjugate when he warned against gradualism. The gradualists were willing to accept that, somehow, they were in fact inferior, and had to tolerate the oppression. They needed the fortification of Dr. King's words. He showed them the rightness of their position, as Tom Paine's words showed George Washington's soldiers the rightness of theirs, persuading them to remain with the revolutionary army through the long winter. Dr. King's soldiers marched with him until he was killed, and although we have not yet reached victory, they are marching on, seeking fulfillment of his dream. For freedom is a dream that revives again and again.
To the audience likely to read this, I would address a similar argument -- you have the right to retain your equality right now, and must not surrender it to grow spiritually. In some ways, equality is all you have. It's the last thing you can barter away. People who have nothing else left, and need help, will bow down in front of someone and beg them for help. As a practical matter, that often gets them a boot in the head, but they still do it. Simply abasing yourself is the currency of last resort.
Of course, you know you're not that desperate. You just want to improve your situation, and are willing to make some compromises to do it. Surrendering to a Spiritual Superior just seems like a good idea, because He is more powerful, more skilled, wiser, more successful. I suggest you think twice before you exalt this Personage above you, because there is no possible justification for doing it. There is nothing that needs doing that cannot be done between equals. And there is no superiority sufficient to justify abdicating your equality.
White people, with their dominating power structure, extensive wealth, and weighty cultural legacy, often argued for a right of natural superiority. This notion undergirds the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the White Man's Burden, that justified the annihilation of Native Americans, the theft of the Mexican west, and any number of wars to make the world safe for democracy, including the current Imperial venture. We now recognize Manifest Destiny is a corrupt idea, because regardless of the impressiveness and strength of the philosophical, economic, cultural or military might of a nation, its people have no right to declare themselves superior. We know this very well.
Privileged, sensitive Americans deeply desire to find a cultural alternative to armed technocratic exploitation of the planet. We are ashamed of being the predator-dominator-manipulator nation. Wouldn't it be nice, we think, if instead of a Bush Gang, we had the Dalai Lama and a group of wise Tibetan lamas running the country? We could exchange Bush's clear inferiority for the Dalai Lama's clear superiority, bank the difference and reduce the deficit. We can even do without voting, because the choice is so clear, and once he's in power, the Dalai Lama would diplomatically arrange everything perfectly. Silly, you say? Only because Courtney Love hasn't suggested it yet.
There is vast disinformation about Tibet, including the inflation of its philosophical status via the Shangri-La Myth, and the frank misrepresentation of the Dalai Lama's role position as a god-king with a thousand years of lineage. It would undoubtedly calm the swelling waves of adulation to know the true history of the lineage, including the serial assassination of the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Dalai Lamas. For those who now conclude that I am a Chinese Communist agent, I assure you that is no more true of me than of Jackie Chan. Like every Tibet-aware liberal, I have been noisily furious about the USA's "human rights policy" toward China, that subordinates the immediate freedom of Asian people to the "gradualist" creed of "constructive engagement."
However, the evil of the Chinese government will not turn the sow's ear of Tibetan feudalism into the silk purse of Shangri-La. But don't tell a recent convert to Tibetan Buddhism that. With a minimum of information about the people they are eager to emulate, filled with loathing for American culture, and eager to cast away the freedom they have always enjoyed so lightly and which has benefited them so little, many Americans begin to think they'd have been happier, and better people, if they had lived their lives eating tsampa and yak butter in the Tibetan highlands. Well, it doesn't sound so bad, especially when you're sitting in a traffic jam in San Francisco, feeling guilty about how your tax dollars are being used to dismember Iraqi citizens who caused our nation no harm.
We wish we could change our society, but at least we want to change ourselves. Like the kids in John Waters' movie, "Hairspray," we want to declare: "Our skins are white, but our souls are black." Understandable for anyone with sensitivity about our cultural role as oppressors, or beneficiaries of oppression. Nevertheless, the idea of surrendering our individual equality to a group of superior people remains a corrupt idea, a dangerous idea. Dr. King had to fight against having it forced down his throat. We must be careful not to consume it willingly, motivated by guilt and remorse.
And consider the ironies that result from embracing the remnants of the cultures that our fathers have blasted to the edge of extinction! New Agers wander the globe collecting trinkets of every type -- crystals, special rocks, magic herbs -- seeking meetings with "tribal elders," "shamanic visionaries," and "Tibetan lamas." So now, we have to worry that profiteers will kill people to create traditional sacred Tibetan bone implements, will tear apart burial grounds to find "Indian relics," and will tear apart the last reaches of the Amazon, searching for rare entheogenic substances. Because we destroy what we desire, and in our heart of hearts, we are always from the Oppressor Tribe.
The only good thing about being an oppressor is that you can try to change the oppressor mentality. You can foment the spirit of equality. My brother, a prosecutor his whole life, encouraged me to become a federal prosecutor when the opportunity was extended. I declined, because I try to avoid hypocrisy, but my brother's suggestion was well-intentioned and intelligent. He pointed out that I would effectively have the power to pardon people by choosing never to prosecute them in the first place.
So if you are one of the Oppressor Tribe, you should not avoid your duty lightly. Only you can pardon by not prosecuting. Only you can take control of the Evil Ship of State and turn it into the Good Ship of World Brotherhood and Healing. But not if we reject the system of government that we are supposed to control. Not if we hide our head in the sand, say that "Everything Is Empty," and "Compassion Is Realised in the Heart and Needs No Outer Expression" and don't bother to vote against the tyrannical forces that control our government.
If we decide that we are no better than peasants, bowing down before our Spiritual Superiors, then we will be busy doing their bidding, following their agendas. When we know very well what our agenda should be, if we have the clarity to realize it, and the sincerity to pursue it. And if we should not pursue it, we the privileged of the world, whose fathers conquered its people and divided its territory, leaving us with a debt of blood and slavery? Then the saying from Jesus of Nazareth is most appropriate: "Ye are the salt of the earth, and if the salt shall lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?"