Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Reductio Ad Kingium

Over at TNR Rick Perlstein (who I find to be fascinating and provocative, but also one of the most hit-or-miss writers working today) has a piece on "how conservatives still don't get Martin Luther King". he argues:
[I]f we are going to have a holiday to honor history, we might as well honor history. We might as well recover the true story. Conservatives--both Democrats and Republicans--hated King's doctrines. Hating them was one of the litmus tests of conservatism.

This latter distinction is vitally important -- when people talk about King today, or civil rights generally, they tend to misunderstand conservatism and liberalism, Republicans and Democrats in the decades after World War II. Today, conservatives on matters of race are almost universally Republicans, liberals on the same issues are almost always Democrats, with some exceptions. But in the era of the Civil Rights Movement, the most conservative voices on issues of race were Southern Democrats, the most liberal voices Northern Democrats with the significant, indeed crucial, support from liberal Republican allies. Race divided the Democratic Party in ways that have continued to resonate to the present day.

Perlstein concludes his largely compelling argument with the following:

The conservative response to King--to demonize him in the '60s and to domesticate him today--has always been essentially the same: It has been about coping with the fear that seekers of justice may overturn what we see as the natural order and still be lionized. But if we manage to forget that, sometimes, doing things that terrify people is the only recourse to injustice, there is no point in having a Martin Luther King Day at all.

King has come to be an anodyne figure allowed to mean all things to all people. Summoning him has become almost the antithesis of the reductio ad Hitlerum, the silly reflexive invocation of Hitler to demonize something with which one disagrees. The reductio ad Kingium is an attempt to win an argument by claiming a presumed moral high ground. But King stood for some fairly specific things in his life, and his legacy deserves more than simply to serve as a pillar of virtue for whoever can hastily utter his name first, irrespective of whether that invocation bears scrutiny.


Jarod said...

Interesting how the Republicans "switched places" in many ways with the Democrats. I am reminded of the example of Jesse Helms switching over in 1970 - running on a platform of "family values", etc. In NC he was certainly helped by dissension over school busing laws.

dcat said...

Jarod --
Certainly one of the remarkable transformations in American politics is the extent to which the southern Democrats became subsumed by and in many cases turned into Republicans. There is a vigorous debate as to just how much that switch turned on race, but we would be naive in the extreme not to think race played some role, if not a major one.

Cheers --