Brain Pickings

Martin Luther King on the Two Types of Laws and the Four Steps to Successful Nonviolent Resistance

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

On April 3, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began coordinating a series of sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations against racial injustice in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 12, he was violently arrested on the charge of parading without a permit, per an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” that a local circuit judge had issued two days earlier, a week into the protests.

On the day of Dr. King’s arrest, eight male Alabama clergymen issued a public statement directed at him, titled “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.” They accused him of being an “outsider” to the community’s cause, suggested that racial injustice in Alabama shouldn’t be his business, and claimed that the nonviolent resistance demonstrations he led were “unwise and untimely.” “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations,” they wrote. It was such a blatant example of the very injustice Dr. King had dedicated his life to eradicating — the hijacking of what should be “common sense” to all in the service of what is “common” and convenient to only those in power — that he felt compelled to respond. The following day, while still in jail, he penned a remarkable book-length open letter. (“Never before have I written a letter this long,” he marveled as he penned the final paragraphs.)

Aware of the media’s power to incite the popular imagination, King and his team began distributing mimeographed copies to the clergy of Birmingham and eventually made their way to the press. Major newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Post, published excerpts. The full text was eventually published as Letter from Birmingham City Jail (public library) and became not only a foundational text of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s but an enduring manifesto for social justice and the human struggle for equality in every sense of the word, in every corner of the world.

Drawing on his vast pool of intellectual resources — from Socrates to St. Augustine to Thoreau — and his own singular gift for blending the powers of a philosopher, a preacher, and a poet, Dr. King debunks the clergymen’s arguments one by one, beginning with their assertion that the injustice in Birmingham is not his “outsider” business:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

He outlines the four pillars of nonviolent resistance — which bear a poignant parallel to the four rules for arguing intelligently that philosopher Daniel Dennett would formulate more than half a century later — and writes:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2) negotiation; 3) self-purification; and 4) direct action.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s timeless wisdom on the constructive and destructive elements in human nature“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” he wrote in 1926, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” — King puts forth the wonderful notion of “creative tension” as a force of constructive action:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue… There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

King’s ideas undoubtedly influenced South African writer, freedom-fighter, and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer when, a decade later, she contemplated the role of the writer as precisely such a gadfly on the back of injustice — something King further illuminates when he adds:

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing create, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

He considers why such nonviolent instigation of “creative tension” is vital to the claiming of freedom:

History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but … groups are more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Dr. King's handwritten notes for the letter (The King Center Archive)

He zooms in on the accusation of untimeliness and, arguing that “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” and puts in poignant perspective the relativity of timeliness:

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; … 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 Fun-town is closed to colored children, and see depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; … when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.

Indeed, he argues that at the root of the clergymen’s accusations is a profound misconception of time. Time, as we know, is a human invention that Galileo perfected; like all technology, it is a neutral tool that can be bent to wills good and evil, put toward ends constructive and destructive — something King captures beautifully:

All this … grows out of a tragic misconception of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift out national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

He goes on to explore the expatiation of the legal system for the unjust ends of those in power:

There are two types of laws: There are just and unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” … An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong…

[…]

An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority group that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

In a sense, contemporary popular culture is built on the same foundation as unjust law — on the warping of sameness and difference, which Shonda Rhimes addressed with extraordinary elegance of insight in her Human Rights Campaign award acceptance speech. To King, indeed, the law should be reclaimed as an ally to the populace in its diverse totality rather than a formalized system of objectifying people. He sees nonviolent resistance not as a way to destroy the law but as a way to normalize it:

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law… That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, … and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.

But the law, of course, cannot and should not be separate from the social forces that support it. In one of his most poignant remarks in the letter, which resonates all the more deeply in our present culture where impenitent reaction has replaced considered response and become the seedbed of misunderstanding, King adds:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Letter from Birmingham City Jail remains an indispensable read for any thinking, feeling member of the human family. Complement it with Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice and Margaret Mead on the root of racism and how to counter it.

Thank you, Jacqueline

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Sidewalk Flowers: An Illustrated Ode to Presence and the Everyday Art of Noticing in a Culture of Productivity and Distraction

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A gentle wordless celebration of the true material of aliveness.

“How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her magnificent defense of living with presence. But in our age of productivity, we spend our days running away from boredom, never mind its creative and spiritual benefits, and toward maximum efficiency. Under the tyranny of multitasking, the unitasking necessary for the art of noticing has been exiled from our daily lives. And yet, as we grow increasingly disillusioned with the notion of “work/life balance,” something in our modern souls is aching for the resuscitation of this dying capacity for presence. That capacity is especially essential in parenting, where the cultural trope of the device-distracted parent is an increasingly disquieting pandemic.

Half a century after Ruth Krauss wrote, and Maurice Sendak illustrated, one of the loveliest lines in the history of children’s books — “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.” — poet JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith team up on a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.

Sidewalk Flowers (public library) tells the wordless story of a little girl on her way home with her device-distracted father, a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood walking through the urban forest. Along the way, she collects wildflowers and leaves them as silent gifts for her fellow participants in this pulsating mystery we call life — the homeless man sleeping on a park bench, the sparrow having completed its earthly hours, the neighbor’s dog and, finally, her mother’s and brothers’ hair.

The flowers become at once an act of noticing and a gift of being noticed, a sacred bestowing of attention with which the child beckons her father’s absentee mind back to mindful presence.

In the final scene, the little girl tucks a wildflower behind her ear, in the same gesture with which her father holds his device, and looks up to the sky — a subtle, lyrical reminder that we each have a choice in what to hold to our ear and our mind’s eye: a flower or a phone.

Sidewalk Flowers, which is immeasurably wonderful in its analog totality, comes from Canadian independent children’s-book publisher Groundwood Books — creators of the intelligent and imaginative Once Upon a Northern Night, What There Is Before There Is Anything There, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs my own.

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Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer on Freedom and What Status Really Means for a Writer

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“All worthwhile writing… comes from an individual vision, privately pursued.”

Wendell Berry defined freedom as a kind of coherence with oneself. For Joni Mitchell, it is a creative luxury. For comedian Bill Hicks, it is a matter of affording people the right “to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with.” But what does freedom mean, really — for a writer, for an artist, for a human being?

That’s what South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer (November 20, 1923–July 13, 2014) explores in a 1976 essay titled “A Writer’s Freedom” from her altogether magnificent monograph Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954–2008 (public library).

Gordimer writes:

What is a writer’s freedom?

To me it is his* right to maintain and publish to the world a deep, intense, private view of the situation in which he finds his society. If he is to work as well as he can, he must take, and be granted, freedom from the public conformity of political interpretation, morals and tastes.

[…]

All that the writer can do, as a writer, is to go on writing the truth as he sees it.

This act of truth-writing, however, has often landed writers on the wrong side of political favor — one need only look at the fate of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, or Nabokov’s Lolitigation lament, or the travesty of censoring Maurice Sendak. After all, censorship exists, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, to “prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions” and yet progress itself is predicated on such challenging. Gordimer considers the necessity of this potential risk for the truth-seeking writer:

Bannings and banishments are terrible known hazards a writer must face, and many have faced, if the writer belongs where freedom of expression, among other freedoms, is withheld, but sometimes creativity is frozen rather than destroyed. A Thomas Mann survives exile to write a Dr Faustus; a Pasternak smuggles Dr Zhivago out of a ten-year silence; a Solzhenitsyn emerges with his terrible world intact in the map of The Gulag Archipelago

In a sentiment that calls to mind George Orwell’s timeless admonition against the cowardice of self-censorship, Gordimer adds:

Through all these vicissitudes, real writers go on writing the truth as they see it. And they do not agree to censor themselves . . . You can burn the books, but the integrity of creative artists is not incarnate on paper any more than on canvas – it survives so long as the artist himself cannot be persuaded, cajoled or frightened into betraying it.

All this, hard though it is to live, is the part of the writer’s fight for freedom the world finds easiest to understand.

The first Little Free Library, from Robert Dawson's photography project 'The Public Library.' Click image for more.

And yet, Gordimer argues, there is another kind of freedom at least as essential to the integrity of the writer and even more elusive:

That other, paradoxically wider, composite freedom — the freedom of his private view of life — may be threatened by the very awareness of what is expected of him. And often what is expected of him is conformity to an orthodoxy of opposition.

Echoing John Steinbeck’s conviction that the writer can’t “work for other people” and doesn’t “do good work with their ideas,” Gordimer adds:

There will be those who regard him as their mouthpiece; people whose ideals, as a human being, he shares, and whose cause, as a human being, is his own. They may be those whose suffering is his own. His identification with, admiration for, and loyalty to these set up a state of conflict within him. His integrity as a human being demands the sacrifice of everything to the struggle put up on the side of free men. His integrity as a writer goes the moment he begins to write what he ought to write.

This integrity, Gordimer points out, isn’t only a matter of voicing dissenting opinions — rather, it is as necessary when it comes to agendas and viewpoints with which the writer agrees:

The fact is, even on the side of the angels, a writer has to reserve the right to tell the truth as he sees it, in his own words, without being accused of letting the side down.

[…]

When a writer claims these kinds of freedom for himself, he begins to understand the real magnitude of his struggle.

That struggle is ultimately about discerning new directions for the world to move in, and then moving it toward them — because, as E.B. White remarked several years earlier, “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” Gordimer writes:

That rare marvel, an innovator, should be received with shock and excitement. And his impact may set off people in new directions of their own. But the next innovator rarely, I would almost say never, comes from his imitators, those who create a fashion in his image. Not all worthwhile writing is an innovation, but I believe it always comes from an individual vision, privately pursued. The pursuit may stem from a tradition, but a tradition implies a choice of influence, whereas a fashion makes the influence of the moment the only one for all who are contemporary to it.

Without freedom, she argues, that pursuit is impossible:

A writer needs all these kinds of freedom, built on the basic one of freedom from censorship. He does not ask for shelter from living, but for exposure to it without possibility of evasion. He is fiercely engaged with life on his own terms, and ought to be left to it, if anything is to come of the struggle. Any government, any society — any vision of a future society — that has respect for its writers must set them as free as possible to write in their own various ways, in their own choices of form and language, and according to their own discovery of truth.

[…]

Commitment and creative freedom become one.

Illustration by Giselle Potter for Gertrude Stein's posthumously published alphabet book. Click image for more.

Gordimer revisits the subject two decades later, in another essay from the collection titled “The Status of the Writer in the World Today.” In the interim between the two essays, three of her own books were banned by South Africa’s apartheid government. Exhorting us to recognize the role of the writer “as both praise-singer and social critic,” she writes:

What is status, to us [writers]? First — it never can go without saying — the primary status must be freedom of expression. That is the oxygen of our creativity. Without it, many talents on our continent have struggled for breath; some have choked; and some have been lost to us in that other climate, the thin air of exile.

[…]

Freedom to write. We have that status; and we are fully aware that it is one that we must be always alert to defend against all political rationalisations and pleas to doctor our search for the truth into something more palatable to those who make the compromises of power.

Quite apart from the supreme issue of human freedom, our claim to freedom to write has a significance, a benefit to society that only writers can give. Our books are necessary … they show both the writer and his or her people what they are.

Considering “the role of the writer as repository of a people’s ethos” as the ultimate measure of status — rather than “fame and glory, invitations to dine with government ministers” — she adds:

Freedom and its joys, and — to paraphrase Freud — freedom and its discontents, are the ethos of a people for its writers now.

Many more of Gordimer’s enduring and ennobling ideas on literature and life can be found in Telling Times. Complement this particular piece with Voltaire on censorship and comedian Bill Hicks on what freedom of speech really means.

* Gordimer is writing in 1976, when “he” was still being used as the appropriate universal pronoun. Her own legacy, of course, is part of the supreme cultural counterpoint of women’s voices that over the decades have dethroned the universal “he,” rendering it an incomplete and thus inappropriate representation of the human enterprise.

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