I often try to write a substantial note for Martin Luther King Day. I don't feel up to it today.
I will, however, note that one of the most inspirational things about the history of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Civil Rights movement he came to personify is that the situation was essentially hopeless—that the conditions he wrote about so well were impossible to change, and that everybody knew it. That all the powers of the nation would protect the status quo. That the divide was unbridgeable, the moderate white liberal too queasily tepid, the segregationists too stubborn, the African-American community too impoverished and wary. That nothing could be done.
There's a terrible danger in observing Martin Luther King Day, that we begin to believe that he did the impossible. That it took superhuman greatness to change the world, and that it will take another superhumanly great hero to do the impossible and change it again. This profoundly messianic notion of the man runs completely contrary to how he worked, what he spoke, and all he did—but it's hard to avoid anyway.
We look out at the world—well, I do, anyway—with terrifying hope and comforting despair, seeing the vicious hatred and the remarkable love that fills it. At this moment, our nation is doing evil things, and great ones. Our politics is dominated by folly, vanity and fear; our politics is dominated by youth, hope and idealism. It is—like it always is—the best of times and the worst of times. It seems even more so now than ever before; I'm sure it seemed that way in 1963.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,