Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Content of Their Character

"We cannot walk alone.

"And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

"We cannot turn back.

"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: 'For Whites Only.' We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until 'justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

"And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," speech delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.

Monday, March 07, 2011


Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior dreamed of the day when we judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Character trumps DNA. Skin color cannot make you a good person.

Neither can physical excellence.

A dishonest, self-centered coward is not elevated by vigorous might - it just serves his vices - but an honest, compassionate, courageous man is elevated beyond frailty. We covet health, but we need character.

If we take the reverend at his word, we must overturn many cherished notions. For starters, all men may be created equal, but some of them grow up to be jerks. We may grant sociopaths, bullies, and liars equal legal rights, but their character remains inferior.

So does their value to the world.

Much of what's wrong with our world is directly caused by dysdaemoniacs - people cursed with bad character. Any person might grow up to love their brothers and sisters and to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good, but only some do. Many instead treat human beings as things, as abstractions, as resources to be exploited.

The problem is not discrimination; it's failure to discriminate properly. Race can predict a few things, like sunburns, but it cannot predict quality of character, nor value to the world. Character itself, though, predicts many important things.

Failure to discriminate on the basis of character may not only be negligent but dangerous.

For example, we pride ourselves on being a nation of laws, not men, but should we? We have tried for centuries to create a good world by using laws to constrain bad people, to force them to do the right thing. The result? The worst of us, the big criminals, rushed to take charge of that system of laws, to mold it to legalize the crimes they want to commit. Our democracy devolves into kakistocracy, rule of the worst, of those with the strongest vested interest in laws designed to control them.

When laws become the playthings of the amoral and immoral, all we have proven is that the rule of law is just as corruptible, just as prone to become a tyrant over the good, as were the kings of old who our founding fathers did not trust to hold power incorruptibly.

If neither men nor laws can be trusted to govern us, where then should our hope for a better world be placed?


Maybe it's time to reconsider the heretical idea that not only is it okay to judge people, we must. We cannot possibly create a better world until we do. After all, treating torturers and predators and nihilists as the moral and legal equivalent of saints - and vice versa - really hasn't worked out for us, has it?