Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it invites some reflecting.
This holiday was controversial not that many years ago: did we really need another national holiday? Was Dr. King really deserving of a holiday; was this about him, or about more contemporary politics?
Many of my conservative friends point out -- rightly -- that beyond what Dr. King is mainly known for, he took positions on issues of the day that located him very much on the left-liberal side of things. If all the respect and admiration for Dr. King makes it impossible to point this out, and critique it, then conservatives who opposed this holiday had a point.
Also, there is a little-appreciated, principled, small-government conservative point of view that laments the distortion of our constitution that came with federal civil rights laws of the 1960s -- namely, the distortion of the First Amendment and the balance of power between the federal government and state and local power.
That state and local power was being exercised in such an ugly cause: segregation and racial oppression -- makes this latter argument very hard to make; but as we witness the metatasizing of government power, now in the name of "defending America from terror" and in the name of "protecting our system from political corruption," etc. ad nauseam, perhaps it becomes a little easier to view such things with detachment. If the Left is now going to start considering libertarianism and states rights, then it's time for the Left to stop labeling all conservatives who have long talked about such things as racists.
One gets a lesson in the way of things when one contemplates how the self-described "absolutists" about the First Amendment -- so active when it comes to Nazis marching, or removing a cross from public lands, or about the "speech" content of hard-core pornography -- have absolutely nothing to say about encroachments on the freedom of association, likewise protected by the First Amendment, that were part-and-parcel of the 1960s Civil Rights enactments. It is a more honest argument to say it was price worth paying, or one we had to pay, than what usually happens: either to pretend there was no encroachment on the First Amendment, or to bluster that anyone who utters a peep of criticism is a crypto-klansman.
Anyway, if we're grownup about this, we can appreciate and honor a man and a movement, while also acknowledging flaws and drawbacks. Were Dr. King alive today, he might well be more controversial, had he continued to be involved in causes other than the Civil Rights movement.
All that said: Dr. King led a just and necessary cause; and he made our nation a better place. I don't mean, just a portion of our nation -- I mean our whole nation. And how many of us would like such an epitaph -- and how few of us can reasonably hope to receive it?
That men be judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin, is a great moral vision that almost none of us would actually disagree with; and yet, that is not how things were at the time of his movement, and they still aren't -- not yet; ironically, the situation has somewhat reversed, so that we have racial preferences carried out in the name of Dr. King and Civil Rights. Fault the successors of the movement, fault Dr. King himself if you wish; but the vision he enunciated is right, and he deserves credit for that.
He also deserves credit for bringing a reconciling, Christian spirit to a movement that might otherwise have been something very ugly and destructive. There were, after all, vengeful and violent actors in the cause of liberating black Americans; I think Dr. King deserves credit for helping to keep them at the margins.
There is some irony in arraying government power against segregation and Jim Crow, and some dishonesty, insofar as some want you to think segregation and Jim Crow were primarily private, non-governmental actions. In fact, they were enforced by government, and by violence; whereas it was in large measure by private action, and appealing to the conscience and decency of both white and black Americans, that Dr. King and others brought it down.
I certainly understand why Dr. King, and African-Americans generally, would look to government for redressing wrongs; under similar circumstances, I doubt I would be so pure in my libertarian views. Nor am I pretending that the government policy of oppression wasn't matched by bigotry and indifference in people's hearts. But I do mean to say that it isn't honest to harness these issues, and the history, into bolstering the left-liberal narrative of virtuous Government vs. greedy, wicked individualism. After all, remember that the tactic of the preservers of segregation and racial oppression used state action to protect those things, as well as relying on state connivance with private actors terrorizing people -- both black and white -- into leaving things alone.
Someday, I hope we can de-couple the cause of civil rights from the cause of Big Government.
After all, the continuing crisis of race and poverty in this nation is, to a significant degree, a product of government policy. The dissolution of family structures and the wreckage that is government-run education in cities must be laid at the feet of government. Continuing to rail against racism, and the ghosts of the past, does next to nothing about the problem of so many children born and raised without fathers, without families, and put onto the grim treadmill of crime, poor education and despair.
And you can accuse me of middle-class myopia, but I fail to see how it helps the cause of young black men and women, that we as a society mute our voices when it comes to the crime-glorifying thugs and poseurs in the entertainment industry who serve as modern-day minstrels for well-off suburban white kids, but are Pied Pipers for inner-city black kids for whom they claim to be an "authentic voice." God have mercy on them, and on these absurd apologists who have landed jobs in academia or in "think tanks," and who regularly crop up before the tv cameras to give either a pseudo-intellectual gloss to this whole tragedy, or to deflect attention away from the real problems, to vital issues like reparations, the revolutionary power of broken English, the true skin color of Cleopatra, and the great conspiracy that explains everything (except themselves; if these clowns actually admitted being paid agents of "the Man," that would actually lend credence to "the Conspiracy.")
I can't know, of course, but I hope that, were Dr. King with us still, he would have used his mighty voice to say needful things about this mess. What a shame Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton can't be bothered; thank heaven for the candor of Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey -- and note the yawning, embarassed silence that greets their common sense observation that a man is happily walking down the street wearing only a silly crown on his head, and no one seems to know it but them.
In short: much of the task remains unfinished.
Yet Dr. King did all Americans a great service in awakening the nation's conscience, in enunciating a vision of reconciliation and brotherhood, centered on fundamentally American and Christian values, and pursuing a path of non-violence and reconciliation.