Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The King Is Dead; Long Live The King

The greatest purveyor of violence on earth is my own government. -- MLK

Today -- or, rather, yesterday, as I'm blogging very late -- is Martin Luther King Day in the United States, and as such it is a time for reflection if one is decent, a time for theatrics if one is not.

The popular notion of Dr King is that of a benign tribalist, of a man who lived and breathed only the Civil Rights issue and nothing else. While indeed this is the millieu from which he came, at his triumph in 1963-64 he did what truly great, dynamic men always do: he went farther. MLK was always more or less a universalist (and the Civil Rights cause was and always will be a universalist, humanist issue), but after many victories of the SCLC and in reponse to the escalation of the Vietnam War, Dr King broadened not only his goals but also his targets; the color-blind society was no longer enough, a just society in all forms, with regard internally to race, creed, and economic condition, and with regard externally to peace, was the obvious goal. In all ways Dr King was the exact opposite of and enemy of what is now modern Republicanism, which then had already taken form in Nixonism, but was later to, perhaps counterintuitively, weld Dick's Southern Strategy with Goldwaterism's ideological, vaguely libertarian, "fuck the poor" mindset. General Glut's post at the American Street emphasises Dr King's commitment to economic justice.

There are precious few blots on Dr King's character, but whatever there is gets predictably magnified by his enemies. For one, there is womanising, his infidelity to Coretta Scott, all in all a fine rightwing rehearsal for the Clenis hysteria of the 90s. Second is that he allegedly told dirty jokes and used foul language in private. Third is that he was a plagiarist. All these, even if factual, amount to squat, and are rightfully consigned to the Who Gives A Shit? bin of history.

Dr King was of course a minister, and as such infidelity and coarse language is not the instantly laughable charge it is to a secular target. But Dr King was not a fire and brimstone preacher, nor was he the sort of prudish moraliser that wingnuts are so wont to follow. If Dr King had regularly bellowed against "threats to the family" like "loose morals" and foul language -- in short, if he had mournfully refrained in a Jimmy Swaggart or Helen Lovejoy way -- he'd actually be open to the charge of hypocrisy. But he didn't, and his private life is of no concern to us. Add to this the fact that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI sent Dr King letters urging him to commit suicide (a sentiment far more than less shared by the whole rightwing, which was convinced along with Hoover that Dr. King was not only a negro that didnt know his place, but was also a "communist"), and one can surely forgive a few private vices that were between him and Mrs. King.

The charge of plagiarism is not as well known, but is probably more superficially serious to those naturally weary of "sex scandals". Christopher Hitchens, when he was human, easily dispatched it. After swatting T.S. Eliot, Arianna Huffington, George Harrison and Senator Joe Biden, Hitchens abruptly shifts tack and says, even in these cases Don't Be So Sure. Then to his penultimate example of "plagiarism":

What, then, about Dr King? His various academic dissertations have been found to be honeycombed with other people's property, and he seems to have had some very indulgent professors in college. It has even been alleged that part of the peroration of the "I Have A Dream" speech -- the part about "from every mountainside, let freedom ring" -- is lifted from, of all things, an address to the 1952 Republican convention by a black minister names Archibald Carey. But, of course, that line comes from "My Country, 'Tis Of Thee", which King quoted more or less completely.

And do you know how the closing passage of King's speech was supposed to have begun? If he'd followed the typed script provided by a virtual committee of do-gooders King would have said, "And so today, let us all go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction." With the whole world watching, King realised that it wouldn't do, threw away the text in mid-stream, called on all he'd ever read, including the prophets Amos and Isaiah, and changed everything for the better -- and for the good. He may have done a lot of borrowing in his life, but he synthesised the borrowings into something higher.

Amen. So if MLK was a "plagiarist" or even a plagiarist when he was a young man, who gives a shit? In his most public act, he tossed aside his -- much less anyone else's -- script and delivered, impromptu, the finale that is still to this day the only oratory that can move me to tears.

Orwell was right to say that one must presume the worst of sainted figures. But Dr. King, in public, where it matters, passes the test better than any American in history that I can think of. He was that rare Christian who was not a hateful sectarian; he was that sort of tribalist, rare until the advent of multiculturalism, who did not presume whatever supremacy of his own tribe; he was a patriot who was not a nationalist pig; he was exactly the right sort of anti-anticommunist when the country was full of and run by the sort of anti-communists that would break any law, moral or otherwise, to fight commies real and percieved. All of which amounted to a death warrant for a man who so antagonised a rotten rotten system. And it was executed.

One would do well to remember who Dr King's enemies were, who not only opposed him but smeared him unmercifully. They are still with US, and, when one considers the implication of Dr King's economic ideals, they are Legion. It's a fairly easy thing to suppose where Dr King would stand today, and The Rude Pundit makes it as plain as day. It's a pleasing irony that, confronted by the general cowardice of the Public Left today, our best and most inspiring role model is a pacifist from our past. But then the only kind of courage that matters is not physical but ethical courage, both of which Dr King had in abundance.

[The United States has] no honorable intentions in Vietnam. [Its] minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and maintain social stability for our investments. This tells us why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and Peru. Increasingly the role our nation has taken is the role of those who refuse to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment. -- MLK (for fun change Vietnam to Iraq, Columbia and Peru to Iran, and dedicate to Dick Cheney, Allawi-master puppetmaster, economic imperialist extraordinaire and, by the way, lover of racist Apartheid South Africa.)

** Revised one sentence for clarity; apparently much time off didn't improve my sloppy writing.

Viz MLK Day, see also the The Snark Master, Mr. Norbizness, and a certain Mr. Fred Douglass, guest-blogging at Prez Martin Van Buren's.

*** Another Update: See, of all people, Sully slap around Jonah Goldberg (an authentic racist) for a pathetic attempt at an inside-out slander on MLKIII.