How to discuss M.L. King

Rose writes:

Martin Luther King Day will soon be upon us with its attendant bashing of the eponymous civil rights icon by many conservatives. And though I agree that King has become, in the words of one author, “the patron saint of white guilt” and is not deserving of a national holiday, I won’t enjoy any of the revisionist essays (though I certainly don’t, like many, consider criticism of him to be “racist.”) The first and most obvious reason is that I believe bringing up his adultery, as many of his enemies do, is out of line as his personal failings have nothing to do with his public accomplishments. This includes alcohol-fueled comments to friends when he was unaware of being recorded. It’s remarkably petty to hold something said during private drunken-talk against a man. Liberal historians often engage in these tactics to discredit famous historical figures and by extension the entire notion of “great men” and though I know this isn’t what King’s critics have in mind, I am reminded of it. Undoubtedly if the good reverend had been white, liberals would be the first to expose him and relish that a religious man had been caught with his pants down, but for that very reason conservatives should not be doing the same thing simply because they dislike this particular man. They are better than this.

I’m pretty firm in the above opinion but there is another reason that I find I dislike the debunking that I’m not as sure about. This is that I’ve always thought a certain amount of respect is to be accorded to any people’s cultural myths. Every race and ethnic group has its heroes and villains, its triumphs and tragedies, real and legendary that I think are owed a certain amount of polite circumspection when approached by the history-minded. The authors of deconstructions of King and Rosa Parks seem almost the equivalent of a man who goes to a Scottish patriotic celebration and announces that the movie Braveheart was completely inaccurate and, oh, by the way, Rabbie Burns was a cad and a rake who wrote indifferent poetry at best. I would consider this to be impolite even if the truth is on one’s side. There isn’t anything wrong with racial self-boosterism and its inevitable myth-making. I’ve never minded Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad being taught in elementary school (provided they come after Lincoln, Grant and Lee) so that little black children can see their own heroic ancestors in the history books.

That’s a normal and healthy impulse and that is exactly the point conservatives should make: it is perfectly fine for any race, every race, including whites, to want to celebrate their accomplishments. I’m open to being told that I’m completely wrong however … Here anyway is my favorite MLK day thing, a Saturday Night Live sketch that exposes how blacks use the day as a way to cynically guilt whites out of their valuable belongings.

LA replies:

I agree with everything you say.

King’s adulteries, which were not garden variety but extreme and out of control (note: I am not saying that “garden variety” adultery is ok, but that King was worse than that) are certainly relevant to any historical discussion of his character. At the same time, I agree with you that there is often a kneejerk meanspiritedness in the way some conservatives, mainly paleoconservatives, bring up his adulteries and plagiarism as a way of discrediting him. Neither factor is ultimately relevant to his historical significance. If people want to criticize King and oppose the dreadful King holiday, they should do so based on his public record. And there is plenty there to criticize. I’ve written about how he turned into a standard anti-American leftist in the last year or two of his life, condemning America as the source of all evils in the world, and for that reason alone, giving him a national holiday was inappropriate in the extreme. Before that, it was clear that he was a supporter of socialist-type guarantees of equality of outcome between racial groups. So the King worshipped by the neocons, the king of “content of character, not color of skin,” is a highly selective King, not reflecting what King himself came to stand for.

At the same time, I agree with you that if a man has become a symbol to a people, you don’t gratuitously dump on him.

- end of initial entry -

Jake Jacobsen writes

Please allow me to be the counter-intuitive grouch to Rose’s inclusive nice persona. I don’t have a problem with every race being allowed their own myths and heroes. What I have a problem with is the demand that I celebrate them under pain of social excommunication and being called harsh names. I think MLK was a fraud and a huckster, it is my right to believe as much.

And far from my attending an MLK party and being a boor by insulting his memory, his racial boosters will track me down and insist that I acknowledge him as something I don’t believe he was. With all respect to Rose this is exactly the wrong approach, I am not going to nod along and agree that he was a “great man” when I think no such thing anymore than I am going to consider fifty cent among the great canons of Western music.


LA replies:

Your last point is not exactly responsive to Rose’s comment, since she was not demanding that anyone celebrate King.

January 17

Lydia McGrew writes:

I don’t think you and your commentator Rose agree as much as one might think, given that you say that King’s adulteries are relevant to an historical evaluation of him, and she seems to think that they aren’t, because they were “private.” A man’s character most certainly is relevant to the conclusion that he was a great man, a man to be celebrated, quoted, and emulated, and plagiarism and adultery (a fortiori the extreme and unrepentant form in which King engaged) are relevant to character. King was not a great man for so-called “private” reasons, as well as because what he was demanding (e.g., federal legislation against all racial discrimination) was misguided and has proved bad for America. And, yes, I would say this about conservative politicians and leaders as well; they, too, deserve to be blamed and not to be treated as great men and heroes if they do the kinds of ostensibly “private” things King did.

It would be pretty ironic if we deliberately ignored the character of the very man who told us that he wanted each person to be evaluated by the content of his character!

Lydia continues:

I don’t believe Rose actually brought up King’s plagiarism, but I think you mentioned it. Plagiarism is not a private sin on any construal, nor is it a minor matter, in my opinion. It is a form of fraud, and should be taken very seriously. It resulted in King’s receiving a title, by which all of us are expected to call him world without end, to which he was not rightfully entitled. This is most definitely a public matter, a matter of cheating and deceit.

Rose writes:

I just wanted to emphasise that I think King’s liberalism is definitely a legitimate topic for discussion and criticism. I wouldn’t even say that it’s an impolite one as it’s not something that many people (and most blacks) would find to be discrediting to their hero (unfortunately.) I once read a post on an internet forum by a liberal complaining of how the media and history books suppressed King’s later leftist turn to make him more palatable to the mainstream. When discussing his assassination, according to this poster, everyone deliberately leaves out that the reason he was in Memphis in the first place was to support a worker’s strike.

Rose replies to Lydia McGrew:

That one shouldn’t discuss private flaws when evaluating public men is a view I hold consistently for everyone and so defending it would take us far beyond King. I’ll only say that I have a very conservative uncle who firmly believes in the Thomas Jefferson and the slave girl tale. I don’t know if the gossip was true or not but even if it was I wouldn’t think it relevant to the Founding Father’s legacy or the wisdom of his political ideas (I know that Mr. Auster has some firm opinions on those). My uncle however still admires Jefferson and has a bust of our third president in his house.

Generally, I think that most modern historians consider it their job to be iconoclasts, revisionists, and idol-smashers, to reach behind the facade of ‘virtue’ and bring the hidden muck and filth out into the daylight and given man’s fallen nature very few of our heroes and idols can withstand this kind of scrutiny. It is simply unpleasant to me to witness anyone receiving this treatment for whatever reason. Even a total lefty.

(No one should ever be called harsh names for doing it though.)

Here’s James Bowman complaining about this tendency at the beginning of a book review.

Mike writes:

I think that the content of this post suggests that the myth of MLK is unhealthy for an America of the non-proposition variety:

I would also like to point out a distinction between MLK and William Wallace. If you went to a Scottish festival and groused about how Braveheart was a work of fiction, you’d be a jerk and a party pooper because everyone already knows that Braveheart was a work of fiction. With King, on the other hand, you have a man who the vast majority of Americans truly believe is a saint and have never heard the slightest indication otherwise. A saint who in the popular consciousness was the black Joan of Arc who singlehandedly fought and defeated white America for all time. I agree that it’s crass and wrong to tear down a mythological figure for no reason, but when that figure is held up as a symbol of triumph over your own culture its continued veneration should not be tolerated.

January 18

LA writes:

Maybe it’s a question of taste. I personally am turned off by the angry, mean attacks on King that we see in some conservative quarters: Adulterer! Plagiarist! To me that’s a sign of impotent reactiveness. The record of his adulteries is a legitimate subject. The record of his plagiarism is a legitimate subject. But since when do we have campaigns directed against a public figure in this country on the basis that he was an adulterer? And what if King were not an adulterer and a plagiarist? Would it change anything substantive about his meaning to the country? Would he then be ok by you? Is your opposition to him based on his adulteries, or on his politics? So the people pushing the adultery and plagiarism line don’t look like serious people.

If you’re against the national quasi-sainthood of King, if you’re against the outrage of the King holiday, and I am, then campaign against it. If you think it’s wrong that King is a symbol of America, then MAKE THE CASE for that. GIVE REASONS. There are a lot of good arguments against the King cult. But many of the attacks on King consist of negative emotion rather than argument, they look like expressions of anger, and they are not helpful.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 16, 2010 08:38 PM | Send

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