Monday, January 15, 2018

Beyond "MLK-lite": MLK Day 2018

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the United States.  As I've discussed in previous years, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is my favorite American holiday because it's a holiday about hope for a better world.

I think King's ideas are as relevant as ever in our current Trumpian, bigotry-resurgent times.  These days it often seems that my country and other parts of the world are deliberately moving against everything King stood for, which makes being familiar with King's actual ideas all the more important.  As his daughter Bernice King said in a recent tweet,  "Let's be weaned off of MLK-lite."

The encouraging of "MLK-lite" is one of the regrettable effects of the King holiday, what Cornel West and others have also called "the Santa-Clausification" of King.  We choose a few inspiring quotes, often taken out of context, to turn King into a non-offensive feel-good motivational speaker.  We conveniently forget that he was jailed dozens of times, blocked traffic, spoke out against the Vietnam War, empathized with rioters, worked with organized labor, and died in Memphis while supporting a sanitation workers' strike.

But worst of all in my opinion, we forget his ideas.  We turn nonviolence (a specific philosophy as challenging as it is inspiring) into a fluffy, Disneyfied toothless individual sentiment.  We (especially, it must be admitted, my fellow white Americans) turn King's trenchant critiques of racism, classism, materialism, economic injustice, and militarism into "I don't see race" and "I judge everyone according to the content of their character."

But don't take my word for it.  Please read King's work for yourself.  I recommend starting with the speech, "Where Do We Go From Here?" which includes the famous bit about "the arc of the moral universe," a quote that is often taken out of context.  I also recommend actually reading the entirety of "I Have a Dream" (not just the quotable bits) as well as his masterful (and deeply philosophical) "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."  And of course his books are all well worth reading.  My favorites are Strength to Love (which includes the idea of a "tough mind and a tender heart" - a chapter I often assign in my philosophy classes) and Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (his last and most challenging book).

I have some other ideas in my MLK Day posts from previous years: "A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart" from 2015 (on the importance of both critical thinking and compassion), "MLK, Social Justice, and Science Fiction" from 2016 (which includes the story of how King convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay on Star Trek), and "The Moral Arc, Philosophy, and Science Fiction" from last year (where I get into the deeper meaning of the notion of a "moral arc").

My wish for MLK Day 2018 is that we stop making this a holiday about imagined nostalgia and rose-tinted worship of an American hero-saint (which King wouldn't have wanted in any case).  My wish is that we can make this day into an honoring of the struggles of the past and a frank appreciation of how far we have yet to go.  But most of all I would like to see MLK Day become a holiday of hope that, despite so many contemporary appearances, we do have what it takes to get to the mountain top.

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