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On a number of occasions Martin Luther King Jr condemned the violence, warmongering and colonialism of the U.S. But Obama’s position is that, historically, U.S. military actions have provided global security.

Last year, as part of the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, one of President Obama’s top advisors paid a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. King’s former church. The advisor, Valerie Jarrett, received a standing ovation from the assembled congregation when she credited President Obama for the killing of Osama bin Laden as members of his family looked on. I share this strange and surreal scene from Ebenezer Church, where the largely African American congregation endorsed the killing of another human being – while in church - because I think it captures the vast historical and moral distance between two distinct periods, which, when linked, serve as a confirmation of the moral decline of liberalism among white and black people over the last four decades.

Dr. King was the product of the black struggle for democratic and human rights in the U.S. and became the standard-bearer for an oppositional moral stance and hope for the future globally. For Dr. King, the war in Vietnam and the support given to it by the majority of the American people was a “symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” War and the fixation on violence, the ideological justifications and rationalizations for racism, economic inequality and all forms of oppression - they were all interrelated, for Dr. King.

But Barack Obama has a different view. In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, Obama presented an argument for the concept of a “just war.” Startling many in the Oslo audience, he forcefully asserted in what many would begin to refer to as the “Obama doctrine” that: “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

And while Dr. King on a number of occasions condemned the violence, warmongering and colonialism of the U.S. historically and in Vietnam specifically, Obama’s position is that, historically, U.S. military actions have provided global security.

Obama’s defenders argue that the differences in philosophy and positions between Dr. King and Obama are due to the fact that Dr. King was a public figure and not tasked with the heavy responsibilities of governing, with all the complexities that entails. And they would be right. His position as “Commander-in-Chief” can easily explain why he was silent about the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008-09; boycotted the Durban Conference on Racism follow-up process; continued and expanded the repressive domestic policies of the Bush era with the National Defense Authorization Act; signed-off on drone kills, including the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki and his sixteen-year-old son; and supported the NATO “war of opportunity” in Libya and the current funding, arming and political legitimacy to Islamic fascists in Syria. For these are the positions one takes when one is the head of a desperate and declining hegemon committed to using subversion, deception, repression and direct military violence to maintain its global empire and, by extension, the collective colonialist interests of the white West.

What cannot be easily explained, however, is how the vast majority of African Americans have been taken along this ride to neo-conservatism. And not just African Americans – the whole liberal establishment, from human rights activists who give political cover for the arrogant and racist assumptions contained in the doctrines of “humanitarian intervention” and the “right to protect,” to the business labor unions, anti-war activists, women’s organizations, civil rights groups, and mainstream media – all of these groups have suffered a moral and political collapse that has allowed “normal” politics in the U.S. to be moved to the border of right-wing fascism.

Today, the dream of more equitable income distribution; a government restrained in its use of war; racial justice; environmental protection; gender justice; and a vision of a United States that has been decolonized, in the literal sense of the word, is further from being realized than ever.

Liberalism has collapsed politically and morally. Even those people who self-identify as progressives and radicals are either silent or supporting policies and positions they would never support if those policies were being pushed by Republicans. The phenomenon of “Obamaism” has required all of us who understand the real legacy of Dr. King and the moral movement he represented to engage in a psychological and political struggle with our friends, colleagues and family members to shake them out of the strange, hypnotic trance that has gripped liberals and progressives of all stripes.

As we ready ourselves for four more years of an Obama Administration, let those of us who are not afraid of being ostracized, condemned and even persecuted use the occasion of Dr. King’s birthday and Obama’s re-inauguration to re-commit to a vision – not a dream, but a life-affirming vision – of a society and world in which the fundamental human rights of all to a socially productive job at a livable wage; education; free health care; public services to address public needs; adequate housing; a clean environment; democratic participation in every sector of life, including in the economic sector; and a life not destroyed by the scourge of war are respected.

This is the reality of a new world that Dr. King could see from the mountaintop – and that a visionless technocrat like Pres. Obama and a moribund liberalism can never imagine.


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* This article is an excerpt from “From King to Obama: The Nobel Peace Prize as a Marker of Liberalism’s Moral Bankruptcy.”

* Ajamu Baraka was the founding Director of the U.S. Human Rights Network until June 2011. A long-time human rights activist and veteran of the Black Liberation, anti-war, anti-apartheid and central American solidarity movements in the United States, Baraka has been at the forefront of efforts to develop a radical “people-centered” perspective on human rights and to apply that framework to social justice struggles in the United States and abroad. He is currently a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he is editing a book on human rights entitled “The Fight Must be for Human Rights: Voices from the Frontline.” The book is due to be published in 2013.