King Con

January 11, 2007

This superb piece in The New Republic (helpfully brought out from behind the firewall by In These Times editor and blogger Christopher Hayes) reminds us of just how viciously the wingers slandered Martin Luther King while he was alive, even going so far as to paint his assassination as the logical outcome of the “lawlessness” he supposedly helped unleash by demanding that black Americans be treated as equals in the eyes of the law.

The article also documents how the intellectual descendants of those wingers are just as busily working to twist King’s legacy into some kind of conservative message:

It’s true that conservatives today don’t sound much like Buckley in the ’60s, but they still haven’t figured King out: Andrew Busch of the Ashbrook Center for Public Policy, writing about King’s exegesis on just and unjust laws, said, “In these few sentences, King demolishes much of the philosophical foundation of contemporary liberalism” (liberals are moral relativists, you see, and King was appealing to transcendent moral authority); Busch (speaking for reams of similar banality you can find by searching National Review Online) also said that “he rallied his followers with an explicitly religious message” and thus “stands as a stinging rebuke to those today who argue that religion and politics should never mix”; and Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation wrote in National Review Online that “[a]n agenda that advocates quotas, counting by race and set-asides takes us away from King’s vision” (not true, as historians have demonstrated). Still, why not honor their conversion on its own terms?

The answer is, if you don’t mind, a question of moral relativism versus transcendence. When it comes to Martin Luther King, conservatives are still mere bean-counters. We must honor King because there wasn’t a day in his life after 1955 when he didn’t risk being cut down in cold blood and still stood steadfast. Conservatives break down what should be irreducible in this lesson into discrete terms—King believed in points X, Y, and Z—but now they chalk up the final sum on the positive side of the ledger. But this misses the point: King alone among contemporary heroes is worthy of a national holy day not because he mixed faith and politics, nor because he enunciated a sentimental dream. It was because he represented something truly terrifying.

I’ll leave it to you to discover what that terrifying thing was, but it remains powerful enough to distort the gravitational field of wingerworld every January.

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