16 January 2017

Icon vs. Iconoclast

On this year's Martin Luther King holiday the big story for many people is one of King's last surviving colleagues, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. A leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee before it went radical, Lewis was one of the first Freedom Riders, spoke during the March on Washington, and got his skull cracked at Selma. This, I suppose, is why people got angry when the President-elect said that Lewis was "all talk." The President-elect was angry because Lewis had announced that he would boycott Friday's inaugural exercises, since he did not consider Donald Trump a "legitimate" president due to presumed Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign. Naturally Trump lashed out, apparently making a knee-jerk assumption that Lewis's congressional district was crime-ridden and that the congressman should attend to that instead of questioning Trump's credentials. Sociologists and statisticians can tell us whether that was a fair hit, but the indisputable thing is Trump's right to answer in kind. Lewis's place in history, is indisputable, however highly you rate it, but that shouldn't stop Americans from asking what he has done for us lately. He has been a congressman for thirty years -- and his views on some issues (e.g. trade, Iraq) aren't so different from Trump's -- but from what I can tell from Wikipedia his major legislative accomplishment was to secure funding for the national museum of African-American culture that opened in Washington D.C. last year. It should not be ruled out of bounds to dismiss Rep. Lewis as a partisan hack, regardless of his valiant deeds of fifty years ago. No one in the political arena is above politics or above criticism -- and for Trump, of course, no one is above or beneath criticism.

The Lewis controversy suggests a sad answer to the annual "What if Dr. King were alive today?" question: an 88 year old King might well be in a Twitter war of his own against Trump, though perhaps not on the same pretext, unless you suppose that his remaining alive would have so altered history that there never would have been a President Trump.  One might at least hope that King, unlike Lewis an adult during the McCarthy era, would refrain from the paranoid rhetoric or the conspiracy theories Lewis has apparently embraced. A critic of the Cold War, King presumably was not as Russophobic as today's liberal establishment. Today's Russophobia, however, isn't just about a traditional identification of Russia with illiberal government. For many Democrats, it's a rather desperate attempt to refute Trump's populist credentials. How can he claim to represent the "real" American people, presuming that any Americans are entitled to that adjective, when he's the dupe if not the willing agent of a foreign power historically antithetical to American values? Better still, if Trump's fans are indifferent to the Russia question, or if they share Trump's apparent admiration for the "strong leader" Vladimir Putin, how can they claim to be real Americans or question the authenticity of anyone else? It actually wouldn't surprise me if some people sought a racial explanation to tie everything together. Why is Trump so eager to be friends with the authoritarian Putin yet eager for confrontation with the authoritarian Chinese? The correct answer certainly has something to do with the comparative threat each country presents to the American economy, but it wouldn't surprise me if some Americans thought it came down to Putin being a white man. That wouldn't be entirely false, either; there's some racial geopolitics implicit in the wishful thinking of the current National Enquirer, virtually the Pravda of Trumpism, which predicts a Trump-Putin alliance against China (ha!), North Korea (ha ha!) and Iran (hahahahaha!). But that's the Trump of some sucker's fantasy, not the man himself, just as the Russophile puppet, compromised by damning documents and business ties, is a paranoid fantasy.

For at least a century now, Russia has been useful to different factions of Americans as an antithesis of America, and enmity to Russia has often been a test of Americanism. It might sadden us but it shouldn't surprise us to see black politicians, whom we might assume reluctant to question other people's Americanism, doing just that when it serves partisan ends or simply softens the blow of a painful defeat. Martin Luther King probably saw no nationality as the enemy. If so, for Lewis to indulge in Russophobic conspiracymongering, whether cynically or sincerely, is a betrayal of King's and his own legacy.

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