by Will on September 14, 2010

There’s no doubt that Martin Luther King was a huge figure in 20th-century America. He had a unique talent for framing issues in a way that swayed people who were on the fence, a talent that guys like Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln also had. However, there is something problematic about the way that we elevate historical figures to Saint status in this country. We name tons of things after them and put up posters of them in classrooms and other public places all over, without spending much time discussing what they actually did and said. There is a way in which this bestowing of Saintliness diminishes the humanity of the figures so honored, and effaces the real struggles and tribulations of their lives.

The fact of elevating some figure to Saint status seems to make us feel obliged to pretend that said figure held mainstream, contemporary views. Thus it strikes us as discomforting that Lincoln, for instance, once favored sending African Americans to Africa, or that Washington owned slaves. The reality is that other times were different from ours, people living in them faced different constraints and expectations, and to recognize individuals who made unusually big contributions is not to credit them with setting the country on the exact course it seems to be taking now.

For most Americans to my political right, treating MLK as a Saint means ignoring the fact that he was a fairly aggressive and outspoken Social Democrat and opponent of American intervention abroad, who favored broad state intervention in the economy and opposed the war in Vietnam rather stridently. To pretend, as we like to do, “MLK had a dream — and we as a country realized it”, is to cheapen what MLK was trying to accomplish, and to mischaracterize it. People who know almost nothing about MLK are far too quick to cite him in support of their cause, whatever it may be.

Which brings me to Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon on the subject. Tom Tomorrow is one of my favorite political cartoonists. Like myself, he feels it necessary to keep abreast of what the other side is saying. He addresses his opponents in satirical terms, and generally succeeds in highlighting the mediocrity of the public debate we have. Even when I don’t agree with his positions, I like his skewering of what passes for discourse.

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