Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King Day: History channel comes through (more or less)

Martin Luther King Day. So, I turned on the History channel as I often do on historical anniversaries, with a mixture of pessimism and masochism, knowing that I am likely to be disappointed, but that, on the bright side, either way I'll at least have something to blog about.

The expectation of disappointment did not disappoint. Still, wedged in there among the eight (count 'em !) episodes of "Pawn Stars" was one solid show appropriate to the occasion: a 2008 documentary by Tom Brokaw on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., featuring historic footage and interviews with family members, associates, and today's political figures. Although the ratio of program topics was badly skewed, the History channel in a sense came through again—and again, it was by rebroadcasting an older or more traditional sort of program (are we detecting a pattern here?).

Among the noteworthy points that one could discern or extrapolate from the broadcast:

Many of us today mistakenly classify King as a "moderate," perhaps because we tend to focus on his advocacy of non-violence versus the more violent words and actions of Black Power advocates. In fact, King was and remained a radical (in the best sense) advocate of social justice, and not on the front of race relations alone. History proved his approach to be the more effective one not because it was intrinsically superior (though that it may have been), but above all, because it was more appropriate to the concrete political conditions.

King's biblical rhetoric, principled advocacy of non-violence, and current (not altogether salutary) status as a secular saint likewise tend to blind us to the calculating skill with which he and his associates developed effective communication strategies and exploited political symbolism and media opportunities to the fullest. For example, it was (so to speak) a godsend that his arrest in the course of the Birmingham protests came on Good Friday. The timing allowed him, particularly in the Letter From Birmingham Jail, to assume a mantle of Christ-like rectitude and power. It was a document in which he also steadfastly affirmed his radicalism in the face of calls for moderation— by explicitly associating himself with a tradition of protest stretching from the Bible to the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln. He was likewise fully prepared to take advantage of police violence, even though that meant subjecting his followers as well as himself to physical harm. It was not for nothing that women and children figured prominently in protests. Demonstrations were carefully planned and choreographed to ensure that there was a 90-second segment of action suited for inclusion in the evening news programs (that was back in the day when 90 seconds seemed like a short time; between 1968 and 1988, the length of a typical political soundbite shrank from more than 40 to fewer than 10 seconds).

To acknowledge this is not to diminish King. On the contrary, it shows that he was not just an idealist, but a shrewd and pragmatic politician, a quality that should make him more rather than less admirable. Idealism without political skill is useless. Political skill without ideals is dangerous. What is ironic and tragic is that his strategies are today so frequently misapplied or misappropriated by both incompetents and cynics.
"With every passing year we have a greater understanding of the magnitude of Dr. King's achievements and the historic place he occupies in the pantheon of American heroes," said Brokaw. "As a young reporter in the South I was witness to his courage and his oratorical genius in the face of often violent resistance to the idea that every American should have equal rights. Revisiting that time and his place in it has been a deeply rewarding experience."
In summary, still a powerful commemoration of a powerful figure, with many lessons that we still have failed fully to learn.

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