MLK Day: Celebrating the Myth of American Redemption

The legacy of King has devolved into a day of self-congratulation.

6 years ago

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On this 89th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., Americans finally seem to be considering a fundamental shift in our public understanding of who King was. American schoolchildren all know the grainy black and white footage of his rousing speech about hamlets and the content of character. But the speech was both righteous and obvious, and “I Have a Dream” became as much a platitude as any other limestone-etched quotation of our country’s other great figureheads. In the popular American imagination of the radical 60's, King stands alongside JFK as if they are proud relatives from that era who challenged us to be better people and to do great things, and who now peer at us through busts and postage stamps with gleaming pride. We imagine that they died for our redemption. That we are in fact redeemed goes largely unquestioned.

The fantasy of American Redemption is getting harder and harder to hold onto in the present time. While Obama’s popularity relative to Trump still stands as strong evidence of past redemption — now perhaps temporarily lost in an aberrant fit of insanity— how Obama was actually treated during his administration, and how he was humiliated by Americans in being forced to welcome Trump into the White House, suggests that Obama is himself petrifying into yet another bust on the mantelpiece of American self-deception. We treated Obama like shit, and, as with King, we compare their past suffering against our current reverence as a sign of American Redemption.

The span between “I Have a Dream” and King’s assassination was nearly five years, an eternity in that era of transformation. And as the speech was a capstone to the March on Washington, itself a capstone to the Civil Rights Movement, he had five years remaining to reflect on the impact of his own crowning legacy. And in that span it’s clear that the early returns were not encouraging to King himself. In 1967, the year before his death, he wrote:

Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”

America has a fresh international incident on its hands, as our State Department staff manages the intense public-relations fallout over Trump calling Haiti and much of Africa “shithole countries.” The problem of Shithole Diplomacy is the same kind of problem as the White Domestic Terrorist. It is a well-tread observation that while a mass murderer with brown skin is a symptom of a greater disease called Islamic Fundamentalism, a mass murderer with white skin is a symptom of nothing more than his own mental illness.

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the social disease of white racism in these cases — for example, Dylan Roof’s written manifesto — there is an instinct by white people to isolate and pathologize that evidence as an individual failing, something that has been playing out over and over again with each daily Trump fiasco. The mainstream media, including even its black talking heads like Don Lemon, presents each Trump fuck-up as somehow worse than all the ones that came before. So, for example, we are asked to believe that Trump’s private closed-door remarks about poor black countries being shitholes is the absolute worst thing Trump has ever said, worse even than his very public request that a black protestor at one of his political rallies be beaten and carried out by stretcher. This tendency can be seen on its own as an entirely remedial attempt to draw a line in the sand clear enough for even white America to accept that a line was finally crossed.

But the escalation of Trump’s fuck-ups by the media feeds into a parallel narrative prominently put forth by many mental health professionals: that Trump’s increasingly bad fuck-ups are a symptom of rapidly declining mental health, in particular a mix of dementia and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (which affects less than 1% of Americans). Despite a former head of the American Psychiatric Association admonishing the practice, a cottage industry has sprouted around portraying Trump as mentally deranged, most prominently by people like Dr. Bandy Lee, a professor of psychiatry at Yale. The effect, if not the intent, of this mental illness narrative is to cauterize Trump and other white people like him from any deeper connection to what he claims to represent, which is the attitude and beliefs of a mostly-white constituency who continue to support him. It’s an easy out for white Americans, and the growing ruckus around mental capacity and the 25th Amendment suggests a preference by white America to dump Trump rather than to admit that Trump is a fair representative of his supporters.

Trump is therefore America’s racist grandpa, who is losing his grasp on reality and slipping into a haze of adult onset Tourrette Syndrome. Perhaps Trump simply misheard Henry Kissinger’s recommendation of “shuttle diplomacy” as “shithole diplomacy,” and it was just an unfortunate misunderstanding which led to an international crisis.

But who was truly surprised that a white person would think of Haiti and African countries as shitholes, and say so publicly? Who could claim that they’ve never heard such sentiments themselves coming out of white people as if it were of no real controversy? Certainly not me, who as a Chinese American nevertheless hear white people tell me openly all the time about the dystopian shithole that is modern China, despite never having stepped foot there.

Nothing about Trump surprises me. Trump isn’t crazy. He’s just a white guy who’s not very good at his job.

It is reassuring that public consciousness of King has shifted away from the lofty but insipid hopefulness of “I Have a Dream,” and towards his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written only a few months prior to the former. It better explains our current times, as these words seem to come from a man in honest thought and reflection, rather than from an orator navigating the currents of broadcast television.

In particular, this passage from “Letter” has been of late quoted more often than any other:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

In contemplating what it was that got King thinking this, it seems that in our time it is the outraged psychiatrist, the pearl clutching liberal, and the self-righteous lampooner who risks being such a stumbling block. The fear of “normalizing” Trump gripped Americans upon his election. We reminded ourselves how a majority of Americans voted against him, and that he was something unprecedented and abnormal. But we’ve had television stars become presidents before, most notably Ronald Reagan. And we’ve had sex abusers and even worse racists become presidents before as well. The exasperated disbelief of white people rarely ever dove deep into Trump’s racism, for his racism was of the casual, common kind. In relative terms to the alt-right and white supremacist movements, it was rather mild. It was grandpa racism.

On this MLK Day, I find myself reflecting upon how our fear in making Trump “normal” has obscured the obvious, which is that Trump has always been normal. The fear of non-white people is not simply that Trump is a racist, but that white people will continue to pretend that they see nothing of themselves in the American president.

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Published 6 years ago

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