Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Boston University School of Theology long before I did.We remember him today as a great leader, a man willing to die for what he believed in.And all these years later we’re still struggling to find some semblance of racial equality.We can’t seem to admit that race is a social construct and not a scientific category.Indeed, the only race is the human race.King saw that, and staked his life on it.Today we’re ruled by politicians who, when faced with the truth immediately shout “fake news!”“Liberal!”They may stop short of using some words not because they don’t want to, but because they could cost them at the polls come November.America is watching.I’m sitting here thinking how Martin Luther King died when I was just five.He’d started something righteous and just.And millions were out marching in the cold on Saturday to say we still believe in justice.
I didn’t pick Boston University School of Theology just because King was its most famous alum.The other day a guy noticed my BU stocking cap and asked if it was “Boston University.”This wasn’t an educated person, but I’m guessing that most school paraphernalia has to do with sports and the game was on in the background, so the question was logical.I told him it was Binghamton University, a school with which I also have an intimate connection, one step removed.He said, “Binghamton!I saw your cap and thought Baylor?No. Must be Boston.”But ironically he ended up with the right school for me, but the wrong school for what I was wearing.I did pick BU because I realized that strong academics are nothing without social justice.Of course, academia wanted nothing to do with that.
Recently I read how Republican resentment towards liberals has very solid roots in racism.Oh, they will deny it—their “fake news” trigger-finger is very itchy—but the whole package is tied up with anger that an African-American was elected president.Follow that up with an old, white racist.How will history look back on this insane era?I think we already know.While the privileged are trying to build their own legacies, I ponder an African-American preacher with clear vision as the one we remember today.I went to Boston University naive and full of hope.I heard a lot about King when I was there.I knew something of dreams and how costly they could be.Today I sit here and cuddle the epithet “liberal” and think how it’s become a swear word for some, while its real meaning of “justice” continues to go unheeded.
I was walking in Ithaca, with my feet not far from Sagan.Winter had settled in prematurely, as it often does in upstate.I was wearing a hoodie and old fleece combo and I suppose I looked a bit tatty.My wife and daughter had gone to see Harriet, but movies about how badly people have mistreated others, strangely for a guy who watches horror, really depress me.Ithaca, until recently, supported three independent bookstores, so I figured I could pass the time easily enough.It was growing dark and breezy, and I visit bookstores only with a list, otherwise it’s too dangerous.Autumn Leaves, a used vendor, I’ve visited many times.Their religion section is disappointingly small, but I tend to find offerings in other areas when I blow in.
Buffalo Street Books is the last remaining indie that handles new books, but I stopped by The Bookery, now closing, on my way.This was saddening.Ithaca houses both the ivy league Cornell and the highly regarded Ithaca College.I suspect many of the street sweepers hold doctorates.Has book culture entirely bent the knee to Amazon?At the end of the last millennium, Ithaca housed 25 independent bookstores.Today it’s evident that Buffalo Street (formerly The Bookery II) struggles to keep its hold.I feel ethically obligated to buy something there, to take one for the team.I had a short list and the shelves in The Bookery had been nearly bare.It was just too depressing to stay there.I found an inside bench and sat to read until the movie was over.
Or so I thought.I ventured back outside and now it was fully dark, being six p.m., and I wandered back to the familiar Ithaca Commons.I went into a couple of shops, but they looked at me as if I were homeless.(I suppose I was, in a sense.)I haven’t had a haircut in a while, and my beard is scruffy and white.My hoodie and fleece don’t speak to affluence.I had unconcealed books—I routinely refuse bags—and I suppose I could come across as a touch eccentric.(I don’t have enough money to be authentically eccentric.)I wondered how street people do it.Outside the east wind was decidedly sharp and windbreaks on the pedestrian zone are few.I came to the monument to Martin Luther King Junior.I was walking in Ithaca but I really felt that books could make that dream come true.
There are consequences, it seems, for not paying attention in school.I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect most of us are taught that basic fairness is the social ideal.Xenophobia is deeply embedded in the primate psyche, but to those who claim we haven’t evolved, there seems to be no way to convince them that “racial” differences are merely a matter of differing collectives separated by natural borders.Over time traits favorable to the region predominate, and humans therefore have what seems to be a very wide array of potential appearances.There should be nothing in all of this that suggests one group is superior to another.Primate evolution, however, helps to explain but not to excuse.Xenophobia is something from which we can evolve.
Fear is at the heart of any phobia.In a society that measures the worth of individuals by their wealth, fear that another will take it is constant.Perhaps, in a part of our souls we’d rather not acknowledge, we know it’s wrong to have too much while others don’t have enough.It’s very cold this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.In Manhattan on Saturday I saw many people on the street, those who’d met the wrong end of capitalism.I’ve seen human beings shivering in Dickensian conditions in the twenty-first century.I’ve known capable adults who couldn’t find work, even when they’ve tried.We fear the street person.We know that, but for slight shifts in capitalism, that could be us.
Xenophobia has come under threat with globalization.We’ve made travel to remote locations affordable in order to spread capitalism to regions ready to be exploited.And we see nothing wrong with taking from those who can’t prevent us from doing so.Then we wonder why people just like us turn out to march in the cold.Civil rights marches took place half a century ago.Crowds thronged the nation’s capital seeking basic human treatment.Fifty years later over a million women and supporters had to show up to make the same point again.Fair treatment should not be a commodity.Those who have fear the stranger.Those who have don’t wish to share.They claim the name of “Christian” and mock the very tenets upon which that belief system was founded.It’s cold outside today.As we huddle inside, we should have time to think.It is a waste of a national holiday if we don’t at least ponder for a few moments what it is we celebrate.And the real costs of xenophobia.
Martin Luther King Jr. was, and is, a symbol of hope. This day, as we’re encouraged to think of progress, we’re mired under leadership that less than a week ago used derogatory language to describe people that aren’t white enough for his liking. Those who, like King, have a dream, are under attack by a government that has pledged its allegiance to the dollar. The dollar in the hand of the white man. From the days of the prophets on the dream of a just and fair society has been the ideal. Instead we find ourselves under the ultimate party of privilege that likes to quote the Bible but which admires Pharaoh far more than Moses. They claim to see the promised land, and that land belongs only to them.
I was too young, as a seminary student, to appreciate I was walking the same halls as Dr. Martin Luther King. Sitting in the same classrooms. It had all been before my time. Because of the Bible I first took an interest in history—eager to learn how we’d come to this place. Ronald Reagan—who now amazingly seems rather benign—was making it difficult for the poor by promoting “trickle down economics.” We all saw how that worked. The modern-day Pharaohs may not wear the impressive headdress of antiquity, but they’re no less fond of owning slaves. King understood that non-violence comes with a cost. It takes time. Unlike the present administration, he understood the difference between right and wrong.
The Pharaoh in the White House makes it difficult to appreciate any progress at all. We have come to see what it means to be a nation that solely, utterly worships Mammon. The voice of the Bible is weak and shouted down by those who see no gain in it for themselves. There were surely those in Egypt who were poor but who appreciated the Pharaoh. At least he was enslaving those from somewhere else, according to Exodus. According to the Good Book it was God himself who opposed this system, but now, according to the evangelicals, God has blessed it. It is the will of God to rob the poor of their health care so that the rich can add even more to their too much. On this Martin Luther King day we struggle to find hope in such a world. The hope is there, but we have to be willing to dare to dream.
Just over a couple of centuries ago on this date, Edgar Allan Poe was born. That auspicious moment is an inspiration for those of us who write, and not just those of us who like scary stories. Poe was one of the first Americans to try to support himself by his writing—an occupation that has remained difficult to replicate and attain, even centuries later. There had, of course, been earlier writers. Mostly they wrote as an avocation to their jobs or they had family wealth, but Poe knew his own talents well enough to believe that writing was his occupation. He still stands out as an icon to those who are hopefully of making some kind of mark in the literary world. The surface is, however, much harder than we anticipate. It is like diamond, which may be marked only by another diamond. It is worth stopping to think of literature today.
Over the long weekend, celebrating the human spirit in the person of Martin Luther King, Jr., I decided to read William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Probably not the source of as many famous quotes as some of the Bard’s other plays, it was nevertheless fitting as a tribute to writing. King Lear is sometimes cast as Shakespeare’s most thoroughly tragic works. The mood of misfortune hangs over the entire play. And although Lear is likely a fiction from the mind of Geoffrey of Monmouth or his sources, his name recounts the Celtic god of the sea, Llyr. Historians and grammarians tell us that Lear is not directly derived from the god’s name, nevertheless, there is a divine madness about the drama that unfolds as love and power vie for control in ages long past. In the present day the tragedy is that love seems no longer to be part of the equation and raw power is left to mark those who would be kings.
The holiday weekend afforded the opportunity to visit a local bookstore and to ask the owners what to read. It would give Poe, I’m sure, some hope to know that despite the difficulties there are those who still strive to live by their words. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a better way of celebrating freedom than to indulge oneself with the written word. Words lead to liberty. Although Poe’s life was short, and often tragic, Martin Luther King, Jr. lived to about the same age, and through his often tragic life, changed the world with his words. In this day of money hunger and electronic stimulation, it is good to set aside some time to reflect on the words that have made us who we are. Words are our ultimate freedom.
It was not intentionally because it was Martin Luther King Junior’s alma mater that I chose to attend Boston University School of Theology. King’s legacy there was certainly a perk, but I had found the seminary engaging because it had a rare combination, at least in my limited experience, of academic rigor and a strong sense of social justice. Too often, it seems, academic enterprises become dispassionate and social justice becomes one of those squishy human element sorts of things that really can’t be quantified. We pursue knowledge without really thinking if its impact will be positive or not. At least fair or not. Fairness is a concept rooted in belief, and, as studies of primates show us, it is very deeply embedded in us. What has it to do with academic achievement?
This Martin Luther King day, I’m concerned about how difficult social justice is to find, even in those places where we expect it to reside. Taking second place to doctrine in many churches, social justice is more of an uncomfortable requirement than a true passion. This winter I’ve noticed more and more homeless on the streets. Our “economy” seems to dictate that many have to be losers so that few can be big winners. Instead of helping them out, I see authority figures come along to shoo them out of the way before those who have jobs have to come that way. We don’t want to be reminded that we might lose everything as well. Affluent society requires victims, and we can be very academic about it.
I have to admit to relegating holidays to that mere Monday off work. The relentless wheels of capitalism ever turn, and only with reluctance do our companies grudgingly give us ten days spread throughout the year to recuperate. The next slated holiday comes in May. Will there be social justice by then? With the eventual warming of the air by that season, will we simply blend those without homes into the less well-dressed and pretend that we have achieved a fair society after all? What do we really celebrate today? Is it just another morning to sleep in, or is there something more to it? A dream that won’t be extinguished until fairness is established? Seems like a worthy idea, at least in theory. But until then you’ll find us at our desks, working to keep the system strong. And hopefully, we won’t forget to dream.
In college a friend I’ve lost track of (and I have, of most of them) turned me on to Irish protest music. I do have some fairly direct Irish heritage, although I didn’t know it at the time, still the righteous anger tied to memorable tunes made a strong impression. Music can move you in that way. In a recent New Jersey Star-Ledger article on protest songs, Lisa Leff raises the poignant question of where the protest songs have gone. In the aftermath of the travesty of justice in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, we find ourselves musically mute. As I sat in the theater awaiting Exodus, the preview of Selma brought tears to my eyes. Martin Luther King Junior knew the power of peaceful protest. “We Shall Overcome” featured in the trailer. Would there be an exodus after all of this at all? We used to voice our discontent. Now we click on to the next page, oblivious.
Justice has become a myth for many. Please understand, I’m professionally bound not to use “myth” in a pejorative way. No, justice has become a myth. Fear is powerful, and power is fearful. Juries are supposed to be impartial. Who is really not afraid? Why don’t we sing in the dark instead of drawing our weapons and firing? Why don’t we believe “I can’t breathe” is a statement made in earnest? Why don’t we insist on the “for all” part of the pledge? After all, even some recent presidents not known for their sense of social justice have pointed out that these court decisions are puzzling. I wonder where I put those old Irish protest-song records?
Anything you say can and will be used against you. I don’t know what to say. We have lost the ability to experience justifiable outrage. We see powerful lobbies continue to arm the mentally unstable while one percent hordes the wealth that could be used to help fund the solutions. If you walk past Trump Tower you’ll see that visitors are not welcome in one of the highest buildings in the city. We have forgotten how to sing. These most recent cases of Brown and Garner are only the most recent cases. Violence in the name of law has gone on for too long. I’m afraid when I rush past the fatigues in the Port Authority on my way to work. But I am a white man. Do they know that I used to listen to Irish protest music? I wonder where I put those records. Wait a minute, there’s something new in the iTunes store.