This is what you get. Er, I mean, I told you so. No, that’s not a good lede either. What I’m trying to say is, if we accept a milquetoast memory of MLK, we end up with columns like this one, in which Juan Williams writes the following:
Martin Luther King Jr. died at age 39; today, the 40th anniversary of his death, is the first time he has been gone longer than he lived…Now comes Barack Obama, a black man and a plausible national leader, who appeals across racial lines.
Okay, I’m with Williams so far. What’s next?
But to his black and white supporters, Mr. Obama increasingly represents different things.
Wait, what’s that “but” doing there? That seems to imply that Martin Luther King meant the same thing to people of all races, that he was, somehow, a universally understood leader. But, but, but…that just isn’t true. Beyond even the most obvious generalizations that would rebut such a facile statement — people are individuals; individual perceptions are, well, individuated — surely we can agree that, on balance, Dr. King meant very different things to the white and black communities.
Fortunately, from there, Williams begins adding fine brushwork to his portraits of Obama and King. Sorry, my mistake, he doesn’t; his column only gets worse:
The initial base of support for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign came from young whites – who saw in him the ability to take the nation to a place where, to quote from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, “we shall be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
While unsurprising in its pablumtasticness (it’s Juan Williams, after all), this dreck shouldn’t stand. And not only because Senator Obama’s initial support was only partly comprised of “young whites.” But also because Williams invokes the “I Have a Dream” speech as a stand-in for MLK’s impact, freezing Dr. King in 1963. This usage of the King myth is pernicious, particularly given where Williams goes next:
While speaking to black people, King never condescended to offer Rev. Wright-style diatribes or conspiracy theories. He did not paint black people as victims…
When King spoke about the racist past, he gloried in black people beating the odds to win equal rights by arming “ourselves with dignity and self-respect.” He expressed regret that some black leaders reveled in grievance, malice and self-indulgent anger in place of a focus on strong families, education and love of God. Even in the days before Congress passed civil rights laws, King spoke to black Americans about the pride that comes from “assuming primary responsibility” for achieving “first class citizenship.”
For Juan Williams, MLK’s message to black America can be distilled down to: bootstraps. Oh, and King was never angry. Later, Williams provides us with this:
Last March in Selma, Ala., Mr. Obama appeared on the verge of breaking away from the merchants of black grievance and victimization. At a commemoration of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, he spoke in a King-like voice. He focused on traditions of black sacrifice, idealism and the need for taking personal responsibility for building strong black families and communities…
But as his campaign made headway with black voters, Mr. Obama no longer spoke about the responsibility and the power of black America to appeal to the conscience and highest ideals of the nation. He no longer asks black people to let go of the grievance culture to transcend racial arguments and transform the world.
He has stopped all mention of government’s inability to create strong black families, while the black community accepts a 70% out-of-wedlock birth rate. Half of black and Hispanic children drop out of high school, but he no longer touches on the need for parents to convey a love of learning to their children. There is no mention in his speeches of the history of expensive but ineffective government programs that encourage dependency. He fails to point out the failures of too many poverty programs, given the 25% poverty rate in black America.
And he chooses not to confront the poisonous “thug life” culture in rap music that glorifies drug use and crime.
Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: black leaders should stop talking about the history of oppression in this country, leaving behind discussions of “victimization”; Barack Obama now panders to a “grievance culture,” rather than peddling Juan Williams’s version of a Horatio Alger story; the black community “accepts” what William Julius Wilson calls the “culture of poverty,” in all of its guises; and Senator Obama must recognize that Grover Norquist is right about everything. Also, forget racism, rap music is the problem. Seriously, have you seen that guy 50 Cent? Very scary. Barack Obama must reject and denounce, renounce and disavow 50 Cent. Or Juan Williams won’t sleep well at night. Dr. King would have fluffed Juan Williams’s pillow.
And then Williams pivots, doubling back to Reverend Wright:
Instead the senator, in a full political pander, is busy excusing Rev. Wright’s racial attacks as the right of the Rev.-Wright generation of black Americans to define the nation’s future by their past.
Again, we really have to avoid serious discussions of history. Because context is nearly as threatening to black America as rap music. Come to think of it, Reverend Wright is the 50 Cent of Chicago’s South Side. Or is 50 Cent the 50 Cent of Chicago’s South Side? It gets complicated because black people all look alike.
Regardless, BIG FINISH:
But when Barack Obama, arguably the best of this generation of black or white leaders, finds it easy to sit in Rev. Wright’s pews and nod along with wacky and bitterly divisive racial rhetoric, it does call his judgment into question. And it reveals a continuing crisis in racial leadership…
What would Jesus do? There is no question he would have left that church.
Awesome! Barack Obama isn’t Jesus. That’s disappointing. But I’ll get over it.
Seriously, what’s troubling here isn’t just that Williams is wrong on the merits of his argument and some of his fact, but also his use of the nation’s collective memory of a watered-down MLK as a cudgel for goals that King would have despised.
When, Friday afternoon, I drew an analogy between an easy acceptance or even celebration of the King myth and the reconciliation between North and South after the Civil War, a reunion that swept issues of racial inequities under the rug, this is what I was talking about. A comfortable King of memory, a man who always turned the other cheek, who loved even his enemies, who had no appetites, who never seriously critiqued this nation’s economic structures, imperialist foreign policies, and racist social hierarchies, such a Dr. King is a soothing balm for the status quo. That iteration of the King myth allows Juan Williams to claim that Reverend Wright is a crazy person, to insinuate that Barack Obama can’t be trusted because he attends Wright’s church, and to insist that black people just have to realize that they need to get over their anger and get on with pursuing the American dream. If Dr. King were alive today, he would sneer at such sentiments. He would rain rhetorical thunder down upon the head of Juan Williams.* We really shouldn’t forget that.
[Author's Note: One can't really "rain rhetorical thunder," can one? Rain thunder? No, I don't think so. But I don't like the image of Dr. King raining blows, even rhetorical ones, on Williams. Because Dr. King was too nice for that kind of thing.]
[Update: Check out on this great post on King and collective memory from a new blogger who may be who I think he is. Unless he isn't. In which case he's not.]