As the weekend approached, I chose to introduce my international students to the Martin Luther King holiday. I told them that when I was overseas I had been annoyed by not understanding why I had a day off or why the national flag had gone up the pole. It was my intention to educate them on the reason why they could sleep late on Monday.
Thus, I dredged up some exercises meant to provide English practice for my students while at the same time immersing them in the achievements of Dr. King. The “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963 was a must for my presentation skills class. It’s a great example of public speaking of course.
As I listened to the speech, given by to a large throng on the sweltering Mall in Washington, D.C., I began to think of Dr. King’s theme of freedom and his reference to the “promissory note” signed by our Founding Fathers . America, he said, had defaulted on that promise for the black man. Now, over 50 years later, we have an African-American president and our nation has begun to pay the debt the reverend so eloquently reminded our people of back in the raucous 60s.
The “I Have a Dream” speech, however, produced surprising consequences for me. What was originally an educational exercise for my students provoked their teacher to reflect on the state of our freedoms in the United States today. When I did, I was inflicted by mixed emotions.
First, I thought it ironic that this same president who is symbolic of the racial diversity of America is now presiding over an increasingly overbearing government which is negating the promise of the American revolution for all of us. Unless you have had your head buried in computer games or cell phone texts, you have to be aware of the hubbub over the spying of the U.S. National Security Agency leaked by Edward Snowden.
The former NSA employee, now living under the “protection” of Vladmir Putin in Russia, is a descendant of such famous government whistleblowers as Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. These documents, given to the New York Times, divulged secrets about our governments decisions on the Vietnam War. This week Mr. Ellsberg was quoted in the Huffington Post as saying that America was on the verge of becoming a police state. Like most Americans, this snooping by my government has me worried.
On the other hand, I can understand why the spying has to be done. There are surely people out there who would like to destroy America, as evidenced by the attacks on September 11. It was George W. Bush who got the massive surveillance started post-World Trade Center, not Barack Obama. Our current president is just continuing the work of his predecessor.
In this Internet age it is difficult to keep one’s privacy. It’s not just the government doing the prying. The appropriately named discount retailer Target was put in the crosshairs of cyber criminals who absconded with the personal data of scores of millions of customers over the holidays. One glance of the advertisers posted on your personal Facebook account will tell you that Big Brother knows your personal “likes”.
What is worrisome to me is that we live in a period of American history where trust in our nation’s leaders has hit rock bottom. Former defense secretary Robert Gates most likely represented the opinions of millions of Americans when he took special aim at Congress in his recently published memoir. “Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and reelection) before country — this was my view of the majority of the United States Congress,” he wrote.
On a personal and local level, I am concerned about the behavior of police officers, flight attendants and bus employees these days. The threat of terrorism seems to have given these people the ability to become petty despots in their spheres of influence.
I once respected the police and thanked them for their service. No longer. Dr. King complained about their brutality in his speech, and it seems to have revived in the 21st century. Some police officers are just as likely to shoot your dog as help a little old lady across the street.
So while African-Americans have made great progress within our system since August of 1963, the entire American experiment appears to be under threat. Fascism has its foot in the nation’s door. It seeks to deprive us of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which the Declaration of Independence and Dr. King reminded us belonged to all of us from the Creator. Potential dictators are ready to take as much as they can get at all levels of society, and you know this power grab isn’t meant for our benefit.
I’m convinced that the only hope we have to maintain the freedoms men like Martin Luther King died for is for our people to return to the God who gave us our rights and seek His help. After all, he had dealt with self aggrandizing leaders before. The prophet Isaiah wrote of them:
For the leaders of my people—
the Lord’s watchmen, his shepherds—
are blind and ignorant.
They are like silent watchdogs
that give no warning when danger comes.
They love to lie around, sleeping and dreaming.
Like greedy dogs, they are never satisfied.
They are ignorant shepherds,
all following their own path
and intent on personal gain.
“Come,” they say, “let’s get some wine and have a party.
Let’s all get drunk.
Then tomorrow we’ll do it again
and have an even bigger party!”
The prophets words could describe the Washington party circuit in our own day. Isaiah noted a little later that God was “amazed that no one intervened to help the oppressed.” As a result, wrote Isaiah, the Lord stepped in to save them. I don’t think I would have wanted to be the leaders of ancient Israel when that happened.
I wouldn’t want to be America’s leaders either.