Letter from a Hong Kong hotel suite

Cross-posted on The Obama Diary.

America’s history is written in blood and sacrifice. We have two holidays—Memorial Day and Veterans Day—which commemorate the sacrifices made by our military. But, we have only two national martyrs whom we acknowledge with holidays: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Both of our great martyrs died trying to expiate the sins of slavery and racism. Without their work, the America in which we live would be unrecognizable. In fact, there might very well be no America, as it would have split along the fissures caused by one of its two original sins, that of slavery.

Which is why it’s quite curious that Chris Hayes, on his show last night, brought up the memories of Dr. King and Rosa Parks when speaking of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

The pushback on Twitter was immediate and furious. And Hayes didn’t walk back his comments, but repeated them two hours later on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show.

That Chris Hayes would invoke Dr. King’s memory in defense of Edward Snowden is beyond blinkered. It’s reprehensible.

The title of this essay is a rueful response to Snowden’s actions—and his reaction to what he did.

Dr. King lived with the threat of death every day of his public ministry. The fact that he finally was assassinated is merely proof of that. But he faced that life with courage, with magnanimity, with forcefulness. He didn’t write his letter in exile from Havana; he wrote it right there in a Birmingham jail, one of many times he was in jail for acts of conscience. He didn’t abandon the people and country he purported to care about; he lived their lives, shared their fears and hopes, tried to bring justice to a country which had lacked it for so long.

Mrs. Parks didn’t hightail it to Rio to rail against how evil the US government was. After her act on the bus, she accepted the mantle of civil rights symbol, which came with its own dangers. Her home was here, her people were here, and she faced any dangers with the same bravery and grace that Dr. King did.

What both Dr. King and Mrs. Parks knew was what Glenn Greenwald and Snowden refuse to acknowledge: the US, for all its many faults, is perfectable. It can change. It can grow. It can evolve. President Lincoln knew the same thing, which is why he fought to save the Union, rather than have the Great Experiment splinter into its constituent parts. When you send yourself into exile, and yet continue to speak about the country as if you have any actual care for it, then you’ve lost all right to criticize.

I’m not sure what it was that Snowden feared. An open trial before a jury of his peers? He and Greenwald want to be seen as heroes, exposing US perfidy—or, more specifically, Obama’s perfidy. But they’re not willing to accept the consequences of their actions. The do it from safe perches, where they think they’ll be beyond the reach of the US.

But assuming the mantle of Dr. King and Mrs. Parks is most illuminating.

It’s no surprise that they’re holding themselves as successors to African American civil rights heroes. By doing so, they’re hoping to deligitimize the country’s first black president. They are the true heirs to the civil rights struggles, not Barack Obama. They know what it’s like to fight for freedom; Obama is merely a stooge of the Establishment, or even worse.

However, mostly white emo-progressives do not have the right to invoke martyrs in scoring political points. They know nothing of the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s—of struggles which are ongoing in New York City with “stop and frisk”, in the border states with xenophobia aimed at Latinos. They are curiously absent from the debate around those issues. But even hint that their Instagram accounts might be monitored, and suddenly they’re civil liberties warriors.

They’re not standing on the shoulders of giants; they’re dancing on their graves, understanding not a single thing that they did. Saying that Snowden is like Rosa Parks insults the thousands who struggled, were beaten, and died to bring freedom. Saying that Snowden is like Dr. King denigrates every true activist who didn’t ponce off to foreign shores when things got tough.

Africans came to these shores with nothing, and even that was taken away from them. Until recent years—yes, as a result of the struggles of the 50s and 60s—all they had were their stories and their humanity. Yes, Dr. King and Mrs. Parks are part of the greater American story; but one has to view their history through the prism of the African American experience. And appropriating their memories for a cheap political stunt is not only an insult to the dead, but an insult to the living, the ones who form one of the legs of the Obama coalition.

I would hope that the likes of Chris Hayes would learn from their mistakes. But it’s not a great hope. The bubble in which they live is too well-insulated, too comfortable. If they ever get into the field and engage in the great political battles of the day, then I might listen to them with one ear. But they won’t. It’s much easier to opine from Rio, Skype from Hong Kong, or host an 8 pm chat show. But we won’t let them appropriate history for their own ends. Let them justify their own heroes; ours are already taken.