If MLK Day 2013 taught us anything, it is that after the internet, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., has become one of the most contested of all American legacies. While relevant examples abound, one viral YouTube clip from the day was sufficient in itself: “Cornel West Explains Why It Bothers Him That Obama Will Be Taking the Oath with MLK’s Bible.” Reshared by thousands of MLK-memorializing Twitter and Facebook users, as well as dozens of media venues ranging from The Huffington Post to The National Review, the West clip asserts that the POTUS’s swearing-in on MLK’s Bible devalues MLK’s radical critique of racism as fused with the militarism and capitalism that Obama’s position facilitates. However, the virality of the clip hardly indicates that genuine political debate has suddenly became visible in the age of social media. To the contrary, while the broadcast media predecessors of YouTube and Twitter reframed American society as mass culture, digital culture has, in David Weinberger’s terms, reframed “everything [as] miscellaneous.”
This includes, of course, West’s attempt to set the record straight on MLK. For liberals, MLK has long appeared as an icon of collective progress, one summed up almost exclusively by the collapse of de jure segregation. The West clip, however, went viral not only because it pointed out the more radical aspects of MLK’s critique ignored by liberals but also because it appealed to all of the POTUS’s detractors, wherever they might stand politically.
For twenty-first century conservatives, the West clip was assimilable because MLK has also emerged as a primary source for the creeping opposition to civil rights; within the libertarian subsect, racial inequality is understood as having become sufficiently minimal that it is now time to judge individuals by the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin. Such sentiments are so common amongst conservatives that The National Review’s article accompanying West’s YouTube clip didn’t even reproduce the substance of West’s argument. The paragraph-long piece simply recited the most usable sound bites: that the POTUS had invoked MLK’s “prophetic fire as just a moment in presidential pageantry”.
Not only MLK’s words then, but West’s, too, were renarrated by the herd mentality he sought to displace, only this time via the conservative rather than liberal herd. As one YouTube commenter would then go on to confidently proclaim, “MLK would have voted for Ron Paul.” It is plausible that this may be the fate of ideas in the age of the social media sound bite; as Susan Sontag once remarked in a different context, abbreviated thinking often takes the form of “aristocratic thinking” since sound bites are decontextualized by default. Thus, very differently positioned stakeholders appear to agree, even if they are far from any such state. Just as the abbreviation MLK accommodates 140 characters more easily than the extended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then, so too does concise rhetoric become resharable rhetoric, which then becomes renarratable rhetoric. This perhaps, is the truth of the comment accompanying one user’s retweet of the West clip: “do I even want to read what he said?”
Of course, MLK really did assert the inseparability of racism, militarism, and capitalism, as West asserted. The question, though, is how does this remain so undigested today? Does digital culture promise genuine political debate while delivering cloaked consensus, just as Karl Marx claimed liberal secularism promises theological diversity while delivering cloaked Christianity? Perhaps the answer is to be found in MLK’s political theology. Shortly before his assassination, MLK gave one speech that, to invoke one of West’s terms of art, is particularly characteristic of the black prophetic tradition. Indeed, so much so, that ever since “Where Do We Go From Here?” rumors have circulated about his affiliation with democratic socialism. As he put it therein: “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.” Just as West’s words were largely lost to the virality of digital culture on MLK Day 2013, the theological roots of MLK’s antimilitarist, post-Communist “democratic socialism” have also been lost and for quite some time. Twelve years prior to that speech, MLK wrestled with the question of collectivism vs. individualism in remarkably resonant language, in his dissertation: “Wieman’s ultimate pluralism fails to satisfy the rational demand for unity. Tillich’s ultimate monism swallows up finite individuality in the unity of being. A more adequate view is to hold a quantitative pluralism and a qualitative monism. In this way both oneness and manyness are preserved.” The dissertation, accepted by Boston University’s School of Theology in 1955, was entitled “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” Concerned with the tension between impersonalist, all-engulfing monism and personalist, ultimate pluralism, MLK’s theology, like his later politics, asserted a “higher synthesis.” West, along with scholars like Gary Dorrien, Dwayne Tunstall, and others, show how this higher synthesis eventually grounded his political convictions; for MLK, racism, militarism, and capitalism devalue the diversity of human personality while also violating the divine oneness upon which it is grounded.
Translated to digital culture, if American society seems as shallowly individualist in the conservative sense as it does narrowly collectivist in the liberal sense, perhaps something reducible to neither would require more than just viral, renarratable sound bites; at the same time, it may be precisely the substance of those ubiquitously reshared MLK quotes, if read carefully.
Jason Adams teaches in the departments of philosophy and liberal studies at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Michigan.