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MLK's Big Mistake: Love and Strategy in the Age of Trump


MLK's Big Mistake: Love and Strategy in the Age of Trump

Ira Chernus

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.”


I must inject a note of reality.

If there is such a thing as love, and there is, it is absolutely the case that its opposite will be present - this is apparently a law of nature.

Some will say that hate is love's opposite.

But a man I knew whose son had committed suicide told me that this was not the case.

Love's opposite is indifference.

No matter how you look at it, without the powerful differences between opposites, there is no energy.

No energy - no life.

I think it is time to learn from someone contemporary, so that we don't make the mistake of fighting yesterday's war:


I firmly believe that love is the life force of the universe, but that it operates on a continuum of intensity. That would make indifference the lowest point and agape one of the higher, at least as it manifests on this level of existence. So, no "forms of love" in my world, just intensities and directions. And common sense , justice, righteous anger, and direct action can be manifestations of such, if they are directed toward the good of the planet and its living beings.


Dr. King was deeply influenced by the Rev Sam Williams, his philosphy teacher at Atlanta Universities. Williams also taught King's father "Daddy King."

Williams' teachings were deeply rooted in Martin Buber's "I and Thou" the basic premise of which was to see the Other as Self. The opposite of an I-Thou relationship is an I-It relationship, in which the Other is seen as an object, as a collection of attributes, instead of as a whole person as oneself.


Without love, our humanity inhabits an empty shell of existence


Professor, it seems you overlook that King recanted his exaltation of Love in politics by 1967. Consider these words from his "Where Do We Go From Here" Speech in August, 1967:

    “Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change... And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites  . . .  love without power is sentimental and anemic... It is precisely this collision of immoral power and powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”

I was recently among a cordial political discussion group. We were all having a great time when someone suggested developing "power" in local government. Dead silence ensued, and then objections to the word "power" and its scary implications. There is no question among the Left that we value Love. But there is a question about our willingness to accept and use power. Many people on the Left associate power with our enemy and seek love and support in a political community. If your priority is the sense of community, the supposed purpose is demoted, and the actual purpose of the community then becomes upholding the sense of community. It should be pointed out here that we are distinguishing community from the SENSE of community, which is apparent in the acts an speech of Love. If your sense of purpose is strong, it is all the community you need. It binds people together despite their differences, through their conflicts. Many people speak of love as pious people speak of God: Love conquers all, Love is in everything, Love is all you need. Love is become the God of the quasi-spiritual Left. Being a religious man by breeding and education, and immersed in the Christian role of Love, King took a long time to reassess the political role of Love, and he realized that it is a handicap.


Somehow, I imagine, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s insistence (fifty years ago) on agape would be even more binding for today's "movements."

Community and collectivism of yesteryear have progressively dwindled into sentiments of utopia. Still, I am fortunate enough that I can recall a time when neighbors were more familiar with one another than fans are today so acquainted with their favorite celebrities; inasmuch, fans adopt the respective political standpoints of their fave celebrities--people with near irreconcilable self-interests. Consequently, without historical references to community, utterances of relationship-building are considered perceivable threats to self-interest politics. Hence, we are, today, eagerly committed to an unwillingness to reach across the aisle to those we believe to be, (or construct as), our cultural antitheses as self-preservation.

Since Dr. King's era, the boundaries and gaps articulating our individual existences have become insurmountable through mere political action. Without agape there is little motivation for a collective action built to sustain the longevity of a movement. We can surely rally to aid one another in collective self-interest, but the brevity of such alliances are merely campaigns as opposed to genuine movements. Social justice is now a sum zero game. Anything that suggests sacrifice, or anything less than strict adherence to political correctness and identity politics, is grounds to call off an alliance at the expense of the movement.

We see it all the time; people bunkered in their silos who reluctantly surface and do so only if their self-interests are aligned with another's. Selfish, disingenuous, fragile alliances. The interest of certain demographics I "belong" to may not always remain aligned well with other demographics, but I would be remiss to abandon the movement because I must forfeit some demands. Agape suggests that the overall movement is greater than my group's self-interest.

Bernie Sanders is a textbook example between a campaign and a movement and the exigence of agape. Sanders had an excellent strategy all things considered, but no agape. Thus, in the end, Sanders chose political expedience, capitulated to the Clintons, and retreated to his silos without penitence. He abandoned the movement once his self-interest became at-risk. There was nothing else to sustain him. "Berniecrats" demonstrated the ferocity of collective self-interest, but also exposed how its grounding can tear us apart with equal force.

So, of course, Dr. King puts agape first. That is hardly a mistake. It is an excellent strategy.

The problem, then, isn't agape or arriving at some mystic sainthood. We are fighting from a deficit when it comes to love. We (Westerners, primarily) are a people infatuated with violence: verbal, physical, emotional violence, inter alia. We are self-centered. We are most familiar with relationships framed as "versus". We don't come together for the sake of coming together. We must be coming together to combat something if we are going to have a relationship. The nonreligious and the nonspiritual must believe themselves incapable since agape is a love between a higher power and oneself. In many ways, we are simply unwilling to even try what Dr. King has suggested.

Thanks for letting me share.