As the US marks this day each year, this time it feels a little different. Growing up, I never knew much about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the Indian school system I was brought up in, I do not recall reading or learning much about him. If I did, it was probably in my English class for his 'I have a dream' speech. It was my first introduction to what rhetoric meant.
As time has gone by, my worldview has shaped little things like 'thoughts' and 'feelings' about a vast array of topics. One of them is equality. Living in the United States of America for a little more than 4 years now, one of the great experiences has been the very fact that I am in the land of the free.
One of the leaders responsible for enhacing the meaning of that phrase is Dr. King. In 2013, "the land of the free" might not seem quite right to describe the state of affairs. However, it begs to question what equality means in this day and age. Is it just how you are treated by others due to "the color of your skin"? Or is it "by the content of your character"? Being a technologist, one of my greatest worries has been how freedom is being stifled in the information age.
Information that impacts governments. Information that unearths scandals. Information flows as free as a river and causes as much havoc to the psyche of rulers as a tsunami does to the psyche of a nation. The fact that liberators of information have found the odds stacked against them by a justice system overreaching is evident in the cases of Messrs. Assange, Manning, Swartz and Dotcom.
Although Mr. Dotcom figures in my list of liberators, he did end up running to the bank with his endeavors, a monetary motive compared to being a true liberator of information to the former gentlemen. The underlying fact is that Mr. Dotcom did revolutionize the way in which information is shared, when the likes of Dropbox, Skydrive and Google Drive were non-existent.
Each of them had their reasons to go ahead with their methods of "beating the system". Their methods may have been extreme, but their intentions seem noble and what is needed for this spy drone age. When you can get governments across the world to spy and arrest a person of interest to you, or authorize drone bombing of a town just because one militant is holed out, you know that the cause for freedom continues to reverberate even in the 'land of the free'.
In light of their struggles, it reminds me of some of the words Dr. King shared.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
“The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.”
While the civil rights movement of the 60s eclipses what we see going on today, it does lay bare that Dr. King's efforts helped the cause of ensuring a just society where race less a factor for discrimintation than your actions or your behavior. But is America today the promised land he would have dreamt of? If the actions of a brave few who do what they believe is right, end up being hounded by the very system that once endorsed segregation, I would like to think that the focus of equality has shifted from skin color to equal ill-treatment of what the system considers as nuisances.
Reading through his quotes gave me an eerie feeling of what Mr. Assange, Pvt. Manning and Mr. Swartz and Mr. Dotcom had done. When you stand up for what you beleive in, you end up paying a price for your actions.
When you blow the whistle on what you think is wrong, you become oppressed and locked up indefintely without trial. When you share information that few want to supress, but you believe the world should see, you are surrounded and bullied into hiding in a building on the hope that you might one day get asylum to a country that may or may not grant you safe harbor. When you circumvent the system to sharing public funded academic articles that have been locked up, you are labeled a 'felon' and driven to taking your own life. When you choose radical ways to share information that cause the safe-keepers of that information to seethe in anger, you get raided and shut down in the middle of the night without any proper warrant or reasoning.
As the world turns its scorn on bullying, I would like to think there is some light at the end of the tunnel. While Dr. King fought for people to be judged by the content of their character, the people of America have twice chosen a man by his character. They may have elected the previous 43 presidents that way too, but the 44th defied all odds against the conventional wisdom that had come to be the new status quo.
Legacies are built by actions for the goodwill of people. Legends defy all odds and persevere when no one gives them hope. History will judge the actions and decisions we make. As much as we would like to say that 'I wrote my own script' or 'I choose my own destiny', in the end the world will only remember you for what you stood for and the impact of your actions.
Reiging in freedom for the many while stifling the voice of the few will decide how much freedom continues to endure. Invading a country and ringing in freedom for a nation while tormenting whistleblowers in your own does not augur well for legacy building. Great leaders are cherished for brining in a new age of thinking and forming the narrative by changing the way people think.
As President Obama takes office on Janaury 21st of 2013, a day dedicated to the great Martin Luther King Jr., let us hope that freedom is given a chance to be equal again.