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Monday, January 17, 2011

The Right, Ayn Rand, and Dr. King

King supports AFL-CIOMartin Luther King was a Republican. This statement was all the rage a year ago, when it was extremely important to remember that Tea Partiers marching around with racist signs were most definitely not racist. In fact, when Glenn Beck announced his big rally on the anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream Speech," he said it was to "reclaim" the civil rights movement -- as if King and his followers braved dogs and batons and jail to protect the downtrodden, oppressed rich white guy from tax increases. But it pays to remember where King was and what he was doing when he died.

John Nichols, The Nation:

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was not assassinated at a rally organized by a right-wing talk radio host, or at the inauguration of a conservative Republican governor.

King, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaigner for economic and social justice whose legacy we celebrate with a holiday that falls on Jan. 17 this year, died while supporting the right of public employees to organize labor unions and to fight for the preservation of public services.

That inconvenient truth is sometimes obscured by pop historians, who would have us believe that King was merely a "civil rights leader." King's was a comprehensive activism that extended far beyond the boundaries of the movement to end segregation. His most famous address, the "I Have a Dream" speech, was delivered at the 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" -- a historic event that explicitly linked the social and economic demands of campaigners for civil rights and economic justice.

The Republican attempt to claim King as one of their own -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- is all part of what Cornell West called "the Santa Clausification" of King. It's the idea that he was a nice man who freed people and now that's all done with, because he made everything perfect.

For a political movement committed to either protecting the status quo or restoring a previous status quo, the idea that issues of race and racism have been resolved completely is pretty damned useful. That's all over now, because Dr. King descended from heaven and solved everything with his magic speech. Never mind that this aspect of King's work is far from done and, on issues of race, America is a less than perfect country.

But beyond just issues of equality, King envisioned a more just nation. In addition to racial justice, he worked for economic justice and the dreaded social justice.

"All I'm saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly," King said in his 1963 speech, Social Justice and the Emerging New Age. "For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms. 'No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of a Continent, a part of the main.' He goes on toward the end to say 'Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.' It seems to me that this is the first challenge. This emerging new age."

King's message here is, put simply, "we're all in this together." Compare that to the GOP's objectivist-tinged "every man for himself!" ideology and see how they match up. They don't. Ayn Rand and Martin Luther King jr. weren't kindred souls, but polar opposites.

And, if you still need convincing that the real King has no place on the right, consider the Tea Party. Not only are they fans of racists slogans, but they're busy restoring segregation and scrubbing all mention of the founders' slaves from history textbooks. I'm guessing King wouldn't be much of a fan.

And the right knows this. Which is why they've pretty much given up on the "King was Republican" lie. It was all an attempt to get African-Americans to accept the Republican Party. This failed, so they've moved on, giving up on blacks -- and most minorities, for that matter.

It was fun while it lasted, but once they learned he was about more than just a single sentence -- "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" -- but an entire philosophy, they were done with him. Embracing King would require them to change. And conservatives don't do change -- unless that change is to undo previous change.

"Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness," Dr. King once said. Conversely, Republicans and the Tea Party are guided by the Prophet of Selfishness, Ayn Rand -- self-proclaimed enemy of altruism.

One philosophy excludes the other -- completely. Republicans and the Tea Party gave themselves a choice between two contemporary thinkers. They claim to follow both, but that's just cynical pretense, born of a need to win over minority voters. They made their choice and it wasn't Dr. Martin Luther King jr.


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