Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr., and the problems with our country

OK, so I've been a bit snarky about how we worship Dr. King as a god in our country.  I've pointed out that the entire Holy Day of St. King is the only national day of sacred observation left.  I've pointed out that this is rather strange for someone my age, who can remember the old time liberals tearing down our heroes of old by lampooning as uncouth and hayseed any nation that spends its time venerating as gods old, dead guys.  I've basically said why I admire Dr. King, but don't buy into the god worship and conformity to group think that celebrating his legacy has become.  All of this is the stuff of opinion, and others are free to share in their own.

But I think this does show one thing that demonstrates why our nation seems so nasty, so tension filled, so over the top when it comes to stress and strain.  Why we know that, in years past, passions have always run high and people have often gotten their blood to a boil when debating this or that issue, yet we feel somehow that it's different now. 

The reason is how the holiday came to be.  Anyone my age remembers that this was not a holiday that Americans across the land rose up and said, "By golly, we want a national holiday commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!"  Nor was there a simple congressional "Let's have a day for Martin Luther King, Jr.", with the subsequent vote of yeas and nays. 

Rather, this holiday came like a storm, drawing resistance and support across the country.  The NAACP and other civil rights groups, naturally, were completely behind the holiday becoming not just a recognition of the man, but a full blown national holiday.  Some who admired him thought that was going a bit far.  Others who didn't share in the admiration didn't like it at all. 

It didn't matter, the holiday was eventually ratified.  Any attempts to refuse were met with threats of walk outs or boycotts.  Schools that didn't have room for a new holiday were told to drop presidents day (after all, by then we were focusing almost exclusively on the seedier legacy of slavery, racism, and imperialism of those old cronies, with the accompanying 'only uncouth nations venerate old, dead guys').   Any state that balked faced the wrath of popular culture, accusations of racism, and threats again of boycotts and anything else to damage their infrastructures. 

And so the holiday became law.  And each year the worship and glorification of Dr. King has grown.  From a day kids got off of school, to a day in which we were called to remember his legacy, to a day in which a growing number of special events and programs accompanied it, to a day in which a month of activities in schools revolved, to a day in which we are called to invoked the spirit of Dr. King to improve our lives and our world,  to a day in which, well, anyone who doesn't join the chorus is immediately shunned at best, punished at worse.

And this is the problem.  Dr. King took a direct approach to the problems of his day.  A history of rank racism had left African Americans, particularly in the south, treated as nothing short of second rate.  A generation of Americans, those who stormed the beaches at Normandy and Okinawa, came back to see this glaring blight upon our culture.  They compared it to the horrors they had witnessed abroad. Already, a decade before Martin Luther King was known, forces for equality were brewing.  Dr. King simply took the decisive step and emerged as the figurehead of this movement. 

Even then, some questioned his motives, his tactics.  Radicals like Malcolm X would have been happy with a more 'direct' approach to revolution.  Many whites felt King was a trouble maker and upstart. But he did what he did the way he did it because of his Christian roots, mixed with a realization that things could not continue as they were, and changes must happen immediately.  This was not something that you could sit back and wait for the inevitable tide of history to sweep aside old injustices and right old wrongs.  For the sake of everyone, changes had to happen immediately.

Problem is, that became the framework for everything anyone has wanted to change since.  Doesn't matter what.  Gay rights.  Women's rights.  What words we are allowed to say.  How we should be able to dress.  What we can smoke.  What we can drive.  How much gasoline we can use.  What religious beliefs should and shouldn't be able to be expressed publicly.  What political ideologies are acceptable and what ideologies aren't.  All of these, an millions more, are treated with these same demands.  A demand that our country change - now - and not only must everyone conform, but a pox upon those who fail to do so.  And if we have to get laws changed to accommodate the conformity and punish resistance, so be it. 

All of this makes for an increasingly volatile and stress filled nation where it seems on a daily basis that someone, somewhere is saying this or that is wrong, and our entire nation had better change now. And it had better demand everyone else change, now.  And not only must laws reflect that change, but anyone who even dares to resist the basis for that change - say they continue to feel that homosexuality is wrong even if all laws eventually acknowledge it - must be put into their right minds.  Sure, people have always done it.  But with a sympathetic ear in the media, or the Internet  culture, the chances of such forced changes become more likely with each passing day.

Just an observation on this MLK day.  Despite what some young'uns might think, it was not a holiday graciously and unanimously lifted up by American culture.  For various reasons, some did and some didn't want it.  And all manner of hostility, threats, yelling, and accusations accompanied the legalizing of the holiday.  Why not?  It took the same to see civil rights achieved, correct?  Why not see the holiday commemorating the icon of that era undergo the same treatment to get what was wanted to celebrate him?  Baascially tell America that you are going to commemerate this man of peace's birthday...or else! The problem is, that is now how anyone and everyone who wants anything conducts himself today.  There's when a country changes, and when it is forced to change.  Any change can be troubling for those resisting it.  But when it is forced, when people are told change will happen and they will stand out of the way or else, expect it to get nasty. And that is why I have a feeling the tension and vitriol we see today.

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