Yesterday, Mark Kleiman wrote a great article over at Ten Miles Square, Martin Luther King vs. Today’s Conservatives. It is written as a letter to conservatives. And what he is addressing is the conservative resentment that the celebration of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom isn’t presented as a national triumph but rather a liberal triumph. “After all,” the conservatives say, “We’re against racism too! We love Martin Luther King Jr too!”
Well, maybe. As Kleinman wrote, “But while [King] was alive, and for some time after his death, your faction hated him, and everything he stood for, and tried to defame him. No prominent conservative or libertarian politician, writer, or thinker supported the civil rights movement he led.” But is it even true that conservatives really love King and the Voting Rights Act today? I don’t really think so.
Over at Gin and Tocos yesterday, Ed wrote Fatigue Factor about how exhausting it was as a conservative to constantly say things that differed from what you actually believed. He specifically mentions the Lewinsky affair. Was it really true that Republicans were outraged about it? No. It was just that they didn’t like Bill Clinton, but that wasn’t likely to be accepted as a reason for impeachment.
I think the same thing is going on with civil rights. Most conservatives I talk to will admit that it was wrong to have laws preventing African Americans from voting. But their position toward all other civil rights causes is negative. Whatever the current law is, it is right—even God given. And all those black and brown skinned people should just shut up. What’s more, among older conservatives there is a strong feeling that while the cause may have been just, there was something wrong with King. He was a rabble-rouser and a communist and just generally not a true American. Of course, only the real bigots will say this in polite company.
Jonathan Chait had a great catch yesterday, Conservatives Think Racism Is Dead. They’re Wrong. He compared the National Review then and now. On 15 September 1963, white supremacists bombed a black church. Four children were killed in the bombing. National Review said, “And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law…”
But that was then. They’ve apologized for it! And that’s true, but they are still blaming the African American community for its problems. Chait explained:
National Review’s editorial
today pithily summarizes the contemporary line of the conservative movement on civil rights. The civil-rights movement was wonderful. It even concedes, as right-wingers usually fail to do, that the old generation of conservatives wrongly opposed that movement. (“Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time.”) But it proceeds to argue the evils the civil-rights movement fought against have been “vanquished,” and those that remain are “lousy schools, a thriving drug trade and a misguided governmental response, the collapse of marriage.”
Again with the bad schools! First, as I’ve noted, the huge improvements in education in the African American community have not improved their economic standing. Second, conservatives do everything they can to make the schools of the poor even worse. They are totally behind the idea of local taxes supporting local schools, which means that poor students get fewer educational resources than rich kids. But it is all the fault of the black community!
Beyond that, this is just the same argument that conservatives always make: if blacks are suffering it is their own damned fault. Yes, the rhetoric is less vile. But that’s learned behavior: they know they would be ostracized if they were still justifying church bombings. As Ed indicated, the issue here is that the conservatives never say what they mean. And what they mean now is the same thing they meant then: they just don’t care. They are fine with the status quo and they want minority communities to just shut up.
Mark Kleiman finished up his article by noting that conservatives can’t co-opt King’s legacy:
Martin Luther King died while on a campaign to support a public-sector labor union. You’re entitled to say that he was a bad man and a Communist, as your faction did while he was alive, and that his assassination was the natural result of his use of civil disobedience, which is what Ronald Reagan said at the time
. You’re entitled to say that he was a great man but that his thoughts are no longer applicable to the current political situation. But what you’re not entitled to do is to pretend
that, if he were alive today, MLK would not be fighting against you and everything you stand for. He would.
I think that conservatives should just avoid the subject all together. The philosophical foundation of conservatism is the end of history. This is the idea that we have arrived at the perfect society (give or take). And so of course civil rights was a just cause in the 1960s. But when the 1960s was in the present tense, it was not a just cause for these very same conservatives. What this means is that in 20 years, conservatives will look back at now and say, of course marriage equality was a just cause. In 50 years (if we are very lucky) they will look back and say of course income inequality was a just cause. But they will always and forever be behind the curve on these issues. They will always and forever be apologizing for previous opinions. And they will never figure it out.
I think I may have been too kind to the conservative movement here. I don’t think that the voter ID laws are primarily about getting electoral advantage—at least not among the conservative base. These are deeply racist laws that demonstrate a world view where whites are the “real” America. And they are, after all, just poll taxes by another name. So maybe it is better to say that conservatives are fine with the status quo with a bit of racial animus thrown in.