Saturday, January 31, 2009

Setting Pay Caps for Bailed-Out Executives

On Friday, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) stepped onto the Senate floor and introduced a bill to cap pay for executives of private companies receiving federal bailout money. And I did a litle dance. The Chief Executive Officer Pay Act of 2009 would mean that total annual compensation for executives of corporations getting bailout funds could not exceed the salary of the President of the United States: $400,000. 

Here she is introducing the bill:

Some of the highlights from the transcript:
If you want taxpayers to help you survive...then you're going to have to limit every one's pay at your company to the same salary the President of the United States makes. Is that so unreasonable? It's eight times the median household income in the United States of America...

So every executive, going forward, cannot make more than $400,000 a year. And they'd have to limit that executive compensation for everyone in their company until they pay back every dime to the taxpayers....
And here's my favorite part:
And if any of them think it's a hardship to take the salary of the President of the United States, I dare them to say so out loud right now.
Hell yes. Any corporate CEO out there wanna raise your hand and explain why our public money should subsidize your obscene pay?

Tactically, this is good timing on McCaskill's part. Her announcement follows the news about Citigroup--which has taken $45 billion in bailout funds--reversing plans to by a $50 million corporate jet, after prodding from President Obama. And it follows news that more than $18 billion in bonuses were paid to Wall Street employees last year, which Obama called, "shameful," "outrageous," "the height of irresponsibility."

McCaskill's bill is great start, but it doesn't go far enough. The concept that the use of public money requires public responsibility should be applied more broadly, beyond the bailout. For instance, the federal government should deny contracts or subsidies to corporations with exorbitant executive compensation. What qualifies as exorbitant? That's a national discussion we need to have. A bill introduced in 2007, the Patriot Corporations of America Act, would deny federal contracting preferences to companies that compensate any executive more than 100 times the income of the company's lowest-paid full-time employee. (As McCaskill might ask, is that so unreasonable?) That would attack the problem from the top and the bottom, giving a company incentive to pay its executives less and to pay it's wage-earners more. 

The government already requires corporations to meet our standards for racial and gender equality before we'll do business with them. Why should we not also require them to meet our standards for decency in pay?

Hopefully, we'll tackle these things in the next couple of years. First we need to pass Claire McCaskill's landmark bill. 

You should:

2. Tell Senator McCaskill you are behind her. She will now be a prime target for the business community. It takes guts to propose bold legislation like this. Especially for a relatively new Senator (she was elected in 2006). And especially for a red-state Democrat. If a Senator from Missouri can hold her ground on this issue, it will say a lot about how much the political climate has changed. 

3. Witness the revival of heartland progressivism.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Nine Accomplishments in Nine Days

President Obama's first nine days in office have been like the end of Lord of the Flies, when the naval officer steps onto the island and the rules of civilization suddenly return to the barbaric children. I don't mean that Obama is a messiah figure (and neither is the naval officer). I mean that normal, reasonable behavior from our president reveals how savage things had really become. 

Oh yeah, I remember civilization. It was nice!

What a relief watching Obama step in and quickly turn a number of things around. I know that the president's first acts are calculated for maximum perception management and that a lot of things are mostly symbolic, but these messages and symbols are good ones. They can be part of a change of perception about what is possible for us as a people, part of a long-term, general turnaround for our country. 

But it's not all metaphor and symbol. Mr. Obama is just finishing his 9th full day as president, and he already has 9 concrete accomplishments that we can be proud of. 

1. Obama makes CIA stop torturing people. On January 22nd, the president signed an executive order requiring that military and paramilitary organizations (read: CIA) abide by the Army Field Manual's rules for interrogations. The Army Field Manual says no waterboarding, no inflicting physical pain, no starving or dehydrating, no electric shocks, no nudity stunts or dark sexual things. Dick Cheney and his neocon friends are probably very sad about this. The order also lists "ensuring compliance with the treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions" as one of its main purposes. Abiding by international human rights treaties? We're kickin' it old school!

2. Obama shuts down CIA's secret prisons. Also on January 22nd, a new executive order mandated the closing of CIA's worldwide network of secret detention and interrogation/torture centers. The point of having secret prisons, in secret locations, holding secret detainees was so that torture and other crimes would stay secret. Another point was to try to stay beyond the reach of the law. I guess one of the underlying assumptions of Neocon theory was that waterboarding someone in Egypt or Romania is more just than doing it in New York or Nebraska. Well, no matter. An adult's on the island and civilization has returned, so cut that crap out.

3. Obama orders the closing of the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison, aka "Gitmo," aka "American gulag." The president's executive order requires that the prison be closed within a year. Now a review process has to determine where the detainees can be transfered and where they can be tried in court. It might actually take a year, because apparently the Bush Administration did not keep files on many of the prisoners. Hmm, it's almost like justice was never even the point. 

4. Obama brings back the Freedom of Information Act. Few things are as damning of the Bush Administration as its addiction to secrecy. The Bushies sent the message loud and clear to federal agencies that FOIA requests could be ignored or dismissed if the agency in question could think of any "sound legal basis." The Bush philosophy with FOIA was secrecy first, and when in doubt, err on the side of secrecy. Obama's order establishes the opposite philosophy: "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails," and "the presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA." In other words, openness and transparency first, and when in doubt, err on the side of openness and transparency. 

5. Obama allows states to set stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration had blocked efforts by California and other states to set their own, stricter emission standards. Obama's order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to review that policy. (It'll be nice to see professionals at EPA able to do their jobs again.) You could sum up this new, radical philosophy as: When in doubt, err on the side of the will of the people and the good of the planet rather than on the side of the auto companies' short-term profits.

6. Obama moves the nation toward better fuel efficiency.  In another environmental executive order, Obama directed the Department of Transportation to set rules for implementing a 2007 gas mileage law that the Bush administration ignored. The new rules would cover 2011-model cars. Doesn't it feel strange seeing government encouraging progress rather than prohibiting it?

7. Obama creates the strictest lobbying rules ever. The new rules include a ban on administration officials accepting gifts from lobbyists. They also say that lobbyists taking jobs with the executive branch can't shape policy affecting their former employers or clients for a period of two years and can't take a job in an agency that they lobbied within the last two years. And officials leaving the administration can't lobby the executive branch for two years. These rules, had they miraculously gone into effect in early 2001, would have barred most of Bush's high-level appointments to regulatory agencies from ever happening. 

8. Obama begins crafting withdrawal from Iraq. He was never going to make a bold proclamation on Iraq his first week in office. Instead, he made a high-profile visit to the Pentagon to meet with military leaders, as part of a review of how to wind down the war. All indications are that he is sticking to his campaign pledge of all combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months. We'll see. The same people who got us into the war are going to be trying to keep us there. The same people who told us that if we didn't support the war, then we didn't support the troops are going to tell us that ending the war is losing the war.

9. Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. This law closes a loophole opened in 2007 by the Supreme Court which drastically weakened workers' rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Ledbetter law means companies that engage in pay discrimination against an employee on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin are no longer off the hook if they manage to keep the initial act of discrimination secret from the employee for 180 days. Yep, it was that stupid. Now it's fixed. Now an employee can bring suit within 180 days of any act of unlawful discrimination. In other words, Democrats had to overcome Republicans to pass a law saying that every crime is a crime, not just the first one.   

Oh yeah, law! Civilization! We remember these things. As we enter into them, the island of savage children that was the Bush Era is going to look more and more barbaric in comparison. In some things, we can snap back to the reasonable world quickly. But it took an adult to step down onto the island and announce:
"The time has come to set aside childish things."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Let People Elect Senators--Every Time

Back in December, while talking about the Rod Blagojevich circus and the possibility that Caroline Kennedy would be appointed to the Senate, I proposed a constitutional amendment barring governors from appointing people to fill vacant Senate seats.

Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is about to introduce that amendment. What's that you say? Well. OK, if you insist, I'll take the credit. 

Seriously though, the Senate is a drag on democracy. It wasn't until 1913, with the 17th Amendment, that the people (instead of state legislatures) could directly elect Senators. The power of governors to name Senators when there's a mid-term vacancy is a holdover from the pre-1913 days. 

Sen. Feingold points out in a statement on his website that the Constitution mandates special elections to fill vacant House seats. It should do the same for the Senate. 

It seems to me that if this amendment could ever pass, it would pass now, thanks mainly to Governor Rod Blagojevich. It's hard for me to imagine where much opposition would come from. How do you stand up and say that in many cases the people of a state should not directly elect one of their most important representatives?

Check out Feingold's article on Daily Kos, "A new effort to empower the people," where he addresses common objections to the proposal.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Micro-Progress: Mississippi Paper Apologizes for Civil Rights Neglect

Micro-Progress is a recurring theme here at Better Than Machines, highlighting local-level, "micro" stories of progressive activism and progressive triumphs. You can read more about Micro-Progress at "Introducing Micro-Progress." 

(I've been meaning to highlight this story for the last week but have been distracted by the inauguration hubbub.)

On January 18th, the newspaper in Meridian, Mississippi issued an apology for "largely ignoring" past civil rights issues, such as "the unfairness of segregated schools, buses, restaurants, washrooms, theaters and other public places." 

The final two paragraphs of the bold editorial:
We did it through omission, by not recording for our readers many of the most important civil rights activities that happened in our midst, including protests and sit-ins. That was wrong. We should have loudly protested segregation and the efforts to block voter registration of black East Mississippians.

Current management understands while we can't go back and undo some past wrongs, we can offer our sincere apology -- and promise never again to neglect our responsibility to inform you, our readers, about the human rights and dignity every individual is entitled to in America -- no matter their religion, their ethnic background or the color of their skin.
Across the Web, this story has been greeted with a mix of praise and cynicism. I'm in the former camp. It's true that justice delayed is justice denied. But it's also true that it's never too late to do the right thing. I guarantee that the words in that editorial are more radical in Mississippi than they are across the Internet and on your screen.

Look at the history of slavery across the south, at the suppression of civil rights, and at the continuing racial divide: Mississippi stands out as perhaps the state where racism runs deepest. It's also the state with the lowest median family income, the largest percentage of people below the poverty line, and the highest infant mortality rate. It's the second least educated state, has the highest teen pregnancy rate, and despite its size, ranks fourth in total number of people in privately-run prisons. Oh, and it's the state with the second most unequal income distribution. (statistics from

The people of Mississippi have a tough road ahead of them. 

I think the Meridian Star is doing an honorable thing. And I hope they will do more than inform East Mississippians when human rights are being trampled. I hope they will begin revealing how the problems listed above are interconnected, that they will begin untangling those problems and reveal what I believe is at the center: an old, vicious social and political philosophy that is happy to make many people expendable if it benefits a few.

Here's a salute to the Meridian Star for confronting the past and, hopefully, beginning to untangle that knot. That is Micro-Progress in Mississippi.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dear World, Welcome to Better Than Machines. Love, BTM

The Twitpic of "Dear World, We're Back! Love, U.S.A." now has over 170,000 views. Stemming from that and the other social media sites that picked up the picture, at its peak, Better Than Machines' traffic reached about 35 times its normal levels. Over the last few days, people from 21 countries have visited BTM.

To all of you who've found your way here through Twitter, Digg, Stumbleupon, and other sites:  

Welcome. I hope you'll stick around. There's a lot going on and a lot to talk about. 

While the inauguration of President Obama marked a major victory for the people of the United States and the world, it by no means marked the end of a struggle. If anything, it's a beginning. "We're back" doesn't mean everyone can stop paying attention now. "We're back" means we just removed one of the single biggest obstacles to our progress as a people.  

Now it's time to bring on some of that progress. We now have a presidential administration that is not actively hostile to ordinary working Americans. But that doesn't mean that this administration will just give us what we want. Once you're actually in the Oval Office, suddenly all the money men are whispering in your ear, suddenly it's a lot easier just to give the Chamber of Commerce whatever it wants. 

After Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932, a group of labor leaders and reformers met him with a number of specific plans they wanted the president to implement. Roosevelt responded: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

We are in the same position today: We just elected a progressive Democrat for president, after witnessing the utter failure of a political and economic philosophy built on greed. Back then, FDR did good things because the American Left was fired up and engaged. 

President Obama believes a lot of the right things. Now it's time for us to make President Obama do the right things. Stay tuned as BTM does its small part. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

What My Sign Means

Here's the picture from Twitpic of me holding my homemade sign on Inauguration Day:

The photo was taken by a Twitter user who goes by infernoenigma.  

He posted it on Twitpic on Wednesday.  

From there it was put on Digg by bianconeri4ever.

As of 7:03 pm EST today, the picutre has been viewed over 160,000 times, "Digg'd" over 3,800 times, and received over 700 comments on Digg.

It's been cool to see the response from people around the world, including American expats.

On Twitpic... 

montpetitviolon writes:

This is great! :-) Love, Italy!

Netzreisender writes:

yeah - welcome back! love, germany

armoty writes:

I think we'll love America again, Egypt

fireashes writes:

We love you back.

On Digg... 

Nboy514 writes:

Dear USA, Welcome Back. Love Canada

Raphae1 writes:

Dear USA, Welcome Back. Love Austria

superandreas writes:

Dear USA. This brings not only hope to your nation, but to nations worldwide. together we can CHANGE to the better! Love from Norway

What My Sign Does Not Mean 

Now, before we get carried away, there have been plenty of good critical comment about this sign.  (You can sample them on the Digg page.)  These comments deserve a response, because they raise important caveats.  

I am a lot of things, but a mindless flag-waiver is not one of them.

"Dear World, We're Back! Love, U.S.A." does not mean that everything is better now, everything is fixed, no need for reform, no need for progressivism, end of story.

It does not mean that all the people of the world look only to America for sustenance and guidance.

It does not mean that America has committed atrocities only under the Bush Administration.

It does not mean that world "popularity" should be America's chief concern.

It does not mean that everything good about America ceased to exist during the Bush Era.

It does not mean a lot of silly things.  

What My Sign Does Mean

If you don't understand that the inauguration of President Barack Obama--and the grassroots movement and electoral rout that made it possible--signals the restoration of some good things about America and the beginning of a restoration of other things, then you haven't been paying attention. You haven't been paying attention to the lies and crimes of Bush Republicanism and modern conservative philosophy. You haven't been paying attention to the growing tide of opposition to those lies and crimes. And you haven't paid attention to history and seen that sometimes there are indeed turning points in history, when people decide that they are sick of being pushed down again and again. We are living in one of those times.

I wrote in my previous post about what a longer version of my sign might have said. It's worth repeating here:

(This has now been amended slightly, per an insightful comment by ActivistGuy from Daily Kos.)

America is undergoing a restoration and reclamation. We are restoring government so that it works for us instead of against us. We humbly seek to earn a position of moral authority and honorable leadership in the world. We want the people of the world to know that we hear them. We want them to know that we as a people are better than these last eight years, that our government has not represented us. Our government has been a vicious and alien thing sitting on top of us instead of a compassionate and democratic thing rising up from us. We're putting those disgraceful years behind us, and we're going to set things right. We're moving forward. We're back.

If you think this is a message the world should hear, let's digg, tweet, and forward it to them.

You can Digg it HERE.  You can view it on Twitpic HERE.  You can share your comments BELOW.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dear World, We're Back! Love, U.S.A.

UPDATE:  A better picture of this sign was Twitpic'd HERE by Twitter user infernoenigma.  From there it got "Dugg" up the charts. See it on Digg HERE.  All Tweeters and Diggers, I welcome debate and discussion in the comments section. 

In an earlier post, I solicited suggestions for what to write on the homemade sign I would carry around on Inauguration Day. I decided to go with a short and sweet message: Dear World, We're Back! Love, U.S.A.

I was astounded by the reactions this sign received. I held it while I was waiting in the glacial line to get through the security checkpoint. I'm not exaggerating when I say that every person who saw the sign had a positive reaction. So many people stopped and wanted to take a picture that I started to worry that the crowd would further clog up the street, so I took the sign down every now and then. I think it helped keep people in a good mood while we were all wondering if we'd get on to the Mall in time. 

Some people simply wanted to take a picture. Other people wanted to stand by me and have a friend take their picture. Still others wanted to take the sign from me and have their picture taken holding it. People in line started joking that I should be selling photos for $5 a pop.  

I knew that signs weren't allowed at the ceremony, so before we passed through security, I folded it up and stuffed it in the manilla envelope that held our tickets.

Once the ceremony was over, I pulled the sign out again and held it over my head in the crowd. People loved it. Hundreds of people took pictures with their digital cameras and cell phones. Maybe ten people that looked like media photographers snapped shots and a few cameramen zoomed in on it as well.
One guy took a picture and said, "This is goin' up on an Irish website!" 

Another guy said, "This is goin' back to Australia!" 

I think I gave an interview to a reporter from a small newspaper in California, but I can't be sure. 

One guy handed me a dollar bill and said, "Here man, you ought to be getting paid." 

A woman gave me a granola bar and said, "This will help you keep up the energy."  

This went on for some time. At one point, I climbed up on a concrete barrier in front of the Capitol and held the sign up in the freezing wind. I thought I was going to get knocked off the wall when people surged forward to take pictures and jump up beside me. I could have stayed out there all day (I kept joking that I would wait there until the Washington Post came by), but it was cold and getting windier and we were tired and hungry and thirsty. (So I guess it's more accurate to say I could not have stayed out there all day.)

It was exciting to see how much everyone wanted to echo the sentiment on my sign. It really did seem to capture what I think was one of the two big themes expressed in the crowd. The first theme was the elation, pride, and everything else that goes along with electing the first African-American president. The second theme--which the sign was a part of--was something like this: 
America is undergoing a restoration and reclamation. We are restoring government so that it works for us instead of against us. We humbly seek to earn a position of moral authority and honorable leadership in the world. We want the people of the world to know that we hear them. We want them to know that we as a people are better than these last eight years, that our government has not represented us. Our government has been a vicious and alien thing sitting on top of us instead of a compassionate and democratic thing rising up from us. We're putting those disgraceful years behind us, and we're going to set things right. We're moving forward. We're back.
I think if my sign had said those words, the reactions would have been the same (although people would have had to spend 30 seconds reading it). I believe the general attitude that we are back is part of why the crowd was so cheerful and hopeful. News reports say there were zero arrests at the inauguration. Two million people and no arrests. I have a feeling that big things are coming and that maybe everyone is underestimating the kind of transformation that is going on in the country.   

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

7 Things I Learned at the Inauguration

1. Logistically, this event was a few islands of order in a sea of chaos. As my wife and I walked from southeast Capitol Hill toward the Mall, there were inauguration volunteers everywhere, in their red beanies, directing people to the appropriate gates for entering the Mall. I thought, wow, if they are this organized 10 blocks from the Capitol, we're in good shape. Our tickets directed us to the "Silver Gate," at Independence Avenue and 3rd Street S.W., where we found that the line already stretched a very long way back. We spent at least a half hour (maybe more) following a river of people, trying to find the end of our line, which snaked around many (I lost count) city blocks in southwest DC. When we finally reached the end, we were amazed at how quickly the line continued to grow behind us. But in the direction that counted, the line was painfully slow moving and was sometimes hard to discern at all from the general crowd. In one spot, the line came close to an insanely long line of people trying to get into Starbucks, which caused a period of confusion for everybody.

Based on the time and the look of the line, we pretty much accepted that despite our tickets, we would not be seeing any inaugural ceremonies. Not even close, at that pace. But in a weird way, I appreciated the sheer magnitude of the scene and was impressed at how ordered and generally cheerful everyone was. I thought, "If we're not going to see any of the ceremonies, at least it's because so many millions of people are down here trying to do the same thing, and there simply isn't space."

This is when things took a turn in the Lord-of-the-Flies direction. The line had grown so rapidly that the end had meandered around a few blocks and crossed back through the middle. Our line made a loop. You can imagine the confusion. People in were yelling back and forth, "We're in the Silver line," only to be answered, "No, this is the Silver line!"

In all of this mayhem, a couple of red-beanied volunteers showed up and just started shouting, "3rd and Independence! You wanna go to 3rd and Independence!" 

I thought, "Yeah, duh, that's where our gate is. That's why we're standing in line."

But everyone around me took it to mean that we should abandon the line and make a dash straight for the gate. My wife and I watched the line dissolve around us, while further up we could see thousands of people who had not heard the yelling and were still waiting faithfully in line. We joined the defectors, and I felt a smidgen of guilt. I am certain that the people who stayed in that line never got on to the Mall.

The mob ruled. The dash was on. We followed the flow of the crowd, unsure if we were doing the right thing or if the beany people had just been confused. I was sure of one thing: We were definitely going to see the ceremony now. This enormous, determined rush of desperate people would not be turned back by barricades and cops. Too many people would be too pissed to turn around. This was the only time all day when I thought the giant crowd had the possibility to turn into something dangerous. 

We reached the gate, which was surprisingly wide and quick-moving. We breezed through. The guard seemed disgusted that I wanted to show him my ticket. Was the whole ticketed, color-coded sections thing a sham? 

When we got on the Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, there was still plenty of open space available. We had a great spot, with a good view of the Capitol and a jumbo-screen. 

It's sad to think of the many thousands of people who had traveled a long way for the inauguration, who had tickets, who had shown up several hours early, followed all directions, AND DID NOT GET IN. (Here's one account from just such a person. It sounds like he's describing a bad dream.) I don't know what exactly the problem was. But that long, narrow, meandering line was not necessary for such a wide gate. 

2. The crowd loved progressive Democrats. As we watched the dignitaries being seated on the stage, the crowd cheered or booed nearly everyone the camera showed. In my area, John McCain received polite applause. Fake Democrat Joe Lieberman got the worst boos, besides of course the taunting given to Bush and Cheney. Outside of the Obamas, Bidens, and Clintons, Ted Kennedy got the biggest cheers. Progressive Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman also got a lot of love.  

3. People were quiet and respectful--you might even say prayerful--during Rick Warren's prayer. Whatever controversy there might have been in Obama picking this mainstream Protestant Christian to deliver the invocation, there was no sign of it from where I stood.

4. Before the official ceremony began, the eerily beautiful sounds of the choir echoing off the buildings, combined with giant flags hanging all around and the millions of people waiting expectantly, made the whole event feel strangely like the crowning of Aragorn at Minas Tirith, in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

5. The big toes on each foot were the coldest parts of my body. 

6. President Obama's speech was good but not mind-blowing. I didn't catch any "We have nothing to fear..." lines on the first pass. I know that's an unfair standard. I'll definitely have to re-read the speech at some point. I felt like he said great things and set the tone for his administration but didn't really pound anything home. I did love the historical perspective in which he couched things. But I was waiting for something that would be a little shocking in it's bluntness and as a hard break from the Bush Era. 

He did say, "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." 

But he did not say:
"As your president, I promise you this: America will never again torture another single human being. Never again. I will do everything in my power as Commander-in-Chief to make sure of it. It is a tragedy and a disgrace that America is even debating torture in the 21st century. I will direct the Justice Department to review all of the previous administration's policies and actions on torture, and if warranted Justice will prosecute Bush Administration officials for war crimes." 

7. The sign I referred to in a previous post was a big hit. More on the sign in a follow-up post soon to come.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Inauguration Bound

My uncle scored extra inauguration tickets and was awesome enough to give them to my wife and me. (Thanks Ed!) We plan to be in the city between tonight, when The Boss is playing on the Mall, and Tuesday. We're staying with friends who live on Capitol Hill. I am both dreading the chaos of the massive crowds and excited to see the whole city shut down, in party mode. 

You should know that I have a history of holding homemade signs and placards with political messages when I'm in a big crowd like this. So, I'm trying to decide what to write on my 2' x 3' poster board. I want it to be in this format:
I'm open to suggestions. If you had to boil it all down, what's the message you want the world to take from the inauguration? What should the exit of President George W. Bush and the entrance of President Barack Obama say to the world?  Remember it has to be legible on a poster board from some distance. So far, I'm thinking something along the lines of "We're Back" or "We're Better Now" or something like that. 

Tell me what you would say, and you might see your message on TV in the next couple of days. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Honoring the Real Martin Luther King Jr.

On January 20th, one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the United States will swear in its first African-American president. The power and symbolism of that historic moment will not be lost on President Barack Obama or the millions of people listening to his inaugural address. Obama will quote King and talk about the great strides America has made toward racial equality since King's time. But President Obama could do more. He could honor and revive the full range of what King lived, worked, and died for. He could help fashion a more powerful and more accurate legacy for King. He could remind us that not only was King a champion of civil rights, he was a Christian spiritual leader and a nonviolent crusader against economic injustice and war.

It is a testimony to the power of King's life and activism that principles of racial equality have taken such deep root in our national consciousness. Parts of his "I Have a Dream" speech are as well known as any great words from American history. Today, his name is practically unassailable in any discussion on racial equality and civil rights. That in itself is an enormous, historic victory. 

But to remember King solely as a black civil rights leader is to ignore his real vision. King talked about the "Triple Evils" of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation, and he viewed these things as inextricably linked. In his sermons, especially later in his life, he rarely talked about one of these evils without talking about the other two. According to King, we won't really kick racism, until we kick militarism and economic exploitation.

The Evil of Militarism

In the mid 1960s, King grew increasingly outspoken in opposition to the war in Vietnam and US foreign policy in general. King said that in Vietnam and in Latin America, the US was "on the wrong side of a world revolution," where the US allied itself with "the landed gentry" against people seeking reform. He believed that we would never have the resources we need for domestic priorities as long as we poured our money into foreign wars and the occupation of foreign land. 

One of his most powerful remarks: 
"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
The Evil of Economic Exploitation

In the late 1960s, King increasingly emphasized issues of economic justice. In 1968, he organized the Poor People's Campaign to assemble a "multi-racial army of the poor" to march on Washington. He referred to the Poor People's Campaign as the "second phase" of the civil rights movement, where the "first phase" had focused on the segregation problem. He called for massive public works projects to rebuild American cities and create jobs. He criticized Congress for providing military funding with "alacrity and generosity" while providing "poverty funds with miserliness." 

In a speech called "Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence," King said:
"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
That sort of radical talk brought on the scorn of the Establishment. King was lambasted in national media as a communist working for Radio Hanoi. The FBI continued its campaign of surveillance, intimidation, and blackmail and against King. Organizing black people for civil rights was subversive enough, but organizing poor people for economic justice and an end to American militarism was too threatening to too many powerful people. When King was killed on April 4th, 1968, he was in Memphis to support a strike by city sanitation workers

Conspiracy or not, I think it's a general rule that those who do too much good too quickly will be killed one way or another.

Renewing the Battle Against the 'Triple Evils'

We only got a glimpse of  what it might look like for King to take on the Triple Evils all at once, as part of a national movement. King did not have much time in the "second phase" of his movement before he was gunned down.  We've never had a president or a serious presidential contender articulate a Kingian vision. Perhaps the 1968 campaign of Robert Kennedy came closest, but he was shot down during that campaign, just two months after King.

It's past time for us to take up King's banner again. What better time to do it than the inaugural address of our first African-American president? Barack Obama will take the podium on Tuesday with a tremendous level of support and good will from Americans and people all over the world. He will certainly invoke the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. It's up to him whether he invokes a safe, one-dimensional civil rights leader or the real man, a crusader against the Triple Evils. It's up to President Obama whether we celebrate past victories or prepare for future ones.