Monday, January 20, 2003
Happy MLK Day, everybody! Thanks to the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Wall Streeters like myself get the day off. Now that’s a shakedown I can get behind!
Seriously, though, today will see a lot of “tributes” to King that are really hijackings: arguments that, were he alive today, he’d be on one or another side of a contested issue. Liberals and conservatives will both claim King’s legacy for their positions on affirmative action, for example. Here’s the New York Sun doing just that for the conservative side of the argument – and throwing in the brewing war with Iraq for good measure.
You can find quotes from King to support either position on affirmative action. Liberals will point out that King favored affirmative action in his lifetime. Conservatives will argue that (a) things are very different now, and (b) affirmative action is inconsistent with King’s professed ideals. Liberals will rejoinder that (a) things are different now in large part because of affirmative action, and (b) if it is so inconsistent, how could King have supported race-conscious policies in his lifetime?
I think the liberals get the better part of this argument. It’s overwhelmingly likely that King would be a strong supporter of affirmative action were he alive today. But this is really a silly argument. Who cares what King would have thought? The whole exercise seems a bit like those Lubavitcher Hasidim who still consult with their departed Rebbe on what to do about this or that life decision – job, marriage, etc. They ask the question, then open a book of his letters at random and look for the answer to their question in the letter thus revealed. If we all profess King’s ideals, then we have a common ground for argument about what they mean, and can legitimately disagree about that without using his ghost as an arbiter.
Jews do the same thing. King was famously anti-anti-Semitic and friendly to Israel. Some of his closest allies were Jews, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Does that mean, as any number of emails have assured me today, that King would be a supporter of Israel’s current government and policies? Or does King’s strong support of anti-colonial movements mean that he would be a partisan of the Palestinian cause? Again, I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that, as a professor of the creed of non-violence, King would line up with the Peace Now, New Israel Fund and Meretz crowd: in favor of a Palestinian state, against the settlements, against the Sharon government, etc. I don’t think he’d be hanging out with the crowd at A.N.S.W.E.R. any more than during his lifetime he associated with the Black Muslims. But he would not be providing useful soundbites for AIPAC.
There is a tendency to treat King as a saint, because of his martyrdom, and so asserting what he would say about x or y today amounts to arguing that his asserted position is unassailably right. But if he were alive today, he would have had to live through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. And his response to the moral and practical challenges thrown up in those decades would determine who he was by the year 2003 – and what we think of him. Assuming that he didn’t decline into talking-head banality, and remained morally engaged for another 35 years, those 35 years would have thrown up two moral challenges of interest. I’m not sure how he would have responded, but his responses would have shaped his ultimate historical significance, and potentially would have changed history. They are: the renewal of anti-Communism in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the rise of the anti-abortion movement in the 1980s and 1990s.
King was a pacifist, a Socialist and an opponent of the Vietnam War in his time. He was supported by Communists and Communist front groups, knew it, and didn’t consider the fact terribly significant. He clearly felt that the moral struggle against segregation was more important than the moral struggle against Communism. I suspect he didn’t really give a second thought to the latter or have much interest in what Communism really meant (he was a committed Christian, after all), or the extent of its crimes.
But it is not obvious to me that King could have maintained that position through the 1980s. Anti-Communism in the late-1970s and 1980s took on a very different cast than it had had in the 1950s. Jews who would normally have been counted as part of the Left – like Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach – were activists in the fight to free Soviet Jews. Liberal dissidents like Vaclav Havel could not be so easily dismissed by Western liberals as a Romantic nationalist like Solzhenitzyn. And, indeed, the 1970s was a time when a division appeared in the ranks of the Western Left, with some members moving sharply Right, and ultimately joining the ranks of the neo-conservatives, out of belated recognition that the Soviet regime was, well, evil.
Would King have been among them? Would he have counted Natan Sharansky and Vaclav Havel among his allies? Or we he have remained comfortably uninvolved in this emerging moral drama? One of his close allies in life, Bayard Rustin, took the former course. He was a former Communist who had abandoned Communism by the 1940s, and who supported LBJ in 1964. He was outspoken against Soviet oppression of Jews – and Russians – and held up the banner of the anti-Communist left when fewer and fewer saw the need to hoist it. He never became a right-winger; he was a Socialist to his dying day. But he was an anti-Communist. Had King joined him, he would have made a far more significant impact on the moral credibility of the Left, and perhaps saved more of it from the creeping ’68-ism that has done so much damage. Had he, rather, joined his protégé Jesse Jackson and ignored the evils of Communism, he would have made the triumph of the Reagan revolution that much more difficult, and racial reconciliation in its wake that much more implausible.
Abortion is an even more interesting question to contemplate. King was a committed Christian, someone who truly believed that G-d had chosen him – to a great extent against his will – to fulfill a divine mission on Earth. Would he have been swayed by allies such as Father (then Reverend) John Neuhaus to the position that the radical liberalization of abortion law, and the explosion in the number of abortions in this country and throughout the Western world, was a great evil? Or would he have preferred the comfortable alliances with liberal groups strongly supportive of that liberalization, groups more likely to support his crusades to increase spending on the poor, rein in capitalism, and redistribute wealth on racial lines?
The crimes of Communism took place overseas; as a pacifist, it would not have been hard for King to simply say that his problem was the moral condition of America, not Russia. He could not say that with respect to abortion. Would King have added the fight against abortion to his list of causes, as he did fights against poverty, for organized labor and so forth? If he did, he would potentially have changed the politics of the 1990s significantly. In the 1990s, abortion became the primary organizing issue of the Democratic Party, and the key to unlocking its fundraising base. But the demographic cornerstone of the Democratic Party is its 90% support among black voters. If King broke ranks with his liberal allies over abortion, what would the implications have been for the Democratic Party? By contrast, if King embraced his liberal allies and rejected the Christian opponents of abortion, what would the impact have been upon those opponents’ attempts to advance their cause in Christian circles?
Unlike the debate over what King would say today about affirmative action or about Israel, these questions - anti-Communism and abortion - are not attempts to rope King into present-day debates (and thereby shut the debate down) but to ponder the influence of a single man upon the world. If King remained embalmed in his views of 1968, and had had nothing to say about the events of the past 35 years, then today he would be irrelevant. His name would be conjured with far less than it is now. But had he lived, and engaged with the moral issues of the day over the past 35 years, he would have, by his responses to those issues, either expanded his legacy or contracted it. And either way, he would have continued to change the world.