MLK's Big Mistake: Love and Strategy in the Age of Trump
With the MLK holiday approaching, I keep thinking of this wisdom from the eminent progressive historian Eric Foner:
“Single-focus organizations, which have proliferated in the last generation, need to recapture the sense of being part of a larger movement for social change that addresses diverse groups and interests.”
It’s a lesson Dr. king learned in the last years of his life, as he came to see that racism was inseparably linked to the horrors of militarism being inflicted on Vietnam and the evils of capitalist materialism being inflicted on the poor of all races around the world. These “giant triplets,” and all the social, political, and economic ills besetting America, were “deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society,” he told us—because, at the deepest level, the whole structure of society was rooted in an absence of love.
So the only way to address any single issue was to address them all together: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King preached, a revolution that would turn America into a “beloved community,” where love would be the fundamental value, the new root of all.
"It is time for us to share our experience of a half-century ago with people who are as young now as we were then."
Only in the beloved community could everyone gain genuine freedom, which King defined as “the opportunity to fulfill my total capacity untrammeled by any artificial barrier.” Because we are all “tied together in a single garment of destiny,” we can each fulfill our own capacity only when we devote ourselves to others, always striving to remove their barriers so that they can fulfill their own highest possibilities. Freedom is the fruit of love.
But what is love? King often explained that the Greeks had three words for love. There was eros—physical love, the selfish kind. There was philia, the love of friends, where we get as much as we give. Highest of all, in his view, was agape—self-sacrificing love, the Christian kind, where we give unstintingly and ask nothing for ourselves in return.
Several million baby-boomers today can still remember what it felt like to agree with King that all the single issues of the day (with the war towering above all) had to be confronted as a single system. We became part of what we called simply “the movement,” a tide of radical change that tied together and transcended all the issues.
The movement felt like a true revolution, a total transformation in the structures not just of society but of consciousness, somehow steering us toward the beloved community. Love, we believed more or less firmly, would become the fundamental value of society, the root of every political policy, making genuine freedom readily available to all. On the path to the beloved community, love would guide us every step of the way.
But a life of constant, self-sacrificing agape love was too much to ask of most of us, as young as we were. Indeed it is probably too much to ask of any substantial number of people, whatever their age. That kind of love is likely to remain the province of rare saints, not the foundation of any mass movement. This was King’s big mistake: dividing love into three parts and lifting one so high above the others.
In the movement, we discovered that we did not need to choose among different kinds of love, because love could be one single attitude—a feeling, a thought, and more—that united, in lived experience, all its different forms.
The movement of the sixties was built on this unified sense of love as the most potent force driving the revolution of values. This was what the Beatles meant, we assumed, when they gave us the anthem, “All you need is love.”
Dr. King himself said that our selfish impulses could be turned to good purposes: “We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of morality coalesce with our self-interest.” But the kind of love we were exploring, where the personal became political and vice versa, transcended the division between morality and self-interest, because that division assumed a more fundamental distinction between self and other.
We discovered that in love, on the both interpersonal and societal/political levels, we could feel the difference between self and other blurring, even (in our highest moments) slipping away. We took perhaps more literally than King himself the metaphor of the single garment that binds all people to each other and to their environment.
We read mystics like Alan Watts who taught us that the most advanced physicists now see the whole universe not as a collection of separate objects but as one vast energy field, where seemingly opposite forces were actually dancing with each other in the endless play of life. It was easy enough to feel that unified force-field as the binding power of love.
We read political philosophers like Herbert Marcuse, who told us that in erotic love—not just sexual but sensual experiences of all kinds—and in true friendship we could escape the ego, with its repressive sense of separate individuality; the ego was the true barrier to freedom. He urged us to turn to the selfless erotic experience that Freud called the id, where all seems interconnected in a liberating unity. He asked us to use political action to create a whole society dedicated to expanding freedom by removing unnecessary ego repression.
We read poets like Walt Whitman, who wrote,
My myriad-twining life interweaves with all things.
I dream'd in a dream I saw a city invincible,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love,
Love, that is pulse of all.
Whitman hoped to be “a fountain, that I exhale love from me wherever I go like a moist perennial dew.” We built the movement on the faith that everyone might become such a fountain. And we emphasized the “wherever,” extending it from our home towns to Vietnam and all across the globe.
Today these aspirations of the movement may seem like an impossible dream. But when Eric Foner taught a course on America’s radical movements, he always highlighted the words of Max Weber: “What is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.” It may be helpful to remember these words as we face the challenges of the coming weeks, months, and at least four years ahead.
To be sure, we have learned the hard way that love is not really all you need. A good dose of common sense and shrewd political strategy are essential too. But several million of us know deep down that love, in all its forms, as political as it was personal, was once for us a very real experience at the heart of the movement.
More than ever, it is time for us to share our experience of a half-century ago with people who are as young now as we were then. For they are the ones who must take up the torch and make the next steps toward revolution. Perhaps we can impart to them some sense of what it meant to us to go beyond single issues and be part of a unified movement creating a revolution of love.