Martin Luther King, Jr, (apparently borrowing from an earlier Christian philosopher) said that “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” John Maynard Keynes (later plagiarized by Winston Churchill, directing the reference toward Americans in particular) said that “[people] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” What these quotes illustrate, aside from the prevalence of plagiarism among famous orators (John F. Kennedy got his “Ask not…” line from his prep school, whose motto it was, substituting “your country” for “your school”), is the combination of optimism and cynicism that characterized these two quite different but equally visionary thinkers. In both phrases, the short-term is frustratingly full of injustice and irrationality, but the lathe of trial and error, and the impetus of the human soul, tend to sort it out in the long-run.
Neither of them were counseling complacency, however. Both were counseling perseverance, and commitment to bending the arc more sharply toward justice, accelerating and abbreviating the exploration of all those irrational alternatives. We who believe in reason, who believe in justice, who believe in the shared responsibility to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and in the woefully underrealized potential we have to intentionally and conscientiously improve the human condition, are called upon to be the agents of reason and justice in an irrational and unjust world, not as glassy-eyed fanatics pursuing emotionally gratifying caricatures of the two, but as patient, committed, and good-humored agents of what is good and decent about humanity.
The question that forever presents itself, and that is never more than partially and inadequately answered, is: How do we best confront that challenge?
There is no one answer. Yes, we need to keep generating the best ideas, most disciplined by reason exercised through reliable methodologies, most inspired by focused imaginations, most dedicated to the highest ideals and tempered by humility and dispassionate lucidity. Yes, we need to be pragmatic, political realists, working within that which currently exists to create that which might someday be. These two demands upon us cannot be denied: We must both generate the best ideas, and fight within the political arena to see them implemented to whatever extent possible, by whatever legal means possible. But these two demands, which dominate our attention and seem to exhaust the scope of our obligation, are missing the most vital component: We must reunite the two, so that the best ideas about how to govern ourselves become the means for their own political success. We must create a center of gravity comprised of reason and goodwill, a moral and intellectual force that few can resist.
The two great historical figures I quoted above both did just that, as have others: Martin Luther King, Jr., like Gandhi before him, made passive resistance in service to simple justice a very compelling force, one that few could stand against in the long run, though many stood against it in the short run. John Maynard Keynes helped inform a fiscal and economic policy that remained almost undisputed for over half a century, informed the most massive and rapid economic growth the world has ever seen, and continues to be the certainty of last resort in a fiscal crisis, when “we are all Keynesians.”
My favorite movie line of all time exhorts us all to rise to the level of such leaders, by being followers who honor them by identifying with them: “I am Spartacus!” (This line is in the news again, as supporters of a fellow in England who was arrested for Tweeting a joking bomb threat at a Northern English airport are now tweeting joking threats of their own, with the tag line “I am Spartacus!”). We are all Spartacus; we are all Martin; we are all Keynes; we are all capable of asking the most of ourselves in service to one another, and of doing all that we can to bend that arc of justice more sharply, to abbreviate that exploration of irrational alternatives to whatever extent possible.
Martin, in fact, “was” Gandhi, became Gandhi by emulating Gandhi, as any one of us can become Martin by emulating Martin. Who will be the next to stand up and lend their name to that nobility of spirit that resides in each of us, something we all aspire to realize, something we all struggle to untangle from the baser elements within us that hold it back and keep it buried? It may well be you.
But what does it mean to find that soul of justice and reason, of courage in service to these virtues, of commitment to stand on their behalf and resist the temptation to simply find a quiet refuge to escape their demands (and even, as the Tea Party has now done, create an ideology which justifies and exalts yielding to that temptation)? It means not just submitting to the discipline of reason and goodwill, but also dedicating oneself to making them inexorably attractive forces, striving to give them a voice and an incarnation in each of us that others cannot deny, just as the many could not deny reason and justice expressed through Gandhi and King.
The project I have proposed (A Proposal) is an attempt to give a new philosophical and programmatic life to this ideal. We need to work harder at connecting that place in our soul that can’t hide from the message insisting upon social justice when expressed with the undeniability of a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Mahatma Gandhi with the efforts we make to reassert that same forgotten commitment to reason and social justice that so languishes today. Few of those Tea Partiers who are, unbeknownst to themselves, spitting on the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., would ever suggest that they aren’t an admirer of his. We need to spoon-feed them that inconsistency, gently but assertively, and force them to work through the cognitive dissonance it provokes. We need to make them face the fact that they are not reasonable people of goodwill, that they are one of those “other alternatives,” that outward bow in the arc that must be bent back toward justice.
That is the ultimate political challenge. It includes creating the best ideas, and it includes fighting to have them implemented, but it also includes appealing to something inside all of us, something that responds to what’s true and right if it is presented in a way that can’t be denied. The phrase “winning minds and hearts” has become a cliche, but it remains the ultimate political challenge.
Let’s not forget to keep rising to it.