How does a man who was so deeply unpopular when he was alive become a universally beloved and toothless Christ figure? The holiday and the statues, for starters.
Ritual is a tricky thing. It’s supposed to reaffirm and reify belief, but the repetition can leave the ritual shorn of any context. The lobbying by activists to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday had the unintended effect of making Dr. King a neat little totem of racial progress to be trotted out annually and paid a perfunctory obeisance. The climax of the “I Have A Dream” speech is trotted out like so many candy canes in December, and a polarizing political activist who was murdered in cold blood to be a pitchman for computers and pickup trucks and computers.
Even conservatives genuflect before his memory. While dismantling affirmative action, a policy King advocated, they cite King’s aspiration that Americans be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. King is a totem: safe, universal, unobjectionable. He is as remote and mythical to schoolchildren as any other figure in the national pantheon stretching back to the founding fathers. His inner turmoil, his public failures, his vocal critics, left and right, have all faded from view, replaced by a fable in which a nation awakens gently to his self-evident dream.
One of our regular commenters hipped us to an internal letter from the massive accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which outlined its decision to treat today as a regular work day. That notion is highly disagreeable to a lot of people, who feel that working on the holiday is a slight to MLK’s memory. Guess it was pretty inevitable.