18 January 2010
The Bipolarchization of Dr. King
At the independent Poli-Tea blog d. eris has an appropriate post on Americans' collective misremembering of Martin Luther King's mission. Arguably, King was a legitimate third force in public life whose agenda could not be reduced, despite all efforts, to the convenient categories of American Bipolarchy discourse. Since his death, however, each party can reconstruct a King that suits its own agenda. For Republicans, most obviously, King's entire legacy is reduced to one sentence from the March on Washington about "content of character" as the ideal sole criterion of merit. Those words are quoted in support of an instant-meritocracy agenda that denies any further need for compensatory policies to advance victimized classes, regardless of what King himself may have thought on the subject. The Democratic distortion is more subtle, but the result is to transform King into an icon of secular humanism. Not that there's anything wrong with secular humanism, but some people are tempted to minimize the extent to which King's political principles derived from religious feeling. The reductio ad absurdam of this approach is Christopher Hitchens's contention (not that he counts as a Democrat) that anything that was good in King's philosophy owed nothing to Christianity. It can be argued quite convincingly that people can arrive at political positions like King's without believing in Jesus, -- let's hope so, at least, but it's a stretch to argue that King arrived at them that way. To my knowledge, King himself never argued that you needed to believe in Jesus to believe in social justice, but it remains a fact that some people need to believe in "the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God," in order to believe in equality of any kind. Acknowledging that fact is troubling to many Democrats, liberals and progressives because belief in God and Jesus often leads to less liberal or less progressive demands upon society. At the same time, Bipolarchy encourages liberal distrust of faith by presenting the Religious Right as an admittedly plausible bogeyman and identifying it with the Republican party. It should be obvious from this cursory survey alone that if more Americans tried to live up to King's ideals it would pose a problem for the Bipolarchy because it would throw their defining categories into question. Dedicating a holiday to King actually gives the establishment plenty of opportunities to define King on its own contradictory yet consistently reactionary terms, and it tempts the rest of us to let them tell us what King stood for. Fortunately, King's legacy in print and online is available every day in the year for those who want -- not to mention those who need -- to figure it out for themselves.