The Santa-ization of MLK, Jr.’s Politics

by MATT STOLLER and CHARLES DAVIS

“The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.”

 – Martin Luther King’s final speech, Ive Been to the Mountaintop

In the first episode of BrandX, Russell Brand talked about meeting the Dalai Lama. Why did we choose him as the subject for our first show? Because the Dalai Lama’s preaching of peace, anti-consumerism, spirituality and nonviolence is radical, a stark contrast to the message of war and consumption one usually hears on television.

In the writer’s room, as we were talking about who the Dalai Lama is, we hit upon a question that none of us could answer: who is the American Dalai Lama? And we realized, there isn’t one. The last great spiritual figure in American history was Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, though, King has been turned into a Santa Clause figure. There’s a holiday commemorating his life and works and his likeness appears in ads for Apple Computer, Alcatel, and McDonald’s. King’s legacy, if commercial interests had their way, would be the nonthreatening “Think Different” campaign, an encouragement to purchase luxury electronic goods made by exploited foreign workers.

Yet, for all of King’s talk of getting along – the stuff he’s known for now — he was not at all about just going along with a system he saw as evil; he wasn’t about politely working within a system designed by and for those who profit from human suffering. And for that reason he was hated by the elites, labeled a communist by the likes of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and a potential security threat by good liberals like Robert Kennedy.

Rather than shy away from controversy, however, King embraced his status as a pariah for progressive change, coming out as an enemy of the American warfare state.

Speaking at a church in New York City in April 1967, King criticized American military intervention in Vietnam, proclaiming that he could no longer stand idly be as his government – headed by a pro-war Democrat – reigned hell upon the poor overseas. Though he had for years focused on preaching a message of peace as an answer to America’s domestic problems, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.” King decided he couldn’t keep quiet as millions of human beings being murdered in Vietnam, even if it meant speaking out against a president who had signed the Civil Rights Act. For the sake of those at home watching their government employ violence to solve its perceived problems, and thinking that perhaps violence could be the solution to problems of their own, and “for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

Almost a year to the day later, King was silenced for good by an assassin’s bullet.

Martin Luther King Jr. was an American radical, a man who stood up to the ruling class on behalf of the impoverished, both at home and abroad. Unable to confront the moral force of his message, the powerful have instead chosen to ignore it, appropriating his image and stripping him of his radicalness. In Washington the whitewashing of King’s legacy is plain for all to see, the madeinChina monument constructed in his honor as white as most members of Congress.

But like other radicals, King’s image has been appropriated by the powerful, his inconvenient radicalism ignored, his message dumbed down to a few lines that would feel at home on a Hallmark card. According to the official history, King is something of a jolly American Santa Claus who, like, just wanted everyone to get along, man. George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike have claimed him as an inspiration, reducing him to the status of an honorary Founding Father, a guy who believed “all men are created equal,” in the words of The Decider, one who had faith in the “beliefs articulated in our founding documents.”

What our powerful elites leave out: That today, America doesn’t have an equivalent popular voice against state-sanctioned terror. Our preachers condemn sex and drugs, but can’t be bothered to say nary a bad word about incinerating women and children with Hellfire missiles. Our 21st century spiritual leaders hawk phones but couldn’t care less about peace, consumerism filling the void left by our society’s atrophied moral conscience.

That void cannot remain. A nation without a conscience, a nation that abides state-sanctioned murder from Yemen to Pakistan to Honduras so long as a new iPad is released every 9 months or so, is a nation without a soul. Instead of waiting around for a savior, though, we as a people need to acknowledge our collective power to shape the future for the better, our ability to create a world where militarism and corporate greed are supplanted by mutual aid and a commitment to community. The elites may have all the guns and money, but we have the numbers.

“For a time I was depressed,” Helen Keller, another American whose radicalism has been forgotten (she was a socialist, an antiwar marcher and a founder of the ACLU), remarked when speaking of her own awakening to the institutionalized injustice around her. “But little by little my confidence came back and I realized that the wonder is not that conditions are so bad, but that society has advanced so far in spite of them. And now I am in the fight to change things.”

Are you?

BrandX airs every Thursday at 11pm Eastern/Pacific on FX.

Matt Stoller is a political analyst for BrandX and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Charles Davis is a writer and researcher with BrandX and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Binoy Kampmark
Live Death on Air: The Killings at WDBJ
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Police Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by London Cops
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
David Yearsley
A Rising Star Over a Dark Forest
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman