Martin Luther King the Man

Martin Luther King JrIt’s kind of shocking, really. Today is, in a concrete way, Martin Luther King day, yet there is almost no mention of it. I’ll come back to it, but it seems very strange to me. And offensive.

On this day in 1622, Moliere was born. He was such a great French playwright that I actually know who he was and have read about him. I have to admit, I know him mostly as a counter-example to people who claim that Shakespeare was the greatest playwright ever because he was both a playwright and an actor. Well, first: who cares? Second, Shakespeare was a minor actor—certainly no star. But Moliere was a star and perhaps the the greatest comedic playwright in western literature. And remember: Shakespeare wrote terrible comedies. (Of course, it doesn’t matter to the Shakespeare apologists; they will just argue that tragedies are what really matter; you see: I don’t hate Shakespeare at all—as anyone who reads me knows, I’m actually very fond of him; it’s a Shakespeare apologists that I just can’t take.)

But there are a couple of other great playwrights who were born today that I have never heard of. For example, there is the great German playwright Franz Grillparzer who was born in 1791. He was exactly the kind of sullen and bitter man you would think romanticism would produce in a German. Also, the Russian playwright Aleksander Griboyedov who was born in 1795 and died just 34 years later.

The great Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya was born in 1850. She is known for her work in differential equations and mechanics. It was only when I read that, that it occurred to me that the reason that I’ve always loved classical mechanics more than any other kind of physics: it is basically pure math. And it doesn’t matter how much you add “realism” to it. For example, the simplest mechanics assumes no resisting forces. But you can add resisting forces. For example, you could add a constant resistance or one dependent upon velocity. That, as I recall, is solvable with pure mathematics. It is indicative of an object moving slowly in a viscous fluid. An object moving through air is generally dependent upon the square of the velocity. That, in general, is not solvable. Anyway, if I totally confused you, you should have some idea of how much more brilliant Kovalevskaya is than you are. (Or I am; I make no claims for myself!) As always for women even today: they have to be better than a man does to reach the same level in the profession. It’s sad, but it doesn’t help to pretend it isn’t true.

The great zydeco musician Queen Ida is 85 today. Here she is doing “Jambalya.” It is music that makes continuing to live seem like a rational decision:

Other birthdays: probable celebrity murderer Marie Lafarge (1816); Freud’s teacher Josef Breuer (1842); writer Mazo de la Roche (1879); the father of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller (1908); actor Lloyd Bridges (1913); musician Captain Beefheart (1941); the man Hillary Rodham Clinton murdered, Vince Foster (1945) [Note: it is an outrage that this man’s tragic suicide was used by conservatives for years to make political points. If you really think that the Republican Party is worse now than it was 20 years ago, all you have to do is look at what the conservative movement said about his death. None of those people should be allowed in polite society without a profound apology. But of course, nothing has happened them. They are evil people. They are destroying my culture. And they are thriving.]; comedian Andrea Martin (67); actor who I only bring up because I missed his father’s birthday, Mario Van Peebles (57); and actor Regina King (43).

The day, however, belongs to the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King who was born on this day in 1929. Now, there are two MLKs: the man and the symbol. Mostly, we cherish the symbol. Even conservatives who are absolutely against the continuing civil rights struggle say nice things about King the symbol. According to them, he would even be in favor of their “free” market, kill the poor economic policies, even though he died during a trip to support a labor strike. But none of that especially matters right now. A man was born on this day—a man who transcended this mortal coil. And on this day, at the very least, we celebrate that man who would be 85 today.

Happy birthday Martin Luther King!


See also:

King on Poverty
Contents of Character
In Memoriam: 4 April 1968
Our Failed Copyright System In Not MLK’s Fault
Conservatives Behind Every Curve

5 thoughts on “Martin Luther King the Man

  1. King, and Gandhi, have become symbols of meritocracy, in a way. They were both the most public faces of huge, important resistance movements which challenged power. No movement, no public face to represent it. By making the public faces into iconic symbols, we validate merely their fame and diminish the movements behind them.

    As if, when cruelty and oppression exist, all it takes is one brilliant leader to make power realize, "oh, King is decent, Gandhi is decent. Well, we’d better stop lynching and colonialism, then. Sorry, folks — didn’t realize you were human! Our bad!" Meritocracy. Anyone can stop injustice, if there’s one decent soul among the ones being oppressed. Hey, there’s no blandly lovable charismatic Palestinian, so what we do to them is what they deserve. No blandly lovable Occupy spokesperson, so that bit of rabble wasn’t important. Right?

    Of course, Gandhi and King weren’t blandly lovable when they were alive. Power hated them, hated everything about them. Anybody who publicly said they thought these guys might be speaking for a valid movement was painted as a traitor. In America, Reagan and Billy Graham and William Buckley launched their successful careers by screaming that uppity blacks epitomized evil. We even had a rogue intelligence agency that went off the rails by itself doing everything it could to destroy the civil-rights movement.

    But hey, America; it’s all good, now. King and Gandhi are warm and nonthreatening. So angry mistreated people must be just whiners, right?

    Last bits of rant: Noam Chomsky has done everything he possibly can to avoid being turned into a leftist icon/symbol. No wonder why.

    And, you mentioned my great-great-great grand uncle Mr. Fillmore as an unfairly disparaged president. Just a guy who did the crappy things everybody else in politics was doing at the time. I think that’s probably a fair assessment.

    You know who I’d say is the most unfairly disparaged president? Gimme some L-to-the-B-to-the-J. Like uncle Millard, he wasn’t renominated by his own party. Unlike Millard, that was because he retired from politics intentionally. LBJ had infuriated the left by continuing a war he hated and infuriated the right by enforcing laws to allow Black citizens the right to vote. A guy from the South. A (by all accounts) mean, vicious (and proud of it) political gut-fighting sonovabitch. Who enforced the laws on the books banning racism in this country; something no president since Reconstruction had done. (Well, Eisenhower made a stab at it. Another unfairly disparaged president, IMAO, although just as awful as LBJ in foreign affairs.)

    Oh, well. I miss the American left having guys like LBJ as their leading political figures. In terms of missing the likes of King and Gandhi, I don’t miss ’em. They’re out there, right now. All over the planet. It’s just that power doesn’t notice them and power doesn’t care. Not yet. Maybe in time, we can hope.

  2. @JMF – LBJ would be right there beside FDR if it weren’t for Vietnam. I would take LBJ any day over any of the New Democrats. It’s not like the Vietnam war was all that partisan an affair. As for him being a "political gut-fighting sonovabitch," I admire that. As I’ve written a lot, I wish the Democrats would be more like the Republicans in that way. What we have is a political party that believes in nothing that fights very hard for it and a political party that believes in a little but acts like a 5-year-old asking for permission to leave the table.

    Chomsky always claims that movements start spontaneously and then people like him become "leaders" of it. I don’t think that’s quite right. I do think that movements start on their own, but eventually leadership helps. Symbols matter to people.

    What I was getting at in this little bit of writing was this idea that people are often upset to find out that King was a real man with all the good and bad that comes with that. I also see this in the arts where someone doesn’t like a particular artist because he was a jerk. Take Miles Davis for example. To me, it doesn’t matter. It is nice when artists or leaders are good people. And no one is saying King wasn’t a good man, only that he wasn’t perfect. But even if he had been a total jerk, so what?

  3. Sorry I overlooked your point about King being human, a guy with flaws. (I was on the power co-opting symbols of resistance rant, one I’m not skilled at expressing, but if it’s good enough for Thomas Frank and Naomi Klein then it’s good enough for me.)

    King’s flaws, so far as I understand them, were extremely minor. Did sleep around a bit. Did engage in power trips/strategy fights with other people in the movement. Otherwise, could be the subject of a Speilberg movie! Oh, and quite possibly will be. This makes me very bummed . . .

  4. @JMF – The rant was fine. But that was why I wrote that: a lot of people were scandalized by what I think of as minor things.

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