FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Patrick Bond
Zimbabwe Witnessing an Elite Transition as Economic Meltdown Looms
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
Thomas Knapp
Impeachment Theater, 2017 Edition
Binoy Kampmark
Trump in Asia
Curtis FJ Doebbler
COP23: Truth Without Consequences?
Louisa Willcox
Obesity in Bears: Vital and Beautiful
Deborah James
E-Commerce and the WTO
Ann Garrison
Burundi Defies the Imperial Criminal Court: an Interview with John Philpot
Robert Koehler
Trapped in ‘a Man’s World’
Stephen Cooper
Wiping the Stain of Capital Punishment Clean
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail