On Friday's Barbershop I weighed in on the "controversy" over President Obama using Lincoln's Bible and Martin Luther King jr's Bible during his swearing in ceremony[foot]Listen here.[/foot]. I noted that King was dead, and if we want to make claims about racial inequality or class inequality we'd be better off focusing on the here and now and making claims about inequality rooted in the contemporary condition than in focusing on what King would've done. I then argued that Obama's choice of King–or rather the connections people make between Obama and King–fit if we look at the King of 1955 or so.
That King supported the market strongly.
That King had to be browbeaten to participate in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Then had to be browbeaten again to continue after it was found successful.
Several years later, that King arguably left Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party on the cutting room floor of the 1964 Democratic Convention, supporting the LBJ Compromise that gave them two symbolic seats in the convention while allowing the white supremacist Mississippi Democratic Party delegation to participate fully.
Now on the other hand if we look at the King of 1967, we find Obama wanting. And it isn't even close.
That King spent the last days of his life supporting a workers strike.
That King was largely on the outs with the civil rights establishment because he felt the Vietnam War was immoral.
That King argued that we needed a fusion of capitalism and socialism (if not communism) to bring together the wealth creating components of capitalism with the resource sharing components of socialism.
It's hard to see Obama in THIS King.
Now a strong argument can be made that civil rights leaders need to be incorporated into the national tapestry. That the symbolic choice of the King Bible along with the newly created King Monument in Washington D.C. help further embed the causes they fought for into the natural language we use to describe American democracy and American political values.
However the question becomes how are they incorporated? To what ends are they used? Are they used to moor a strong argument against inequality in that same fabric? Are they used to valiantly argue for a deeply American progressive vision of what America should be?
Or are they used to show how far we've come, to show how high we've lifted ourselves?
Particularly because Cornel West was one of the people making this argument–a little more than four years ago Cornel West, Julianne Malveaux, and other intellectuals blasted Obama for not mentioning King's name during the speech he gave when he formally accepted the Democratic nomination for President (on the anniversary of the March on Washington)–his comments sound shaky.
West is a deeply flawed vessel. He is an elitist. His vision of democratic pragmatism largely ignores the work of ACTUAL democratic activists. On more than one occasion he's turned on folk more for personal slights than for political ones[foot]Not only has he talked about Obama not inviting him to the first Inauguration, but his attacks against former Harvard President Larry Summer didn't begin until after Summer attacked West's productivity, not after Summer argued women might not have what it took to be scientists. And most recently he engaged in the most vicious attack against Melissa Harris-Perry I've ever seen him make.[/foot]. This doesn't mean his general critique is wrong. And in the absence of louder voices, I'll take his. Gladly.