The Martin Luther King, Jr. They Never Quote

by Will on January 21, 2013


One year before his assassination, King gave the speech announcing his position on the Vietnam war:

The sermon which I am preaching this morning in a sense is not the usual kind of sermon, but it is a sermon and an important subject, nevertheless, because the issue that I will be discussing today is one of the most controversial issues confronting our nation. I’m using as a subject from which to preach, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.”

Now, let me make it clear in the beginning, that I see this war as an unjust, evil, and futile war. I preach to you today on the war in Vietnam because my conscience leaves me with no other choice. The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war.

In international conflicts, the truth is hard to come by because most nations are deceived about themselves. Rationalizations and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial patriotism. He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery. Freedom is still the bonus we receive for knowing the truth. “Ye shall know the truth,” says Jesus, “and the truth shall set you free.”

Now, I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.

Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing, as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we’re always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on. Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony. But we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for in all our history there has never been such a monumental dissent during a war, by the American people.

Polls reveal that almost fifteen million Americans explicitly oppose the war in Vietnam. Additional millions cannot bring themselves around to support it. And even those millions who do support the war [are] half-hearted, confused, and doubt-ridden. This reveals that millions have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism, to the high grounds of firm dissent, based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Now, of course, one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty.

It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told, and I say that those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who opposes the war in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our soldiers is a person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition.

Yes, we must stand, and we must speak. Over the past two years I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam. Many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. And so this morning, I speak to you on this issue, because I am determined to take the Gospel seriously. And I come this morning to my pulpit to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation.

This sermon is not addressed to Hanoi, or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in a successful resolution of the problem. This morning, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans, who bear the greatest responsibility, and entered a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.

Now, since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America.

A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both Black and white, through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, and new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam.

And I watched the program broken as if it was 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. And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hope of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their brothers, and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

So we have been repeatedly faced with a cruel irony of watching Negro and White boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room. So we watch them in brutal solidarity, burning the huts of a poor village. But we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta. Now, I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years–especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems.

I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, “So what about Vietnam?” They ask if our nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.

For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence I cannot be silent. Been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They applauded our total movement; they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, we can’t do it this way.

They applauded us in the sit-in movement–we non-violently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, Be non-violent toward Bull Connor;when I was saying, Be non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark. There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, Be non-violent toward Jim Clark, but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children. There’s something wrong with that press!

This bears remembering because in the present day, we have the affliction of every scoundrel and yahoo in public life — paranoid gun nuts, Bible-thumping bigots, professional fussbudgets, and others allergic to the 20th century — claiming that King would have sanctioned their ill-thought-through jihad. Thus it is necessary to point out that King left absolutely no ambiguity about what his principles were.


Guess Who?

by Will on January 9, 2013

Who would you guess said the following?

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

I suspect the answer would surprise most people. I encourage readers to guess, without turning to the easy google search. Hint: this was not some loser on a Soviet politburo.


Are the Carrot and the Stick Any Good?

by Will on January 2, 2013


The “carrot and stick” theory runs something like this: if you want to coax a particular behavior out of people in your charge, reward them when they do it. If they deviate, punish them.

There is also a specific prediction that the theory makes: when punished for a given behavior, a person will do less of it; and when rewarded, a person will do more of it. This idea pervades virtually all realms of authority: the law, parenting, teaching, work management, diplomacy, tax policy, and so on. It also pervades mainstream microeconomics, specifically in the realms of price theory, tax theory, and the theory of externalities. The prediction is simple and easy to test, yet people seldom test it.

According to the “carrot and stick” theory, locking people up in cages for years should discourage them from committing further crimes. Making the sentence longer and more dehumanizing should discourage crime even more. When these people are released, their freedom should encourage them to be law-abiding citizens. How does this seem to work out?

According to the “carrot and stick” theory, the poverty afflicting many families is discouragement from their alleged stupidity and laziness. It is supposed to be lively encouragement to vigorous and productive work. If their current suffering isn’t enough to motivate them, more severe hunger and humiliation should really get them in gear. Does it actually seem to work out this way?

According to the “carrot and stick” theory, our embargo against Cuba should discourage them from having a communist government, and encourage them to demand laissez-faire. The Israelis’ isolation of Gaza should discourage its people from having a Hamas government and encourage them to accept the Israelis’ presence. Is there any evidence that these policies have had the desired effect, or will in the future?

The theory also seems to predict that people will work twice as hard to get $60 thousand as they would to get $30 thousand, and that people who are earning millions of dollars must have worked harder than we could ever imagine. Is this the case?

In your life, when you do something solely for payment or reward, do you really put yourself into it? Will you keep doing it after the payment or reward arrives? If you do something just to avoid punishment, are you happy about doing it? Do you do a good job? Do you accept a bully’s treatment as fair simply because he warned in advance that he would punish you if you didn’t satisfy him?

I could go on for some time with examples. But it strikes me from both observation and experience that the “carrot and stick” theory is a very bad and counterproductive model of human behavior. It is abjectly unhelpful to both the person trying to manage and the person in his charge. It breeds instability, strife, and disaffection. It degrades respect for the social order. And yet it is embedded in countless systems of administration, diplomacy, theory, and social convention. If we remove it, all sorts of sacred edifices fall, and the legitimacy of many in positions of prestige comes into question. I suspect that this fact alone explains the theory’s persistence.



by Will on December 28, 2012

The covers of two masterpieces that came out of the psychic mess of the late 70s:










Both albums were Bowie projects. Are the strange hand positions on both covers coordinated? What might they have meant? There is a certain similarity between the two images, no?


People Get Ready

by Will on December 26, 2012

The one and only Curtis Mayfield:

Happy holidays and so on.


The Magic Asterisk!

by Will on December 22, 2012


Paul Krugman sends us to Greg Sargent, on the mercifully stalled budget negotiations:

I spoke this morning to an official familiar with the fiscal cliff talks. He tells me that ever since Republicans rejected the first White House fiscal offer, White House negotiators have been asking Republicans to detail both the spending cuts they want and the loopholes and deductions they would close to raise revenues while avoiding a hike in tax rates for the rich.

According to the official, Republicans continue to refuse to answer.

And there we see that most wonderful piece of wizardry, the Magic Asterisk.

As best I can tell, the Magic Asterisk entered the American political scene in 1968, accompanying Richard Nixon’s “Secret Plan” to end the war in Vietnam. Nixon would give no details about the contents of his plan, solemnly invoking the otherworldly asterisk. After his election, we learned that what the asterisk meant in this case was: “step up aerial bombardments of South Vietnam, and then invade Laos and Cambodia.” Hey, the war did end, eventually.

In its current incarnation, the Magic Asterisk has been a vital component of Paul Ryan’s budget plan, Mitt Romney’s budget plan, and the budget plan that speaker Boehner recently offered. These plans go something like this:

We want to raise eleventy-twelve TRILLION dollars of revenue by closing loopholes; to cut spending by eleventy-thirteen TRILLION; and to cut taxes by eleventy-fourteen TRILLION dollars, which we estimate will cause eleventy-fifteen TRILLION in economic growth!

This prompts a number of questions: Which loopholes do you want to close? Which spending programs do you want to cut? Which taxes do you propose to cut? What model are you using to predict that growth number, and are there any empirical cases to back the model up? Where are these numbers coming from?

And then we get the irrefutable response: “The Magic Asterisk!”

This is some impressive wizardry indeed.



A Funny Thing Might Have Happened

by Will on December 17, 2012

You see a lot of funny things as a substitute teacher. One time, I subbed for a teacher who didn’t need a substitute at all. When I arrived and found him in the classroom, thumbing through papers, I presumed that he must be leaving for a field trip or a training day. So I asked him what time he expected to go. He told me he wasn’t going anywhere, and left it at that. He returned to thumbing through papers. I was confused, but decorum and good sense dictate that a substitute teacher should not question a full-time teacher’s sanity. So I just waited.

The first period class was raucus and rude. Many of them smelled of marijuana. This teacher did fierce battle with them. He went around and assailed students personally about their poor grades or the fact that they had obviously come to class high. It seemed to me that the guy was starting more fires than he was putting out, but it is unseemly to question a teacher’s methods in front of his students, so I stayed quiet.

After perhaps fifteen minutes of strife and posturing from our hero, he completely flipped out. He literally threw himself on the ground, pounded on the floor with his fists, gritted his teeth and yelped out angry complaints. He announced that he couldn’t take it any more and was quitting. He then stormed off.

He hadn’t left me anything like a lesson plan, so I tried to be inconspicuous (I’ve since learned that this is the worst strategy, but at that moment I felt pretty embarrassed). The kids talked and goofed off, expressing near-unanimous relief that the teacher had left. They didn’t bother to wonder why there just happened to be a substitute present for this auspicious event. I rather wonder if the teacher had pulled this stunt before.

After that period let out, the teacher returned. He said something like, “Sorry, I felt like I had to make that point.” He left it at that. I asked what he wanted me to do. He said something like, “Well, you can help me.” He didn’t tell me how, and there weren’t any obvious avenues for helping him most of the time. I felt completely superfluous for the remainder of the workday. The day seemed extremely long. It tired me out even though I basically did nothing; having nothing to do is really the worst punishment of all, as all children know, but many adults forget.

During the long afternoon, the teacher pronounced one of the most bizarre statements I’ve heard from anyone in eduction: “Oh! We gonna read Shakespeare… Me like Shakespeare!” I understand what he was trying to convey: “I’m street like you, man! I still dig Shakespeare!” But the use of object pronouns as subjects, while normal in the dialects of the West Indies, has never been a feature of the Black Standard English spoken here in the United States. So that choice of wording was strange and probably didn’t get his point across.

That teacher had around a dozen degrees and certificates from different schools and institutions adorning his wall. He really thought he was a rock star of education. He no longer works at that high school. I am glad he doesn’t.


A Note on the History of Science

by Will on December 17, 2012

As much as most popular and textbook accounts of the development of different sciences considers them in isolation, the uncomfortable truth is that for most of the history of science, alchemy and chemistry were the same discipline, astronomy and astrology were the same discipline, and medical knowledge was comprised little but superstition. Eliding these facts actually is a disservice to the student, because they demonstrate the tremendous power of the scientific method to trump tradition and abandon quack hypotheses. Casual observation tells us that other institutions hold on to falsehoods far longer and with far more stubbornness.

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Let It Be Known

by Will on December 17, 2012

I have tried several times to write a post laying out my thoughts on the Fed’s new policy. I have not been able to do it in a way that seemed engaging or interesting enough to publish. You dodged that bullet!

In short, I think this policy is well-intentioned, but probably will not have much effect. I further suspect that the failure of monetarist policies in this crisis will probably resurrect the old debate between the currency school (which I think has been discredited, given prevailing institutions) and the banking school (which I think has been vindicated, with the same caveat). There’s no entertaining way to say that, right?


End-of-the-Year Lists and So On

by Will on December 13, 2012

Can we all just come out and say it? The end-of-the-year “top 100 most awesome”  lists and “most awesome of all” pronouncements, prominent in all media in December — Times’s “person of the year”, and so on — are not terribly worthwhile.

There are three reasons not to take them too seriously.

The first is that we have little reason to believe the people who come out with these things have trustworthy judgment. While a music critic probably can tell us what good albums came out during the year, the pundits covering current events have little specialized expertise. Their qualification to be pundits is that they like following politics, and thus have more of a tolerance and for it than the average person. However, their hoary repository of knowledge is largely based on things like well-worn anecdotes, firm handshakes, winning smiles, and off-the-record briefings. None of these makes a sound basis for science, so the resulting pronouncements are in no way scientific, and are little better than random guesses.

The second reason is the flattery factor. Imagine Time picking a person of the year back in 1633. In choosing between the stargazer Galileo Galilee and the church figures who condemned him to house arrest, they would have had to take into account Galileo’s unpopularity and the church figures’ ability to make their lives as newsmen less pleasant. So even if they thought Galileo was right on the merits, they would have been likely to tout the case for the pope instead, or to tout someone uncontroversial, maybe some obscure Teutonic prince. Their incentives do not make for objectivity.

The third reason is that there is an element of uncertainty that makes it impossible to judge the meaning of current events from such close range. The hypothetical Time writers of 1633 would have had no idea how the heliocentrism controversy would play out. We only think that Galileo is the better choice because we know that subsequent astronomical work bore out his heretical conviction that the earth was not the center of the universe. We can see, looking back, that Time, for instance, named as “person of the year” many a historical figure who was soon after deposed or otherwise rendered irrelevant. Context is essential when we judge the importance of historical figures.

But I am probably taking these pronouncements too seriously, even in dismissing them. A moment’s thought tells us that they make no real claim of authority, but exist simply to spur discussions and disagreements. And they serve that purpose. But what doesn’t?