Monday, January 21, 2013

Considering Martin Luther King and George Orwell together

It has been 30 years since Ronald Reagan signed the legislation designating today and each third Monday of  January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Today is the anniversary of George Orwell's 1950 death, marked this year by the first-ever George Orwell Day.

Orwell and King are rarely considered together. Their careers as writers and activists barely overlapped; I know of no instance where King referenced Orwell's writing.  Orwell's great concern was totalitarianism, King's was racial discrimination.  Even their commemoration days point in different directions, King's (at the request of his family, friends, and political allies) indicating his birth, Orwell's (at the wishes of his estate and publisher) marking his death.

But in three areas their work overlapped.  First, both Orwell and King identified imperialism as a pursuit that corrupted the globe and the nation.  Orwell's term as an imperial policeman in Burma right out of college made him a representative of the British crown and enforcer of British law on the ground. Those years marked his thinking about law and justice, which might seem good in the abstract or the homeland, but which  came up wanting when applied in strange places and real settings.

 King's attention to imperialism came at the end of his life, not the beginning.  But like Orwell, King's recognition of the gap between the abstract good of domestic law, and the injustice of its application overseas, led him to argue that the injustices of a nation's extra-territorial actions corrupts domestic law as well.

Second, both Orwell and King doubted the ability of the state to police itself.  Orwell's attention focused on the nation-state as the location of injustice.  King's attention focused more intently on state and local government.  But both saw that in the 20th century the state both threatened and protected people.  The challenge was to determine how to limit the threat by expanding the areas in which people could speak and act freely.

Here is the third overlap between Orwell and King.  Though today the guardians of King's memory focus on his leadership of marches and his influence on legislation, and most Americans know Orwell from his fiction, both Orwell and King saw plain non-fiction speech as the indispensable tool of freedom.

Today I re-read Orwell's greatest essay, "Politics and the English Language" (1946) followed by King's greatest essay, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). Read one after the other these works make a pair, "Letter" a real-world application of "Politics."  In "Politics", for example, Orwell argues that "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity."  King opens his letter with an attack on the insincerity of clergymen who called the protests in Birmingham "unwise and untimely"  thus blaming protesters for the unjust application of the law in Birmingham. Orwell calls for clear, direct, brief, unflowered language. King obliges: "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." Or, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Or this: "Anyone who lives inside the United States cannot be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

 Orwell concludes his essay by arguing that "Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable."  King, after a tightly reasoned opening, lets loose with example after example of how the political use of one word, "wait", covers up generations of murder and lies:

" But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

American political rhetoric, the inaugural address notwithstanding, needs to heed Orwell's advice and King's examples.  Today's rhetoric, like that in 1946 and 1963 is detached from reality, so general as to be incomprehensible, so rigid as to be totalitarian.  Orwell and King knew that such rhetoric was evidence of a debased society.  But they also demonstrated that intent efforts to speak truth, describe reality, and be humble before the challenge of communicating were essential if humans were to live good lives.

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