These are all facts of life in contemporary America. They are either altogether denied, ignored, or ultimately disregarded. We have given up on our ability to make progressive social changes other than technological improvements. We have stopped believing, for example, that the institutions of government are capable of producing social or environmental uplift. We have essentially turned inward – to hobbies like marathon running or helping our little brats get into elite colleges. You see, we haven’t given up on our ability as individuals to amass great wealth, financial security, or social status. It’s only when it comes to “changing the world” in a direction of peace, justice or truth that we start throwing up our hands and saying, “yeah right.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I agree with that quotation. It’s literally true. But the problem is, the statement has two parts, and interpreters tend to ignore one of them.
The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice. We as a society are less racist, sexist and homophobic than we used to be. We also have more appreciation for animal rights and for the need to educate every child, regardless of whether their test results are “promising.”
But the first part of MLK’s statement, and perhaps the most important part, is that the arc of the moral universe is long. In other words, societal moral change takes place VERY slowly. The bigotry, status consciousness, greed and hatred that we see vividly on display at certain times and places are always around, under the surface, even in the most “civilized” of subcultures.
As our moral universe changes ever so slowly, our technological prowess advances rapidly. In some respects, that is a wonderful development. But it also means that we are increasingly able to create weapons of mass destruction. For example, just look at the effect that fossil fuels are having in drought-suffering California and now imagine all of the people in Africa who are likely to pass away in the next century or so because we are unwilling to tackle the scourge of climate change. That is definitely a WMD.
Our society resembles the good ship Titanic. We hum along at great speed, reveling in our superficial affluence, sophistication, and power. And then, when we see icebergs in our path, we convince ourselves that we are powerless to do anything about them. We just don’t have a nimble turning radius. The arc of our moral universe is simply too long for us to react in time to avoid these icebergs. And so, at the time they hit us, we’ll probably be doing what Winslet’s and DeCaprio’s characters were doing in the Titanic movie – pleasuring ourselves. Why not? It’s not like we as individuals can save the world, right? Haven’t we learned something since the days of Woodstock?
That, my friends, is the kind of cynicism that has brought us to where we are today. It’s a dreadful, defeatist attitude, born not of sophistication and wisdom, but rather of ignorance and complacency. This is what happens when you live in a society where progressive religiosity is moribund, and liberal-minded people no longer feel commanded to fight for higher values.
I won’t talk in this blog about Ferguson or Staten Island or anywhere else where folks are debating the topic of justice in our legal system. I make my living fighting for justice in our legal system, and my blog is devoted to my avocations, not my vocation. But this much I will say: we Americans, we complacent ones, now have an opportunity to wake up, rise up, and do something meaningful other than simply feathering our own nests. We have an opportunity as individuals to come together and tackle large social scourges. Will we make something of this opportunity? Or will we return to our shells, like a pack of tired turtles?
I can’t answer those questions. But what I can say is that it’s high time that we remember the other half of MLK’s statement. The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice. It’s our obligation as individuals to apply some strength and bend that sucker as forcefully as we can. We can’t just sit on the sidelines any longer. We’ve tried that for a generation or two, and look what it’s gotten us?