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What Would Dr. King Say About …? I Don’t Give a Crap

2011 January 17
by rahul

Pentagon general counsel Jeh C. Johnson recently created a stir on the left with a speech he gave on January 13 for “Martin Luther King Observance Day” (apparently, the Pentagon has to do everything differently) where, after impassioned reflection on King’s legacy (and impassioned connection of himself with that legacy–apparently, he went to college with MLK III and they are longtime friends), he suggested that, although King opposed the Vietnam War, he would support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our Nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack

He went on to mention King’s evocation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in his final speech, suggesting that the soldiers occupying those countries are living according to King’s and Jesus’ dictate.

This provoked predictable outrage on the left, many of them jumping to proclaim that, of course, King would oppose the wars (citing King’s Beyond Vietnam speech).

My own reaction is different. While Johnson’s proclamation is utterly fatuous, I don’t give a crap what Dr. King would think. I am sick of the obligatory genuflection that so many bien pensants engage in on at least an annual basis.

There is no other figure in history, except Jesus, who is paid such constant, sycophantic tribute by American progressives; indeed, I would wager that all other historical figures put together don’t get as much mention as King.

Martin Luther King died 42 years ago. There is no way to tell what he would think now or, if he was still alive, whether his opinion would count for a hill of beans. Certainly, nobody cares about the opinions of the lesser inheritors of the civil rights mantle.

King was a hero and he made the ultimate sacrifice for his cause (he was quite obviously aware of the risk). It is, I think, no disservice to his memory to point out that he is, with the exception of Rosa Parks (no disrespect intended to her, either), the most overinvoked (by Americans) activist ever.

It is a species of magical thinking to believe that, if King were alive, he would have some special wisdom to share that would dissolve our problems away. The world is bewilderingly complex, and the impulse to seek the shelter of the iconic figures of the past is natural, but it is not remotely helpful.

Actually, the “What would Dr. King say” line of thought is far more pernicious than simply some nostalgic notion that the great people of the past dispose of all wisdom. It is a species of political and moral cowardice (this piece is inspired in part by this post from Ta-Nehisi Coates).  King has been made into a plaster saint, whose dicta must perforce be treated with reverence by the entire political spectrum (witness conservative invocation of “the content of our character”); once we wrap an argument in the cloak of King, then it must be accepted.

Except, of course, that it isn’t, any more than arguments using Jesus to favor the right or the left are accepted by the other side. The truth is, there is no substitute for stating clearly what your principles are and arguing for them on their merits, not by some appeal to putative authority. It’s not likely to work–especially in this political environment–but at least it shows you believe in yourself; invoking King is just a sign that you are not confident that your views can stand by themselves.

8 Responses
  1. Chris permalink
    January 17, 2011

    All true, but all even truer of the Founding Fathers. MLK Day has nothing on the way they’ve been deified over the ages, or the way our politicians are required to genuflect on their altar and justify everything they do by appealing to their ghosts.

  2. January 17, 2011

    That is certainly true, but my original thought in writing this was the behavior of progressives. They have much more of a King problem than a Founding Father problem.

  3. Donald permalink
    January 25, 2011

    I disagree. Referring to MLK is a kind of shorthand that means “This is what a morally consistent advocate for justice probably would say if he were alive today, based on what he said about Vietnam in his day or about “white moderates” in his day” or whatever. Whether the argument works depends on whether one can make a decent case for saying that Vietnam is like our current wars, or self-proclaimed moderates today are like those of the past or whatever the issue happens to be. And the fact that King said it gives the argument extra punch. You may not like it, but complete unknowns who give really powerful arguments are often dismissed without a hearing–it probably helps if they can link what they say to something similar that was said by MLK.

  4. January 25, 2011

    Donald, I actually don’t disagree witb you. I think it’s fine to use King as this sort of shorthand. My problem is the ubiquity of it, the excessive focus on King rather than others, and the fact that people are more courageous about what they say under King’s aegis than when they’re speaking on their own account.

    About that last point–I know it well.

  5. freemansfarm permalink
    January 31, 2011

    Actually, I think Gandhi ranks right up there with King when it comes to tendentious, out of context quoting, logically fallcious, spurious appeals to authority, and speculative guesses as to what he “would” have said about x, y or z issue today, if he were alive today.

    Both of these men were great leaders. Both of them showed great moral courage and fought for just causes doggedly and at the expense of their physical, financial, mental and emotional well being, and, ultimately, their lives.

    But neither of them was infallible. Neither of them had, or even claimed to have, a direct pipeline to God or to any other perfect source of wisdom. Both ackowledged that they made mistakes. But, if one still insists on invoking their mantles, then one has to show how whatever course of action one is arguing for is supported by the moral principles they embraced, not simply quote mine them for any plausible string of words, wrenched from their original text (and the time, place and issue associated with that text) and say, “See, Gandhi (or King) would agree with me….” There is a big difference between being a “morally consistent advocate for justice” and merely finding something–anything–remotely on point that Dr. King or Gandhi once “said.” One requires a real argument, a real moral and political analysis, and a real engagment with the facts at hand today; the other nothing more than a little skimming with the help of an index to find the handy, “money” quote. Gandhi and King, over the courses of their respective decades-long struggles, both produced voluminous amount of spoken and written words. Like the Bible, or Jefferson, or Shakespeare, a snippet can be found and invoked to justify almost anything.

    But that does no service to either one of them, or their legacies, or the person doing the invoking.

  6. Gordon Clark permalink
    February 1, 2011

    Maybe you should take the time to read some of King’s writings. His actions alone made him a real hero, more so than even Ghandi or Jesus in my opinion, but his words are more powerful than either of them.(in or out of context). The Wisdom of Martin Luther King,Jr., An A-to-Z guide to the ideas and ideals of the great civil rights leader, by Alex Ayres, is a good place to start.

  7. February 1, 2011


    I have, of course. I can’t quite imagine how you make him out a greater hero than Gandhi, although I guess you know little about the Indian freedom movement. As for his writings, they inspire many; I prefer others.

  8. Marc Silva permalink
    March 12, 2011

    I think it would be quite interesting to find out what Dr. King’s ghost thinks about the Pentagon lawyer’s speculation… assuming that there are ghosts, and that they are more knowledgeable than the rest of us regarding their exit from this mortal coil. Would King’s ghost recognize that we live in a sufficiently complicated world to justify his assassination under the direction of people within the Pentagon?

    But setting idle speculation aside, the thing that bugs me about these annual tributes to Dr. King is that there is never a mention of an important court case that took place in 1999, in which new evidence and testimony was presented to a jury that led them to quickly conclude that James Earl Ray wasn’t the shooter. Instead, the assassination of King was the work of “the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies” (to quote from Coretta Scott King’s statement following the verdict in Kings v. Jowers and Co-conspirators). Certainly MLK III knew about the case, since he attended and also contributed a brief statement after the verdict.


    Has there been any mainstream media scrutiny of this trial? Were there flaws that somehow tainted the verdict and direct us back to the James Earl Ray ending? I’m not aware of any. Quoting Coretta Scott King again:

    “The jury also affirmed overwhelming evidence that identified someone else, not James Earl Ray, as the shooter, and that Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame. … We have done what we can to reveal the truth, and we now urge you as members of the media, and we call upon elected officials, and other persons of influence to do what they can to share the revelation of this case to the widest possible audience.”

    So what happened to our media and elected officials and persons of influence? The annually recurring silence is deafening.

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