Brother Mathis has done it again. Not content with provoking me to discourse on the nanny state last week, on Monday Joel produced a column about Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama. Our mutual pal Ben Boychuk suggested on Facebook that our pieces represented a good Right-Left counterpoint about MLK, as Joel’s account mostly follows the conventional liberal narrative, though with caveats that it’s “complicated.” (Isn’t everything “complicated” for liberals?)
Actually Joel’s column is much more devious that it appears at first glance, because it has provoked me to . . . defend Barack Obama. And I’m not in much of a mood to do that, not just on general principle, but especially in light of that dreadful inaugural address. But Joel’s remedial education requires this counter-intuitive step, even if it gives him perverse satisfaction to see me defending Obama against his (and implicitly, MLK’s) critique.
So here’s the part of Joel’s argument that set me a-twitchin’:
Truth is this: Obama made clear long ago that he wasn’t bound by King’s vision. At the ceremony where he received (undeservedly) the Nobel Peace Prize, he made that plain—praising King and Gandhi as apostles of non-violence. Then he delivered the slap:
“But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
Four years later, the arrogance and condescension of that paragraph still sting. King didn’t face down “the world as it is?” King didn’t see that “evil exists in the world?” It’s nonsense: King saw the world as it is, lived among people daily oppressed by evil. He didn’t pick up a gun. But he won anyway. As a head of state, Obama might do well to ponder what that means.
Be sure to check out Joel’s embedded link, as he dilates his argument here, and makes it worse. But also let’s say good for Joel for noting that Obama’s Nobel was “undeserved.” It’s small details like this why I bitterly cling to the Hope that Joel can Change.
I think one short query sets the stage for the counter-argument: Would (or did) Martin Luther King oppose President Eisenhower’s decision to send in the national guard to enforce desegregation in Little Rock in 1957? That was, after all, using force rather than moral suasion, or basing one’s decisions on a pure ethic of non-violence. (I have no idea whether King said or thought anything about Eisenhower’s decision, which was bitterly criticized by Democrats, let’s remember.)
But more to the point, I’ve made a point of having students—I did it again in my Pepperdine class just last week—ponder Churchill’s account of how to think about the Munich crisis in The Gathering Storm, which makes the basic point that the responsible statesman, while not exempt from the dictates of moral principle, nonetheless inhabits a different plain of responsibility than the “private” moral leader. In this respect, Churchill’s passage about Munich serves as something of a real world commentary on Max Weber’s anguished reflections on “the ethic of responsibility” and the “ethic of ultimate ends” in his extraordinary 1918 lecture “Politics as a Vocation.” The third sentence in this excerpt from Churchill is the key:
The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that [government] Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding States. Their duty is first so to deal with other nations as to avoid strife and war and to eschew aggression in all its forms, whether for nationalistic or ideological objects. But the safety of the State, the lives and freedom of their fellow-countrymen, to whom they owe their position, make it right and imperative in the last resort, or when a final and definite conviction has been reach, that the use of force should not be excluded. If the circumstances are such as to warrant it, force may be used. . .
Churchill says earlier in this passage that “No case of this kind can be judged apart from its circumstances.” The dedicated pacifist doesn’t care about circumstances, and shouldn’t. But the political leader responsible for the perpetuation of the nation’s political institutions (Lincoln’s phrase) has to be concerned with this above all else. Churchill also adds the line, “It is baffling to reflect that what men call honour does not correspond always to Christian ethics.” That line is a whole seminar session all by itself.
I always get a lively and enlightening discussion from students from that third sentence—“it is not in these terms that [government] Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding States.” Obama had it right in his Nobel speech. (Dammit.) I don’t think what he said deserves to be called a “slap” at King and Gandhi (though I think Gandhi deserves many many slaps). Obama—or his speechwriters—were rightly conveying the duty of statesmanship. And it is possible still to admire deeply King and other prophets of nonviolent moral suasion, while also acknowledging the different moral plane of responsible political leaders. Memo to Obama: so when are you going to get the Churchill bust back in the Oval Office, now that you’ve aligned yourself with him, at least rhetorically?
This is not to say that some of Obama’s policies that Joel (and likely King too, were he alive) finds susceptible to liberal criticism, such as drone warfare and our continuing engagement in Afghanistan, are not reasonable. Both John and I have questioned here the wisdom of our continuing engagement in Afghanistan, and I’ve expressed to Joel that drone strikes, while effective, are very dodgy in some ways. But not on King’s terms.
So, Joel, rewrite your term paper and turn it in next week. (Meanwhile, readers–does this count as a “Weekly Winston”?)