In 1963, Martin Luther King addressed a group of local white clergy who were upset with him and his colleagues for being so confrontational, so direct, and so impatient in what became known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” After recounting the many earlier attempts to address matter that produced little if any change, King wrote this:
You may well ask: Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
In 2010, on the eve of the midterm Congressional elections, President Obama sat down with five prominent LGBT bloggers to try to tamp down the LGBT community’s pressure on him to quit defending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. LGBT activists had been raising the temperature on the White House, and Obama had the audacity to refer to King’s letter in telling them that LGBTs simply need to wait until the right time:
And so, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified.
Now, I say that as somebody who appreciates that the LGBT community very legitimately feels these issues in very personal terms. So it’s not my place to counsel patience. One of my favorite pieces of literature is ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ and Dr. King had to battle people counseling patience and time. And he rightly said that time is neutral. And things don’t automatically get better unless people push to try to get things better.
So I don’t begrudge the LGBT community pushing, but the flip side of it is that this notion somehow that this administration has been a source of disappointment to the LGBT community, as opposed to a stalwart ally of the LGBT community, I think is wrong.
As I said at the time, I think Obama needs to reread the Letter, as he completely misses King’s meaning time and time again over his tenure at the White House. In January 2011, the DOD’s General Counsel Jeh Johnson attempted to say that King would have been fine with drones, indefinite detention, and the War in Afghanistan, totally misunderstanding King’s life’s work in general and his very specific comments about war and non-violence in particular. Let the record show slightly less than two years after making those remarks, Jeh Johnson become the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Those old posts came back to me as I watched Obama’s speech about the NSA last Friday, and watched the subsequent analysis of it — especially that done by the invaluable Marcy Wheeler (see here, for instance). Barack “No Drama” Obama disdains confrontation, and yet it was the drama created by the direct action of Edward Snowden, together with the journalistic work of Glenn Greenwald, Der Spiegel, the Guardian, and others, that has done what King talked about: “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Marcy and others have been shouting for years about unconstitutional institutional overreach in the intelligence community, and the response from Obama was no better than the response from Bush, until Snowden’s leaks started appearing in print. When Obama nominated Dawn Johnsen to be the head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel shortly after his election in 2008, he raised hopes that this kind of unreviewable, unchallengable, behind-the-scenes approach to the Executive branch’s conclusions about what is and is not constitutional would change. While others nominated to senior DOJ posts were confirmed, she waited, and waited, and waited some more. While Obama fought for other nominees, she sat alone, in silence. When her nomination was eventually withdrawn, it came as no surprise. As bmaz wrote most eloquently,
It [the withdrawal of the nomination] is indeed a serious blow to progressives; but far more than that, it is a serious blow to the country and its desire to bring common sense, morality and the rule of law back to the tattered United States Department of Justice. No division of the DOJ has more symbolized the rot, moral and legal decay brought on by the Bush/Cheney Administration than the OLC where the sick and despicable opinions of John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steve Bradbury emanated from. This is why Dawn Johnsen was both symbolically and pragmatically so critical and so welcomed. But it was not to be; it was never to be.
But Stein, and the rest of the major media that has had their head in the sand and not been paying attention need to wake up and realize that the failure of the Johnsen nomination is NOT and NEVER WAS about a lack of votes. No, it is completely and unequivocally about the failure of Barack Obama and his Administration to support their own nominee and stand up for the values she proffered which led them to select her in the first place. This is about Obama, not the Senate, not Republicans and not about obstruction.
(Click through to see his reasoning and documentation to support it.)
Obama held his NSA speech on Friday, hoping perhaps that the subject could be disappeared into a Friday news dump, to be forgotten in the midst of the latest from New Jersey, Michelle’s 50th birthday party, and the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. As a Cubs fan, I get the whole “hope springs eternal” thing, but this isn’t going away for Obama any time soon.
Let me direct your attention, for example, to our friends across the Atlantic . . .
In Germany, the NSA scandal has done what many thought impossible — united Angela Merkel’s previously shaky “grand coalition” government (linking her conservative Christian Democratic Party/Christian Social Union and the more liberal Social Democratic Party) behind efforts to negotiate a strong “no-spy” treaty with the US. Thus far, Obama has been able to hold off any kind of formal agreement, but that is not likely to mollify the folks in Berlin, nor the out-of-power Greens, The Left, and tattered Free Democrats. Failure to get an agreement — not a handshake, but a written agreement — would likely force Merkel into a choice between (a) siding with Obama and backing off on holding the US accountable for its spying (which would likely bring down her government in Parliament) or (b) standing against the US and throwing at least part of the US-German alliance overboard, perhaps derailing the SWIFT program that tracks suspect banking transactions as has been mentioned as a possibility by Philipp Mißfelder, one of the CDU’s foreign policy leaders, as a response to the US spying.
Snowden, like King, has forced the powerful in front of the cameras to defend their questionable behavior. Obama professed his love for King’s letter, but Friday proved that he still doesn’t get it. Maybe he’ll take today as an opportunity to reread it, and perhaps it will sink in a little more.
If not, the continuing flow of stories coming out of the Snowden leaks and the ongoing negotiations with Berlin over limits to our spying will provide him with additional opportunities to meditate on King’s message.
Photo h/t to Matt Lemmon for his image of the MLK sculpture outside the MLK Memorial Center in Atlanta and used under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.