Happy Martin Luther King Jr Day, everyone! As you ought to know, today is not his birthday. He was actually born on 15 January 1929. Given that his father lived to be just shy of 85 years old, there is a very good chance that King would be with us today if he had not be assassinated. It’s sad on a personal level, of course. But on a public level, it was a catastrophe; it would have been nice to have had him fighting for us for these last 47 years.
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 15 January — a man who transcended this mortal coil. And on this day, at the very least, we celebrate that man who would just have turned 86.
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:
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:
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 voter-ID laws were racist. In 50 years (if we are very lucky) they will look back and say of course fighting 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.
Five decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is a wonderful sentence, wise in content and poetic in style. I thought of it watching Democracy Now! during which they showed extended clips of the 1970 documentary King: a Filmed Record. It is really good and I recommend you check it out. The problem is that I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiment.
People who have more than enough to eat do not steal bread. That is not morality; that is lack of want. Similarly, the following are not necessarily acts of immorality: teen pregnancy, drug use, and even violent crime. These are problems that explode due to insecurity, want, and apathy.
Not being judged by the color of your skin is necessary but not sufficient. And it isn’t as though we have become a color blind society. People (especially conservatives) who wanted to say that Obama’s election meant that we had moved into a post-racial era have shown themselves to be silly indeed. If anything, Obama’s election showed just how much racism was festering below the surface throughout the country. Have you heard about the research showing that less than 4% of fashion models are nonwhite?
The last year was frustrating for me. I hated hearing that Obama was for equality of outcomes while Romney was for equality of opportunity. First, of course, this isn’t even true. Obama is very clearly in the “equality of opportunity” camp and Romney is in the “equality of inheritance” camp. But the bigger issue is that “equality of opportunity” is a lie. There simply isn’t any such thing when “equality of outcomes” is so skewed.
Any society that allows one working man to make 500 times what another working man makes is morally bankrupt. There is simply no justification for such a system. As is well established, the more money one makes the easier it becomes to make money. In other words, we have developed a system that is nonlinear and unbound. Bill Gates makes millions of dollars every day even though he no longer works. I know all of the arguments to justify this income. None do I find compelling. But there are obvious and very strong arguments against it. I think the best one is the conservative argument: incentives matter. How does Gates’ ridiculous wealth incentivize the economic system to work better? The answer is that it doesn’t. The truth is that Bill Gates’ wealth is no more deserved than Edmund Tylney’s.
What I propose to you is that the billions of dollars that Gates gives away to (often repellent) charities speaks very little of his moral character. A guy at a rescue mission who gives an unwanted fish stick to his neighbor demonstrates a higher moral character. I’m all for judging people on the content of their character, but we need to contextualize it. We need to remember that a poor person’s stealing a cookie is hardly a moral failing at all. And giving away part of your unearned fortune is mostly if not wholly vanity. Most of all, we need to create a society that is equal enough so that we can reasonably judge the content of our character. Martin Luther King Jr certainly understood that.
Here’s part of King that conservatives want to hide:
Should kids look up to Martin Luther King Jr as a role model? You might think they should, but that’s just because you are another liberal Frankly Curious reader with no more sense than God gave a donkey — and not one of the smart one, but one who went to school on the little bus. You see, it turns out that King was not a perfect man. You may have heard about extramarital affairs. In addition to this, King was much shorter than Malcolm X. How can you look up to a man who is so short?! (Disclosure: Martin Luther King Jr was exactly my height.)
All of that might have been overlooked. But did you know that MLK was a plagiarizer?! Thirty-six years after he got his PhD in systematic theology, a Boston University committee found that, “There is no question but that Dr King plagiarized in the dissertation by appropriating material from sources not explicitly credited in notes, or mistakenly credited, or credited generally and at some distance in the text from a close paraphrase or verbatim quotation.” Can you imagine?! The man didn’t properly footnote his dissertation!
It is important at this point to note that it is because students tend to take these kinds of shortcuts that there are dissertation committees. In my experience, dissertations are not given sufficient scrutiny. But there is a good reason for this. Most people are far more interested in whether the new work is important and correct. Most of any given dissertation is just a retelling of what work has gone before. And in this case, the same committee that found that King had plagiarized also found that his dissertation made an important contribution to scholarship, which is the only thing that matters.
There is little doubt that King’s dissertation has been picked over more than almost anyone’s in history. The reason for this is doubtless good and bad. There are those who want to diminish him, because let’s face it: there are a lot of people who still don’t think African Americans should vote. But on the other hand, there are many who just want to know who the great man was.
And now we know: Martin Luther King Jr was a man, like so many others. But he was also a man who did great things. And his worst doesn’t even rise to the level of my worst. And it is in the noise compared to men like Ronald Reagan. So yes: children should admire Martin Luther King Jr. We all should. We should admire him for the great things he did. And the fact that he was a little lose with his dissertation citations and his marriage vows doesn’t mean a thing.
It is the day we celebrate the mythic figure rather than the man. And that is how it should be because no country has ever celebrated an actual man. But at least King is a happy exception to Lord Acton’s observation, “Great men are almost always bad men.” King was that kind of man Acton had in mind when he equivocated. Still, given that we are celebrating the symbol and not the man (we celebrated his birthday when it actually occurred), I would prefer to call it, “Civil Rights Day.”
I know that’s kind of generic, but it does have a few advantages. One very big one is that while King was hugely important to the civil rights struggle, he was hardly alone. What’s more, the civil rights struggle continues. Just ask blacks in Virginia. As I’ve noted before, “Everyone now accepts that poll taxes were a real issue meant to stop poor blacks from voting. What are voter ID laws other than a poll tax by another name?”
But I have a not-so-pure reason for wanting to call today Civil Rights Day. Republicans really bug me when it comes to Martin Luther King. Because he has become a mythic figure just like George Washington, he is cuddly and can be embraced by everyone except people who are explicitly bigots. I would find it less annoying to argue about the continuing civil rights struggle (Republicans think it ended in 1965!) than to argue about how King would now support the Republican Party.
Last night, TMCB Patriot sent me to the following image made by some true believing Republican:
As TMCB Patriot noted, MLK Was A Republican! Photo Montages Don’t Lie. I guess I can see how a Republican who said, “We believe in setting people free,” would think that. And all that disguised control in the form of charity! I can just imagine King saying those immortal words, “Free to starve, free to starve! Thank God almighty we are free to starve!”
But this is the kind of nonsense we get from Republicans. They really are the postmodern party: reality is whatever we agree on. So if they say that Martin Luther King was a Republican long enough, he must have been. Just like in the 1960s they said (And some still do!) that he was a communist. But there is no evidence of either of those claims. Publicly, King stayed nonpartisan. Privately, he clearly tended Democratic.
What I find interesting is that Martin Luther King Sr was a Republican. At least he was until 1964. And then in the 1970s until his death in 1984, he was an outspoken Democrat. His political journey indicates what happened to the parties. The Democrats — especially in the South — had been a racist party. Similarly, the Republican Party used to be in favor of civil rights. But the Democrats evolved on the issue and the Republicans devolved on it. That’s why the image contains pictures of pre-Civil War icons.
Look at the whole message of the image: blacks vote Democratic out of habit or something. The use of the Elbert Guillory quote implies that blacks are either stupid or childish for voting Democratic. But note that the image reveals its own lie. Yes, blacks used to vote overwhelmingly Republican. And then they changed — because the parties changed. At least when the Democrats were a racist party, they didn’t run around whining that blacks were just voting Republican out of habit.
So happy Martin Luther King Day! And happy Civil Rights Day! But it is not a destination, just another step on an eternal journey.