Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Whose Ox Is Being Gored

The official backlash against Occupy Wall Street and its many offshoots is well under way. Last night the New York City Police went on a rampage against the people camped out in Zuccotti Park, ordered and defended by the corrupt billionaire mayor himself. It's a sign of the thuggishness of the assault that the police and "hundreds of sanitation workers" tossed protesters' belongings, including their tents, into dump trucks for removal, telling their owners that they would be able to pick them up after noon today at the Department of Sanitation's parking garage. Other workers told the protesters that their stuff was being taken to the dump, so I think the official claim can be regarded as an official lie. By morning OWS supporters had secured an injunction against the City, which Mayor Bloomberg dismissed out of hand. (Later in the day a different judge denied a request to allow the protesters to reoccupy the park, with a reminder that Zuccotti Park is private property -- which is a major reason why public space in New York City has been largely privatized: to prevent public assembly and protest.) Among those arrested (and assaulted by police) were a New York City Councilman and a New York Daily News reporter, which seems to have prompted the Daily News to reconsider its original cheerleading for the eviction. As similar, coordinated evictions occurred in other cities, there were some defections. Dan Siegel, Oakland mayor Quan's legal advisor, resigned, as did Deputy Mayor Sharon Cornu.

All this reminded me of liberal darling Elizabeth Warren's latest statement about Occupy Wall Street, which began: "Let’s be clear. Everybody has to follow the law. There’s no exception on that." (She said the same thing in her first statement about the movement a month ago, so her fans can't defend her now by saying she didn't have time to think her position through.) I didn't really expect her to say anything about government lawlessness and police violence, of course, but until she does she's established herself as a very familiar kind of spineless liberal, the kind who scolded the Civil Rights Movement for civil disobedience fifty years ago.

And indeed, her fans are evidently just that kind of liberal. I started looking through the comments on the Talking Points Memo article that reported her statement, and not only did most of the commenters exult over her toughness -- "In about 20 years we might be wanting to put her face on Mount Rushmore" one gushed -- they jumped on one commenter who criticized Warren's rejection of principled civil disobedience. One wrote (no permalinks, alas): "You don't put Wall St. in jail by civil disobedience. You put them there by getting elected and pushing the agenda. There are some personalities that glory in being macho, and then there are others who would rather get the job done." Another accused him of being "out of date", while another explained that "liberals generally have some decency and respect while at the same time protesting injustice." Another complained of his harshing their buzz: "Reading down the comments, I was fairly amazed by the uniformity of the praise for Elizabeth Warren ... then came upon your comment in such stark contrast, making you look more asinine than usual." Amazingly, this person was demanding more groupthink, not less.

So let's take a short trip down memory lane. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. responded to white moderate critics in the clergy:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion?...
Sound familiar? The criticisms King was answering have often been dusted off since then for reuse against succeeding movements for social justice. As I've pointed out before, the Black Nationalist line advanced by Malcolm X and his successors, that King "kept the Negro in check," is bogus. Rather, it was the Nation of Islam that kept the Negro in check, advocating quietism until a vague day in the future, while Elijah Muhammad became wealthy on his followers' contributions.

Nor did King have a rosy view of the power of voting and elections to effect change by themselves. I've quoted this passage before, but I might as well quote it again:
No president has really done very much for the American Negro, though the past two presidents have received much undeserved credit for helping us. This credit has accrued to Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy only because it was during their administrations that Negroes began doing more for themselves. Kennedy didn't voluntarily submit a civil rights bill, nor did Lyndon Johnson. In fact, both told us at one time that such legislation was impossible. President Johnson did respond realistically to the signs of the times and used his skills as a legislator to get bills through Congress that other men might not have gotten through. I must point out, in all honesty, however, that President Johnson has not been nearly so diligent in implementing the bills he has helped shepherd through Congress.

Of the ten titles of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, probably only the one concerning public accommodations -- the most bitterly contested section -- has been meaningfully enforced and implemented. Most of the other sections have been deliberately ignored.


I'm sure that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.

Liberals today like to mock right-wingers who try to claim King as one of their own; but while white liberals in the 1950s and 1960s didn't hate King or the Civil Rights Movement as much as the Right did, most of them weren't really comfortable with them either. (The same applied to the movement against the war in Vietnam: most liberals disapproved of the war, but didn't want the US to withdraw in the foreseeable future, and they disapproved of nonviolent civil disobedience against it.)

I'm glad I don't live in Massachusetts, so I don't have to decide whether to vote for Elizabeth Warren. How much do you want to bet that once she's in office, she and her supporters will be trotting out the same defenses that Obama's supporters have made for him: Oh, it's only her first term, you have to be patient, she's just playing ten-dimensional chess with Wall Street until she's ready to reveal her true glory... That's assuming that the Democrats don't lose more seats in Congress in 2012; and remember, a Senator has much less power than a President. Warren is already being groomed as the new Messiah for (and by) Obama fans of little faith. But the important thing is, she's not Scott Brown and she's not a Republican! Her selective concern for the law is trivial compared to that.