William Saletan is wrong on MLK (and William Barber)

Sorry Will! When I was researching my previous post on Will’s post on Creationism, I stumbled upon his post about the Tim Scott- William Barber controversy. What drew me initially was his vulgar-MLKism*. Saletan writes,

We can argue all day about the Tea Party, Republican policies, and what Martin Luther King would have stood for today. To me, the core of his message was the right to be treated as an individual. His dream was, in his words, a nation in which his children would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Tim Scott has that right, too. Everyone does. If what you want is the advancement of black people, and all people, take the trouble to get to know each person before you dismiss him. If you’re going to criticize him, at least criticize him as an individual. You owe him that.

I want to address the Scott-Barber dispute later, building off this point. Was MLK’s core mission really the right to be treated as an individual? The first problem with this is that he was a very religious man, and religion is skeptical of liberal claims of individualism. The religious sentiment, at it its core is the idea that we are all part of something far deeper and more meaningful than ourselves. We see MLK expressing that sentiment in his speech at Morehouse College,

First, we are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. The individual or nation that feels that it can live in isolation has allowed itself to sleep through a revolution. The geographical togetherness of the modern world makes our very existence dependent on co-existence. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. Because of our involvement in humanity we must be concerned about every human being…

All of this amounts to saying that in the final analysis all life is interrelated. No nation or individual is independent; we are interdependent. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.

As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I posses a billion dollars. As long as millions of people are inflicted with debilitating diseases and cannot expect to live more than thirty-five years, I can never be totally healthy even if I receive a perfect bill of health from Mayo Clinic. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. John Donne placed this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the maine.” Then he goes on to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In the very speech Saletan cites, the famous I Have a Dream Speech, Martin Luther King argues,

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

I would never condense MLK to one core principle. He has deep and profound thoughts on religion, economics, race, politics and non-violence. His thought changed during his lifetime. To vulgarize him as someone whose core message “was the right to be treated as an individual,” is belied the numerous references to “brotherhood,” throughout his speech (and life). Saletan is bolstering a weak argument with a *bad* appeal to authority.

Now, to the argument at hand. Saletan is criticizing William Barber for his statement in a speech about MLK,

The extreme right wing down here finds a black guy to be senator and claims he’s the first black senator since Reconstruction, and then he goes to Washington, D.C., and articulates the agenda of the Tea Party.

Saletan begins his response by arguing, “Let’s set aside, for the moment, the policy disputes between Democrats and the Tea Party.” I’m reminded of Galbraith’s advice for debating Milton Friedman: whenever he said, “let’s suppose,” stop him and say, “let’s not.” Whenever someone says, “let’s set aside,” you can be reasonably sure they are about to beg the question. And so it is here. Saletan argues that,

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the policy disputes between Democrats and the Tea Party. You may think, as I do, that most of the Tea Party is wrongheaded, and that much of it is unhinged. But that’s not the point here. The point is that William Barber has never met Tim Scott. And none of Barber’s reported comments address Scott’s legislation or his career.

To put it in terms any NAACP leader should understand, Barber has prejudged Scott. He has prejudged him as a puppet based on the senator’s color and his party.

Well, if you set aside what you know about the Republican party, Saletan is right. But we know a few things about the Republican party that are relevant to judging Barber’s assertion.

1) It has halted the Medicaid expansion whenever possible, leaving millions of minorities without healthcare

2) It has savagely attacked President Obama with racially-charged language

3) It has fought against extending UI, to the detriment of the millions of black long-term unemployed

4) It has fought against expanding educational opportunity

5) It has viciously attacked attempts to raise the minimum wage

6) It has cut important parts of the social safety net

7) It has, whenever possible, attempted to reduce minority turn-out for elections

I’m not even looking at the Nixon/Reagan/Bush years. When assessing Scott, a far more relevant quote from MLK comes from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he talks of, “a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.” Looking at Scott’s record, this appears to be a very legitimate worry. 

Scott is against counter-cyclical deficit spending (this is code for cuts to the social safety net). He wants to cut taxes (read: cut spending on the safety net). He wants to deny food stamps to people who lost their job because they were a member of a union. He wants to make English the official language of the U.S. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He is against common sense regulations on guns. He declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus. He has not condemned the war on drugs.

In a class-based society the interests of class will often trump the interests of one’s racial group. Sometimes they will not. Tim Scott has placed the interests of his class (he owns an insurance company) over the interests of African-Americans broadly.** Given all of this, Barber’s judgement (he need not reference Scott’s record to be aware of it) does not seem premature, but rather apt.

* Freudianism, Darwinism, Nietzscheanism, Platonism, etc which involves making profound and deep thinkers banal and simplistic. 
** The Democratic Party is shit on these issues as well.

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