Tuesday, April 08, 2008

King's legacy: Scary stuff (for good Christian Republican white folks, anyway)

Berkeley Barb cover 07-19-1968 featuring Black Panther leader Huey Newton and the caption "I Have A Nightmare"

Kai Wright wrote a piece on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his death, Dr. King, Forgotten Radical, that makes a similar point to that I've been making in some of my recent posts. Wright focuses on the ways in which the critical, Christian-prophetic edge has been excised from the publicly-celebrated views of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This article is also a reminder that the Bobos' view of King as a nice pleasant man who would never go so far as to make respectable white folks angry, is a rank distortion of his life and of real history:

Today, we hear little about the ideas that experience provoked for King: His deathbed blueprint for changing America's caste systems included a three-pronged attack on racism, poverty, and war.

It's that last charge, to fight war-making, that got him in the most trouble during his time and that gets most readily ignored today. Despite grenades of criticism from his fellow civil-rights leaders, his erstwhile ally in the president, and the press, King declared he had no choice but to stand up against the Vietnam War. But what's striking is the still red-hot relevance of his reasoning, a perspective also likely to be left out of the dreamy platitudes delivered on days like today.
Wright also gets at a topic that I discussed recently, about how King's position and attitudes need to be understood in the context of the related but very different situations in the South ...


versus in major urban areas outside the South:

America began perverting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message in the spring of 1963. Truthfully, you could put the date just about anywhere along the earlier timeline of his brief public life, too. But I mark it at the Birmingham movement's climax, right about when Northern whites needed a more distant, less personally threatening change-maker to juxtapose with the black rabble rousers clambering into their own backyards. That's when Time politely dubbed him the "Negroes' inspirational leader," as Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff point out in their excellent book Race Beat.

Up until then, King had been eyed as a hasty radical out to push Southern communities past their breaking point - which was a far more accurate understanding of the man's mission.
But King did not ignore or forget those different situations in the North, either:

The bloom started to wear off King's media rose when he turned his attention to Northern racism. The central defense Southern segregationists offered when thrust on the national stage was that their Jim Crow was no more of a brute than the North's. King agreed, and in announcing his organization's move into Chicago, he called the North's urban ghettos "a system of internal colonialism not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium." And he named names, pointing to racist unions as one of a dozen institutions conspiring to strip-mine black communities. So much for "inspirational." But then, like now, nobody wanted to hear such talk - only the black press paid any attention.
I agree with the historical view that says King's assassination was a key factor in blunting the effectiveness of what was in 1968 frequently called the black freedom movement or even the black liberation movement. (I would hate to see "liberation" reduced in the American political vocabulary to a cynical term for wars of aggression, e.g., the "liberation" of Iraq). It deprived the movement of its most prominent leader and increased in a qualitative way the cynicism among African-Americans about whether American whites were open to a more free society and more responsive government at all levels.

But King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were not the beginning and the end of the civil rights/black freedom movement. As Wright's quote above indicates, there were activists and leaders in urban black communities who were dealing with different circumstances and taking different approaches than King and the SCLC even in 1963. The Bobo construction that there was some radical break between a "good" movement in the early 1960s versus a "bad", scary movement in the late 1960s is bogus ideology.

Wright quotes King making a point that I don't think you will see Bobo making unless he's trying to remind his white readers how scary and dangerous angry black people are:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (my emphasis)
I'm not interested in seeing a revival of the kind of sectarian polemics, pointless adventurism and stale rhetoric that was unfortunately a characteristic of many of the groups that styled themselves as "revolutionary" in those days. We get more than enough sectarian polemics, pointless adventurism and stale rhetoric from the Republican Party and the Christian Right.

But the dominant reactionary ideology of today's authoritarian Republican Party is heavily derived from conservative reaction to the social conflicts of the 1960s. And that reactionary ideology is very much based on white racism, materialism, and militarism. There's no reason we should allow the Republican Party and the attached Bobos of the press interpret the history of 1960s or any other period through the lens of their warped ideology. Much less to take the "culture war" premises of that ideology at face value.

If the base of the Democratic Party can keep at it long enough, we may eventually get leaders of our party who will actually challenge white racism, materialism and militarism by name. Then a generation after that, maybe our Establishment reporters and Big Pundits won't gag on the words, either.

In our present situation, we have leading liberal pundits like Frank Rich who swoon in horror at the thought some Democrat might call St. John "100 Years War" McCain a "crazed militarist". Not that he named any actual Democrat of note who actually applied that label to the bold Maverick.

And we have our likely Presidential standard-bearer responding to Republican demands that he denounce a heretic who dared to use the word "warmonger" to describe the Straight Talker, meekly consenting and allowing his campaign to put out an official statement saying, "John McCain is not a warmonger and should not be described as such."

What would happen if the Democratic Presidential candidate pointed to the Maverick's supporters who proudly carry on the tradition of Southern segregation merged with the worst of Norther white bigotry and said those supporters were motivated by "racism"? Obama's campaign kinda-sorta did that with the Clintons, though not not very shrewdly and not very accurately. Will they be willing to confront the issue head-in in its Republican incarnation?

And what if Obama or Clinton singled out McCain's declared foreign policy which is little more than a war policy, and pointed out his long history of treating foreign policy problems as primarily military problems, and highlighted his support for the world-historic boondoggle now labeled "missile defense", and called that package what it is, "militarism"? Joe Lieberman would faint away with the vapors. But it might also focus many voters' attention on how genuinely "crazed" it is for the United States to be spending half or more of the military budgets of the entire world. Poor Frank Rich would go into shock, though.

And what might be the result if the Democratic Presidential candidate made a big deal out of the Maverick's support for massive tax subsidies for the very wealthy, and his firmly-joined-at-the-hip relationship with K Street lobbyists, and called them examples of shameless pandering to "materialism"? Would that really be so radical? After all, during the Cold War it was a stock talking point that Our Side's religious consciousness was superior to the cold "materialism" of the godless Communists. And, embarassing as it no doubt is to our televangelists, Jesus and the Christian Bible roundly condemned materialism. Aren't the Democrats supposed to be showing off how open they are to "people of faith", our current weird euphemism for "religious people"?

Chances for such developments look small, at the moment. Because if the Democrats did they, why, they might remind people of Really Scary Black People like Martin Luther King Jeremiah Wright.

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