Twenty years [Forty] ago last week, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The toll his family took was heavy. But the goal was – is – worthy. Bret Stephens contrasts King with Mugabe. Those who admire (mostly past tense, of course) both missed the core concept of the Civil Rights movement, of the assumptions of the will to live free. David Hackett Fischer notes how freedom and liberty are intertwined concepts in our history. Still, it is the very limits of our freedoms and liberties (the points where they touch others) that gives them shape and power, within those broad limits they empower us. If we don’t accept the limits of our freedoms – our human condition, others’ freedoms – they become perverse. Willing our death, willing other’s – that hardly changes our condition. And the most perversely revolutionary thought doesn’t throw over tradition for a universal of individual growth but rather to allow expression of one individual (one corporate) will that uses each to express that will. (Perhaps talking about Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” over and over with freshmen newly exposed to that terror makes me read the editorial pages with hyperbolic context – or maybe it is Conrad’s that is the real context.) Anyway, here is Stephens:
Maybe the question is better put this way: Why is it that “progressivism” seems so prone to nihilism? Friedrich Nietzsche, who knew something about nihilism, had an answer: “Man,” as he famously concluded in his Genealogy of Morals, “would rather will nothingness than not will.” Ultimate freedom, complete liberation, demands that man overthrow every constraint, or what Nietzsche called “a revolt against the most fundamental preconditions of life itself” – including life itself. In this scheme, nature and the natural order of things become subordinate to the mere act of willing. This is the essence of totalitarianism, a political order that recognizes no higher authority, no limits and no decencies.
Which brings us back to Martin Luther King Jr. In his 1958 essay “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King described his encounter with, and rejection of, Marxism. “Since for the Communist there is no divine government,” he wrote, “no absolute moral order, there are no fixed, immutable principles; consequently almost anything – force, violence, murder, lying – is a justifiable means to the ‘millennial’ end. . . . I am convinced now, as I was then, that man is an end because he is a child of God.”
“Exterminate the brutes!” may be the colonial view but it was also Stalin’s, Hitler’s and it wasn’t just the cry of Europeans in Africa but also of Cambodians in Cambodia, Rwandans in Rwanda. Wars prove less deadly than democide, for winning a battle doesn’t require the extermination of the “restless spirit” Frederick Douglass describes.