Martin Luther King, Donald Trump, Malcolm X And The Concept Of Strength

There is great danger in assuming strength and physical force are synonymous.
05/02/2017 04:30 pm ET Updated May 04, 2017

There is and has been so much conversation about “strength” as this new administration has taken its place in history. The candidate-now-president spoke much about strength during the presidential campaign, railing his predecessor and accusing his Democratic opponent of being “weak” in the way she dealt with terrorism. Lawmakers of both parties echoed the sentiment. There was a disdain, it seems, for diplomacy, for hesitancy, and what they viewed as uncertainty. The world’s situations demanded strong, definitive leadership, which many felt was lacking in the Obama administration. The way to end the foolishness of terrorism was just to “bomb the hell out of them.”

The disagreement about what constitutes strength is not a new one, and the verbiage being heard now is reminiscent of the fight over the issue which took place during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. On one side, there was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who espoused nonviolence not only as the most formidable weapon against injustice, but also as a way of life. Following Gandhian principles of nonviolence, King was adamant about its power, saying, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” Participants in “the Movement” were trained exhaustively on how to be nonviolent, in their thinking and in their actions. Not everyone made the cut. It was too much to ask, to stand quietly in the face of brute physical violence, and they opted out of the Movement.

In opposition to Dr. King was Malcolm X, who thought the concept of nonviolence was ridiculous and foolish. Although he came to understand the concept more in time, at the beginning of his public leadership, he slammed it, saying, “It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks. It is legal and lawful to own a shotgun or a rifle. We believe in obeying the law.”

Ironically, those who today defend the right of Americans to own guns would criticize Malcolm X for his remarks; he was, in fact, criticized then. Defending oneself seems to be a right reserved for white people.

But the belief in the need to “defend oneself” is at the heart of the Second Amendment debate today, and is at the heart of what is going on on the world stage. Having “strength” means one absolutely defends oneself, be it with a gun or worse. To have the willingness to use force as a sign of strength is a measure of one’s manhood. Any man worth his salt will be able and willing to use force - and will be willing to suffer the consequences of doing so. Thus, the current president, who has shown little leadership in general, was lauded even by his staunchest critics when he fired Cruise missiles into Syria after pictures were shown of Syrian children who had been affected by that country’s use of poisonous gas. For those looking for the same, his action showed that he was “strong,” that he meant what he said, and America loved it.

This president admires other men of strength, even if they are brute dictators. North Korean President Kim Yung- Un, says our president, is a “smart cookie,” even as he continues his quest to attack the United States; the president has gone so far as to say he would be “honored” to meet with Kim Yung-Un if the circumstances were right. In the same vein, the president has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and has invited the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been accused of murdering or ordering the murders of Philippines who are addicted to drugs - to the White House. Our president called the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to congratulate him after a referendum was passed in his country which will allow him to further intrude upon and erode the human and democratic rights of the people of his country.

None of these leaders would ever even consider nonviolence as being acceptable. They would be much more in agreement, probably to their dismay, with Malcolm X than they would be with Rev. King. These men are infatuated with the power they have and wield, and they will do anything to keep it. None of them will ever back down from a real or perceived challenge. It would be considered weak to do so.

The willingness to stand up and meet force with force, to these leaders and to many, seems to be a sign of strength, but in reality, it is the easy way out. It is ego-driven and narcissistic, showing a desire to display a certain image than to create community and genuine peace. While they proclaim their strength, in reality it takes much more strength to stand against a perpetrator with a desire to build community, not more chaos.

In the book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild, there are vivid descriptions of the fascination with war and violence held by many in Great Britain, even before that country stood on the brink of World War I. Young men aspired to go to war; they loved the uniforms and the military music and the pomp and circumstance associated with war, and they loved the adulation of the people. Hochschild writes that “in the grandest and richest of Britain’s colonies many officers spent the defining years of their lives convinced that they were carrying out a sacred, altruistic mission.” Fighting for one’s country was a noble endeavor, and despite the fact that many historians agree that World War I should never have been fought, the romantic attachment to the concept of violence as strength, and a noble strength at that, has endured.

None of the current world leaders mentioned in this piece, however, have real strength, the strength to try to forge community and to find satisfaction for their egos in doing that. They are intend on showing their muscles; they are like Popeye, eating controversial words and actions like the cartoon character ate spinach, to fuel their desire to show their prowess. Ironically,w its all of these “strong” men in control, our world is not more safe, but is, in fact, close to devastating ruination.

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