Martin Luther King Jr.: Menace II (Racist) Society

As a callow boy, I used to confuse Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. Fortunately, that ignorant conflation didn’t last too long and I soon got the two of them sorted out. The first one complicated my understanding of Christianity, the second that of my home for twenty-five years, the United States of America, the nation whose passport I carry, and whose citizenship my daughter has acquired by birth.

I have written on this blog about events that modified my relationship with the US: a viewing of Tora, Tora, Tora!, and my reading of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The first brought down the US from a pedestal of invincibility, the second from one of moral superiority. A third event did the same as the second. A solitary viewing of a documentary on the US civil rights movement, one that exposed me to the spoken words of Dr. King, and one searing visual after another of the slow, painful, and as yet incomplete, fight against institutionalized racism. (While I cannot remember precisely which documentary I am referring to, Mukul Kesavan, in his essay ‘On Watching Documentaries’ remembers watching one titled King in approximately the same time period; I have, however, not been able to track that title down.)

I watched the documentary alone, late at night in New Delhi, at my grandparent’s residence.  For some reason, the national television station had decided the best time to show it was at a time when most folks would have turned in for the night. I do not know why I was spending the night at my grandmother’s and I do not know how and why I had the run of the roost as far the television room was concerned. (It was my grandparent’s bedroom.) Be that as it may, I was alone, and I was curious.

The documentary began with the speech given by Dr. King on April 3rd 1968, the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The words of the speech, in white, scrolled up the screen against a black background, while Dr. King’s voice played on the soundtrack. It was the first time I had heard him speak; it was the first time I had heard any speech from the civil rights movement; it was the first time I was exposed to that potent combination of preacher, professor and politician. I had never heard a speech like that before in that cadence and rhythm, with that passion and eloquence. By the time it ended, I was primed for the spectacle–composed wholly of archival footage–that followed. When that was over, a cavalcade of impressions ending with King’s assassination, the hapless women on the Memphis motel balcony pointing in the direction the assassin had gone, I was stunned, speechless, and heartbroken.

Water cannons, feral Southern policemen, brave schoolchildren, angry racist women and children screaming obscenities, devious politicians grimly determined to not let their racist citadels fall, snarling dogs, grim, composed, determined marchers for freedom and dignity, the abuse of those asking for a chance to exercise adult franchise; these are the components of the by-now-iconic set of images that we associate with those points in time. They are familiar now, but they have not bred contempt. Perhaps all of us can remember when we were first exposed to them; perhaps we can remember the effect they had. This is my very partial attempt to do so.

Corporal Punishment and the Arrested Development of the ‘Adult’

In the past couple of weeks, I have quoted at length from Erik Erikson‘s Young Man Luther. First, to draw an analogy between the development stages of humans and nations via the notion of an identity crisis, and then, to point to perhaps a similarly analogical relationship between indoctrination and addiction recovery. Today, I want to point to a passage that is particularly insightful about corporal punishment:

It takes a particular view of man’s place on this earth, and of the place of childhood within man’s total scheme, to invent devices for terrifying children into submission, either by magic, or by mental and corporeal terror. When these terrors are associated with collective and ritual observances, they can be assumed to contain some inner corrective which keeps the individual child from facing life all by himself; they may even offer some compensation of belongingness and identification. Special concepts of property (including the idea that a man can ruin, his own property if he wishes) underlie the idea that it is entirely up to the discretion of an individual father when he should raise the morality of his children by beating their bodies. It is clear that the concept of children as property opens the door to those misalliances of impulsivity and compulsivity, of arbitrariness and moral logic, of brutality and haughtiness, which make men crueler and more licentious than creatures not fired with the divine spark. The device of beating children down by superior force, by contrived logic, or by vicious sweetness makes it unnecessary for the adult to become adult. He need not develop that true inner superiority which is naturally persuasive. Instead, he is authorized to remain significantly inconsistent and arbitrary, or in other words, childish, while beating into the child the desirability of growing up. The child, forced out of fear to pretend that he is better when seen than when unseen, is left to anticipate the day when he will have the brute power to make others more moral than he ever intends to be himself.

I was fortunate enough to never suffer the chastisements of an unhinged father (though he was, in his own way, a strict man with high standards) but I did see, in too many of my school years, teachers who thought little of vigorously handing out slaps and canings to their wards. In my fifth grade year in school, our teacher had such a reputation that she induced a severe panic into most of my classmates. The penalty for a missed homework was a public slapping, as was that for talking in class. Indeed, think of a possible offence, and you’d find the penalty was a ear-ringing slap across the face. We didn’t respect her; we just feared her. Without exaggeration, her replacement, a few weeks into the school year, by a young graduate of teaching college, who turned out to be a brilliant mentor to all of us, was one of the best pieces of news I have ever received in my life. The sense of relief I felt that day can scarcely be described. Then, she seemed grown-up and fearsome. In retrospect, I realize I had been confronted with someone who had never quite made the transition from child to adult.

Note: Excerpt from Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1962, pp. 69-70.

A Nation in Identity Crisis?

Just for kicks, I thought it might be interesting, on the day after the 2012 election, to think of the US as a nation undergoing an adolescent identity crisis. I do this in response to some post-election commentary that seems to suggest the demographic shift in the US has engendered one, forcing political parties across the land to respond before their next loss in a national election.

What do we know about identity crises? Well, here are some thoughts from Erik Erikson, who coined the phrase. They sound  especially interesting when the ‘youth’ in question is a nation, and in this case, one with a very particular opinion of itself and its history:

I have called the major crisis of adolescence the identity crisis; it occurs in that period of the life cycle when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity, out of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood; he must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be. This sounds dangerously like common sense; like all health, however, it is a matter of course only to those who possess it, and appears as a most complex achievement to those who have tasted its absence. Only in ill health does one realize the intricacy of the body; and only in a crisis, individual or historical, does it become obvious what a sensitive combination of interrelated factors the human personality is a combination of capacities created in the distant past and of opportunities divined in the present; a combination of totally unconscious preconditions developed in individual growth and of social conditions created and recreated in the precarious interplay of generations. In some young people, in some classes, at some periods in history, this crisis will be minimal; in other people, classes, and periods, the crisis will be clearly marked off as a critical period, a kind of “second birth,” apt to be aggravated either by widespread neuroticisms or by pervasive ideological unrest. Some young individuals will succumb to this crisis in all manner of neurotic, psychotic, or delinquent behavior; others will resolve it through participation in ideological movements passionately concerned with religion or politics, nature or art. Still others, although suffering and deviating dangerously through what appears to be a prolonged adolescence, eventually come to contribute an original bit to an emerging style of life: the very danger which they have sensed has forced them to mobilize capacities to see and say, to dream and plan, to design and construct, in new ways.

For what it’s worth, I do not think this election, or even the one before it, have triggered anything like an identity crisis. This is not because the US cannot be termed ‘adolescent’; rather, it is because these elections do not seem have induced as fundamental a rupture as indicated above.

Note: Excerpt from Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1962