Zou: Why Be a Radical?

Dylan Zou, Op-Ed Contributor

Martin Luther King Jr. was, without a doubt, a radical. Not only was King a socialist, desiring the “radical redistribution of economic and political power,” but King also recognized the role of violence in social change, by writing that “riots is the language of the unheard.” With Martin Luther King Jr. Day right around the corner, King is a lesson to all about the possibilities that radical politics may afford.

It seems that in our current political moment, in the face of climate change, rising right-wing nationalism and inequality, we need to change more than ever. Yet certain politicians either say that radical change is impossible or that we should limit the amount of change we push for. These politicians preach that too much change will destabilize our society or that Americans do not desire too much change.

Though I do not deny American culture, structure and ideology unrelentingly apologizes for and fortifies the status quo, the case for radicalism is often overtly understated, muted and dismissed.

This idea that we must be conservative or incremental in our change is not new to our political climate. In King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King rails against what he calls “white moderates” who believe they can set a “timetable” for the freedom of African Americans. Throughout the letter, King criticizes the “white moderate” by accusing them of being more aligned to the preservation of “order” than to the creation of actual justice.

King says white moderates prefer a “negative peace”, in which the status quo is actively harmful but lacking critical discourse, as opposed to a “positive peace,” wherein justice is actually delivered. Oftentimes, this advocacy for the status quo by the “white moderates” of the past and present blind their own vision. In an attempt to see both sides as equal they miss the simple fact that one side does not argue in good faith, as evidenced by Birmingham’s City Father’s refusal to negotiate with King’s movement.

This equivalence of King’s side, who has been historically wronged and displaced by the forces of the status quo, to another side, who has privileged directly from the same historical wrongs, is a dishonest comparison lacking contextual nuance.

The value of radicalism lies in its ability to move history; an idea echoed by old and modern thinkers alike. Rutger Bregman, author of the 2016 book “Utopia for Realists,” has argued that history is moved by movements on the fringe. Georg Hegel, a philosopher from the early 19th century, argued that history is a culmination of constant antagonisms between two radically opposing ideas.

One of the world’s most dominant religions, Christianity, could be considered radical during the high point of the Roman Empire, when paganism was the norm. The American and French revolutions are based in ideas considered radical at the time, but are now mainstream political canon.

The United States, though reputed as conservative compared to European counterparts, is not alien to radicalism either, as in the cases of Martin Luther King Jr. A persuasive case for modern radicalism is Bernie Sanders, who turned Medicare for All from laughable nonsense to a legitimate political idea that most Democratic candidates nominally support.

Radicals, defined by their Greek origins as the “root,” will always seek to answer the “root” of the problem, whether that root is correct or not. It is this impulse of the skeptic, the cynic, the radical to vigorously question the mainstream that is so immensely important.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s courage to challenge the established norms around race, economics and politics as a radical created progressive possibilities. It is this ability of the radical to open space towards discussions that people are afraid to have that makes the radical essential to the health of society.

Dylan Zou is a School of Communications freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.