« Tomorrow's Legal Ethics Exam Today | Main | Scholarship on the "Declare War" Power »

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

MLK and the Cognitive Dimension of Leadership

I'm a day late for a timely post honoring the legacy of Dr. King, but I attribute that to my delayed reaction to the fact that the Giants actually won Sunday night. (Are you sure? I'm really not dreaming?)

Anyway, I am not usually one who likes to write "pointer" posts, i.e., posts that just tell you to go read something else, but my sister forwarded me this op-ed / essay by Evan Frisch about the true impact and depth of Dr. King's work that totally resonated with me. It's worth reading in full, but even a long excerpt (below the fold) gives a sense of the idea:

In his mission to ensure that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, Dr. King took a decidedly long view, focusing not on mere lobbying for the legislation of the day, but on defining the moral imperatives of the nation to compel action for generations to come. Progress tends to be fragile and often proves illusory when it is the product of political insiders who fail to engage the broader citizenry. Dr. King, by contrast, led by revealing the hidden truths, narratives, and moral premises that compel action.

At the Rockridge Institute, we have coined the term cognitive policy to describe the set of ideas and values that underlie a legislative or social policy, concepts that must be made real to the public to secure lasting support for a material policy, such as a law. The Social Security Act signed by President Franklin Roosevelt provides a simple example of what an effective cognitive policy can mean. Generations have passed, but most Americans retain a basic understanding that Social Security means that those who are employed today pay a share of their income to extend protection to the elderly because we have a shared responsibility to protect people from insecurities that no one can face alone and that we may one day face. If we call the truths and moral principles that citizens must recognize in order to support change a cognitive policy, then we must regard Dr. King as an exemplar of leadership along this cognitive dimension.

As Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center has observed, there is a reason why Dr. King’s most famous speech was not called, “I have a complaint,” nor, one might add, “I have a ten-point plan.” Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech aimed to define as much as to inspire, retelling the story of America as an unfulfilled promise that history compels us to honor:

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”

Notably, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Dr. King delivered the address did not have just one purpose, nor did Dr. King’s speech that day refer to any pending legislation. No single piece of legislation could fulfill the promise that he articulated. Instead, he gave us a narrative of American history that demonstrated the centrality of struggles that had long been marginalized, and the necessity of actions that had long been deferred.

Frisch's basic point, as I take it, is that the candidates should not be focusing on the politics of questions like "whether there should be a right to universal health care," "when should the troops come home," and the like. Instead, they should be asking the deeper, harder question: What kind of world do we want to live in, and how do we make that world a reality? On that, he and I are in perfect agreement.

Reasonable people may disagree about what the answer is, but I think it would be quite a positive step indeed if the politics of the next nine months focused on that question...

Posted by Steve Vladeck on January 22, 2008 at 10:49 AM in Culture, Current Affairs, Law and Politics, Steve Vladeck | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference MLK and the Cognitive Dimension of Leadership:


The comments to this entry are closed.