On the progressive website OpEdNews (OEN), I recently posted a QuickLink to an article published in Black Agenda Report by it managing editor Bruce Dixon. Seeking to get Dixon’s piece maximal attention, I titled my framing introduction to it “The Most Important Political Article in Ages.” Despite the appearance of advertising puffery, I was not exaggerating.
To grasp why I find Dixon’s timely piece so hefty, readers must understand my constant political perspective – as an activist analyst intensely focused on strategy and organizing. Like Karl Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach, I’m inclined to say, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” If the world we desperately wish to change is the hellhole of U.S. politics, nothing remotely rivals in importance the current attempt to revive Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign (PPC).
But as we support that campaign, nothing is more crucial than keeping it true to the spirit – and depth of underlying political analysis – of Dr. King. Rightly conducted, today’s PPC could be (pun intended) just what the doctor ordered. This is why principled PPC critics like Dixon (who shares King’s race and radical socialist leanings, if not his religion) deserve our close and serious attention.
PPC’s enormous potential: To lead us from our political desert
For a movement having, in King’s day and now, roots in U.S. black churches, religious allusions and metaphors are of course highly appropriate. So in saying today’s PPC could lead us out of our political desert, I am implying it could lead us into the Promised Land. Not, of course, that anyone acquainted with the nightmare of human history should expect the PPC to establish the millennium. But as a climate justice activist deeply influenced by Naomi Klein, I do think addressing humanity’s climate emergency will require a level of rapid-fire moral maturation unprecedented in human history. Our stark choice is between maturation and climate catastrophe, perhaps even between maturation and climate Armageddon. As a broad movement crying out for moral maturation—across an interrelated spectrum of issues including climate—today’s PPC is the closest approach anyone has made to a viable climate justice movement. It’s also the first movement – unlike Democrats’ pussy-hatted, Russophobic “McResistance” – offering a potentially deep response to the ghastly symptom of bipartisan disease known as Trump.
Provided, of course, today’s PPC attacks the bipartisan disease. Since doubts on that score are what I find most compelling in Dixon’s critique, I’ll say much more on that soon. But first I must dispose of the points – few but crucial – where I disagree with Dixon.
Religion and morality: Where Dixon seems off base
Any close reader of Dixon’s piece, and of my words so far, might have guessed (correctly) that my differences with him relate to religion and morality. Indeed, my previous section strongly hints that I’m comfortable with the PPC’s religious origins and morality-based language in ways that Dixon is not. In fact, I find in the PPC’s religious origins and moral language unique sources of effectiveness where Dixon sees only defects. But before elaborating on my two chief differences with Dixon, I wish to emphasize that they’re far outweighed by debt we owe him for his gutsiness in criticizing the PPC. I imagine that for many supporters, today’s PPC has already reached such iconic status that its critics must seem as perverse as detractors of Mom and apple pie would have seemed to characters in early 1960s sitcoms. Dixon honestly stuck his neck out for urgent public purposes, and even where his critiques seem mistaken, they’re hardly shallow or ill-willed, but instead rooted in realities clear-sighted people must acknowledge.
Now, anyone reading Dixon’s piece will instantly notice its snarky tone toward religion. As a frequent reader of Black Agenda Report (a black leftist publication, after all), I find this par for the course and hardly unjustified; how often, after all, has religion – especially U.S. Christianity – been used to buttress the powers that be? Or, in other words, to provide respectable support – even God’s sanction – for a ruthless capitalist or militarist establishment or even Nazis? Much more often, I’d venture, than it’s been used for the vastly more Christian purpose of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” And that’s above all true when the comfort or affliction were to be offered in this-worldly terms; religion’s notorious postponement of any reckoning to the afterlife of course underlies Marx’s famous jibe at religion as “the opiate of the masses.”
For those who know Marx’s context (see the link just provided), not even Marx is as purely hostile toward religion as he’s typically portrayed. But given humanity’s vastly improved capacity to alleviate human misery via science, technology, and democratic institutions – resources that didn’t exist when religions like Christianity were founded – no religious voice should now be trusted that hasn’t come to terms with Marx. Dixon’s snarkiness is totally appropriate to shallow religion, whereas the religion behind the PPC, in its vigilance about universal human sinfulness, is capable of critiquing shallow establishment religion in terms as scathing as anything found on the Marxist left. A fact driven home for me by recent readings in The Radical King and some works by prominent Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a significant influence on King. Given the scholar-activist backgrounds of Revs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis (Theoharis actually on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr’s long-time home), leadership of today’s PPC seems in good, uncompromising hands.
And no one cognizant of the role churches played in the civil rights movement, as well as earlier social movements like abolitionism and woman’s suffrage, should doubt their immense value as community bases for political organizing. This seems especially true in a society that increasingly isolates individuals, and where labor unions, formerly powerful resources for organizing, have been decimated by successful political attacks. Now embracing Unitarian Universalism, that least dogmatic of religious faiths, I personally can (from an organizing standpoint) only regret I hadn’t been “churched” in my incarnations as an anti-fracking, and later Bernie or Bust, organizer. Belonging to a church gives one special access not only members of one’s own church, but to interfaith political organizing—a powerful weapon wielded by today’s PPC.
To close (very willingly) my criticisms of Dixon, morality seems the area where he’s most off base. To berate the PPC for its emphasis on political issues as moral ones is probably to attack its greatest strength – a strength quite evident in King. Dixon rather amazingly overlooks the crucial role moral appeals played in eliminating such societal horrors as slavery, dueling, public torture, family vendettas, child labor – and in the civil rights movement itself. What’s more, he flies in the face of cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s important advice to liberals and progressives: that we need to start articulating the moral foundations of our political positions with the same dedication that conservatives, through their well-funded foundations and think tanks, have.
But even in his biggest misstep, Dixon is neither shallow nor ill-willed; his mistake is intertwined with valid, important concerns. On the one hand, Dixon contrasts the PPC’s insistence on morality with a class struggle analysis he (unsurprisingly for a leftist) rightly finds missing. In its efforts at broad-based coalition building, the PPC, which never hesitates to give moral criticism, is unduly chary of giving political criticism based on unjust imbalances of economic (and thereby, of political) power. A strange stance indeed for a movement seeking to eliminate poverty and racism – and a radical neglect of crucial insight from Niebuhr, who saw such unjust imbalances as brutal instances of collective immorality. Class and power balance issues are moral issues, and Niebuhr saw collective immorality as even more pernicious for societies than the individual kind.
Finally, even Dixon’s off-kilter criticism of PPC’s moral language veils an extremely valid related concern. When Dixon (mistakenly) says “ labeling your political opponents, their leaders, their misguided values and their persons as ‘immoral’ is never a persuasive political tactic” (ignoring the numerous social evils defeated by precisely moral critiques), his words do suggest a totally legitimate concern about the targets of such critiques. The powerful are in a radically different position of responsibility from the powerless; almost needless to say, Trump supporters – generally victims of propaganda in a system that offers few valid choices (Clinton was hardly a good alternative) – bear considerably less moral responsibility than Trump and the staffers of his thuggish regime. In politics, we should always fire our moral weaponry at the powerful; the powerless, rather like bystanders of armed conflict, should be left to infer the implications of associating closely with parties rightly under moral assault. Creating shame by proxy, without the resentment provoked by personal blame, is the needed moral tactic.
Democrats, Russiagate, and third-party voices: What Dixon gets crucially right
Given the great value I find in Dixon’s courageous article, I regret the amount of space I had to use for specifying my criticisms; if anything, that was because I had to disentangle even his weaknesses from intimately related strengths. Praising his unalloyed merits is a much more gratifying task.
Now, in splitting claims of merits between the PPC and Dixon, I’m inclined to say the PPC (as a movement with religious roots making moral criticisms) has a better toolkit for doing the needed political job than Dixon actually realizes. But on the existing evidence, I’d credit Dixon with a better understanding of what the job actually is. So I’d strongly urge the PPC to enlist Dixon (or someone with a similar perspective) as an adviser on its project, lest it botch that project by misapplying its powerful tools – or failing to use others it may need.
Setting tool and job metaphors aside, the existing evidence suggests Dixon’s diagnosis of our political woes is nearly identical to mine: the deep corruption, by plutocratic and militarist interests, of both parties in a structurally two-party system, with Republicans as the more straightforwardly extremist party and Democrats as their insincere, ineffective, and in fact enabling “opposition.” If it’s true, as Noam Chomsky states, that U.S. Republicans are “the most dangerous organization in human history,” it’s likewise true that Democrats like it that way, for only contrast with such a vile party could justify to voters corruption as deep as Democrats’ own. Dixon obviously prefers the Green Party to either (as do I), and if we face simple facts, Greens are almost infinitely closer to Dr. King’s values – and almost infinitely more willing to fight the PPC’s “four evils” – than either party with a prospect of actually holding power. Finally, any accurate diagnosis of our political woes must acknowledge that both major parties use every dirty trick in the book to keep intraparty reformers, let alone reformist third parties, from ever gaining power; and that both command vast media resources, likewise corrupted by plutocratic and militarist interests, that serve as propaganda organs to keep legitimate criticisms and political issues inconvenient to both parties from ever being aired.
While the PPC is quite willing to denounce the vile moral consequences stemming from this diagnosis – and to use civil disobedience to spread the message that those consequences are intolerable – they seem utterly unwilling to spread (by civil disobedience or any other means) the message of the underlying diagnosis.
If my political instincts (and Dixon’s) are correct, the PPC’s denouncing of the consequences of the diagnosis – without daring to pronounce the diagnosis itself – risks reducing the PPC to the role of ineffectual moral scolds, no matter how much civil disobedience they engage in. Why this is so is tellingly explained in terms of one of Dixon’s most spot-on criticisms: the PPC’s unlikelihood ever to denounce Democrats’ pernicious Russiagate narrative.
Taking matters at face value, the PPC would have more stake than anyone in being skeptical of Russiagate. After all, if Russia really is a dangerous enemy hellbent on destroying U.S. democracy, a considerable portion of U.S. military expenditure – such as updating our nuclear arsenal – is fully justified. Ditto for whatever vast new expenditures are required to ward off Russian cyberattacks. And since nuclear weapons are unusable (having value only as deterrence), countering Russian global aggression will likewise require vast spending on conventional defense. So, accepting the premise that Russia is our determined enemy means kissing goodbye to the domestic spending required for the PPC’s cherished aims, such as fighting poverty or rebuilding our infrastructure to address climate change. And speaking of addressing climate change, we can likewise kiss goodbye to cooperation with Russia – a petrostate whose close collaboration we desperately need – in arresting climate catastrophe. And beyond all this, the clampdown on civil liberties that comes with an active state of war merits mentioning; in a wartime state, the civil liberties of of a dissenting movement advocating peace (like the PPC) are most apt to be curtailed.
All in all, a pretty chilling blow to the PPC’s aspirations. Unless Russiagate is the overblown hysteria narrative – the self-serving Democratic propaganda narrative – Bruce Dixon and numerous other principled progressives are virtually certain it is. It’s curious – to say the least – that the PPC doesn’t amplify their voices (as only a movement can) in denouncing a narrative that thwarts its every aim.
But for fear of offending its Democratic Party supporters, the PPC seems content to let stand Democratic propaganda narratives – lies of fact or omission – that sabotage its own noble aims. So again, Dixon is totally justified in criticizing the PPC for accepting Greens and other left-of-Democrats progressives in its ranks provided they’re kept off stage and placed under a gag order about uttering certain “inconvenient truths.” Like, say, that Green Party principles and policies are infinitely closer to Dr. King’s than those of Democrats. Or, say, that the Democratic National Committee defended its right to rig primaries in court and has subsequently shown its determination to continue suppressing party progressives (see here and here).
Perhaps, ultimately, the PPC shares Chomsky’s view of Republicans as “the most dangerous organization in human history and fears telling the ugly truth about Democrats will cause the election of Republicans. But can’t a disciplined, tightly knit movement simultaneously tell the truth about Democrats while imposing the view that Republicans are worse and are under no circumstances to be voted for? I think of Adolph Reed’s “support” for Hillary Clinton in his superb piece “Vote for the Lying Neoliberal Warmonger: It’s Important”; this piece seems especially appropriate, since “lying neoliberal warmonger” seems to fit Democrats’ controlling leadership and not just Hillary Clinton. Thus portraying the Democratic Party seems much better preparation for practicing civil disobedience against – or issuing ultimatums to – corrupt Democrats the PPC had elected for purely defensive reasons. Like, say, the ultimatum of having its vast membership work to build the Green Party for 2020 if Democrats don’t seize the chance to shape up the PPC offered them in 2018.
If the PPC refuses to use its movement bully pulpit to tell hard truths about Democrats, Dixon’s words about its “lack of any political endgame” will prove prophetic: what good does it do to “vote like never before” when there’s no candidate in either major party worth voting for?
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