Today's pygmy protesters are no heirs to Martin Luther King
The rhetoric of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech remains electrifying, as tributes this week to the poetic genius of those words spoken half a century ago have reminded us. But how should we gauge its legacy? The march by 250,000 people on Washington DC that day in 1963 wasn't for freedom alone, it was also for jobs. Then, two in every five black families in the US lived below the poverty line. Today, a quarter still do. For all the explosion of wealth since King's death, millions of citizens are still unable to realise the dream.
Perhaps, then, he would have had some sympathy with the Occupy protests which began in the US two years ago - including in Washington's Freedom Plaza, named in King's memory - before they crossed the Atlantic. After all, the movement stands against social and economic inequality. Most of us recognised, if grudgingly, the protesters' point about unbridled greed in our financial institutions.
And yet we are rightly suspicious about many of those who so readily resort to direct action today. There's something phoney about the new middle-class warriors with their cod philosophies and casual dismissal of democratic channels. The Occupy protesters outside St Paul's Cathedral in London named their camp "Tahrir Square" while they sat cross-legged, sang songs and consumed Marks & Spencer sandwiches, oblivious to the obscenity of a comparison with freedom fighters who risked their lives in Egypt.
"Camp Badger", set up to oppose the cull that began this week, is as absurdly named. When he was interviewed, a protester explained that the issue was democracy. Well no, actually, it isn't. The democratically elected House of Commons has, rightly or wrongly, voted for a cull. Team Badger just doesn't like the decision. Their love for brock is doubtless genuine, but trying to disrupt the process isn't a heroic act to repair some dreadful defect in our democracy.
Another county, another camp. Presumably Green MP Caroline Lucas got herself arrested at a fracking protest in West Sussex last week in order to obtain publicity. But she has the privilege of free speech in the House of Commons and a vote on the issue. I share her desire to protect the Sussex countryside, but she didn't need to make her case in handcuffs.
These were at least peaceful protesters, unlike others who have taken to the streets. The looters who carried armfuls of goods from shops during the London riots two summers ago displayed more greed than grievance. In Birmingham they even shot at the police. King, with a far nobler cause, emphatically rejected violence. He spoke of "the whirlwinds of revolt", yet even when his protests were met with water cannon and thuggery, he urged the power of love.
The great marches in London of recent times - against the hunting ban and the Iraq war - were peaceful. And they were genuine, important expressions of opinion, even if they failed to achieve their aims. They reflected a frustration with the political process. But no one can deny that the votes were taken democratically in parliament.
Yes, our democracy is blemished. The public feels disconnected from decision-making. The drive for a new politics, in which people are given more control and institutions are more accountable, needs to be revived. We could begin with open primaries to select aspiring politicians, and we could prise far more power away from Whitehall to communities.
Today's citizens of the western world have the rights that King called for, and they have never had such a voice. The internet amplifies dissent and makes pressure groups powerful, often beyond their merit. More positively, it is enabling a new civil rights revolution where it is really needed, in countries where minorities are abused and democracy is denied.
It was moving to see a black president of the United States speak at the podium where Martin Luther King espoused his dream. But it was King's daughter, not the leader of the free world, who dared echo his words in a more controversial claim for civil rights today. "Let freedom ring in Libya, Syria and Egypt," she urged.
King's heirs are not the pygmy protesters who move from one fashionable campsite and cause to another. They are those who fight courageously for human rights that are still denied across the world. Let freedom ring for them.