It’s dueling MLK quote season again. Both sides are making accusations of selective reading at the other, and given that many people on either side have probably read very little of his words that don’t appear on a poster, both sets of accusations are perennially accurate. We might make a policy of saying that if you haven’t read Strength to Love cover to cover, you shouldn’t be commenting on what King would want. Or, more sensibly, we should just admit that the views of a man who died in 1968 cannot do our moral work for us.
In the first and far more important instance, I’ll just make an argument you probably heard last night. Yes, I am opposed to violence. Meaningful opposition to violence means identifying its causes. The police, racism, poverty, a hundreds-of-years-old conspiracy against black Americans, hopelessness, degradation, the choice of massive racial inequality… these are the causes of the protests. (Or riots, if you prefer; the nomenclature is irrelevant to me.) When someone starving steals bread, I feel bad for the baker, but I first ask why someone was starving in the first place. The refusal to seek out the root causes of violence is the primary reason that America is such a nexus of it. Yes, I feel for people who have their businesses burnt down. I just know to send the invoice to the cops who killed Freddie Gray. I have solidarity for the protesters in Baltimore because they have suffered a relentless campaign of humiliation and neglect, and no consideration of what’s happening there that ignores their condition can be moral or useful. I support them.
There is a difference between the conduct of people in the streets and the posturing of those who, like me, merely write about them, and right now we’re in one of those moments where people forget that distance. For years now, the showy embrace of the legitimacy of political violence has been a cheap affect of today’s radicals. I hear it all the time, these strutting, self-impressed invocations of the righteousness of political violence. What makes this very strange is that it emanates from people who, without exception, harbor no pretense that a left-wing armed resistance movement could ever succeed in this country, ever. It’s a very proud stance expressed by those who know will have no earthly impact on their own lives. I don’t think any left-wing essayists out there are busy putting together a plan to take DC. So you have this chest-puffing embrace of political violence coming from people who know they will never take part in any themselves, know that any such violence will never be part of a meaningful campaign of armed resistance to the state, and know that such a campaign would be doomed to utter and near-immediate failure if it did. That is an awfully strange thing to be proud of. The truth is that these permanently-hypothetical embraces of political violence are just a way to separate oneself from the squishes in a way that’s particularly flattering to a certain self-conception. It’s t-shirt radicalism. At its worst, it comes wrapped in the kind of goonish drama-club machismo that I most often find in liberals when they support “humanitarian intervention,” pleased that they finally get to be the ones calling for more bloodshed. Consider the stakes. Consider how much skin you yourself have in the game.
At some point, the self-impressed peacocking on social media stops being about the protesters in Baltimore and starts being all about you. Maybe you should slow down and consider the vulgarity of that situation.