alien & sedition.
Monday, January 15, 2007
  MLK, Conservative?

Attempts to draft Martin Luther King, Jr., posthumously into the ranks of the conservative movement have always struck me as no less bizarre than the idea of strangers seeking to convert one's long-dead ancestors to Mormonism. At the New Republic, Rick Perlstein takes would-be conservative King co-opters to task for, essentially, failing to recognize King's deep moral seriousness, and the way that the moral radicalism which followed from that seriousness was fundamentally anti-conservative in its purposes, its form, and its effect.

Andrew Busch, at the National Review, concedes the point and goes on to name a few other aspects of King that were, or are, problematic from a conservative perspective - inluding his opposition to the Vietnam war, and the fact that "his personal conduct was not what one would hope for from a Christian minister" (but then there are plenty of beams in conservative ministers' eyes, aren't there?).

But Busch wants to continue the reclaimation project nonetheless - if only on a more modest scale. He lists "three areas where conservatives can embrace King, and in fact where King’s views are more agreeable to conservatives than liberals."
The first was his original grounding of his civil rights efforts in a vision of a nation that lives up to its Founding ideals and treats its citizens as individuals rather than ciphers defined by their pigmentation.
The problem for Busch is that this is the definitively liberal philosophy - which has always been based in a concern for individual empowerment, and it is the fundamental liberal narrative of American history. In every era, liberals seek to explore how our customs and prejudices have blinded us to ways in which some Americans have been denied the promise of the Founders. As King put it:
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.
And in every era, it is the conservatives who seek to defend custom and prejudice, even if it does mean perpetuating monstrous injustices. Busch's point, of course, is that since liberals have embraced Affirmative Action, it's the conservatives who stand for true indivdualism and true equality. But to liberals this argument looks like crocodile tears. Conservatives attack Affirmative Action not out of genuine concern for racial equality, but because it is the ground left to them as, generation by generation, they lose the American debate on race. To liberals, meanwhile, Affirmative Action is an expression of a substantive effort at individual empowerment and equality - expressing the spirit of the law of racial justice, while conservatives play games with the letter of it - despite having rejected that same letter a generation ago.

I won't get too deeply into a discussion of Affirmative Action, which has its benefits and its drawbacks - except to note that it has arguably helped preserve the social harmony that has traditionally been a greater priority for conservatives than individualism or equality. The French, for instance, have vehemently rejected racial preferences, in favor of a misguided universalism - and this is probably directly related to the serious racial alienation and hostility in France today.

Busch's other two points I'll address more quickly:
Second, King based his struggle on a moral and religious view that eschewed relativism. Indeed, his use of civil disobedience was predicated on his belief that one could distinguish between just human laws and unjust human laws, the latter consisting of those human contrivances which violated the “moral law,” the “natural law,” “God’s law,” or the “eternal law,” as King alternately put it. Yet the social thrust of liberalism today has as its foundation the dismissal of notions of absolute truth or the notion that human law must strive to meet some transcendent moral standard. In this respect, liberalism now has more in common with famed post-modern philosopher Stanley Fish than with King.
In an era where our "conservative government" is based on its determination to "create our own reality," this paragraph by Busch is worthy of a mid-week Up-Is-Downism award.

Finally, Busch cites King's willingness to embrace religious rhetoric in the service of his cause, while modern liberals are, we are constantly told, terrified of tangling with the Word. This issue is of course debated ad nauseum within liberal circles - no matter what conservatives would like reflexively to believe - and I won't delve into it here, except to note that if the politics of the past forty years have taught us nothing else, it is that the use of religious rhetoric in an argument is utterly independent of the moral content - or lack thereof - of the argument itself.

The most interesting point Busch makes is that, if Martin Luther King Day is to be a national holiday on par with Presidents' Day or Memorial Day, then by all means, for the sake of national unity, conservatives should be seeking ways to be invested in the legacy of the man it celebrates. This is an important and worthy argument. The danger, though, lies not just in the possibility of King's message being distorted over time, but in the fact that the modern conservative movement is every bit as much a culture apart as any "balkanizing" ethnic group - and, rather than joining in a common understanding of King's role in American history, the movement conservatives seem to be trying to spirit him away for induction into their own peculiar sect.

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