The Inevitable Diffusion of Legacy

The inevitable diffusion of legacy is something like the unbearable lightness of being – which is also the title of that odd Milan Kundera novel. That’s the one that riffs on Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence – you know, the universe and its events have already occurred and will recur ad infinitum and all that. That’s a great weight, and Kundera thought that whole notion was bullshit. The real problem is the “unbearable lightness” of everything being fleeting and haphazard and probably based on endless strings of coincidences, even if we think everything is a big deal, and part of an even bigger fixed and endlessly recurring big deal. There’s no such thing and Kundera gives us a slyly comic novel to demonstrate that, and it’s very Czech. Czechs never did have much use for those pompous Germans. Those who seek to understand that big fixed and endlessly recurring big deal are preposterous bores. The real problem is dealing with the obvious – amazing things happen, and those things are pretty much all unique. That’s the real difficulty.

Few have a taste for post-existential Czech novels, however famous, but think of it this way. What was a big deal will, sooner or later, become something quite ordinary, perhaps through a process of diffusion. Troublemakers become national heroes, and sooner or later become just names. That’s happened to Martin Luther King Jr. – as another Martin Luther King Day has just come and gone now. with Martin Luther King Day mattress sales and all the rest. This happened to Washington and Lincoln too, who had their separate national holidays fused into Presidents Day, a day of no more than great deals on mattresses and tires and whatever else in clogging up the inventory. That’s the inevitable diffusion of legacy, and it’s happening to King. There are fewer speeches about justice and equality. There are more and more sales. If you’re one of those for whom he is a hero, there’s an unbearable lightness to what has happened. It’s both comic a somehow deeply disturbing. Maybe you’re turning Czech.

The diffusion of his legacy was unavoidable, however. It had to be done, because the man was what we now would consider dangerously radical. He was a committed leftist. There’s no getting around that. He supported strong and active and demanding labor unions and a swift end to that hopeless and immoral Vietnam War and offered a number of concrete measures to do something dramatic about income inequality – including a guaranteed basic income for all Americans. Substitute Iraq a few years ago and Afghanistan now, for Vietnam, and no Washington politician would agree with any of this, not even any Democrat. Hillary Clinton still won’t say her vote to authorize the Iraq War as a mistake, and everything else calls for caution – we can’t just pull out of Afghanistan tomorrow afternoon, as Obama knows well, and we need to nurture the rich too, because they’re the job creators after all, and we don’t want to punish the successful either.

King wasn’t like that, but then he was a private citizen. He never held office, so that complicates things. He’s the only private citizen who ever got his own national holiday, and private citizens don’t have to be careful, no matter how popular and heroic, in their way, they were.

That’s the problem. The man’s legacy had to be diluted, somehow. Say he was a great man. That’s sufficiently ambiguous.

That’s seldom enough, and that means it’s best to coopt his legacy, and that means that on Martin Luther King Day, Republicans now argue that King was really a conservative just like them, and probably would be a Republican these days, and Ed Kilgore reports on that:

National Review looked more promising at first, with a big featured piece by Kevin Williamson, one of America’s most audacious civil rights revisionists – but turns out Williamson was writing about the exceptional work ethic of wealthy people, and how poor people would benefit from emulating them. He did not – to my disappointment – work in any reference, ironic or otherwise, to the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign.

A little further down on the National Review Online site I did find a paint-by-the-numbers essay by Roger Clegg and Heritage’s Hans von Spakovsky asserting, on the strict basis of the famous “content of their character” sentence in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” that MLK would approve of legislation ending affirmative action (if anyone even vaguely associated with the actual Martin Luther King seemed to think that assertion was valid, I haven’t heard it).

At the ACLU site, Roy Edroso has some fun with that:

Roger Clegg and Hans von Spakovsky wish to celebrate the Day with state legislation “outlawing government racial preferences” – not in the old-fashioned civil-rights sense of Jim Crow laws, but in “the politically correct version that discriminates against whites, and often Asians (particularly in college admissions), by giving preferences to other racial or ethnic groups like blacks and Hispanics.” Because if there’s one thing that burned Dr. King’s butt it was some black kid getting into college and thus freezing out some deserving honky.

Milan Kundera would smile at that, because it’s so deliciously absurd, but Kilgore says it all comes together at RedState, where Breeane Howe in this item is saddened that her megachurch pastor didn’t bring up abortion in Martin Luther King Day:

Despite the enormous work Martin Luther King Jr. did to free African-Americans, black babies are being murdered at an alarming rate under the guise of freedom. Abortion is the number one killer of African-Americans. I believe The Radiance Foundation puts it best when they say, “The inhumanity of slavery has been replaced by the inhumanity of abortion.” 79% of Planned Parenthood facilities are located in minority neighborhoods. This is to say nothing of the babies that are murdered because they are girls or would be born with a disability. As Christians we should never let the opportunity pass to speak out against the current holocaust in our own backyard. If anyone understood the importance of speaking up it was King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Kilgore:

Abortion = slavery = genocide. I suppose if you actually believe that, then it makes sense to commemorate MLK Day, and every day, not focusing on inequality or poverty or racism but on re-criminalizing abortion.

But then he points to Tara Culp-Ressler in this item at ThinkProgress a few months ago, all about how King admired Margaret Sanger, founder of the predecessor organization to Planned Parenthood:

In 1960, King served on a committee for a Planned Parenthood study on contraception, explaining, “I have always been deeply interested in and sympathetic with the total work of the Planned Parenthood Federation.” He repeatedly wrote about why family planning programs are important, and why they need to be funded by the government. In 1966, King received a Margaret Sanger award from Planned Parenthood “in recognition of excellence and leadership in furthering reproductive health and reproductive rights.”

King saw an explicit link between the struggle for racial equality and the struggle for reproductive justice. In the acceptance speech he wrote for his award from Planned Parenthood – which his wife, Coretta Scott King, accepted in his place – he explained that reproductive rights activists like Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger help further broader movements for equality. “Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning. Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her,” King wrote, going on to say that the African American community has “a special and urgent concern” with issues of family planning.

The man does present difficulties that must be overcome, or diffused. He was a great man. Leave it at that.

It also might be useful to look at this excerpt from Waking from the Dream – the new book from David Chappell. This is the part of his book on how Republicans fought long and hard against establishing a national holiday for King, with Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft leading the charge. It’s long and detailed, but the nickel summary is this – they argued that King was a communist, or close enough, and that King was inciting violence, because his scrupulously nonviolent sit-ins and marches caused good white folks to get violent in response, as their only option, so the beatings and the three college kids shot dead and the little girls in the church getting blown up were all King’s fault. At least that seemed to be the general idea. King loved violence, so he was never going to get a national holiday if they could help it. A young Newt Gingrich offered a nice statue instead – but eventually the legislation was passed and Reagan signed it into law. The political cost of not giving in was too high. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had screwed them. Those people voted now.

That might have been the point at which it became important to find a way to argue that King was really a conservative all along, and they’re still working on that, without much success. In fact, Heather Parton (Digby) offers an array of video clips that includes Rick Perlstein on last year’s Martin Luther King Day discussing Ronald Reagan comments on the King assassination:

He said he had it coming. He said, “It’s the sort of great tragedy when we begin compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they would break.”

He’s referring to civil disobedience. This was pretty much a consensus view on the right among the same people who celebrate Martin Luther King now. Frankly, Martin Luther King had to be forgotten before he could be remembered. Martin Luther King called himself a socialist. Jesse Helms wasn’t pulling that out of nowhere. His associate, Daniel Levinson, probably had been a communist. And the main demand of the march for jobs and freedom was a phrase that was resounding at the time but we don’t remember it now, “a Marshal Plan for the cities”, which meant a massive federal investment in developing the depressed areas of America – which I don’t think we heard in Washington.

A year later that was in the extended David Remnick interview with President Obama, Going the Distance:

“The appetite for tax-and-transfer strategies, even among Democrats, much less among independents or Republicans, is probably somewhat limited.” Obama said. “A Marshall Plan for the inner city is not going to get through Congress anytime soon.”

Obama knows what King once said, and he knows what’s impossible – but at least the Republicans now want to co-opt King’s legacy, which is progress, sort of. They actually don’t want any part of King’s legacy. They just want to use the name for marketing purposes, kind of like your local mattress emporium. Cadillac used to sell a wallowing bloated land-yacht with fins and lots of chrome that the called the Biarritz. The right name can work wonders. Think of Rocky Mountain Oysters.

The Democrats aren’t that cynical yet:

Vice President Joe Biden said Monday that the outcome of the immigration reform and income inequality debates “rests ultimately on the ballot box,” warning civil rights activists to keep fighting to restore the core of the Voting Rights Act.

“I have to admit I never thought we’d be fighting the fight again on voting rights,” Biden said during remarks at the National Action Network’s annual King Day Breakfast, saying that minorities could face a “hailstorm” of new laws that make voting more difficult.

The Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act last year, arguing that states and localities in certain regions should no longer need to obtain approval from the federal government before changing voting laws.

Yeah, they had to send the white guy out to say that. Otherwise, Obama would be playing the race card – being all uppity and inciting violence or something – but there’s a back-story here. After the McCain-Palin loss, and then the Romney-Ryan loss, and after failing to regain the Senate, and after deeply offending Hispanics and gays and blacks and women and the young and those who kind of like science, and many who work for a living rather than getting rich through strategic investments and clever trading in odd investment instruments, the Republicans seem to have decided that it might be that all these people who just didn’t vote the right way were a problem that could be fixed. The way to win future elections, by stunning landslides, an alternative – make sure none of them would ever get much of a chance to vote again, and they got some help with that.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, that King fought so hard for, is in play again, with the Supreme Court in June saying that old thing might have been a good idea, at the time, but now it’s just quaint, and it has to go – so from North Carolina to Texas to Florida, now, a whole lot of minority folks, and the young, really are going to find it damned hard to ever vote again, and Reince Priebus, the chairman of the party, is actually okay with that concept. For the last two or three years he has been coordinating efforts across all states controlled by the Republicans to enact strict voter ID laws and restrict early voting and voting on Sundays, and working to make sure that pesky League of Women Voters or anyone else like them will now be forbidden to conduct any voter-registration drives. The Supreme Court had suggested that Congress rewrite the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that they considered problematic, to make sure everyone everywhere gets a chance to vote while not singling out particular states which have behaved badly in the past, but the Republicans still control the House, and that seemed unlikely, or as Slate’s David Weigel notes, until now:

Reps. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. and John Conyers, D-Mich., have released the Voting Rights Act Amendment of 2014, watered down just enough to win over Republican support. “We look forward to reviewing it,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s spokesman Doug Heye of the new legislation. That’s not a no!

No, it isn’t and Ari Berman explains here how “pre-clearance”, which required a number of mostly Southern states to get approval for any voting law changes, has been replaced by this:

States with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past fifteen years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would currently apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Local jurisdictions would be covered if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout” over the past fifteen years.

Weigel:

North Carolina, that bête noire of liberal voting rights campaigners, would be exempted. One reason: Voter ID laws would not count as “violations.” They would be subject in states that have been subject to pre-clearance for other reasons, but going forward, jamming through a new ID bill would not alert the DOJ.

Weigel also cites Ian Millhiser suggesting that a new legal power created by the bill might make the compromise worthwhile for liberals:

Currently, the Justice Department is suing Texas and North Carolina under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, a provision which allows a state to be made subject to preclearance if a court finds “violations of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendment justifying equitable relief have occurred within the territory of such State or political subdivision.”

The problem with Section 3, however, is that it is widely understood to require the Justice Department to prove that Texas and North Carolina enacted voter suppression laws with the intent of disenfranchising voters because of their race. Proving intent is a challenge in any context – neither judges nor attorneys are mind readers – so DOJ faces a difficult road ahead under current law. The bipartisan bill will strengthen Section 3 so that “any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law – whether intentional or not – can be grounds for a bail-in.” This is a really big deal. Big enough that it probably justifies paying the high price Cantor and others have demanded in order to revive the Voting Rights Act.

Eric Cantor and others have said the voter-Id laws have to remain legal – period – or there’s no deal. That’s awful, but not entirely awful, and Kevin Drum adds this:

Preclearance has long been the federal government’s strongest bulwark against abusive voting laws. It’s also a fairly extraordinary exercise of federal power, something the Supreme Court acknowledged in 1966, when it heard its first challenge to the VRA. But extraordinary as preclearance might be, the court ruled that it was defensible in extraordinary circumstances – and that was exactly what we faced at the time. The nine states originally covered by the preclearance provision had acted so egregiously to violate voting rights, and were so adept at tying up federal suits in court, that preclearance was justified.

It was those extraordinary circumstances that were at the heart of the challenge to the VRA last year. When the VRA was renewed in 2006, the preclearance formula in Section 4 of the law was left unchanged. But Chief Justice John Roberts has long believed it’s implausible that the original set of states covered by the VRA half a century ago should be the exact same set covered today…

In short, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Act itself is just fine, simply draft another formula based on current conditions – and that wasn’t his problem. If Congress couldn’t do that, as he probably knew they couldn’t, then of millions of Americans would be disenfranchised, and the Republican Party would be sitting pretty for another generation – and no one could blame him. Politicians should decide who gets to vote and who doesn’t. That’s democracy, or something.

Drum is not impressed:

Unfortunately, there was another current condition that Roberts chose not to acknowledge: that the modern Republican Party is so dependent on the votes of Southern whites that it was vanishingly unlikely to ever support any preclearance formula that primarily affected Southern states – as any rational formula inevitably would. For all practical purposes, preclearance was dead, and with it the most powerful weapon the federal government has to prevent racially motivated changes to voting laws.

Or so it seemed… Republican-dominated states immediately redoubled their efforts to restrict voting in ways that disproportionately burdened minority voters – most notably via restrictive voter ID requirements, but also with a wide variety of constraints on both voter registration and early voting. The more honest among them admitted that their new laws were indeed directed against a particular class of voters, but said that the class at issue was Democrats, and it was perfectly legal to discriminate against Democrats. The fact that minority voters were heavily affected because they tend to be Democrats was just an unfortunate side effect.

But as laws like this started to pile up, and as evidence that they really were aimed at voter suppression became clearer, a small backlash began. Most dramatically, Judge Richard Posner, who wrote a decision in 2007 upholding Indiana’s voter ID law, issued a mea culpa last October. “I plead guilty to having written the majority opinion (affirmed by the Supreme Court) upholding Indiana’s requirement that prospective voters prove their identity with a photo ID – a law now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than fraud prevention.”

Judge Richard Posner suddenly remembered Doctor King and his legacy. It hadn’t been totally diffused, but Drum wonders about that:

And now for the big question: does this legislation have any chance of passing? It doesn’t seem likely. The shiny new formula might satisfy Justice Roberts, but it would put four deep-red states back into preclearance jail: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. And what would Republicans get in return? They seem to have given up entirely on appealing to non-white voters, so there’s nothing for them there. And while it’s one thing to feel obliged to vote in favor of renewing a historic law that’s currently on the books, as most Republicans did in 2006, it’s quite another to invite a vote that you don’t have to take in the first place.

So the odds seem pretty long against reviving preclearance. That may be a helluva note to usher in Martin Luther King Jr. Day with, but it’s most likely the truth. Now that blacks and Hispanics identify so overwhelmingly as Democrats, Republicans simply have no incentive to make it easier for them to vote. Nor does it seem possible to shame them into doing it, as it was even eight years ago. The GOP has simply changed too much since 2006.

Actually, now they think the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., had always been on their side in the first place – but the diffusion of his legacy was always unavoidable, everything being fleeting and haphazard and probably based on endless strings of coincidences, even if we think everything is big deal, and part of an even bigger fixed and endlessly recurring big deal. Nietzsche was wrong. The incredible lightness of everything is our dilemma. Everything diffuses into thin air – but Kundera was wrong. It’s not comic at all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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