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April 4, 2008

Forty years gone
Posted by Patrick at 08:31 AM *

He was a lot more interesting than the plaster saint he’s been recast as. He was also a lot more radical. All day, the national media will remind us that he was murdered forty years ago today. But how many of them will quote this speech, delivered exactly a year earlier, April 4, 1967?

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy—and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us—not their fellow Vietnamese—the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go—primarily women and children and the aged.

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one “Vietcong”-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them—mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force—the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?

Now there is little left to build on—save bitterness.

For this speech, Time accused him of “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post announced that he had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.” Maureen Dowd wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about how annoying he was, see, just like the unpopular kids in high school, get it? Richard Cohen mournfully announced that all sensible liberals like Richard Cohen were obliged to repudiate this kind of extremist attack on America. And Chris Matthews wondered how talk like this would play to “regular people.” Wait, I seem to have become unstuck in time. It’s so hard to tell.

Comments on Forty years gone:
#1 ::: Brian ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 09:24 AM:

Although I find it sad, it never surprises me how selective our
memories are, both as individuals and as a society. Hindsight is just
as flawed as foresight because we remember only what we choose to.

#2 ::: Sajia Kabir ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 09:26 AM:

You're not so far off the mark. The ever-loathsome National Post had an essay yesterday with the headline: "A Dream Gone
Astray: Seeds of Anti-Americanism in MLK's words." Because, of course,
it is so anti-American to chastise the US for behavior that would have
had the USSR or Iran verbally horsewhipped.

#3 ::: DaveKuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 09:30 AM:

I served in that war. I saw no concentration camps. Nor did I see
any children running in packs like animals. Likewise, I didn't see any
children pimping their sisters and mothers. Of the many civilians I had
contact with, most were friendly and optimistic about living free of
the VC and North Vietnamese. Many wanted only the weapons to defend
themselves. Exactly what war was he alluding to and when did he serve
over there to even witness anything he alleged?

#4 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 09:43 AM:

DaveKuzminski @ 3: Well if you didn't see it, it must have been the
fever dream of that uppity preacher fella, right? And since he didn't
serve, his whole argument against the war and the treatment of people
home and abroad with darker skin and different shaped eyes must be

#5 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 10:13 AM:

Two interesting things are going on in this quote:

a. A set of factual claims by MLK, who may have been right or wrong,
and if wrong, may have been mistaken or intentionally lying.

b. A set of positions held by a now-sainted political figure that
have been flushed down the memory hole, as a part of casting his
likeness in plaster for future admiration.

IMO, (b) is more interesting. We've made MLK into a plaster saint
for our own purposes. And part of that is forgetting anything
uncomfortable about him--the rumors[1] of affairs, the radical
positions, the overt political manoevering, etc.

If we want to learn from what a flawed but apparently pretty
insightful guy tried to teach us, we can do that. Or we can have the
plaster saint, light
candles to it every now and then to prove we're not racists (See, we
can have an idealized and unrealistic picture of a sainted black
politician; it's not just idealized and unrealistic pictures of sainted
white politicians!). But we can't have both. Most people prefer the
plaster version, because he never makes them uncomfortable.

[1] I've heard rumors of affairs and womanizing by MLK for many years.
I've also heard that the FBI[2] spread rumors about this, though I
think they believed them to be true. I'm not sure whether the rumors
are true.

[2] Of course, in these enlightened times, the FBI, DHS, NSA, and related agencies would never
get involved in politics, harrass annoying activists, bug journalists
and politicians, etc. Anyone who says different is clearly a
blame-America-first liberal. Probably with a tapped phone.

#6 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 10:17 AM:

MLK died in Memphis supporting a strike of black 'sanitation workers', underpaid garbage collectors who had gone
on strike after two of their number had been killed because they were
forced to ride in the back of the garbage trucks and had been crushed
by the compactors. This sort of thing was, shall we say, completely
invisible to large segments of the population. King objected to that
invisibility, and spoke for its victims both in America and in the rest
of the world.

It is amazing to me that many people cannot see what is right in
front of their eyes because it does not fit into their nice, tidy
vision of the world. I cannot do that. Invisibility is the root of both
insensitivity and injustice, and I do not want to live in a world
founded on either. As Dr King said in 1963: "Injustice anywhere is a
threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network
of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one
directly, affects all indirectly."

#7 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 10:23 AM:

I was thinking of him as I bought my coffee this morning, feeling both old, and a trifle less than stellar.

I grew up with the myth of the man (I recall reading a biography of
him when I was about 10; there were things I identified with, which
should have told me something of race relations, but I digress).

He's now been dead longer than he was alive, and I've been alive
longer than he was. Hard to see oneself as older than an icon. Hard too
not to compare oneself. What, I wonder, have I done to make the world a
better place?

What else, I wonder, have I tried to do.

I have to trust that a lot of little things add up, because on balance, it doesn't feel like much.

#8 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 10:34 AM:

Dave: Hoo-boy. Can we please not turn this into a fight about what did (or didn't) happen in Viet-nam?

The re-location villages sure look (to me, from here) like
concentration camps. The photos of vast swaths of land denuded by
dioxins, the moonscapes from Arclights, and the accounts of a lot of
guys who were also there make it seem a reasonable position for someone
to hold (note, I am not saying these things were, or weren't true; the
comment about how things look, to me, is meant to cast context to
King's speech).

I can (did, in fact) tell the world of flowers and kisses in Iraq. I
can't, to first hand, speak of thousands held prisoner in Abu Ghraib;
for suspicion, nor of those the US has said are innocent, but can't be
released from Gitmo.

I didn't see those things (even when I was in the places they later took place). Doesn't mean they didn't take place.

I think the war(s) are a bad idea. I don't think looking at what they did (or may) have happened is a bad thing.

I also think today, all things considered, isn't the time to be
slanging King for his opposition to war you were in. Was he a plaster
saint? Nope. None of us are (as to his being a real saint, I can't tell

If he was wrong on the details of the war, I don't think he was
wrong in the opposition. I also don't think we'd be as far along in
fixing the mess of race we've made without him.

#9 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 10:52 AM:

"You see my husband as a saint and so he must be right in everything
he says and does; and then you see him as a devil and so everything he
says and does must be wrong ... My husband's neither a saint nor a
devil. He's just a human being and he makes mistakes..."

(Sarah Brady to Rachel Brown in Inherit the Wind)

#10 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 11:04 AM:

"...we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream..."

Call your Representatives and Senators -- and tell them, "No more
spying on American citizens and no immunity for the telecommunications
industry." 202-224-3121 is the number for the Congressional switchboard.

#11 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 11:15 AM:

MLK may have had some personal flaws but fighting for justice and civil rights wasn't one of them.

#12 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 11:33 AM:

I was born a year and change after his death, and yet, even as a
Yankee whitebread Jew, his shadow lay across my life in uncounted ways.

#13 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 11:35 AM:

What, My Lai?

Black humor aside, it hurts to look at pictures
of women trying to keep children -- children who don't look all that
different from my daughter -- from being gunned down. If only I hadn't
looked, it wouldn't have happened.

People can serve in a war without seeing every horror it has to
offer. Many who came home and tried to tell of some of what they saw
were ostracized and called liars and traitors, sometimes by others who
had been there. I don't think it's our duty to err on the side of the
assumption that we're perfect.

#14 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 11:39 AM:

Whoops, wrong direction of time... his death would have been about the time I was learning to walk. Otherwise, the same.

#15 ::: Constance Ash ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 11:49 AM:

As for what happened in Vietnam, I could re-tell tales told me by
some of Our Soldiers, of what they saw and what they did. -- some told
with sorrow and regret, and others boasted of what they did, including
rounding up local women for their own private brothels.

I could tell you what one of those soldiers who served in Vietnam
learned to do there and how, when he came home, he wouldn't stop doing
it. One of the consequences of this is my baby sister is dead.

Love, C.

#16 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 12:24 PM:

I haven't yet read it myself, but I've heard good things about
_Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference_, and the way it documents the complex, flawed,
heroic man who was Martin Luther King. It's not a short read, running
to over 800 pages, but there's a lot in it. I'd be interested to hear
what folks who have read it thought.

(Among other things, it talks both about MLK's affairs and the FBI's spying on them.)

Garrow also wrote an interesting article about King's academic
plagiarism in the June 1991 issue of the Journal of American History.
(Might as well bring the other well-known credible charge against King
up now, while I'm at it.) It's available online to JSTOR subscribers,
and in print form in many libraries.

Indeed, King was no plaster saint. But, as others have noted above,
none of the saints were plaster. Personally, I imagine one of the
devil's favorite lies is the idea that human flaws and failures
eliminate the possibility of saintliness. If that were true, Heaven
would be a desolate place.

#17 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 12:30 PM:

Constance Ash @ 15... I'm sorry to hear that.

#18 ::: Dimitrios ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 12:31 PM:

I'm struck by this part of the speech:

"We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only
non-Communist revolutionary political force—the unified Buddhist

It's remarkable that he seems to assume this important point: Revolution is Good.

Not always, not consistently, but almost always better than the
alternative. Also, it's interesting that he seems to realize that the
USA is a fundamentally revolutionary place and tradition. Something
most conservatives seem to want to disprove.

" Why, it was like reading about France and the French, before the
ever-memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years
of such villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood – one: a
settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood
for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of
that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame
and misery, the like of which was not to be mated but in hell. There
were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider
it: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold
blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years;
the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a
hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the
minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the
horror of swift death by the axe, compared with life-long death from
hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by
lightning, compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city
cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we
have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all
France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real
Terror – that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has
been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves." --Mark Twain

#19 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 01:01 PM:

18: Well, that wasn't an unusual position even in the US government
at the time. Bob Komer's office was called CORDS: Civil Operations and
Revolutionary Development Support. John Vann wrote a paper called
"Harnessing the Revolution in South Vietnam".

As far as I recall, there were a number of people like that who
realised that there was a Vietnamese revolution against the Saigon
government going on, and it was about land reform and redistribution,
and wasn't actually a bad thing; and who thought that this needn't
necessarily be a Communist revolution, at least not if the US
got on its side. The Buddhist church MLK refers to includes, in part,
the Hoa Hao warrior societies of the Mekong delta area - a fascinating
bunch, often very anti-Saigon and pretty anti-Communist as well, who
got clobbered in the early 60s by Saigon with US at least acquiescence
if not help.

Unfortunately, they were in direct opposition to the regular
military authorities, who wanted a) lots of US troops running around
the country in company strength trying to fight pitched battles and b)
lots of Saigon troops supporting them - which latter meant supporting
the Saigon governnment.

For my money, the time to get on the right side of the Vietnamese
revolution was 1945, when Vietnamese goodwill towards the US was at its
height (Ho Chi Minh having his life saved by an OSS medic, etc); put
the hammer down on de Gaulle, demand France pulls out of Indochina,
support the nascent Republic of Vietnam and you end up with an ally who
probably isn't that much more socialist than a lot of NATO members.

Caveats, obviously; I'm not a historian, I've never been to Vietnam,
I don't speak Vietnamese, I'm not even a professional COIN scholar or
practitioner. Feel free to correct me.

#20 ::: Richard Klin ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 01:22 PM:

Tonight, forty years
ago, I was watching BEWITCHED when an announcement came over the air
that a man named Martin Luther King had been shot. I was too young to
have heard of him, but I remember how jolting it felt.

Today's deracinated image of King--safe enough for McDonald's to honor him--is a real distortion. As usual.

#21 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 01:30 PM:

Bravo, Patrick! Thank you for the reminder!

#22 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 02:07 PM:

I was a sophomore in high school, that year, already a political
junky, and Mom and I sat up late listening to primary results and
talking about the war. Some of her friends had joined the march in
Washington and heard him speak in person.

The day after, she and her elder sister spent a lot of time on the
phone talking about people whose names I barely recognized, dead before
I was born.

It was 1968 for a lot longer than a year; it was still 1968 on May 4, 1970.

#23 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 02:14 PM:

I was a member of a small twig of the "Up With People" singing group
that spring, and we were called upon to entertain the National
Guardsmen who were standing down from trying to keep the peace/quell
the riots in Washington DC. On either Saturday the 6th or Sunday the
7th we did four shows in various locations around the area, one on the
back of a huge flatbed truck. For a heavily-choreographed show like
ours, the springs on that truck contributed to a remarkable lack of

When I think back on that experience I'm not sure how I feel about
it. I suppose if we lightened the mood of a bunch of uncertain
Guardsmen, that was good, but if our (all-white by virtue of the pool
we had to draw from) group served as a symbol of "why we fight," not so

#24 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 02:21 PM:

It was interesting, when I recently watched From the Earth to the Moon's episode "1968", to be reminded how crazy that year had been.

#25 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 02:40 PM:

It was 1968 for a lot longer than a year; it was still 1968 on May 4, 1970.

To a great many in our political machine, it is still 1968 and
forever will be. Except for the brief moments when it is September 11,
2001. All other dates and frames of reference are inconsequential.
You're either with the terrorists or against civil rights.

Maybe we need a larger calendar?

#26 ::: Richard Brandt ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 02:47 PM:

Serge @ #9: Nice one!

#27 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 04:15 PM:

I was in Vietnam on the day Dr. King gave that speech about the war.
I was still in the service, though back in the States on the day he was
killed, so it was not until sometime after his death I found out about
that speech. And by that time, the canonization had already begun; and
arguing about that speech was moot.

I was also in Washington, DC in 1963 to hear Dr. King say, "I have a
dream ..." and to admire his ability to speak for millions of people,
both black and white, who, even if they didn't have the dream
themselves, preferred it to the world they saw around them.

Was Dr. King right about what was happening in Vietnam? About some
of it, surely: I've seen an Arclight drop from a few miles away, and
Puff the Magic Dragon was a frequent neighbor of ours; the aftermath of
those weapons is pretty devastating to the countryside. And while none
of the Vietnamese people I talked to ever praised the VC or the
Northern government, not a one of them was very happy about their own
government either*. And the camps were concentration camps; they were
used to house people whose land had been poisoned by spraying from the
air**, and those people weren't pleased to be there. But the
interactions between locals and Americans I saw were not in general
hostile; wary, sure, and exploitive on both sides, but there were
friendships, love affairs, marriages and children, too.

What that speech says to me about Dr. King is that right or wrong
about the facts, here was a man who would not keep silent about immoral
acts he had reason to believe his country was committing. And the
people Patrick quotes as condemning him did so not for being wrong, but
for speaking out at all. Not much change in 40 years, eh?

* Not surprising; I've seen a QC military policeman directing traffic use his billy on an old woman who pissed him off.

** I had a a friend who served on one of the Agent Orange spray crews;
their motto was "Death from Above" and a lot of them didn't have
healthy lives after the war.

#28 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 05:04 PM:

What that speech says to me about Dr. King is that right or wrong
about the facts, here was a man who would not keep silent about immoral
acts he had reason to believe his country was committing. And the
people Patrick quotes as condemning him did so not for being wrong, but
for speaking out at all.

Yeah, that. Thank you, Mr. Cohen.

#29 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 05:45 PM:

Bruce Cohen (StM): What you said.

#30 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 06:36 PM:

I've mentioned this on ML before, but it bears repeating:

All I remember of the day that MLK Jr. died, or perhaps the day
after, was a slide that a certain TV station showed during breaks in
the news coverage. It has a single word, in a jangly typeface.


#31 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 06:42 PM:

I liked how CNN aired part of that speech this afternoon, with the
caption "why some considered him a traitor" thru the whole thing. I'm
so glad that it ended with the narrator reminding us at the very end that MLK is now remembered for his Peace legacy. What crap.

#32 ::: dido ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 07:24 PM:

I once had a Greek student who'd been a former Civil Rights worker,
and then a Black Panther and finally a Nation of Islam cleric/elder
(not sure of the precise term). While I was teaching, because I taught
through the same University MLK went to, there was an extra big fuss in
the local papers about the plagiarism scandal. In my mind this happened
only a few months after King's alleged extramarital affairs started
being reported (I doubt that's accurate.)

My student (who by then was an old man-- he must have been in his
late 40's in 1968)asked me in an extremely belligerent way what I
thought about the recent reports that King had been a "cheater."

And I took a big huge breath and thought about being a young white
girl in a predominantly older-minority classroom and sucked it up and
told the truth.

I think the news that MLK was not a "Plaster Saint" might have
devastated me at the time, if--like my former student-- I had worked
and suffered and demanded of the impossible of myself. I think that if
I had been in Selma or Memphis I might have felt betrayed. I don't know
that; I just think I might have been. As it is, I reap the benefits of
his incredible courage, eloquent genius and final sacrifice.

I still feel the same way. Because I have distance I'm happy to read
about King's life and legacy with all it's/his flaws. It helps me to
realize that I don't need to be a plaster saint either. That inspires
me to do what I can.

It saddens me that anyone could use the trope "well, he was only human" to devalue King's legacy.

Bruce Cohen @ 27: My (estranged) father was a door-gunner in Viet
Nam. I've never had the nerve to ask him about his experiences because
(so I've heard) what he always told my mother was, "If you can talk
about it you weren't there." [Obvious observation: this is only one
person's experience told at third hand--I still think it's
enlightening. In fact, I thought about that a lot as I was reading "The
Things They Carried".]

#33 ::: Edward Oleander ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 07:56 PM:

And that is why I no longer watch CNN... Brian Williams for President!

#34 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 08:04 PM:

Edward Oleander @ 33... I don't watch those shows either if I
can help it. Alas, I was in line at the bank to put some money in (for
a change) and their TV is always on. At least, it wasn't tuned to Fox

#35 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 09:03 PM:

I've been thinking about this thread and what it means about people.
Some folks want to whitewash MLK so they can put him on the same side
as themselves.


I deify MLK.

Therefore I'm good.

Other's want to villify him when they view his opinion as being against theirs.

MLK speaks out against that which I support.

I villify MLK.

Therefore I can remain in the good.

It seems to be one of the most global, universal, human behaviours
I've ever seen. We devolve to the ad hominem and the appeal to
authority, rather than examining our own sense of what is right.

And yet, me noticing that, understanding it, doesn't change a damn thing.

Even if the world decided to take on all of MLK, good and bad, and
look at him in total, as a human, it wouldn't neccessarily mean that
people would then look at the next person who vocally opposes the next

Dear god, I would like to file a bug report.

#36 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 09:15 PM:

dido @ 32

Well, some can talk about some parts of it; others can talk about
other parts; some can't talk at all. As in all of life, YMMV. It's as
much about who you are and who you have to talk to, as it is about what
you saw. The studies being done with Iraq vets with PTSD indicate that
if you can talk about it you're more likely to get over the
worst of it, but one of the perennial problems is that there aren't
many people who are willing to hear about the real thing.

#37 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 09:25 PM:

Universal Issue Reporting System V 9.55

Issue Number: 2.178128 E 6

Issue Synopsis: "Humans devolve to the ad hominem and the appeal to authority"

Priority: Low

Type: Enhancement Request

Submitter: London, Greg/Terra/Sol/Milky Way Galaxy

Assigned To: Michael, ArchAngel in Charge

Status: Assigned / Queued

Scheduled Fix: Release MMMCCCLX.IV

Comments: Proposed fix will require intervention from Division
Management or above. Submitter is requested to submit form MCMXXII/A,
Request for Miraculous Outcome.

#38 ::: dido ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 09:34 PM:

Bruce (StM) @ 36: That's exactly what I was trying to get at--I knew
I was flubbing it even as I was typing it, but I wasn't sure how to
make it better.

I don't really like snap "psychological" judgments; I don't really
like hierarchies of blame or suffering. I do know for a fact that my
father (one individual) was irreparably damaged by his (own personal)
time in Viet Nam and I wanted to share (by report) his (personal) take
on the experience--*because* his trauma still survives into the later
generations. Thank you for the opportunity for clarification.

I hope I didn't give the impression that I was assigning experiences.

It did seem like MLK's opposition to the Viet Nam War was being
coopted by the press; if we're here to honor his memory and legacy....

#39 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2008, 10:10 PM:

Well said, Patrick. I was just commenting, as I turned onto MLK in
Austin, that now that he's dead they can safely canonize him and remove
anything threatening from his memory.

Dimitrios @ 18: Nice Twain quote, I hadn't come across that one
before. He also said, about the Russian Revolution of 1905: "If such a
government can only be removed with dynamite, then thank God for

#40 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2008, 01:02 AM:

Dido: Some of it is discussable, some of it ain't.

On the quick and dirty side, I didn't do anything I'm ashamed of. I
did a few things I'd rather not do again. I acquired a way of thinking
I hope not to need again.

If I do need those ways of thinking again, I have them ready to hand.

Someone else who was there, will understand. Someone who wasn't
there may have an approximation, but they won't really understand.

Some things can't be talked about with those who don't really understand.

Did that make it any clearer?

#41 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2008, 02:17 AM:

dido @ 38

No, we're cool, I understood what you meant. It seemed like a good idea to follow up to make it a little clearer for others.

It may not be as true today as it was then, because so many serious
wounds are more survivable now, but most of the damage to people who
were in Vietnam that I saw didn't become obvious to anyone until after
they came back, often with no visible injuries.

#42 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2008, 02:23 AM:

skzb @ 39

now that he's dead they can safely canonize him and remove anything threatening from his memory.

Leaving an unplasterized revolutionary saint lying around is as
dangerous to the status quo as an armed but unexploded cluster bomb.
Who knows what inspiration others might take from him?

"He was only human" in that context is code for "He couldn't stand
up to the forces that rule us all any more than you can." It's a lie,
of course, he stood up to them quite well. The only thing that could
stop him was a rifle bullet.

#43 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2008, 07:38 AM:

I've posted this before, but today is a good day for it.

We Will Not Be Silenced

#44 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2008, 11:57 AM:

Extending my point in #42, there are two things required of a great
leader of just causes: to stand up and be counted against it when evil
is done, and to know and speak the words that others need to hear for
them to stand up in turn. By that measure Martin Luther King, Jr. was a
great leader.

And the other side of that coin is that for evil to succeed it must
silence the ones who stand against it or convince the polity that their
words are lies or irrelevant. The greatest of leaders are those who
cannot even be silenced or made irrelevant in death.

#45 ::: Kris ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2008, 07:54 PM:

Conversation with my kid, two years ago on MLK day.

Parent: "Was there anything about MLK in school today?"

Kid: "Yeah, it was really boring."

Parent: "Really? Did they mention how many times he got arrested?"

Kid: Rising inflection, eyebrows up, showing interest, "No."

Parent: "Remember hon, anyone who makes history boring is doing it wrong."

#46 ::: Dena Shunra ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2008, 08:33 PM:

Seconded, Kris.

History is stories about people. Or technology. Or crime. Or
whatever. People who tell stories in a boring way are just incompetent
storytellers (or embarrassed about teaching sex ed or something like

Maybe volunteer teaching is where tech-writers go when they're not doing the money-making? (if you'll excuse the thread cross-over from the Deep Value thread.)

#47 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2008, 08:57 PM:

kris, show the kid his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." If the content doesn't get the kid, the venue might.

#48 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2008, 10:15 PM:

Dena #48:

I suspect some of the boringness of history in school comes from
lack of context (I found history *way* more interesting, once I'd lived
long enough to have more of a sense of what it all meant, traveled a
bit so I knew that not everyplace was smalltown Illinois and smalltown
Missouri, etc.) And some comes from incompetent teaching. But a lot
comes from the fact that the interesting parts of history are also
kinda controversial, and controvery is the bane of bureaucracies that
want a functioning routine.

The state-sponsored fairy tale version of history isn't very
interesting, but it also doesn't invite uncomfortable questions ("So,
what happened to all those Indians who used to live around here,
again?"), and doesn't lead to angry parents complaining that the school
is trying to make the kids communists or something. (That doesn't mean
the schools aren't doing propoganda; it means they're not doing socially unacceptable propoganda.)

#49 ::: Dena Shunra ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 12:39 AM:

Albatross @50, I hear what you're saying... ...but it seems to me
that controversy isn't required for contextualization and exciting

I see the teaching of history as being exactly the provision of a
context - and the infusion of relevance into the stories. Doing so well
is a skill, and a teachable one. Even the entirely uncontroversial
fairy-tales for children edited and mutilated version of history
contain sufficient excitement to hold the audience at the edge of their

...while badly taught history can make a natural historian shy away
from the subject until she comes across a better way of presenting it.
(But when she finds the good stuff, you'll be hard-pressed to get her
nose out of a history book.)

#50 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 01:06 AM:

Kris @ 47 and Linkmeister @49: I wasn't going to comment on this
thread, because what I have to say is sort of redundant to the point
Patrick has already made, but the two of you together just pushed one
of my buttons. (This is not a complaint, by the way, just in case I'm
not clear, here; I'm responding with my own experience because I think
it speaks to yours.) King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" has been in
every college freshman composition text I have ever used in a
class--okay, 90 per cent of them--but I have finally had to stop
assigning it . . . because my students won't read it. Oh, the
conscientious ones will "read" it--that is, they'll dutifully look at
every word--but they won't really read it. You see they
already have read it, or had it read to them, year after year after
year after year . . . until the words have become a kind of safe,
sacred litany that has very little meaning. In other words, boring.

King's "Letter" is, among other things, one of the most brilliant
arguments ever written in the English language. He uses every
rhetorical technique in the manual, weaving logical, ethical, and
emotional persuasion into a seamless whole that targets not only his
primary audience but several secondary audiences as well. To analyze
the "Letter" is to take a brief, intense course in how to write an
effective essay, but to far too many people, it's just pretty words.
Even the historical context doesn't seem to help much; they are
accustomed to the idea of King-the-brave-martyr, but not to
King-the-man-who-had-something-specific-and-poss," but they don't pay attention.
And that just frustrates me so furiously that I've had to declare a
moratorium on using the "Letter" in class for a while. Unfortunately.

Which, of course, is where we all came in. Maybe it's time to try again . . .

#51 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 01:09 AM:

Drat. I should know better than to post while in the grip of strong
emotion--even when the strong emotion in questions is "remembered
annoyance." The next-last full sentence of the second paragraph in post
@52 should include the line

#52 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 01:35 AM:

Do we defer to authority so much that we must erase the questioning of authority of our idols?

The only time we seem capable of really idolizing the questioning of
authority is when the questioners were the founding fathers and the
authority was King George. To the point that history whitewashes the
fact that there were Loyalists in the colonies who would rather have
remained British subjects.

Even talking about invading Iraq, I still run into a sentiment that
seems most accurately summed up as "Well, Bush screwed up the
implementation, but the idea was right".

Is there any recent historical event that has such universal
celebration of questioning authority anywhere near the level of
celebrating the Founding Fathers revolt against England?

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light
and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that
mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than
to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are

I'm getting the sinking feeling that it isn't "Prudence" that is the cause of this behaviour, but something far less noble.

More importantly, can anything be done that would make any sort of noticable change in this general behaviour?

#53 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 02:55 AM:

Besides yesterday being the 40th anniversary of MLK's death, it was
the 50th anniversary of the peace symbol. When Charlie and Feorag and I
went to Udvar Hazy yesterday, I wore one of my '60s peace symbol
buttons on my shirt and my Peace Justice Dove button on one side of my
coat and my All One People button on the other side. I wish I could
still march. I know it doesn't make much difference these days, but I'd
feel like I was doing more.

#54 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 03:59 AM:

Kris @#47: Now that surprises me. Of course I knew about the way
they've taken the sting out of MLK, but I wouldn't have thought that
they'd go so far as to "forget" that he ever had been at odds with

#55 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 03:26 PM:

I strongly, strongly urge anyone and everyone with any interest in the subject of this topic to, right now, go read this blog post by Rick Perlstein, which consists mostly of directly pertinent excerpts from his new book Nixonland.

Perlstein is our greatest living historian of how we got into our current political condition.

#56 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 03:55 PM:

Damn. How did I miss that one? Thank you, Patrick. It's ordered.

#57 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 04:11 PM:

Maybe it's time to move Nixonland off of the must-read-soon list and onto the read-right-now list.

#58 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 06:16 PM:

As I listened to the NPR coverage of the anniversary, I couldn't
help but wonder about the timing of their choice to start chipping away
at MLK the icon. Could the current presidential race have had anything
to do with it? Honestly, I'm not sure.

I live in Seattle, which is wholly contained within King County,
Washington. King County was recently renamed in honor of MLK. (Yes, it
used to be King County, but named for a totally different King - a
former Vice President.) Shortly after the renaming, a new county logo
was introduced. You can see it here:
Personally, I find it a little disconcerting seeing a silhouette of Dr.
King looking at me from the side of a bus. He seems somehow judgmental,
and I wonder if I'm living up to his expectations.

#59 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 06:48 PM:

Greg London at #54 writes:

> To the point that history whitewashes the fact that there were
Loyalists in the colonies who would rather have remained British

It took me many years
to notice that the "Loyalist College" my sister went to when we lived
in Canada was named after the losers of the American revolution. I was
amused when the penny finally dropped.

> Is there any recent historical event that has such universal
celebration of questioning authority anywhere near the level of
celebrating the Founding Fathers revolt against England?

I guess Star Wars is set "a long time ago in a galaxy far far
away...", so it may not qualify. Actually, there is some doubt as to
the historical veracity of parts of it too...

#60 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 06:56 PM:

> Is there any recent historical event that has such universal
celebration of questioning authority anywhere near the level of
celebrating the Founding Fathers revolt against England?

Just to be slightly less frivolous, I am fascinated by the hold Star
Wars has on people when it's at least notionally the story of a bunch
of armed revolutionaries, and real-world instances of armed
revolutionaries aren't that well regarded. I suppose there's nothing
new there - the story of Robin Hood hits some of the same spots.

#61 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 08:20 PM:

Steve Taylor @ 62

Attitudes towards armed revolutionaries depend on whether they're in
the direct line of political descent to your current system of
government. For instance, The inciters of the French Revolution are
well regarded in France, not so much in England. Likewise, Simon
Bolivar is revered in many parts of South America, but almost unknown
(by Anglos, anyway) in the US. Attitudes towards Jomo Kenyata are an
interesting case; the British largely think of him as a terrorist; yet
he's still considered by many in Kenya to be the father of his country.
There are lots more such cases: Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Patrice
Lumumba, Che Guevara, etc.

#62 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2008, 10:21 PM:

Larry Brennan, I was born in Seattle, King County, and when I
read about the change in namesake, it made me feel I'd have to say
"back when it wasn't named for MLK."

#63 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2008, 12:37 AM:

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) at #63 writes:

> Attitudes towards armed revolutionaries depend on whether
they're in the direct line of political descent to your current system
of government.

I am a freedom fighter, you are a guerilla, he is a terrorist.

#64 ::: krishna ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2008, 09:11 PM:

History is written by the victors, so if the victory was through
armed struggle, then the victors become revolutionaries and freedom
fighters; else they become terrorists. Dr. King's legacy is an example
of this. He was not an armed revolutionary so he could not be branded
as a terrorist, and he did end up inspiring large numbers of people; so
instead they made him a plastic saint. A safe way of defusing his real
legacy and rendering it irrelevant.

#65 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2008, 09:14 PM:

Steve #65: Yep. Also based on what causes they're fighting
for/against, as most people can rationalize much worse behavior from
their allies than from their enemies. Relatively few people today talk
about John Brown as a terrorist, frex.

#66 ::: dido ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2008, 09:17 PM:

re: Terry @40

and Bruce (Stm) @41: Thank you both for those affirmations that I was
being clearer than I could have hoped for. I dunno how that even got
drug in.

The point I was trying to make is that MLK was always controversial,
and not always in the way that "we" (meaning "me") would like.

I'm grateful for that, but is he then becoming "invisible" again?

I was always taught to see him as a rabble-rouser and a malcontent
-- and that this was a good thing. Maybe (probably?) the kids today are
being taught him as the status quo (and therefore boring)?

#67 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2008, 09:53 PM:

dido @ 68

Maybe (probably?) the kids today are being taught him as the status quo (and therefore boring)?

Yes, I think that's what's happening. No one is going to be inspired
to buck the system by someone they perceive as part of that system.
Also, it assists the myth that there is no racism in the US if the
Powers That Be can point to Dr. King's assimilation and say, "See,
we've accepted him, so obviously everything he fought for has come

#68 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2008, 07:20 PM:

King County was recently renamed in honor of MLK. (Yes, it used
to be King County, but named for a totally different King - a former
Vice President.)

William R. King, Vice President of the United States for 45 days
during the adminstration of Franklin Pierce, a.k.a. "Miss
Nancy"--something of a gay icon in certain quarters. Longtime companion
of James Buchanan . . . (no, I'm not making this up).

I had mixed emotions about the renaming of the county (although WRK was obnoxiously pro-slavery).

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