Revisiting Righteous Indignation

Originally published by Dissident Voice on 20 January 2014.

Revisiting Righteous Indignation: the Radical Tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s a scene in Lee Daniel’s The Butler when the son of Forest Whitaker’s character is sitting in the Lorraine Motel with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shortly before his assassination. Dr. King asks those assembled, “How many of your parents support the war?” All the young men gathered in the room raise their hands, and in one sentence King summarizes that his opposition to the war is because the Vietnamese do not prejudice blacks. There is something insidious in this scene, unintentional by the director, no doubt. It is the reproduction of the simplification myth of Dr. King the crusader of a narrowly conceptualized struggle, rather than the fiery radical that he was. His opposition to the Vietnam War was far more complex than the one liner afforded his character in the film, but the portrayal is sadly in line with the hijacking of his comprehensive philosophy. For King’s was a radicalism of total justice, for black, white, rich, poor, gay, lesbian, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, that bears remembering as we honor him with a federal holiday this week.

One year to the day before his assassination, on April 4th, 1967, Dr. King delivered his most critical and divisive speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. It was an impassioned excoriation of imperialism and militarism, against the American government that King referred to as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” There was no ambivalence in his conviction. He had refused a first draft prepared by his close friend and legal counsel, Clarence Jones, which attempted to present multiple sides, favoring the total condemnation of war provided in Vincent Harding’s first version. The two men agreed; their conscience left them no other choice but to speak out. King says:

It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Four years earlier, in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail Dr. King acknowledged that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He was certainly focused on combating the institutionalized terror of segregation and racism, which was the target of the direct action that found him in that Birmingham Jail on April 16th, 1963. But, his concern for justice everywhere extended beyond contemporary popular depictions that his campaigning was confined to concerns of race alone. King makes it very clear,

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Of course, that same purveyor of violence abroad targeted in Beyond Vietnam, the United States, perpetrated and sponsored a great deal of violence against its own people and the struggle for human rights in the United States is a savage one still raging 28 years after the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as myriad incidents such as the killing and trial surrounding Trayvon Martin or Jena 6 illustrate. It is not my intention to downplay the brutality of racial injustice targeted by King and others. My intention is to point out that King acknowledged that the causes of these and other injustices were inherently linked to a certain structure of oppression. King and others targeted the totality of this violent power structure through sustained nonviolent action. It is that narrative of comprehensive resistance that has been sterilized. In sickening episodes of appropriation, King has become a plaything in the hands of those who seek to justify their profiting from that same structure of abuse that he fought against with the bastardization of his legacy.

King’s most famous oration is his I Have a Dream speech and rightly should it be hailed for its outstanding rhetoric and the power of change it inspired. But so is “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” far less threatening to the established structure of power than denouncing it as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Latching onto King as the desegregater and not King the fiery radical is more comfortable for the creation of King the symbol.

Vincent Harding explained in a 2013 interview that conservatives love to take hold of the I have a Dream speech when King talks about not being judged by the color of ones skin as a way to avoid discussing race at all. In the same interview Harding challenges us to find ways to discover the content of one’s character. It is through critical dialogue, through nonviolent engagement, he says. Meanwhile, as evidence of Harding’s concern, former Republican Florida representative, Allen West, wrote in an article for USA News on the 50th anniversary of that speech, that King’s dream had been derailed by liberal politics. While Dr. King advocated evaluation on the content of one’s character, he opined, Americans had instead voted for Obama strictly based upon the color of his skin.

The famous speech was uttered to an assembled crowd of more than 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. With reason it is remembered as a decisive moment in the American Civil Rights Movement. What is often altered through the lens of history, however, is the action at which the speech was delivered. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was as much about race as it was about economic inequality. Its chief architects remind us of the diversity of participation and the complexity of grievances within the Civil Rights Movement. The 1963 campaign drew its inspiration from the 1940’s desegregationist and labor rights March on Washington Movement organized by Philip Randolph, who began as a labor organizer and activist in New York in 1917, and Bayard Rustin, an openly gay former Quaker conscientious objector during World War II. It is this confluence of interests that better encapsulates the character of King’s resistance, so callously warped by Allen West 50 years later.

There is no greater bastardization of King’s legacy than Glenn Beck’s 2010 so-called ‘Restoring Honor Rally.’ In his characteristic histrionics Beck credited divine inspiration in the timing of his political theatre set to coincide with the 47th anniversary of King’s I have a Dream speech. He claimed to be picking up Martin Luther King’s dream in order to restore and finish it. But Beck’s narrative is one of resounding contradiction to everything epitomized by Martin Luther King.

A month preceding the farce Glenn Beck spoke with King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, who later also participated in his rally, alongside Sarah Palin and others. Shockingly the niece embraced Beck’s subterfuge on his television program. The two, joined by then Republican congressional hopeful Stephen Broden, went so far as to cite the Biblical idea of an individual relationship with God as the justification for neo-liberal individualism, and the implicit demonization of social welfare. The outrage is not in their personal interpretation of Biblical text but the way their discussion forced that argument into their constructed narrative of Martin Luther King. The obscenity continued when Alveda King claimed that her uncle would have approved of Beck’s message.

Not only did Beck use the platform of his rally to further his rhetoric of violence against the poor but the event was also billed to celebrate and promote the American military. Glenn Beck is a wild supporter of American militarism and most recently attacked a LA Weekly film critic because she gave a recent war movie a bad review. Glenn Beck is as good an antithesis to Martin Luther King as is available and because of the pomposity of his pulpit he represents an ideal lens through which to appreciate the various trends of abandoning King’s message and profaning his name to justify the very things he so fervently fought against. And yet, popular outrage at Beck’s appropriation of King’s legacy was equally culpable in neglecting King’s fervent posture against materialism and militarism, or so the majority of mainstream criticism seemed to be.

In response to this kind of theft of the King narrative, Union Theological Seminary philosopher and preacher, Dr. Cornel West explains,

The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts’ stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King’s four catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans.

Despite the issues addressed by Dr. West, it is far from merely conservatives and right-wing populists who have distorted King’s inherent radical commitment, and subdued the awesome force of his righteous indignation. History has been contorted to shape a more consumer friendly image of Martin Luther King Jr. He is not hailed by popular commentary or honored by Obama on the federal holiday as the radical who would today be decrying the prison and military industrial complex, demanding the trial and incarceration of Wall Street executives, and sternly speaking against Obama’s continuation of Bush era disregard for human rights in the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs,’ or the appallingly disproportionate numbers of convictions for people of color in the latter. Where would King stand on the Tea Party’s fetishism of state’s rights? One might recall the number of incidents necessitating federal troop intervention in Alabama, Arkansas, and elsewhere or the same rhetoric now employed by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Rand Paul that echoes similar positions by “Bull” Connor or George Wallace. How might King relate to Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, or, as public intellectual Tavis Smiley has posed, comment on the more than a billion dollars raised between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 election versus the money spent on poverty reduction?

Martin Luther King gave his final speech on April 3rd, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis Tennessee. What is often remembered of that last prophetic I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech is King’s, “And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” The speech is haunting in retrospect because it almost seemed as if King were prophesizing, much like Christ at the last supper, his impending assassination. But what drew King to Memphis that day is less repeated in popular retelling.

Dr. James Lawson, who like King had been baptized in the late 1950s by the nonviolent tradition of Ghandi and was a powerful figure in the movement, had encouraged Dr. King to join him in Memphis to show support at the Memphis sanitation worker strike that had begun two months earlier. The catalyzing incident for the strike was the gruesome death of two black sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, crushed to death because of city rules that stated black sanitation workers were only allowed to shelter from the elements in the back of their garbage trucks. The incident served to highlight years of gross labor violations and sparked the strike, along with boycotts, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience in support of the workers attempt to engage in collective bargaining for better working conditions. This episode in Memphis was about racial discrimination but it was also about abhorrent labor rights and the exploitation of the poor.

King often reiterated the call to struggle against all forms of atrocity, violence against people of color and violence against the poor, as they are inextricably linked, and so too is war, the enemy of the poor, as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are wont to repeat. Or in his own words from the August 16th, 1967 Where do We go From Here, “when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

The day after standing in solidarity with the Memphis strikers, King was gunned down by James Earl Ray, an outspoken racist and active campaign volunteer for George Wallace’s pro-segregationist presidential campaign. Despite the prima facie connection between Ray’s racism and the assassination, Vincent Harding is convinced that the most contributing factor to King’s murder was his vociferous condemnation of the war in Vietnam and his outspoken denouncement of American imperialism and militarism. We do at least know that the last poll taken on King’s popularity revealed that indeed fifty-five percent of black community and seventy-two percent of Americans at large had turned against King because of his opposition to the war.

By the late 1960s the US government, under the Johnson administration, had slowly become prepared to tolerate some of the notions of increasing racial equality and access to public space but the apex of intellectual and symbolic power, the capitalist war machine, was aghast that King would enter their world. The structure of power was warming to the idea of tolerating King the civil rights leader and desegregationist but it was unwilling to desegregate the symbolic power to be analyzed and critiqued. It is a segregation of thought and a demonization of those who would criticize America that still haunts whistleblowers and activists in Obama’s America today. It was King’s sophisticated and emboldening challenge to capitalist morality and militaristic or imperialistic motives that needed to be sterilized before he could become a politically viable symbol.

In a recent piece for Salon, historian David L. Chappell outlines the history of congressional objections to the creation of an MLK federal holiday. His article serves to refute the odd conservative claims to the legacy of civil rights going back to Lincoln, because of textual similarity in the name of their party. A few days after the assassination, Michigan Democratic congressman, John Conyers, first proposed honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. Illinois was the first state to adopt MLK Day as a state holiday in 1973. Ten years later, North Carolina senator Jesse Helms loudly objected to honoring King with a federal holiday, specifically citing King’s stance on Vietnam and his war on poverty, calling him a Marxist and Communist. As reported at the time, Helms’ fanatical objections were crushed by a ‘scathing denunciation’ by senator Edward Kennedy and similar criticism from Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole. But two recent Republican presidential candidates, Ron Paul and John McCain were among those who agreed with Helms in objecting a federal holiday for MLK. After nearly two decades of discussion and puerile character assassination, Congress eventually passed Conyers’ proposal to remember King with a federal holiday. Reagan signed the bill in 1983 and it took effect in 1986. Shockingly not until 2000 did all 50 states recognize it as a state holiday. South Carolina was the last.

In observation of the 28th MLK day it is a moral duty to ensure that the legacy observed is honest to the content of his character. We should repeat his rhetorical question of August 16th, 1967. In his own words, “When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”

King broadened the target of his resistance to encapsulate the totality of an oppressive power structure, moving beyond purely race-based grievances. The abhorrent racism prevalent in King’s America and its mutated contemporary manifestations are a byproduct of this power but King’s speeches reveal a more diverse synthesis for resistance. It was this unwavering challenge of the very foundations of that structure of power that needed to be sterilized, lest his posthumous words serve their intentions to mobilize. By stripping him of his radicalism, and simplifying his challenges against power to a selection of sound-bite grievances, the institutions of oppression maintained their monopoly on symbolic power and rebranded Martin Luther King into more comfortable and narrowly confined terms.

This is the alchemical disregard for truth that has attempted to warp the spirit of King’s radicalism for political expediency. It has become a convenient platform for some to spin King’s radicalism into a defanged demand for racial harmony and a colorless society, where claims of reverse racism are mingled with blanket denouncements of racial violence because we live in a post-racial America. It is a twisted appropriation of King’s words to blame the victim of abuse for continued victimization, and we see this in the surprisingly bipartisan attacks on the poor and people of color. For some, King’s Reverend status has become an argument for injecting fundamentalist evangelicalism into politics, as we noticed of Beck above.

These are the most flagrant bastardizations but what is more frustrating is the popular amnesia, the collective will to accept the sterilized form and neglect the righteous indignation that demands coordinated action in the face of all injustice. This is not to neglect active resistance such as the Occupy movement and myriad other campaigns. However, in certain contemporary radical movements we find the negative effects of the simplification of King’s sophisticated analysis of the diversity of oppression and the need for coordinated, strategic resistance. We can see this in the balkanization of resistance on the left, where interests vie for prominence rather than seeking consensus. A continuing frustration for those who have carried on with King, Lawson, and others’ efforts is the abandonment of strategic nonviolence, or treating King as nothing more than a symbolic tactic, for the same kind of commoditized radicalism that has made radical democratic theory or Anarchism a fashion accessory.

It is King’s righteous indignation at injustice everywhere and profound challenge to all forms of abusive power that should be reenacted in his name,  not the political pageantry of Obama’s community service. With that radical reenactment we must respond to the question “where do we go from here?” Dr. Cornel West hazarded a response in 2011, noting that rather than a holiday King would have wanted a revolution.

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American Prisons versus the World Population

The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With 716 people in prison for every 100,000, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, that is a higher percentage of total population than any other country. Furthermore, based on a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), A Living Death: Sentence to Die Behind Bars for What?, there are more than 3,000 Americans serving life without parole for non-violent offenses. For some the offense that earned them life in prison was stealing tools from a shed or being the middleman in a $10 marijuana sale. The ACLU estimates that nationwide 65% are Black; while, in Louisiana, with its infamous Angola Prison, the number rises to 91%, a quantified testament to serious unresolved racism in the country. These numbers are appalling in their own terms but when they are compared to the prison populations of other countries, the ‘land of the free’ becomes an even more frustratingly antiquated trope for the United States.

Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, offers a simple explanation:

The United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

The United States incarcerates 716 people out of every 100,000 citizens. Liptak noted in 2008 that if only adults were factored into the count then the United States incarcerates 1 out of every 100 citizens. Following the United States in incarceration rates as a percentage of the national population is St. Kitts and Nevis with 649. Rwanda incarcerates 527 out of every 100,000 people, followed by Cuba with 510 and Russia with 490. Belarus holds 438 and Azerbaijan 407. Not a particularly glowing list of human rights respecting countries. While China incarcerates far less than the United States, 121 people for every 100,000, the country does boast the highest number of prisoner executions in the world, based on estimated figures in light of China’s refusal to make these numbers transparent.

How do these figures compare with other democratic, advanced nations? Mexico holds 210 citizens per 100,000, and they are in the middle of a protracted civil war induced by the US led War on Drugs. Turkey holds 179 and the Czech Republic 154, while Argentina, Spain, and Scotland are tied at 147 per 100,000. The Netherlands and Switzerland both 82. Sweden incarcerates 67, while India only puts 30 out of every 100,000 people in prison.

Sweden recently announced that it is closing four prisons and many remand centers in response to a drastic decline in the number of inmates, the result, many analysts are saying, of a robust emphasis on rehabilitation and lenient sentencing, a stark refutation of the deterrent argument lobbied by many in the United States in favor of the prison industrial complex. The estimated additional cost to US taxpayers, says the ACLU, for current life without parole incarceration levels is around 1.8 billion dollars, a sizable earning for the nation’s many privatized prisons.

General social and political ideology, economic development, and quality of life in many European countries no doubt have played a role in decreasing levels of crime and prison populations compared to the USA. The differences between most of Europe and the United States when it comes to crime and incarceration are drastic, particularly with respect to prosecuting and sentencing non-violent offenders. In many ways the increase in life sentencing is a product of stalled death penalty reform, but a mandatory life sentence for violent and especially for non-violent offenses merely approaches capital punishment from an oblique and superficial understanding of why it is wrong and not from the perspective of fundamental human rights. The ACLU report’s author Jennifer Turner notes:

…today, the US is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars.” Life without parole for non-violent sentences has been ruled a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. The UK is one of only two countries in Europe that still metes out the penalty at all, and even then only in 49 cases of murder.

The Huffington Post reported that the advance 2012 statistics by the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that the prison population in the United States for the previous year was 1,571,013, which marks a decline for the third consecutive year. However, when local and city jails are included, the article continues, the population exceeds 2 million, 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The same ACLU report noted above puts the incarcerated population at around 2.3 million people. That number is difficult to fathom outside of abstractions that either gloss over or do not register the severity. This number does not reflect the millions others, family members and loved ones, whose lives are irrevocably changed or shattered by a belligerent and flawed criminal justice system. Recent studies such as the one by the ACLU should engender a serious national discussion on prison reform in the United States. But the narrative continues to be dominated by politicized interests and the manipulated discourses of fear and otherness.

In an effort to lend more gravity to the discussion, below is a list of countries with entire national populations less than the US prison population. The following list has been composed using country population figures available through wikicommons.

Prison population of the United States… around 2,300,000.

List of the 100 Countries with a national population less than the US prison population:

1. Namibia… 2,113,007. 2. Lesotho… 2,074,000. 3. Slovenia… 2,061,349. 4. Macedonia… 2,062,294. 5. Qatar… 2,035,106. 6. Botswana… 2,024,904. 7. Latvia… 2,014,000. 8. Gambia… 1,849,000. 9. Guinea-Bissau… 1,704,000. 10. Gabon… 1,672,000. 11. Equatorial Guinea… 1,622,000. 12. Trinidad and Tobago… 1,328,019. 13. Estonia… 1,286,540. 14. Mauritius… 1,257,900. 15. Swaziland… 1,250,000. 16. Bahrain… 1,234,571. 17. Timor-Leste… 1,066,409. 18. Djibouti… 864,618. 19. Cyprus… 862,000. 20. Fiji… 858,038. 21. Reunion (France)… 821,136. 22. Guyana… 784,894. 23. Bhutan… 740,740. 24. Comoros… 724,300. 25. Montenegro… 620,029. 26. Macau (China)… 582,000. 27. Western Sahara… 567,000. 28. Solomon Islands… 561,000. 29. Luxembourg… 537,000. 30. Suriname… 534,189. 31. Cape Verde… 491,875. 32. Malta… 416,055. 33. Guadeloupe (France)… 403,355. 34. Martinique (France)… 394,173. 35. Brunei… 393,162. 36. Bahamas… 351,461. 37. Iceland… 325,010. 38. Maldives… 317,280. 39. Belize… 312,971. 40. Barbados… 274,200. 41. French Polynesia (France)… 268,270. 42. Vanuatu… 264,652. 43. New Caledonia (France)… 258,958. 44. French Guiana (France)… 229,040. 45. Mayotte (France)… 212,600. 46. Samoa… 187,820. 47. Sao Tome and Principe… 187,356. 48. Saint Lucia… 166,526. 49. Guam (USA)… 159,358. 50. Curacao (Netherlands)… 150,563. 51. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines… 109,000. 52. Kiribati… 106,461. 53. United States Virgin Islands (USA)… 106,405. 54. Grenada… 103,328. 55. Tonga… 103,036. 56. Aruba (Netherlands)… 101,484. 57. Federated States of Micronesia… 101,351. 58. Jersey (UK)… 97,857. 59. Seychelles… 90,945. 60. Antigua and Barbuda… 86,295. 61. Isle of Man (UK)… 84,497. 62. Andorra… 76,246. 63. Dominica… 71,293. 64. Bermuda (UK)… 64,237. 65. Guernsey (UK)… 62,431. 66. Greenland (Denmark)… 56,370. 67. Marshall Islands… 56,086. 68. American Samoa (USA)… 55,519. 69. Cayman Islands (UK)… 55,456. 70. Saint Kitts and Nevis… 54,000. 71. Northern Mariana Islands (USA)… 53,883. 72. Faroe Islands (Denmark)… 48,509. 73. Sint Maarten (Netherlands)… 37,429. 74. Saint Martin (France)… 36,979. 75. Liechtenstein… 36,842, 76. Monaco… 36,136. 77. San Marino… 32,509. 78. Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)… 31,458. 79. Gibraltar (UK)… 29,752. 80. British Virgin Islands (UK)… 29,537. 81. Aland Islands (Finland)… 28,502. 82. Caribbean Netherlands (Netherlands)… 21,133. 83. Palau… 20,901. 84. Cook Islands (NZ)… 14,974. 85. Anguila (UK)… 13,452. 86. Wallis and Futuna (France)… 13,135. 87. Tuvalu… 11,323. 88. Nauru… 9,945. 89. Saint Barthelemy (France)… 8,938. 90. Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)… 6,081. 91. Montserrat (UK)… 4,922. 92. Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (UK)… 4,000. 93. Svaldbard and Jan Mayen (Norway)… 2,655. 94. Falkland Islands (UK)… 2,563. 95. Norfolk Island (Australia)… 2,302. 96. Christmas Island (Australia)… 2,072. 97. Niue (NZ)… 1,411. 98. Vatican City… 800. 99. Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)… 550. 100. Pitcairn Islands (UK)… 56.

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The Buddhist King and Modern Politics

The following is an excerpt from In Quest of Democracy, an essay written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The original essay was written before Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in July 1989 and had been planned as part of an anthology of essays on democracy and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, after years of tumultuous house arrest and suffering, was released on 13 November 2010. Since her release she has continued to campaign for deeper democratic transitions in Burma as the leader, and founder, of the National League for Democracy. Around the same time as her release, the decades long military dictatorship began to initiate political liberalizations that permitted independent parties an unprecedented degree of freedom. Despite easily agreed upon positive steps toward Democracy Burma faces many obstacles and complex challenges to its ongoing democratization, particularly in terms of reconciling complicated group and individual identity politics. While this essay was originally written over twenty years ago, it presents a vision of a moral leader, a vision inspired by Buddhist legends and parables, with considerable transferability to not only guiding Burma’s democratic transition but in pointing to desirable qualities in all democratically elected figures and offers insight into discussions on resisting authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. It begins…

Opponents of the movement for democracy in Burma have sought to undermine it by on the one hand casting aspersions on the competence of the people to judge what was best for the nation and on the other condemning the basic tenets of democracy as un-Burmese. There is nothing new in Third World governments seeking to justify and perpetuate authoritarian rule by denouncing liberal democratic principles as alien. By implication they claim for themselves the official and sole right to decide what does or does not conform to indigenous cultural norms.

This excerpt was taken from a version of the essay appearing in Freedom From Fear: And Other Writing (2010) p. 170-173.

—-

“The Buddhist view of world history tells that when society fell from its original state of purity into moral and social chaos a king was elected to restore peace and justice. The ruler was known by three titles: Mahasammata, ‘because he is named ruler by the unanimous consent of the people’; Khattiya; ‘because he has dominion over agricultural land’; and Raja, ‘because he wins the people to affection through observance of the dhamma (virtue, justice, the law)’…

The Buddhist view of kingship does not invest the ruler with the divine right to govern the realm as he pleases. He is expected to observe the Ten Duties of Kings, the Seven Safeguards against Decline, the Four Assistances to the People, and to be guided by numerous other codes of conduct such as the Twelve Practices of Rulers, the Six Attributes of Leaders, the Eight Virtues of Kings and the Four Ways to Overcome Peril. There is logic to a tradition which includes the king among the five enemies or perils and which subscribes to many sets of moral instructions for the edification of those in positions of authority. The people of Burma have had much experience of despotic rule and possess a great awareness of the unhappy gap that can exist between the theory and practice of government.

The Ten Duties of Kings are widely known and generally accepted as a yardstick which could be applied just as well to modern government as to the first monarch of the world. The duties are: liberality, morality, self-sacrifice, integrity, kindness, austerity, non-anger, non-violence, forbearance and non-opposition (to the will of the people).

The first duty of liberality (dana) which demands that a ruler should contribute generously towards the welfare of the people makes the tacit assumption that a government should have the competence to provide adequately for its citizens. In the context of modern politics, one of the prime duties of a responsible administration would be to ensure the economic security of the state.

Morality (sila) in traditional Buddhist terms is based on the observance of the five precepts, which entails refraining from destruction of life, theft, adultery, falsehood and indulgence in intoxicants. The ruler must bear a high moral character to win the respect and trust of the people, to ensure their happiness and prosperity and to provide a proper example. When the king does not observe the dhamma, state functionaries become corrupt, and when state functionaries are corrupt the people are caused much suffering. It is further believed that an unrighteous king brings down calamity on the land. The root of a nation’s misfortunes has to be sought in the moral failings of the government.

The third duty, paricagga, is sometimes translated as generosity  and sometime as self-sacrifice. The former would constitute  a duplication of the first duty, dana, so self-sacrifice as the ultimate generosity which gives up all for the sake of the people would appear the more satisfactory interpretation. The concept of selfless public service is sometimes illustrated by the story of the hermit Sumedha who took the vow of Buddhahood. In so doing he who could have realized the supreme liberation of nirvana in a single lifetime committed himself to countless incarnations that he might help other beings free themselves from suffering. Equally popular is the story of the lord of monkeys who sacrificed his life to save his subjects, including one who had always wished him harm and who was the eventual cause of his death. The good ruler sublimates his needs as an individual to the service of the nation.

Integrity (ajjava) implies incorruptibility in the discharge of public duties as well as honesty and sincerity in personal relations. There is a Burmese saying: ‘With rulers, truth, with (ordinary) men, vows’. While a private individual may be bound only by the formal vows that he makes, those who govern should be wholly bound by the truth in thought, word and deed. Truth is the very essence of the teachings of the Buddha, who referred to himself as the Tathagata or ‘one who has come to the truth’. The Buddhist king must therefore live and rule by truth, which is the perfect uniformity between nomenclature and nature. To deceive or to mislead the people in any way would be an occupational failing as well as a moral offence. ‘As an arrow, intrinsically straight, without warp or distortion, when one word is spoken, it does not err into two.’

Kindness (maddava) in a ruler is in a sense the courage to feel concern for the people. It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs. To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless. In Wizaya, a well-known nineteenth-century drama based on the Mahavamsa story of Prince Vijaya, a king sends away into exile his own son, whose wild ways had caused the people much distress: ‘In the matter of love, to make no distinction between citizen and son, to give equally of loving kindness, that is the righteousness of kings.’

The duty of austerity (tapa) enjoins the king to adopt simple habits, to develop self-control and to practise spiritual discipline. The self-indulgent ruler who enjoys an extravagant lifestyle and ignores the spiritual need for austerity was no more acceptable at the time of the Mahasammata than he would be in Burma today.

The seventh, eighth and ninth duties — non-anger (akkodha), non-violence (avihamsa) and forbearance (khanti) — could be said to be related. Because the displeasure of the powerful could have unhappy and far-reaching consequences, kings must not allow personal feelings of enmity and ill will to erupt into destructive  anger and violence. It is incumbent on a ruler to develop the true forbearance which moves him to deal wisely and generously with the shortcomings and provocations of even those whom he could crush with impunity. Violence is totally contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. The good ruler vanquishes ill will with loving kindness, wickedness with virtue, parsimony with liberality, and falsehood with truth. The Emperor Ashoka who ruled his realm in accordance with the principles of non-violence and compassion is always held up as an ideal Buddhist king. A government should not attempt to enjoin submission through harshness and immoral force but should aim at dhamma-vijaya, a conquest by righteousness.

The tenth duty of kings, non-opposition to the will of the people (avirodha), tends to be singled out as a Buddhist endorsement of democracy, supported by well-known stories from the Jakatas. Pawridasa, a monarch who acquired an unfortunate taste for human flesh, was forced to leave his kingdom because he would not heed the people’s demand that he should abandon his cannibalistic habits. A very different kind of ruler was the Buddha’s penultimate incarnation on earth, the pious King Vessantara. But he too was sent into exile when in the course of his strivings for the perfection of liberality he gave away the white elephant of the state without the consent of the people. The royal duty of non-opposition is a reminder that the legitimacy of government is founded on the consent of the people, who may withdraw their mandate at any time if they lose confidence in the ability of the ruler to serve their best interests.

By invoking the Ten Duties of Kings the Burmese are not so much indulging in wishful thinking as drawing on time-honoured values to reinforce the validity of the political reforms they consider necessary. It is a strong argument for democracy that governments regulated by principles of accountability, respect for public opinion and the supremacy of just laws are more likely than an all-powerful ruler or ruling class, uninhibited by the need to honour the will of the people, to observe the traditional duties of Buddhist kingship. Traditional values serve both to justify and to decipher popular expectations of democratic government.”

In Hong Kong, Protests Against New Citizen’s Movement Crackdown

IMG_5195As the government of China continues its crackdown on civil society actors, especially those who have publicly endorsed or claimed membership in the New Citizen’s Movement, human rights activists gathered in Hong Kong to do something many like minded Chinese citizens are forbidden from doing within the Chinese mainland under the 1989 Law on Assemblies, Processions, and Demonstrations: engage in collective action to express their grievances. A small coalition of rights groups from Hong Kong, including the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, organized the demonstration for a few days before the Chinese Mid Autumn Festival.

Among the demands of the small procession were for the immediate release of all arbitrarily detained civil society actors that have been arrested for their participation in the New Citizen’s Movement. Prominent names included Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Xu Zhiyong (许志永), and Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄). These high profile arrests are arguably part of the new administration’s rampant crackdown on civil society and dissent. The goals of these crackdowns have been discussed extensively and convincing explanations are that they are part of a symbolic campaign to forestall actions by reform minded elements within the party and to demonstrate to the broader society that deviation and dissent of party dogma will not be tolerated. It is part of the logic of the totalizing social institution of the CCP. “It’s a thought-out measure that is really against this movement, and not just Xu personally,” explains Eva Pills in an article by Benjamin Carlson. Other members of the so called movement to have been detained or arrested include writers and netizens; since August 20 more than 400 such individuals have been arbitrarily detained.

This wave of anti-civil society pressure by the Central Government roughly coincides with the Universal Periodic Review on China and China’s bid for the UN Human Rights Council. China’s session within the UPR is scheduled for Tuesday 22 October at 9:00am and the final election for their membership to the HRC will take place on November 12. For a full overview of the relevant stakeholder reports on China’s human rights situation going into the UPR see here. China’s respect for the international community and the United Nations is often lambasted by members of the United States congress, although the US has a spotty record as well, but the CCP’s trepidation at civil society freedom, especially the freedom to participate in the drafting of China’s National Human Rights Country Reports or to demand transparency in the process demonstrates a deeper concern to maintain appearances of adhering to certain international norms. That is, the government wants to engage with the international community on human rights grounds but only when they can severely control the conversation in their favor. Admittedly, this is an unfortunately common practice for many powerful states whose domestic and foreign policies still rotate around a realist worldview.

Silencing these actors is part of state policy, demonstrated in the Summer’s leaked Central Party Circular colloquially known as the ‘Seven Don’t Mentions:’ (1) Universal Values, (2) Freedom of Speech, (3) Civil Society, (4) Civil Rights, (5) The Historical Errors of the CCP, (6) Official Bourgeoisie, and (7) Judicial Independence. This list provides a convenient official government document with which to highlight the brazen hypocrisy of China’s bid to the Human Rights Council. The opening lines of their official announcement read, “The Chinese Government respects the principle of the universality of human rights and has made unremitting efforts for the promotion of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Chinese people.” Unfortunately, exposing irony and falsehood is insufficient to release innocent citizens and human rights defenders from arbitrary detention but the second claim of this small demonstration in Hong Kong was certainly to call attention to the falsehood of China’s bid and qualifications for entry to the human rights council. It will be the responsibility of the international community to stand in solidarity with domestic and international Chinese activists, especially those whose fundamental and personal freedoms have been arbitrarily withheld.

The demonstration had a small turnout and lasted for only about 20 minutes, enough time to march across the street and into the entrance of the Hong Kong government offices where the group encamped just long enough to read out from prepared remarks before dissembling. Hong Kong residents perhaps have grown apathetic to collective action; the frequency of protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of public resistance have devalued the potential impact of certain sustained tactics of resistance. One might make similar criticisms of collective action even in the worlds purportedly democratic states. What is sometimes neglected from such discussions however is how valued the right to assembly and association is in places where it is severely restricted. While a small group of activists gathering for 20 minutes in downtown Hong Kong to express grievances in front of government offices is not a newsworthy story, it should be appreciated that Hong Kong allows such rights to its citizens to demonstrate for like minded Chinese citizens, some only an hour away by train, who are denied this right and detained and arrested for even less. While the CCP is arguably engaged in waging a symbolic war to discourage further mobilization one might wonder if they may not end up losing that war to mounting symbolic insurgency.

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