The two Martin Luther King Jrs

Today being Martin Luther King’s birthday, I took time off from thinking about the dossier/s***thole and read an essay written for the Heritage Foundation by Peter C. Myers: “The Limits and Dangers of Civil Disobedience: The Case of Martin Luther King, Jr.” I recommend it.

Myers argues:

(1) America’s founding principles of natural rights and the rule of law permit the practice of civil disobedience narrowly conceived.

(2) American civil disobedience in the theory and practice of Martin Luther King, is mainly—but not perfectly—in accord with those founding principles.

(3) As King rightly understood, civil disobedience may only be undertaken: (a) for the right reasons; (b) in the right spirit; and (c) by the right people.

(4) King’s notion of civil disobedience in the later phase of his career diverges significantly from the relatively moderate argument he presented in his earlier, more successful phase.

In the later phase of his career, King radicalized his theory of civil disobedience. Previously, he had stipulated that civil disobedience needed to be for reasons clearly supported by the natural law philosophy exemplified in the U.S. constitutional tradition. Later, he argued that it should be employed not just to overturn unjust laws, but to bring about socioeconomic equality across lines of class and color. This imperative finds no support in the U.S. constitutional tradition.

Moreover, civil disobedience, though it still had to be non-violent, no longer needed to be demonstrative or persuasive in character. Instead, it should be be disruptive and coercive, e.g., blocking traffic and thereby infringing on a right of access to a public road. This would entail violating not merely unjust laws, but also just laws ones that facilitate normal functioning.

In addition, and not surprisingly given the radicalized form of civil disobedience he was now advocating, King no longer relied mainly on a population of churchgoers imbued with a Christian ethic of love and service. He decided to recruit “three thousand of the poorest citizens” from various urban and rural areas to participate in a “Poor People’s March on Washington.

Might this cohort overlap with urban rioters who had torched Newark, Watts, Detroit, etc? Yes. But, says Myers, King attempted to find even in the riots themselves support for his contention that the disaffected urban poor constituted a promising new class of potential pilgrims to nonviolence. Among “the most striking features of the city riots,” he argued, was that “the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people.”

King had moved the goals posts.

Today, the portion of the left that does not embrace violence outright wants to use King’s later goal posts, and to move them some more.

Myers warns:

Recent protesters have been generally heedless of the obligation to compose well-reasoned, empirically careful, rights-based arguments to support the justice of their cause, and their protests have consisted largely in efforts at disruption and coercion rather than persuasion. Moreover, the most prominent eruptions in the past decade of what supporters persist in calling civil disobedience, including the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the anti-Trump “Resistance,” have in fact featured a volatile mixture of acts of nonviolent and violent disobedience.

Those two facts are related: The disruptive form of disobedience, even if it qualifies as civil at the outset, is likely to issue in acts of uncivil or violent disobedience, because by endorsing acts of coercion and rights violation, it undermines the rationale for a principled commitment to civility or nonviolence. . . .

In sum, at the present moment in American public life, the practice of purportedly civil disobedience is becoming increasingly normalized even as its proper basis, tactics, and objectives are subject to increasing confusion. Such a condition poses a clear danger to the rule of law.

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the centerpiece of his original theory of civil disobedience, is a potential antidote. Myers believes that reading it, with particular attention to the conservative dimension of his argument, might “serve to initiate a renewed and enhanced public appreciation of the rule of law, both of its basis and its centrality to the health of America’s constitutional republic.”

This is something devoutly to be wished on Martin Luther King’s birthday.

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