Image from Project Snap
Dear fellow citizens,
Continuing my pledge to focus on the words of Martin Luther King in my letters, at least through April, I offer the following.
Once again, I take from “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”:
“Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. There is no other answer. Constructive social change will bring about certain tranquility; evasions will merely encourage turmoil.”
Despite the shortness, there is much to unpack from those words. The allusion to riot prevention reflects the times in which these words were written, the late sixties, when riots had erupted in Black communities across America, from Watts to Detroit. But, Martin Luther King was also speaking in a broader way.
By the time of King’s assassination, he had come to see the corrosive evil of militarization and economic imbalance, and the corresponding power disparity (economic and political). He observed the commonality of interests between poor Whites and Blacks with poor being the operative word (although really, just about any current middle to low income American could identify with his sentiment). His words also foreshadowed the rise of other movements for civil rights (migrant workers, feminists, the LGBT community, economic justice and environmental preservation and restoration).
Out of the turmoil of the sixties arose cultural, political and environmental changes, often won in the streets and on campuses, but also in the media, at least from those that saw merit in what was being fought for. To an extent, the concessions were survival reaction from the powers that be – i.e., there was just enough change to release the growing pressure and potential complete overthrow of “The System.” However, the latent power structure laid on the ropes Ali style and waited for its opportunity to set things right as they saw it.
It started in the 1970s and was revealed in the infamous Lewis Powell Jr. Memo of 1971, in which Powell, who went on to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, laid out for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce his view of the broad attack on the American economic system and what could be done about it. He characterized “the chorus of criticism” from “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians” as the “most disquieting” (dangerous). If that sounds familiar, it should, as the same things are said now about: the liberal elites; the main stream media and other “fake news” sources; science and reason, which are being attacked on all sides – e.g., denial of climate change; the false equivalency of many things, not the least of which is creationism with evolution; the false currency of “alternative facts,” etc.
In the memo, Powell laid out the blueprint for how to blunt the forces demanding change and take back the momentum, because for him, the “business and enterprise system” were “in deep trouble” and the hour was late. And so, the die was cast and America’s powerful went to work to save themselves and the system that provided their figurative and literal lifeblood.
These efforts included coordinated attacks on all the institutions mentioned as well as on unions and anyone else posing a threat. The counterattacks often went on behind the scenes, quietly but always with purpose and, importantly, an overall singular thrust. As Powell pointed out, independent and uncoordinated activity would be insufficient. “Careful long range planning and implementation” was needed as well as a “consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in political power available only through united action and national organizations.” Think of the Koch brothers, the various conservative think tanks and PACs as well as ALEC.
By the time of Reagan’s election, the Fat Boys were riding high and could sense the shift. Blood was in the water. Reagan broke the air traffic controller union and then deregulation took off. Thatcher came to power in Britain and suddenly it was sunrise in America once again. No more of Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence”; America was back.
It’s also no surprise that The System’s reemergence was paralleled, in no small part, by a growing military. The lingering stench of Vietnam was washed from the national fabric by a refurbished military machine armed with new toys and in pursuit of new enemies to slay.
The funny thing is that for the American worker and, in particular the working poor, which included many Whites, the economic situation began to stagnate and then get worse as jobs were shipped overseas, hostile takeovers wiped out companies and jobs, wages dropped (due in large part to declines in union membership), and right to work states proliferated.
Fast forward through the first Iraqi War (which simply set the stage) to 9/11 and the godsend of the terrorist attacks and the fear those set off and the comeback nears completion. The cherry on top was the 2008 meltdown and subsequent bailout and the Supreme Court put the official stamp on what was long a fact: that corporations are people and money free speech.
So here we are, fear predominates; the military is massive and in more countries than ever before (and the military and black ops budgets suffer no shortfall); economic disparity has reached near all-time highs; and ordinary Americans are having to do more with less. Social programs are being rolled back and/or privatized; the media, science and intellectual “elites” are vilified; and Big Brother is everywhere – as are guns. The saddest thing is that such a great number of Americans are buying into their own destruction. They believe the narrative being spun, which started way back in 1971: Government can do no good; White lives are threatened (Make America Great Again); Immigrants are evil (our American values are being buried); and, above all fear. These are all symptoms of the disease that’s gripped this country since industrialization began, but took its most virulent form since the 1970s. Powell’s vision played out better than he could have hoped. Not only did The System regain an iron fisted control of the country, it managed to turn the American people against one another. So long as we are divided, we cannot unite.
As Martin Luther King said, we have a choice as a society: practice constructive social change, or continue the evasions and continue to suffer turmoil. We have been pitted against one another. It’s time to re-discover our common causes and recognize the true enemy of the people.
Scot A. Reynolds