For those on the east coast reading this blog on 8/26 or this weekend, please take steps to make sure you’re safe given Irene. Government information can be found here. I am bracing for a storm at least as bad as the winter storms we’ve been hit with in Baltimore over the last two years.
One of the things we’re going to miss as a result of Irene is the King Memorial dedication. King is only the fourth non-President to be honored by a memorial in D.C. and the first African American. I have not been able to go to the memorial yet (it’s been open since Monday 8/22), but I am hoping that it has at least some of the spirit of the best memorial in the area–the FDR memorial is without a doubt the first memorial dc tourists should visit.
Cornel West has been on a bit of a tear lately. Today the NYT published an opinion piece by West arguing that what we lack now is King inspired rhetoric that would dig us out of our current political and economic malaise. King, he argued, would be calling for a revolution, rather than a memorial.
There are a couple of points here that bear making.
1. We don’t know what King would’ve wanted because King is dead.
We routinely put our political ideas into the mouths of men and women not alive to make them. Although we would like to think we do so for the purpose of being “true” to the historical record, in reality what we’re doing is making politically strategic claims. Instead of doing the heavy lifting required to make a set of claims that could possibly take hold amongst the public in general, we instead take someone who isn’t around to say anything one way or the other, and use him/her to make that claim for us. And it’s simply wrong. Empirically speaking, we don’t know what the hell King would say if he were alive….because people change. Our ideas aren’t static, they’re incredibly dynamic. King in 1968 was drastically different from King in 1955. Who is to say that King in 2011 wouldn’t be conservative?
And politically speaking using King as the feint, as the lynchpin to make claims about how bad our current situation is, reproduces two serious problems in black politics. First it reproduces the idea that our politics have not shifted or changed much since the Civil Rights Movement, even though a full 43 years have passed since King was assassinated (the freshmen I encounter starting Monday were born in 1993!). Second, it reproduces the idea that we need heroic and charismatic leaders to resurrect our politics. Both are dreadfully wrong. Which leads to…
2. Even if King were around and even if King made the same political claims now that he made in 1968 it wouldn’t matter much…because our politics is the product of social movements more than they are the product of charismatic individuals. West and Tavis Smiley have been touring the country talking about the general unwillingness to deal with the fundamental problem of income inequality. The reason their tour hasn’t gained much traction isn’t because black people are so in love with Obama. It’s because neither Smiley nor West have a true political constituency. Now perhaps we shouldn’t necessarily expect either of them to have one. But we should expect West at the very least to understand that politics is the product of political organizing, not of speech making/editorial writing/tweeting.
I write this of course in full support of a range of political actions designed to combat income inequality. But I also write this as one interested in letting our martyrs stay martyred. We’ve got a problem the size of Irene and Katrina put together if the best we can do in the face of our current political and economic problems is go back 43 years to a time when computers the size of basketball courts held less data than the iPhone I use.