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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Two old white guys 



There is a certain incongruity, or perhaps even presumptuousness, when two old white guys sit around remarking how the first African-American President of the United States is not correctly "listening" to Martin Luther King, Jr. While they may be correct in their strict interpretation of King's philosophy of non-violent resistance, and their lack of melanin does not preclude them from being experts on 20th Century left-wing politics, the discussion between Howard Zinn and Bill Moyers last night on the PBS program Bill Moyers Journal had some cringe-inducing moments (video here, let the file load and toggle forward to 14:28, and watch, if you can, until 17:42).
HOWARD ZINN: Christina Kirk, a wonderful actress and she brings Susan B. Anthony alive. And I think what that says to people today is you must stick up for your principles, even if it means breaking the law. Civil disobedience, it's what Thoreau urged, it's what Martin Luther King, Jr. urged. It's what was done during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. If you think you're right, then — Susan B. Anthony thought it was right for her to try to register to vote. And yeah, people should defy the rules if they think they're doing the right thing.

BILL MOYERS: You have said elsewhere that if President Obama were listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. he'd be making some different decisions. What do you mean by that?

HOWARD ZINN: Well, first of all, he'd be taking our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he'd be saying we are no longer going to be a war-making country. We're not going to be a military country. We're going to take our immense resources, our wealth, we're going to use it for the benefit of people. Remember, Martin Luther King started a Poor People's Campaign just before he was assassinated. And if Obama paid attention to the working people of this country, then he would be doing much, much more than he is doing now.

BILL MOYERS: I remember- all of us remember who were around then that 1967 speech that Martin Luther King gave here in New York at the Riverside Church, a year before his assassination. And he said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice, a structure, which produces beggars, needs restructuring." I mean, that's pretty fundamental, right? Change the system?

HOWARD ZINN: King had a much more fundamental critique of our economic system. And certainly more fundamental than Obama has because a fundamental critique of our economic system would not simply give hundreds of billions of dollars to the bankers and so on, and give a little bit to the people below. A fundamental change in our system would really create a greater equalization of wealth, would I think give us free medical care. Not the kind of half-baked health reforms that are being now debated in Congress.

BILL MOYERS: This is one reason you are seen as a threat to other people. People at the top, because your message, like King's message, goes to a fundamental allocation of power in America, right?

HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, that is very troublesome for people at the top. They're willing to let people think about mild reforms and little changes, and incremental changes, but they don't want people to think that we could actually transform this country into a peaceful country, that we no longer have to be a super military power. They don't want to think that way because it's profitable for certain interests in this country to carry on war, to have military bases in 100 countries, to have a $600 billion military budget. That makes a lot of money for certain people. But it leaves the rest of the country behind.
(Emphasis added)

I am not sure that Zinn is correct that King did not want African-Americans to have the chance to become multi-millionaires (in Zinn's view of America, there would be no multi-millionaires, since his primary goal is apparently "a greater equalization of wealth," along with standing down the military altogether). I also do not know whether the segment was recorded before President Obama's Nobel speech, which clearly offered up an argument in favor of the selective use of U.S. military power, and could be construed as a defense of American quasi-Exceptionalism. In any case, two white leftists complaining that President Obama is not sufficiently doctrinaire in an MLK-like fashion -- that's rich.


UPDATE: In response to the welcomed critiques posted below by frequent commenters SMGalbraith and Noumenon, I don't mean to convey the idea that I believe that only African-Americans can properly understand Dr. King's message and philosophy (hence, the phrase "their lack of melanin does not preclude them..."). Of course Zinn and Moyers are free to criticize President Obama -- this blog is not a place where you will read much in the way of an argument that a sitting president, especially Obama, shouldn't be criticized, and all comparative critiques are fair game.

I am fairly sure, however, that some portion of the African-American audience of the Moyers program will not have a positive reaction to the section of the program I blogged about (nor perhaps to my comments, either). First, they may not want to see blue-on-blue strikes against a man that 95% of that demographic voted for and toward whom they feel a high degree of protectiveness. Second, while Caucasians view Dr. King as a racially transcendent figure, he is still very much an African-American hero to the African-American community. Dr. King's struggle was, in a very practical sense, directly related to enfranchising African-Americans, and rightly so; all of his eloquent uses of the English language were tools he used to work toward that end. Human nature being what it is (regardless of color), sadly, there were times both before and after Dr. King's murder when certain African-American elements of the Civil Rights movement told Caucasians in no uncertain terms that their help was not wanted. See, for example, this video (click on "Civil Rights Movement - Part 2" in the bottom-middle of the page to start the video). There is, inevitably, a degree of insularity that occurs in such struggles.

Finally, I am not sure that Dr. King's views about the military exactly parallel Zinn's hope that it would just go away, nor is there a great deal of evidence that Dr. King's economic views were as intensely anti-capitalist as Zinn's (certainly, Dr. King's family has had no qualms about generating a significant profit from his words and images, though we do not know how he would feel about that) . True, there is no question about Dr. King's opposition to the Vietnam War. I believe Dr. King viewed Truman's desegregation of the military as the first baby steps along the path toward his goals of equality. He may have also believed that a peacetime military provided a decent opportunity for many African-Americans to gain technical skills and advance themselves on the basis of merit, and prepare for a better life upon re-entry into the civilian world (assuming the political groundwork that he was trying to accomplish could get done), which I think has proven to be correct over the last generation or so.

Generally, I try to have enough sense not to step in it when writing about issues that touch on race, but there is definitely some stink on my shoe now. Also, don't direct criticism of the post to TigerHawk -- it's my byline up there.

20 Comments:

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Dec 12, 08:15:00 PM:

If Obama were paying attention to the working people of this country he would have already killed his healthcare plan.

Hell, if he paid attention to them cap and trade and Card Check wouldn't even be considered.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sat Dec 12, 08:21:00 PM:

That video is only about three ticks south of a Monty Python routine.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Dec 12, 08:51:00 PM:

AVI, now you are talking.  

By Blogger Country Squire, at Sat Dec 12, 10:06:00 PM:

Christopher Chambers, please call your office....  

By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Sat Dec 12, 10:57:00 PM:

I would agree with Professor Zinn that the economic system of this country is grossly unfair. His talking about "free medical care" indicates Professor Zinn has a profound difficulty in thinking realistically. Someone has to pay for medical care. There is no such thing as a free lunch. "Free lunch" is a fantasy. Any country that would give such a person tenure at a university is grossly unfair to those who expect something better than unexpurgated fantasies from the professoriate.  

By Blogger SMGalbraith, at Sat Dec 12, 11:18:00 PM:

Sorry, TH, I completely dimiss the argument, even a tangential one, that King's race or the race of Moyers or Zinn plays any role whatsoever in interpreting King's message. Or in applying it today.

King's message transcended race and time and can be judged accordingly by any race at any time.

King, of course, was not a politician but a moral leader. As such, he didn't have to worry about the moral complexity facing those who have to make the decisions of war and peace, of law and order, of freedom and security.

That Moyers and Zinn don't see this problem - what will happen to the Afghan people under a Taliban rule? is their essential error not the color of their skin.  

By Blogger SMGalbraith, at Sat Dec 12, 11:30:00 PM:

That would be "disagree" not "dismiss."

Really, I'd never "dimiss" any argument made by TH.  

By Blogger Noumenon, at Sun Dec 13, 12:59:00 AM:

The statements "President X is not governing in the style of Martin Luther King" and "President X does not have a fundamental critique of our economic system" are going to be true for all values of X who would be allowed near the presidency. Obama's no different. His pro-American ideology is far more important than his skin color. I'm with Zinn and Moyers -- if they had to back down from criticizing just because of his skin color, that would be even more dangerous.

By the way, have you seen Unused Audio Commentary by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky for The Fellowship of the Ring DVD, Part One? I loved it.  

By Anonymous Billy Bob Corncob, at Sun Dec 13, 02:15:00 AM:

Why does he matter that Obama, who is not the descendant of slaves and had one Caucasian parent, is listening to MLK Jr, or that Moyers and his guest are Caucasian?

I dream of a day when people will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.  

By Blogger Noumenon, at Sun Dec 13, 10:17:00 AM:

FWIW, I didn't detect the slightest racial inappropriateness; I totally got your point that it's like Siskel & Ebert agreeing "Kanye just ain't as gangsta as good ol' Dr. Dre." All I meant to do was stand up for the leftists.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Dec 13, 10:45:00 AM:

How could you or any non-party member even sit through a program with these two guys? Once you knew the topic, you knew exactly what each had been scripted to say. The only interesting possibility would have been to keep a stroke count of every time either/both badmouthed Bush or shifted blame for an Obama short coming to an "inherited" issue or racism.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Dec 13, 11:47:00 AM:

I think your cringe was worthy. I had one, too.

There is indeed something creepy about these two allocating for themselves the one true interpretation of King. It reminds me of how liberal Democrats depend on aadvancing a school of thought that keeps African Americans and women on the Democrat plantation, making them feel as if they are on the fightin' side, but keeping them down and "in line" at the same time.

There is an obstacle to true transformation, and it's the liberal mindset that has an authoritarian view of how blacks and women should think, vote, and live.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Dec 13, 11:47:00 AM:

I think your cringe was worthy. I had one, too.

There is indeed something creepy about these two allocating for themselves the one true interpretation of King. It reminds me of how liberal Democrats depend on aadvancing a school of thought that keeps African Americans and women on the Democrat plantation, making them feel as if they are on the fightin' side, but keeping them down and "in line" at the same time.

There is an obstacle to true transformation, and it's the liberal mindset that has an authoritarian view of how blacks and women should think, vote, and live.  

By Blogger SMGalbraith, at Sun Dec 13, 11:48:00 AM:

Apologize to TH for the incorrect attribution. It was late, I was tired and...well I wasn't paying attention.

Just one quick comment re King's pacifism: Without the force and the threat of force from the federal government, all of King's men and all of King's women likely would not have succeeded.

He and his movement may have been non-violent; but it was the threat of violence from others that eventually forced the segregationist to capitulate. His non-violence may have changed many minds, but not all. After all, Niebuhr wasn't a pacifist.

E.g., the murderers of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were caught after a FBI source threatened a Klansmen by putting a gun in his mouth. The FBI forcefully broke up the Klan. Not to mention Little Rock and Oxford...  

By Anonymous feeblemind, at Sun Dec 13, 12:26:00 PM:

Slightly OT E81: You have a writing style that is very similar to TH's. I see you are often mistaken for TH and I think I did it once myself. On the one hand it must be considered a compliment to be mistaken for TH. OTOH, I have seen TH given credit for posts that you have written and that must be somewhat frustrating. Moral of the story is to always check the byline.  

By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Sun Dec 13, 01:00:00 PM:

SMGalbraith:
He and his movement may have been non-violent; but it was the threat of violence from others that eventually forced the segregationist to capitulate. His non-violence may have changed many minds, but not all. After all, Niebuhr wasn't a pacifist.
Bingo. Once the power of the state was behind desegregation, the segregationists capitulated. Most segregationists believed in following the law, implicitly accepting the state-mandated violence such as police forces that upheld compliance to the law. When the law changed, they obeyed.  

By Blogger SMGalbraith, at Sun Dec 13, 01:12:00 PM:

After all, Niebuhr wasn't a pacifist.

Well, the older Niebuhr. The Niebuhr of the "Children or Darkness and the Children of Light."  

By Blogger pst314, at Sun Dec 13, 08:50:00 PM:

It's a little odd for Zinn to be touting pacifism, considering that he's a Stalinist.  

By Anonymous QuakerCat, at Mon Dec 14, 12:51:00 PM:

I was a former student of Professor Zinn and I dont think one leave's BU without taking at least one of his courses. I took, not one, but two classes of his and I did find the man to be a reasonable guy in person. Here is the big issue though, he is so used to students and other professors and countless other famous lefties stroking him that he has never even considered the logic from the other side. I have two examples of this one from long ago and one from six months ago.

The first was a real awakening for me, because in a class of 200 students a young ROTC student had the balls to stand up to Zinn and question him on some of his points. What was amazing was that Zinn had no response - he was not used to students having the stones to dare question the great Oz, I mean Zinn. The other thing that was particularly eye-opening for me was the reaction from the other students who called him names like, Nazi, Baby-Killer, etc. By the way, this was in the mid-80's no less (not 1969). What was more admirable still was that at every class this guy would get up and challenge Zinn and the same thing would happen week after week. I found it interesting amidst all of Zinn's bluster about freedom and equality, it seemed to only work for him and his dopey followers as long as you were singing from his hymnal.

The other time was when Howard Zinn was on the Dennis Prager Show about six months ago. Once again, Zinn was spewing about how Obama needs to pull all troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Prager pushed back and said, "but if we do that what will happen to the women who stopped wearing burqua's? What about the new schools and the new government and any hope we created in those that are trying to do the right thing?" Once again Professor Zinn was left with little to defend except to blame Bush.  

By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Mon Dec 14, 02:37:00 PM:

QuakerCat:
I appreciated your anecdotes about Professor Zinn. What I found interesting is that "week after week" Professor Zinn would listen to these arguments from the gutsy ROTC student, and "week after week" he would not respond. Wouldn't you think that after a while he might anticipate such questions before the lectures, and come to class prepared with a witty rejoinder?  

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