Conservative Character Actors and the Co-Optation of Martin Luther King Jr.

It has been said that even the devil can quote Scripture for his purposes. So too, apparently, can conservatives quote Martin Luther King Jr. for theirs. To wit, Glenn Beck, who has perfected the craft of cribbing from Dr. King, thereby debasing the majestic prose of the latter and distorting King’s intentions to the point where they would have been unrecognizable to him.

And so, after Beck’s weekend rally, which coincided with the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Beck explained that while he disagrees with the part of the civil rights movement that was about social justice and economic equity — which is to say he disagrees with pretty much all of it — he agrees with the other part. You know that one line, literally, one line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — the one about how we should judge people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

It is always this line to which conservatives make reference. For years they’ve employed it so as to attack affirmative action. If King believed in character over color, they intone, he would have opposed such programs in employment or college admissions. Of course, that’s the kind of thinking that follows when you don’t actually listen to the entire speech from which the one line was taken, or read any of King’s writings.

Had conservatives done the latter, for instance, they might have stumbled upon what King had to say about the issue we now know as affirmative action. In his book “Why We Can’t Wait,” King noted:

“Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race 300 years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.”

While one is free to disagree with King about the legitimacy of his argument — though it speaks to a philosophical and practical truth that is hard to assail from a place of intellectual honesty — one is not free to pretend he never said it, or to pluck a separate line from a separate text and plop it down in the middle of this one as though it were a parenthetical amendment to his larger point.

But it’s not only the mischaracterization of King’s views on affirmative action that should trouble us. Even the claim by conservatives that they believe in judging people only on the basis of character is a lie. After all, it isn’t the character of individual Muslims that leads them to oppose the building of Cordoba House in downtown Manhattan. They are judging on the basis of what other, totally unrelated Muslims did on 9/11.

And it isn’t character that would be used to determine who should be quizzed about their citizenship in Arizona. Those judgments will be based on appearance if the state’s new law, ostensibly cracking down on undocumented migrants, is allowed to take effect. Those who are Latino will be subjected to identity verification in ways that others won’t be. And conservatives are OK with that.

With all the documentation about discrimination against people of color — in housing, employment, the justice system and elsewhere — you’d think people trying to move the nation away from color-based judgment and toward judgments based on character would have plenty to rally against. And yet they remain silent about those things, preferring to rail against Shirley Sherrod for things she didn’t even do, or to presume, based on color, that Colin Powell endorsed the president only as an act of racial bonding, as Rush Limbaugh insisted in 2008.

And that silence about real racism, combined with their venal co-opting of civil rights rhetoric, tells us all we need to know about the character of those guilty of both. Namely, that it is character without content.

One Response to “Conservative Character Actors and the Co-Optation of Martin Luther King Jr.”

  1. Read the article on Judging by the comments there, I imagine you’ll be getting a few e-mails, but I also imagine you’re well accustomed to that sort of thing. It still astonishes me that people can be so willfully blind, so undereducated about documents that are in the public record. In the same way I boggle that Sarah Palin honestly believes this country was founded on Judeo-Christian premise despite the pesky reality of the Constitution, I boggle that people exist who seriously believe that:

    “Liberals believe that minorities are inferior, and need to be treated like helpless, little pets. That’s the most deceitful kind of racism there is.”

    Do these people actually do any research on the subject or do they simply believe what they’re spoonfed by strawmen on television, half of whom don’t even believe (if a friend of mind inside the entertainment/news industry is to be believed) the drivel they’re spouting? In an age when John Stewart was named the most trusted newscaster in America after the death of Walter Cronkite (and I have no problems with this), I think even people who WANT to believe the ludicrous stylings of men like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly sometimes encounter bits of rhetoric that disturb their sense of equilibrium, that seem just a little too far-fetched and severe. But rather than actually think about them, they shake it off.

    You can see them doing it too, in this video clip:

    There are some lovely incidents in there during which the interviewer punches holes in the ultra-conservative party line and you can literally see people pause, then DECIDE, willfully, not to think about it. How are we supposed to fix anything that’s wrong with our society when so many of our countrymen are willfully ignorant? Innocent ignorance can be addressed by education. Willful ignorance is pathogenic.


Leave a Reply