Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Critical Remarks On Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail"

"If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whose defence civilization depends, and to divide them. The responsibility for this tragic and possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what is admittedly part of our intellectual heritage. By our reluctance to criticize some of it, we may help to destroy it all."
Popper, K.R. "The Open Society & Its Enemies", preface to the first edition, published in 1945.

Prefacing Remarks

Two days ago, I was involved in a frustrating exchange with an incompetent and evasive opponent over the ethical status of gun control legislation in the U.S. Naturally, I argued that such legislation is a violation of the rights of the individual (quite irrespective of the 2nd Amendment), and though I expected to be met with consequentialist arguments as to why such legislation is necessary, I wasn't. What I was met with was the naked equivocation of the ethical with the legal, that so long as a democratically elected government passes the relevant legislation first, then not only can said government legitimately coerce citizens into surrendering their private property against their will (in this instance, firearms), but that such an instance of coercion ought not to be understood as coercion. Yet clearly, it is just such an instance. Should you dare to disobey, or fail to observe the order of the State to surrender your property, you will be met with the threat of violence – the initiation of aggression which, in part, constitutes the definition of coercion. The Orwellian nature of this claim can, I believe, only be understood accurately under the supposition that its' author argues, not on the basis that such a law would be just, but that the very categories of “just” and “unjust” simply do not apply to any law passed by a democratically-elected legislature. To that author it seems, “justice” is nothing other than a seal of popular approval. Since the State claims a monopoly on the legal use of violence, the immediate implication of this belief is the equivocation of right with might.

I say that this presumption, this Orwellian equivocation of the ethical with the legal, of right with might, can admit of no respect whatever for the rights of the individual. That this is so even when a given law may be sanctioned democratically - by the will of a consenting majority - may be made clear on consideration of what the lack of any principled limitations to this mechanism must necessarily result in: a tyranny of the majority.

Yet in addition to some democratic States, the same premise operates behind the functioning of non-democratic States also. The equivocation of the ethical with the legal, of right with might is necessary in order that the lives and property of individuals may be seized by the State for its own purposes, often in the name of some greater collective. This is exactly the same thing we see today (but in advanced application) in the People’s Republic of China's myriad abuses against, and arrogations of, the lives and property of the people who live in China. The PRC casts its eye with the same attitude toward the people of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Since I consider this equivocation to be profoundly consequential, I am naturally appalled that I could have been confronted with it in an exchange on firearms legislation with an Australian - a fellow Westerner, not a Chinese man peering out from under the still-lingering ignorance of decades of State censorship and propaganda. Yet however appalled I may have been, I was not shocked. This equivocation seems to me increasingly 'axiomatic' among students and academics. Yet even the best among us may make mistakes, as Karl Popper declared in the opening paragraph to the preface of what he called his "war effort", and, with Popper, I believe that subjecting them to criticism, even harshly worded and outspoken criticism is necessary if a society founded on respect for the individual is to be defended.

At the same time as I was involved in that exchange on the legitimacy of firearms control legislation several days ago, certain persistent critics, put up a link to Martin Luther King's famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail" with the exhortation to "read this, right now, all of it, today." Although I had read it previously, I read it again, and to my dismay, along with all of the other good stuff I remembered on the righteousness of acts of civil disobedience against unjust laws, I found the very same collectivist premise dressed in the disguise of democratic legitimacy. I certainly have no wish to belittle the moral stature and importance of Martin Luther King - on the contrary, his example of non-violent, massed civil disobedience to unjust laws may still be momentously potent today. No, it is in the spirit of Popper's insistence upon the necessity of criticizing the mistakes of great men that I hope my readers will indulge and forgive what follows - my brief and very modest set of remarks on King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail"

Remarks On "Letter From Birmingham Jail"

To begin with I should say that my critique of King's letter is directed toward his way of arguing his case, which was a just one, but which relied on what I believe was a mixture of sound and unsound (and perhaps even contradictory) arguments. For the sake of manageable brevity for a blog post, I shall try to condense my criticisms of the letter into several sections rather than fisk the letter pargraph by paragraph; not only would such a fisking take far too long, but King's letter contains much repetition and extended descriptions of the unjust suffering of his fellow Americans - against which there is no need to say anything.

The Universal Nature Of King's Conception Of Justice

The first thing about King's letter to attend to is the Universal nature of his conception of justice; although he was engaged in a struggle to free his fellow Americans from racially based injustice and so therefore used terms like "racial justice", King's notion of justice was nonetheless individualist and equalitarian. Such a conception of justice can only be applied to all people equally without favour or prejudice, irrespective of racial differences. Further to that, however, which claim I assume will be accepted by all honest readers without proof, I believe King's conception of justice was also Universal in two other senses - space and time. In support of the first of these, I quote from paragraph four of the letter:
"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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."
That King circumscribes the range of his conception of justice in the last sentence there to "anyone who lives inside the United States" could perhaps be cited as evidence against my claim that his notion of justice was universal in the sense I have charged. But I would reject this assertion, firstly because the context in which the remark appears is the political question of whether the several States, such as Alabama and Mississippi could legitimately expel an "outside agitator" such as himself from another State elsewhere in the Federal Union. Secondly I would reject the claim that King's conception of justice applied only to people living within the United States because that would seem to contradict his frequent use of historical analogies and precedents from elsewhere around the world to his own struggle for justice. For example, in King's third paragraph we read:
"Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid."
Similar historical references to the early Judeo-Christian struggles abound throughout the letter, as any reader may see for himself. To emphasize the time aspect of King's Universalism, I now quote from paragraph 26 of the letter:
"I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.... Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts 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, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."
So King’s conception of justice was also Universal in respect of time, i.e. that whether a given action or event is to be considered “just” or “unjust” does not depend upon the prevailing attitude among one’s fellows at a given time. As he says: time is neutral. Justice must therefore be independent of the time one lives in. King's Universal conception of justice therefore, stands against any assertion that, for example, an act of imprisoning a Chinese man for breaking certain taboos governing public speech is not actually an injustice because the ethical status of such an act is relative to the culture of the Chinese in which it is embedded. Because Martin Luther King's conception of justice was Universal, his writings have as much relevance and import to oppressed peoples everywhere as they did to the Americans to whom they were originally addressed.

The Religious Basis Of King's Universalist Conception Of Justice

That King's rhetoric is filled with religious iconography may be easily seen throughout the letter, but I want to deal with the question of whether his theistic beliefs are epistemologically necessary to his conception of justice and direct action, and whether therefore, they might contradict the Universal nature of his conception of justice or his imperative toward direct action tactics. I have no intention of disputing the claim that his theism was psychologically necessary for him to achieve what he did or that such theism was also psychologically necessary for many of his supporters - of that I am in no doubt. My claim is that King's theistic beliefs aren't epistemologically necessary to his Universal conception of justice. In other words, you don't have to be a born again Christian to hold broadly the same notion of justice as Martin Luther King himself held to (which is fortunate for me, since I am not a Christian - though I am often presumed to be one by my opponents).

That King's notion of justice does not depend on his theistic beliefs can, I believe be evinced by the range of historical precedents he draws upon. I quote now from paragraph 21 of the letter:
"Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience."
Not only are these Jewish, Greek and American examples, with the obvious exception of the Christian one, not under the same theistic influence that King himself was under, but each one is directly comparable to King's own insistence on the need for the oppressed to demonstrate a superior moral courage through non-violence in defiance of the might of their oppressors. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were the three Jews who defied Nebuchadnezzar's command to worship a gold idol in spite of Nebuchadnezzar's threat to have them thrown into a furnace as punishment. The bravest among the early Christians similarly defied the Romans knowing that in spite of the horribly cruel and fatal punishments which they knew awaited them. Socrates famously refused the Athenian court's offer of voluntary exile and willingly drank the poison hemlock in defiance. Only the American example, the Boston Tea Party, can be said to have been "violent" as opposed to non-violent. Yet it is worth bearing in mind that the actions of those present at the Boston Tea Party violated the property of the British East India Company in retaliation to the British Tea Act in which the Americans were forced to pay taxes to which they had not consented.

An honest critic could yet object that at least two of those historical examples are examples of people who may yet have acted on theistic beliefs similar to King's own; certainly this must be true of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as well as of those Christians who died in defiance of the Romans. Whether the same thing was true of Socrates or of those protesting at the Boston Tea Party is, I think, more doubtful. But here I must depart from King's letter.

A Universalist conception of justice like that King held to can be derived from other, non-theist, prescriptive premises - such as from Ayn Rand's adherence to the non-aggression principle, or from Immanuel Kant's first formulation of his categorical imperative. The epistemological derivation of these premises in turn, is often said to require an act of faith, or else an essentially arbitrary decision to embrace them. Part of the reason for this criticism lies with the "is-ought gulf" described by David Hume wherein a prescriptive "ought" statement cannot logically be derived from a descriptive "is" statement without the intervention of one or more additional prescriptive statements as intermediaries, thus leading to an infinite regress of such statements. Yet I believe that Hume's Law, as it is sometimes known, is as much instructive as it is skeptically destructive of any attempt to create an objective and universal basis for ethics - for rather than drawing the conclusion that there are no objective facts about ethics, we should conclude that "there are no objective facts about ethics other than Hume's Law." To paraphrase a web-acquaintence* to whom I am indebted for this insight:
"So, from absolute subjectivism we discover the libertarian fundamental of the non-aggression principle. Hume's Law is a law of nature- the only ethical law of nature. We thus find that liberty, in the sense of the non-aggression principle, is built into the universe. It is the only possible ethical theory we can derive from what is. Every other philosophy is inherently against nature."
With apologies to certain other friends and acquaintances of mine, I believe it ought not to be too much of a controversial point to insist that such a Universalist conception of justice like that to which King held can be derived from an ethics requiring no theistic supports whatever.

King On Just & Unjust Laws

Like, I presume, most people who have ever read or listened to King's famous speeches, I am satisfied that King was instinctively individualist in his ethics and politics. Moreover, I don't for a moment entertain the possibility that his instinctive response to ethical problems ever wavered from this. But as Popper once wrote, great men may make mistakes, and I believe it may be instructive to show that this was also true of King in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. As I have mentioned already, one of these mistakes was an utterance of the democratic form of the collectivist premise. Yet I think it can be reasonably argued that in uttering this premise, a premise which contradicts several of his other statements in the same letter, King was merely using it as an example to strengthen his point that his fellow Americans were suffering severely from socio-legal inequality, and it was written subsequent to earlier paragraphs in which he struggled to define “just” and “unjust” laws with obviously weak arguments in which, for example, he equated injustice with hypocrisy. I believe King’s choice of arguments here was largely tactical and intended to appeal to the respect for the law he presumed to be held by the letters’ intended recipients.
"Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?"
Whilst it was true that many Americans were effectively denied their legal right to vote in Alabama, and that King's mention of this would seem to strengthen his demand for significant political reforms, King neglected to stress here the necessity of rational limitations to protect the rights of the smallest minority - the individual. The importance of this point lies with the fact that the underlying nature of the argument he is making here - that a law is just if it is fully democratic - may be used against him to undercut his ethical individualism for it admits the possibility that any law may be just so long as it is passed by legislators for whom nobody was prevented or forcibly discouraged from voting. Without rational qualifications to limit the powers of such legislators, such as those listed in the Bill Of Rights, this argument can be used to justify a tyrannical collective in which a majority oppresses a minority: exactly the sort of unequal result which King had complained of. Although one cannot hold King responsible for how other people may use or misuse his words, especially after his death, this mistake is exactly the kind of thing which would allow certain men (particularly on the political Left) to subsequently cite the authority of King's great name to sanctify the collectivist justification for tyrannical policies against the rights of the individual - a justification whereby the ethical is equated to the legal. Yet King himself rejected this justification just four paragraphs later in paragraph 22:
"We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws."
Thus actions cannot be just (e.g. State confiscation of private firearms) simply because they are "legal". Upon reading paragraph 26, I would hope my readers may become more firmly convinced that, had the circumstances in which King had written his letter availed him of a greater opportunity for receiving what the Greeks called parrhesia, he would have realized this mistake and corrected it, for in what follows, King repudiates the Orwellian twist by which acts of coercion against individuals are presented as merely "reactive" and thus not coercive at all:
"In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber."
Strategic Use Of Civil Disobedience & Tactical Prerequisites

King's use of civil disobedience tactics was strategic. It was not mere self-expression, but the disciplined and creative direction of such expression toward evoking the prerequisite ethical and psychological tension across the U.S. for bringing about substantial political and cultural changes across the whole of the country. In his own words (paragraph 10):
"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. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that 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 we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."
In assessing King's success, how much weight should be stressed upon the fact that, like Ghandi before him, King was attempting to sway an already very liberal political culture with arguments about the necessity of liberty? Would such a strategy have worked against the National Socialists in 1930s Germany? Would such a strategy work today in what is now a fascist (rather than socialist) People's Republic of China? Can the cultural and psychological prerequisites for the potential success of such a strategy be listed clearly? I do not know, but given the apparent decline of the U.S. and Europe under ever-expanding government and given the plight of millions of still subjugated Chinese people, and the threat of such subjugation hanging over the people of Taiwan, the question is not a casual one. Perhaps, in the case of Taiwan and China, a more appropriate strategy is to wait and in waiting both hope for and try to render obsolete, through innovation, those institutional mechanisms by which the State most oppresses the people living under it. Meanwhile the clock is ticking for all of us (paragraphs 12-13):
"My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be 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. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
At any rate, should anyone today attempt to adopt and adapt Martin Luther King's strategic use of civil disobedience, then great care must be taken over questions of technique and preparation that no doubt will influence tactical success or failure. Foremost among such questions will be those concerning choice of circumstances and training of members; whilst protesting with massed sit-ins at farms to prevent government expropriation of land may have some hope of success, it is not a tactic that can be maintained day after day, week after week - such a tactic would have to be exposed to the national media. Protesting in front of government buildings is an unsurprising and unimaginative tactic to which the State is already primed to respond efficiently. Different venues, different mediums, different times and different techniques will have to be conceived if those most oppressive institutions of the State are to be caught off guard and national attention is to be effectively captured. Underlying such considerations is another matter, already mentioned, of the careful direction of direct action methods to the raising of what King called "tension", as distinct from the raising of "awareness". I believe, that, in King's case, the tension he successfully raised sprang from an underlying cultural respect for freedom - and specifically for freedom of the individual, in universalist terms. How such psychological tension may be raised without risking any spill over into street violence is of critical importance. Finally, King's prescription of "four steps" in the preparation for any non-violent program of civil disobedience ought not to escape attention, but rather give pause to anyone reading this with a feeling only of lukewarm half-conviction (paragraphs 6-8):
"In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action... We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"

In my opinion, Martin Luther King's conception of justice rested on an individualist ethics still highly relevant to many of the social problems afflicting oppressed peoples today. Furthermore, I believe that this Universalist ethics and conception of justice does not stand or fall, as many on both the political left and the right claim, on theistic grounds; there are several other modern approaches to the problem of delineating an atheistic (or agnostic) ethics and the import of these for winning public debates over the legitimate nature and scope of State coercion (if any at all) ought not to be overlooked by those who value their freedom.

I also believe that, though Martin Luther King's commitment to individualist ethics was of an instinctively unwavering nature, some of the supporting arguments he uses in "Letter From Birmingham Jail" were seriously flawed and that, in allowing his name to overshadow any criticism of him, there is a danger that the enemies of individualism may find relief in the use of such flawed arguments that he himself, unfortunately, sanctioned. What must be especially resisted in particular, is the use of King's (misguided) sanction of the democratic form of the collectivist premise, which, without the qualification of effective restraining principles (and perhaps even then) leads to the equivocation of the ethical with the legal and thus tyranny.

Finally, I want it to be said that Martin Luther King's successful use of civil disobedience has implications for our own time. Our cultural memory of what he did challenges us with questions as to whether and how a similar strategy could and should be used for aiming toward the rational alleviation of the sufferings of oppressed peoples everywhere, including the Chinese speaking world.

Tuesday, January 18th 2011. Michael Fagan.

*With thanks to Samizdata commenter Ian B.


  1. Exceptional, Mike, thanks. I've updated my post with a link to your criticisms.

  2. Mr. Fagan--

    John Venlet clued me in to your piece via a comment to my site.

    In a bit of a cri de coeur I called King's letter a cri de coeur from a jail cell in the deep south--the jail being something that would need a whole and extended explanation.

    But I bow to a far superior analysis, and I am appreciative of the fact we ended up in the same zip code, so to speak.

    Thank you. jb

  3. Commenting on myself here, but on re-reading that I think the prose is overly cumbersome and there are several points which are not made as clearly as they could be and rely rather too much on the reader making some effort. I'm going to have to re-write parts of it; I may or may not cut out the redrafted sections and place them here in the comments section.

  4. I have edited some of the phrasing in the "Prefacing Remarks" section, and polished up some bits and pieces elsewhere. The main change is that I have made it much shorter by cutting several paragraphs from the "King on Just and Unjust Laws" section dealing with King's three weak arguments in the middle part of the letter as to what constitutes an unjust law. These arguments were too easily shown to be wrong and also, they were far less dangerous than that democratic argument I introduced at the beginning of the post.

    I think it reads better now.


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