And I must confess, my friends (Yes sir), that the road ahead will not always be smooth. (Yes) There will still be rocky places of frustration (Yes) and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. (Yes) And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. (Well) Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted.
... Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
I've written before about the value of philosophy and science fiction as ways to imagine a better future, to give us something to work toward. The concept is perhaps most clearly described in a recent anthologycalled Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, which is inspired by the science fiction author Octavia Butler (another great American!). The editors, adrienne marie brown and Walidah Imarisha, refer to what they call "visionary fiction."
Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice. ... Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.
- Introduction, Octavia's Brood (p. 4)
A typical objection here might be that visionary fiction or utopian philosophy are all well and good, but they have no impact in the real world. In fact, they may serve as distractions from political action as head-in-the-clouds escapism. I'll be the first to admit that I'm personally more comfortable in the shining realms of science fictional and philosophical imagination than in the grimy districts of political activism.
One of the things I admire most about King - as well as his hero, Gandhi - is the way he coupled moral imagination of what could be with specific actions that might help us get there. If you read his"Where Do We Go From Here?" speech (and you should), you'll find that, aside from lofty claims about the moral universe, support for universal basic income, opposition to the Vietnam war, and citations of dead philosophers, quite a bit of it consists of reports of specific actions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other organizations.
Like King, we should ask ourselves: Where do we go from here?
Some of us should take the other approach. In unkind and indecent times, cultivating kindness and decency are revolutionary acts. As King and other proponents of the philosophy of nonviolence like to point out, ends and means are often mixed: you can't get to mutual respect via entirely disrespectful means.
You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche's philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.
Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. (Yes) Power at its best [applause], power at its best is love (Yes) implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. (Speak) And this is what we must see as we move on.
I'll let Nietzsche scholars sort out whether King is right about Nietzsche, but I think the opposition between love and power that King identifies here is familiar. My concern is that our culture is moving even more to the side of power without love, a culture in which shallow selfishness and aloof cynicism are celebrated at the expense of love and basic human decency.
But as King says, what we need is not love without power, but love implementing justice. We don't need more well-wishes without action or moral imagination without moral backbone.
It's easy for us, especially for relatively privileged white people like me, to say, "that's too bad, but it's not my problem. What can you do?" It's easy, in other words, to feel love without the exercise of power.
It is more difficult, but nonetheless the right thing to do, to be inspired by King to couple love and power to create justice. That arc will need a lot of bending in the coming years. We'd better get to work.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!