What would MLK say in an age of Covid-19 segregation?

Many people may soon be facing a choice between civil disobedience and Covid-19 restrictions, for which the words of America’s iconic civil-rights leader remain boldly relevant

Artillery Row

UK lockdown restrictions have sparked a nascent campaign of “civil disobedience” according to retired Supreme Court justice Jonathan Sumption—a rebellious reaction with which he wholeheartedly agrees.

In an interview with UnHerd’s executive editor Freddie Sayers, this long-time emblematic figure of the establishment describes his sense of mystified despondency to now find himself on the other side as a reluctant rebel through his unabashed criticism of government policies and rules related to Covid-19.

“I feel sad that we have the kind of laws which public-spirited people may need to break,” Sumption says. “You have to have a high degree of respect, both for the object that the law is trying to achieve, and for the way that it’s been achieved. [But] some laws invite breach. I do not believe that there is a moral obligation to obey the law.”

In this Sumption is channelling an ethical law-breaking tradition in English society that goes back to the likes of John Bunyan’s 1678 novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. “This Legality therefore is not able to set thee free from thy burden,” Bunyan wrote. “No man was as yet ever rid of this burden by him, no, nor ever is like to be; ye cannot be justified by the works of the law, for by the deeds of the law no man living can be rid of his burden.”

Bunyan was arguing explicitly for a spiritual solution that trumped man-made laws, and the need to turn to God for guidance and salvation. But his scepticism toward mortal law-making still holds in a non-religious context: laws are artifice and not immune to deception and guile simply by virtue of being the Law of the Land. Many Brits are likely feeling more like Bunyan and Sumption these days. The past year has been an unnerving example of how a government’s eager wielding of new laws may have undermined the faith of some previously law-abiding citizens.

Too often it is left to ordinary men and women to right the wrongs and take action

It’s no surprise the idea of freedom was taken particularly seriously by the likes of seventeenth-century Puritans like Bunyan who suffered persecution for their religious beliefs. After the restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, the re-establishment of Anglicism as the state religion “affected the destiny and influence of the Puritans for several generations”, writes Daryl Adrian, assistant professor of English at Ball State University in Indiana. “They were living in a period of history when Puritanism and conservative theology were in the minority and were being attacked freely from every angle.”

Within six months of Charles II’s return, Bunyan, a dynamic preacher in Bedfordshire County, was jailed because he refused to stop preaching his Puritan theology. Refusing either to defend himself or to accept freedom on condition that he promise to stop proselytising, he spent most of the next 12 years in prison.

Just as unsurprisingly, freedom had a similarly vital appeal for civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. trying to dismantle the legacies of slavery in America. The tactic King came to embrace for achieving that aim was “nonviolent resistance”—the sort of civil disobedience described by Sumption—for which he beautifully lays out the justification in his 1963 treatise A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.

The parallels between what King says about nonviolent resistance in 1960s America and societies now mired in the imposition of draconian laws and regulations which take away our civil liberties are uncanny.

“We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil,” King writes. “Softminded individuals among us feel that the only way to deal with oppression is by adjusting to it. They acquiesce and resign themselves to segregation. They prefer to remain oppressed.”

I am not suggesting ordinary Brits adhering to lockdown restrictions are simply softminded; the tactics employed by the government—bolstered by mainstream media gorging on pity porn—have often been genuinely terrifying, part of what Sumption calls an “empire of fear”, and enough to make the most resolute succumb. The vast majority of ordinary people are trying to make the best choices in testing conditions. King sympathised with this conundrum, recognising the challenges faced by ordinary people when it comes to making the right call, even if it should be an obvious choice morally.

“Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts,” King says. “One of the great needs of man-kind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda.”

But the “softminded” label sticks with much of our media, scientific and academic communities and their sundry experts, too many of whom have acquiesced over Covid-19 and how to tackle it, taking the easier line when they are paid for more and to do better. As shown throughout history, too often it is left to ordinary men and women to right the wrongs and take action.

Our mask-muzzled faces are segregated from the air we must breathe

“When, for decades, you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: ‘Punish me. I do not deserve it. But because I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong,’ you hardly know what to do,” King wrote of the impact on the state and its authority figures when ordinary people suddenly call their bluff. “You [the person in authority] feel defeated and secretly ashamed. You know that this man is as good a man as you are; that from some mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force.”

In unpacking how to win freedom when it is forcibly being kept from you, King discusses the justification for resorting to violence—an option supported by various factions within the civil-rights movement—about which King knew plenty from being on the receiving end of it (I hadn’t known that preceding his assassination, during a book signing in a Harlem department store, a crazed woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener, its razor-sharp tip coming to rest on his aorta but miraculously not puncturing it).

“Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace,” King says. “I am convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of chaos.”

King channels his inner Bunyan—I don’t know if he read Bunyan but going off the authors he cites in his book, King was fantastically well read and had considered a huge gamut of ideas and opinions—saying: “A Voice, echoing through the corridors of time, says to every intemperate Peter, ‘Put up thy sword.’ History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that failed to follow Christ’s command.”

Of late there have been plenty of examples of those unwilling to put up their swords: from the protests that rocked America last summer and which led to related turmoil and toppling of statues in the UK, to the riot at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., shortly before Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Various groups of activists, militants and downright lunatics and psychopaths, from the extreme wing of the trans rights movement to white supremacists to jihadists, appear wrapped up in a mission to reshape the societal order—often by violent means—into some sort of utopia according to their vision, about the perils of which King also had plenty to say.

“Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation,” King says. “Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival.”

King’s injunction, never the easiest to swallow, is increasingly being put out of reach by the more nefarious effects of social media and the internet.

“The speed, idiocy, and scale of false social perceptions have been amplified to the point that people often don’t seem to be living in the same world, the real world, anymore,” Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of digital innovation and virtual reality who was there at the start of the Silicon Valley revolution, writes in the “Social Media Is Destroying Your Capacity For Empathy” chapter of his 2018 book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

“This is another one of those obvious problems that sneaked up on us. Public space lost dimension, but also commonality in general has been desiccated.”

The bravery leaders such as King provides people today with plenty to ponder as we navigate the forthcoming year

Lanier assesses that the greatest problem with the internet and social media is not the actual platforms themselves. Rather it is how they been absorbed into an engagement-driven and behavioural-modifying business model that is deleterious and predicated on and fuelled by the dynamics of human passions whereby “negative emotions such as fear and anger well up more easily and dwell in us long than positive ones” and “fight-or-flight responses occur in seconds, while it can take hours to relax.” The subsequent “unplanned nature of the transformation from advertising to direct behaviour modification” has “caused an explosive amplification of negativity in human affairs,” Lanier says. “Empathy is lost to noise,” while reasonable voices that try to rise above the problem are “drowned out by an ocean of chaotic poison”.

Lanier concludes that “an unfortunate combination of biology and math favours degradation of the human world. Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down.” Good luck loving your enemy with all that going on.

One is instinctively aware—especially nowadays given heightened sensitivities and those online processes Lanier describes that mean even Kermit the Frog and Mr and Mrs Potato Head are in the cross hairs of the public jury—of the danger of clumsily appropriating and applying the far greater sufferings and ordeals of others to lesser challenges and struggles. But then you read King recalling what happened in Albany, Georgia, where the nonviolent resistance movement met a setback. Local authorities initially managed to undermine its strategy that focused on the likes of sit-ins in segregated public spaces by closing down parks, libraries and bus lines to avoid integration. But, ultimately, this proved untenable to maintain, King says, because by doing so the authorities were crippling themselves and denying facilities to the white population: “Albany would have to breathe again even though the air, too, be desegregated.”

Astonishingly, after 60 years of apparent progress, the air has once again become segregated now. Our mask-muzzled faces are segregated from the air we must breathe. I want to freely breathe, inhaling deeply through my nostrils—that, like Sumption, unexpectedly find themselves faced with the choice of adopting the role of reluctant rebels—the air that my grandfather inhaled as a 16 year old who fibbed his underage way into the Merchant Navy during the Second World War; the air breathed by the soldiers who died for those freedoms that I thought was part of what we held dear and worth protecting when I was inspired to join the British Army myself. It is hard to fathom where we now find ourselves, though it is clearer, as it was to King, about what might be done by the oppressed individual.

“Instead of submitting to surreptitious cruelty in thousands of dark jail cells and on countless shadowed street corners, he would force his oppressor to commit his brutality openly—in the light of day—with the rest of the world looking on,” King says. He notes the eventual success of nonviolent resistance was to a large degree because it “paralyzed and confused the power structures against which it was directed,” and because those at the head of the power structures came to realise that they simply wouldn’t be able to physically process all of those who chose to break laws. Approximately five percent of the total African American population in Albany went willingly to jail, King says, noting that if that percentage had been duplicated in New York City about 50,000 African Americans would “overflow” its prisons.

In The Critic podcast How the government has exploited our human response to danger, photographer, writer and lockdown critic Laura Dodsworth channels her inner Martin Luther King when answering Olivia Hartley’s question about whether there is a danger that masks and other new restrictive edicts could “become a permanent fixture of society”.

“We’ve made public health a criminal justice matter, which is just awful,” Dodsworth says. “If there was largescale rebellion and people just threw off their masks, frankly, the magistrate’s system couldn’t cope with all the fines, the prison system couldn’t cope. If everyone wanted to mount a peaceful resistance, there is not much that could happen [in retaliation]—we are policed by consent.”

At the same time, though, the grave problem now is how that consent has apparently undergone a seismic shift, as Sumption describes in his interview.

“Our status as a free society doesn’t actually depend on our laws or our constitution,” Sumption says. “It depends on convention, it depends on a collective instinct, the right way to behave.”

But as he expounds—and if the polls are to be believed—“public opinion favours these intrusive and illiberal measures.” It’s a shift in public thinking and tolerance that he puts down to “if people are sufficiently frightened, their craving for security will make them submit to almost anything,” and could have profound implications for the future of freedom and democracy in the UK.

“The problem is when you depend for your basic freedoms on convention, rather than on law, once that convention is broken, the spell is broken,” Sumption says. “The only thing that protects us from a despotic use of [government] powers, is a convention that we have decided to discard. We have crossed the threshold and governments do not forget these things.”

African Americans in the 1960s along with King and his fellow civil-rights leaders knew all too well how racist laws had an approving audience among elements of American society, especially in the South, as innumerable photos from the civil rights era, such as a mob of furious white people taunting the nine African American high-school students who were the first to integrate into Little Rock Central High School in Alabama in 1957, attest to.

The bravery and willpower of those young students, civil rights protesters, organisers and leaders such as King provides people today with plenty to ponder as we navigate the forthcoming year and its promise of lockdowns being lifted as the government pledges to hand back to us those freedoms to associate, to communicate and to love. Previously, we assumed such freedoms were inviolate—a gross naivety.

“He who sells you the token instead of the coin always retains the power to revoke its worth, and to command you to get off the bus before you have reached your destination,” King says. “Tokenism is a promise to pay. Democracy, in its finest sense, is payment.”

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