Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Santa-ization of MLK's legacy

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 made-in-China 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.


  1. I don't have cable, so I can't watch it, but given what I've seen from the blog and youtube clips so far this seems a far more radical show than anything else on air today. What are your thoughts about it?

  2. Well, the producers actually agreed to give me money to work on the show, so I think you're on to something with that radical thing. I think it'll only become more so with time.

  3. That's actually bad news. I may have to shell out for cable now. Unless they're going to post episodes online after they air.

  4. Anonymous6:44 PM

    That is airing on a news corp channel, but I guess they see no threat. I guess I'll give it a watch.

  5. Felicidades on the new job, delighted you're reaching such a big audience! (And as usual, great post.)

  6. Congratulations. And yes more, rather than less, radical, please. We're long past polite disagreements here.

  7. Jack,

    The Dalai Lama is of course extremely flawed: he received funding from the CIA and couldn't ever seem to bring himself to forcefully condemn the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The point we were trying to make was not that he's super awesome, but that corporate media and politicians only approve of a radical message of non-violence if it comes from a safe, non-threatening foreigner who doesn't threaten their power, a role the Dalai Lama fills as a direct result of his aforementioned flaws. If the message of peace comes from a domestic radical in relation to his or her own country, however -- as with King and Keller -- that aspect of their message is either ignored or reduced to a feel-good line on a greeting card.

  8. Charles,

    I got that from the full essay, I just think there's a reason to be wary of looking for analogs to the DL or Gandhi, given the caste systems upon which they always depended for their power.

    All that said, I can think of person like Ammon Hennacy as an excellent homegrown answer to your original question. Plus, he has the added benefit of being somewhat more resistant to sanitization, in comparison to the woefully recast MLK, Jr.

  9. And Dali Lama also naively supports Israel this of course, does not mean China is in the right either.