Martin Luther King And The Obama Catastrophe

“Last August, just as the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was to be unveiled on the National Mall and in the wake of the debt ceiling debacle, philosopher Cornel West wrote a New York Times op-ed, Dr. King Weeps From His Grave. West excoriated President Barack Obama and his administration for failing to address this country’s truly pressing issues of poverty and economic injustice:

“The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.”

“Catastrophe is a topic West has often spoken of and one that speaks powerfully to many of us in a time of economic downturn and political paralysis. In his August op-ed, West had written of the four catastrophes King himself had identified: militarism (“an imperial catastrophe that has produced a military-industrial complex and national security state”); materialism (“a spiritual catastrophe, promoted by a corporate media multiplex and a culture industry that have hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers”); racism (“a moral catastrophe, most graphically seen in the prison industrial complex and targeted police surveillance in black and brown ghettos rendered invisible in public discourse”); poverty(“an economic catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, elderly citizens and working people”).”

“Certainly we are no near anything like a solution or even a partial remedy to any of these catastrophes. Yet, after re-reading West’s words from back in August and after hearing him speak about what the ancient Greeks can still teach us, I felt both overwhelmed and hopeful. I could not help but think that, fifty years ago, the idea of him — an African American philosopher — speaking to a room full of scholarly erudites more used to learned exchanges about Egyptian papyri and the role of the military tribune in the late Roman Republic and now numbering among them some  classicists of color — that such a scene would have been considered not simply inconceivable, but impossible and even absurd.”

“It goes without saying that there is much more to do to create a just and equal world for all individuals of all races, ethnicities, genders, religions, socio-economic classes, disabilities. In remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps a fitting way to honor his vision is to acknowledge how far the civil rights movement has come, even as we recognize how much we have to do to claw our way out of the catastrophes that face us now and to create a world in which the voices of “everyday and ordinary citizens” are heard and harkened to, in which King’s words are not chiseled (incorrectly) into stone but enacted by us in the sometimes glorious, sometimes heartbreaking struggle of our daily lives.”

Read moreBy January 15, 2012
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