Crediting Morgen Richmond, Patterico has posted a video clip of Barack Obama speaking at a 2002 University of Chicago Martin Luther King Day Memorial. The video of the full speech is posted here. Patterico characterizes it as “by and large…a nice speech by a rising politician. Obama speaks about the need for empathy in society, about taking responsibility for our actions, and the audacity of hope….But,” Patterico holds, “there are a few times when the mask slips, just a little.” Paterrico points in particular to one of the most provocative parts of Obama’s speech, of which he has posted the clip with this transcription (emphasis omitted):
The philosophy of nonviolence only makes sense if the powerful can be made to recognize themselves in the powerless. It only makes sense if the powerless can be made to recognize themselves in the powerful. You know, the principle of empathy gives broader meaning, by the way, to Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but rich people are all for nonviolence. Why wouldn’t they be? They’ve got what they want. They want to make sure people don’t take their stuff. But the principle of empathy recognizes that there are more subtle forms of violence to which we are answerable. The spirit of empathy condemns not only the use of firehoses and attack dogs to keep people down but also accountants and tax loopholes to keep people down. I’m not saying that what Enron executives did to their employees is the moral equivalent of what Bull Connor did to black folks, but I’ll tell you what, the employees at Enron feel violated. When a company town sees its plant closing because some distant executives made some decision despite the wage concessions, despite the tax breaks, and they see their entire economy collapsing, they feel violence…
Now this was a speech on the occasion of Martin Luther King Day, and Obama does not directly criticize King. But he limits the applicability of King’s philosophy (or strategy) in a manner that takes it to the vanishing point.
It seems to me that the spirit of Obama’s remarks here is more in keeping with Malcolm X’s vehement critique of King (as can be heard, for example, in this video) than with that of King himself. There is a gulf between Obama and King that opens up over King’s persistent appeal to the principles of the American founding and Obama’s alienation from them.