Wednesday, December 28, 2005

King of the Ruse

Alicublog pointed me toward a "critical appraisal" of Martin Luther King, Jr., which I thought was provocative enough to comment on - if only for my own benefit.

From the Claremont Institute:

But there is the other King conservatives loath—and with good reason. This King stressed unlawful action (civil disobedience) where bargaining with local notables might have prevailed. He lobbied for the extension of the welfare state, with all its disastrous consequences, in the claimants and in the growth of the bureaucracy. Moreover, he irresponsibly attacked his own country on the issue of Vietnam. He provided legitimate cover for a radical left that contained the worst elements of American life, posing as our true patriots. His crowning achievement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, turned out to be a vehicle for the centralized regulation of political life. A plain reading of it sought to relieve individual injuries to one’s civil rights; the bureaucratic interpretation (the one that has prevailed) established group remedies, hiring and promotion quotas, and the emphasis on race-based solutions that bedevil our laws today. Similarly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has subordinated state and local governments to the whims of the Justice Department. Thus King's version of equality cut off the relationship between the civil rights cause and the ideals of the American Founding; far from protecting limited, constitutional government his vision led to unlimited government. And all this does not mention the plagiarism and infidelity that infected his character.

A lot of what Ken Masugi says above seems wrongheaded to me. It's not that Masugi does wrong by citing instances of action and character that he disagrees with. In fact, I think it's important not to whitewash the people of history. What bothers me is the implied assertion that King and his legacy are made less because of them.

The post-Clintonian era is an interesting one. Clinton was arguably the first President to have his sexual shenanigans outed by the media. Prior to Bubba, Executive trysts were considered unspokenly out-of-bounds. Jefferson fucked around. JFK had Marilyn Monroe on rotary speed-dial. Outside of the oval office, Ben Franklin spent long years in Europe getting down with the powdered wig hunnies, while his wife and daughter hung 'round the house in Philly. But somehow, Ben Franklin's business is excused, unmentioned, uncriticized.

Martin Luther King, Jr. liked the ladies. Does this lessen his legacy or sap his credibility? I think it does so only if you're willing to play character assassin. Jefferson founded a nation while barn-dancing with Sally Hemmings. Franklin did double duty as proto-Ron Popeil and colonial-Kenobi. King contributed a powerful voice to a long-overdue seizmic shift in the culture. What they did in their off-hours is, I think, their business. It's between them and God, not snippy moralists.

As for his attacking the U.S. on Vietnam, well, he was a Preacher. His first allegiance was to the creator and not to any country, even his own. God doesn't have a nation. If you devote your life to God as a man of any faith there are going to be instances where you come to disagree with the actions of your government. As a rule, Preachers advocate non-violence, and Vietnam was a war.

And while I have no business commenting on whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became "a vehicle for the centralized regulation of political life," I'm fairly comfortable objecting to Masugi's laying the responsibility for that evolution at the feet of one man.

Finally, America wouldn't exist without civil disobediance. The colonies lobbied Britain for representation in Parliament for years prior to revolution. It was Britain's resistance to representation, and their dismissal of the desire of the American people for a voice in government that directly led to the Declaration of Independence - an act of civil disobediance if ever there was one.

None of this is to say that King was a saint, or that his history should not be critically discussed. His problematic reliance on plagarism/appropriation in his papers and speeches is an area that does affect my opinion of the man, if only of his originality. But I think Masugi doth protest too much when he calls into question whether or not Martin Luther King day is necessary.

We must focus our attention on that cause. In doing so, it would be far better to honor the better angels of King’s character in the Presidents we honor next month—Washington and Lincoln.

If I read this correctly, Masugi is saying that it would be better to celebrate the spirit of King's cause in the holidays devoted to Washington and Lincoln, than to celebrate that spirit on a day devoted to the flawed King himself.

But Lincoln suspended habaeus corpus, unconstitutionally prevented the Southern states from recession, and liked to sleep (however innocently) with other men. Washington hated New Englanders, finding them dirty and uncouth. He was, in early life, a pretty questionable military leader. He levied one of the first, unwanted taxes on the American people. He grew hemp. Despite a laudable growing belief in the unjustness of slavery, he did not free his own slaves until after his death.

No man is safe from flawed character, or from mistake.


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