MLK Day, Commemoration, and Progress

As expected, there was a lot of blogging about Dr. King today, the best of which (at least of what I’ve read) was probably Josh Rosenau’s commentary about the continued importance of certain of Dr. King’s ideals. The most relevant bit is this:

What I want to remember on this anniversary of his birth is that Dr. King can’t be reduced to a sound bite and a now obvious call to end Jim Crow.

The importance of this can’t be overstated, I don’t think. The ideals of racial equality and nonviolent protest are generally offered up as a sort of distillation of Dr. King, a bullet point summary of what he was about and why he was important and, above all, why he’s commemorated by a federal holiday. Not to suggest that these aren’t hugely important things, because they most certainly are, but they’re not the whole story. We do Dr. King’s memory a disservice by a) ignoring the rest of his ideas in favor of the sexier and less controversial ones, and b) mistaking commemoration of the man for sincere consideration and contemplation of his ideas.

On the first count, as Rosenau points out, achieving equality is a lot more complex than replacing Jim Crow with affirmative action. Most anyone with a pulse can recognize that there is a race problem in this country, but far too often we seem to think that the job ended with desegregation. Racial equality, gender equality, social equality, religious equality, economic equality—none of these are problems with simple bandaid solutions. Disparity between groups of people is a result of more than just overt discrimination and prejudice, and it would behoove us to think a little bit more about the underlying systemic concerns, rather than patting ourselves on the collective back and saying “job well done.”

On the second count, I generally have problems with the canonization of historical/political figures (most notably the Founding Fathers, who I’ll probably get to in a future post). There is an American tendency—probably not exclusively an American one, but I can’t speak authoritatively about other cultures—to raise such figures to a monolithic status, in such a way that they become more myth than man, because we have such an instinct for hero worship and for reducing things to extremes of good and evil. This is not to say that these people haven’t done and said great and significant things, or that they don’t deserve to be seen as heroes. I get chills reading the “I Have a Dream” speech, and not just because I enjoy good oratory.

The problem is that this canonization has a distinct tendency to obscure the ideas and the reality of the person, to the point that we think we’re honoring the ideas by honoring the person. In some sense we are, but in granting the ‘hero’ label to a historical figure, what we usually end up saying in effect is that we’ve recognized that person’s accomplishment, and now we can forget about it and about the implications of it. I don’t mean to imply a sinister intent where there likely is none, but we do have a tendency to try to cast things in exceedingly simplistic terms, and this has significant negative effects. When we elevate a person to hero status, the person often begins to outshine the deeds and the words and the ideas that made him or her heroic. Inevitably, various things resurface to remind us that our heroes were flawed (Jefferson’s reproductive indiscretions, say), but rather than taking from this the message that people are heroic because they do and say heroic things and not because they’re ubermensch demigods, we start to doubt the merits of our own heroes and of the things we’ve previously recognized as heroic.

I guess the meat of what I’m saying is this: it’s not enough to declare a holiday. It’s not enough to spend one day a year extolling the virtues of a person. It’s not enough to reduce complicated people and complicated ideas to placeholders. It’s wonderful that we make a habit of remembering certain people (though there are quite a few others we’ve arbitrarily chosen not to remember) and certain events, that we maintain some sort of connection to our history, that we make an effort to pass these things along through the generations. It’s wonderful that we’ve made the progress we have, and that we make an effort to remember it. There are great men and women in our midst, and we should certainly celebrate them, but not to the exclusion of listening to what they have to say. Progress doesn’t rest on its laurels, and sometimes I worry that maybe we’re all missing the point.



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