01/22/2013 04:57 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

MLK, the Inauguration and What We Need Now: A Tale of Three Paradigms

I logged on wanting to comment on a posting on the Martin Luther King observance and instead found Howard Fineman's lead piece on today's Inauguration. That seemed worth throwing in my two cents on, but I found myself incapable of doing it.

The Inauguration and Paradigm I: Good People at Top Levels of Government Can Solve "Our" Problems

Mr. Fineman presents a thoughtful analysis of what he sees as the strengths of the Obama presidency, lest we forget them. I felt like this was a conversation I should be able to enter into, but my mind went blank. Unlike most people, I find evaluating the capacities and performance of a President in solving, or providing leadership in solving, "the challenges facing the country" so unnatural as to be almost impossible.

Then I understood the problem: the conversation takes place from within a paradigm that I'm unable to enter into, even hypothetically.

This paradigm assumes that we have a political system in which people who are sufficiently sincere and intelligent can make significant inroads on the problems facing us. It further assumes that there is a single "us." The concepts that there are a 99 percent and a one percent (or, more accurately for many purposes, 0.01 percent), that the needs of the majority are radically different from the needs of the minority as it perceives them, and that the latter hold the lion's share of not only economic power, but political power, are absent from this paradigm.

Martin Luther King and Paradigm II: A Movement Can Get the Concessions We Need

I am not sure where Dr. King's personally stood on this question, but objectively the Civil Rights Movement, like other important movements that followed it and like many references to what it would mean to carry on the King legacy today, fit into the second paradigm. It is well expressed in Mulvaney's comment on my post on why I'm glad Obama won, "If anything, [Obama's 2008] election (and this one) brought to mind the words of FDR when he said that he agreed with what some of his supporters had been saying, but they would have to make him do it."

This paradigm recognizes that there are systemic dynamics which drive our political structures, and that their thrust is in directions contrary to what the vast majority of us want, in terms of a society which provides both economic and health security and is just, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable. There is a wide range of points of view within this paradigm, variously seeing the problem as ignorance, short-sightedness, inertia, etc., to believing that, despite its democratic forms, the system is actually structured to maintain political and economic inequality and a position of world dominance that increases the profits of the elite.

What adherents to this view have in common, however, is the belief that it is the job of concerned and engaged citizens to build movements powerful enough to push the government to do the right thing in each critical policy area. Perhaps we can even successfully demand that it reform itself structurally (campaign-finance reform, proportional representation of minority parties).

This, at least, is a conversation in which I can engage.

Paradigm III: The Movement to Build is One for a Peaceful Revolution

I have deep admiration for second-paradigm folks who bravely struggle on to ameliorate the massive, lengthy, and unjustified incarcerations -- particularly of people of color -- caused by the War on Drugs and other criminal-justice policies; the expansion of civilian-killing manned and unmanned air strikes in the Middle East, Africa and Asia; poverty in America and its impact on one in three black and Latino children; ending the current wars and halting the next; climate-damaging energy policies and the rest.

Though these struggles are critical, I also have complete empathy for all who see all the areas that urgently need involvement but just feel overwhelmed and powerless. I myself, can rarely get it up anymore for the endless, piecemeal, rear-guard battles to decrease the damage that the .01 percent are helpless to stop themselves from doing.

We can stop them, however, and it is our historic mission. The way to do it is to use Dr. King's tools -- continual raising of public awareness, civil disobedience, a commitment to nonviolence, speaking the truth relentlessly, and continually grounding ourselves in the deepest spiritual places we can reach. (This last need only mean grounding ourselves in love, for ourselves and our fellow beings. Even if you think you feel only fear, or self-righteous anger, or disgust, or despair, if you look deeply, you will see that you could not feel these things if you did not have love in your heart.) We must use those tools, however, to build not just many issue-oriented movements, but one movement towards peaceful revolution.

Informed, educated, organized, we can run our country far better than those who do it now. I can't spell out in a single post how we get there, but it starts with agreeing on the need and building an organization dedicated to that vision.

In that vision, we are not writing report cards for presidents who have to care more about evaluators who have different standards than the rest of us. And our mobilizations to push our current "leaders" to do the right thing will be in the service of building the movement that can push them aside.