Digital MLK

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Bill of Rights, Consitution, Humanities

One response to “Digital MLK

  1. Shaul Ben-Yimini

    As to MLK themes and media (which is what the online world is) and with MLK (being a non-president though with his own national day) pointing to an idealized metric by which to judge all presidents, and especially Barack Obama, on human rights issues….

    As to Joe Scarborough’s recent comments (February 6, 2013) on ‘Morning Joe’ (therefore in-media, and online, which is where I heard them) concerning the administration’s policy on drone attacks (and thus, on human rights) I’m on the same wavelength with Scarborough (I’m in general agreement with the media figure) in his critique, but I would in turn modify two key aspects of his argument.

    He states: “we find out that the United States government now thinks that it has the right to kill American citizens without due process or without probable cause or without any evidence.”

    My reaction is to note that while Joe Scarborough draws one prevalent distinction that he neglects to make many others. The NBC host focuses on American citizens, but the president’s recent attention in his inaugural address on the Declaration of Independence regarding that “all men are created equal” (that all people are equal) should centralize consideration to that regardless of whether the targets of such strikes are American citizens or not the implementation of drone attacks needs much more critique and scrutiny (if for no other reason, by which I wish to extend here the focus, than that drone attacks are like a furstworldversion of an obscured I.E.D. — in-violation, then, of international-law and rules-of-war.)

    Furthermore, while Joe Scarborough indicts “the United States government,” “yes, we can” be more surgical in our criticisms and implicate, specifically, the executive branch.

    Now then, while the NBC host’s criticism then implicates legal ramifications regarding the drone attacks (due process components), the executive, by executive-order, can exercise such judicial powers, but with the critical component of as-much, constitutionally, being whether that exercise of power is or is not in conflict with the judicial branch.

    (The administration can go out on a limb, to some extent, and then be curtailed or not by court action, and regarding whether that going-out-on-a-limb was beyond constitutional propriety (this will be more greatly expanded on concerning) is something subject to Congressional review, and, in theory, impeachment and trial, if a gross violation.)

    Towit, the administration CAN act in the way in which it is doing, with a fiat exercise of such judicial power until stopped by judicial power, and, as also subject to further Congressional review.

    Where such intervening judicial power is not then occurring (though it’s required that someone should file a protest and request injunctive relief) that state-of-affairs (of no such intervention regarding the executive branch) implicates everyone else as complicit in the outcomes.

    THAT complicity, in-turn, could be why, with separation-of-powers functionally dormant (in-light of strong feelings against the actions of the executive branch) Joe Scarborough’s implication of the entire US government is not lacking, even if he might not espouse or share all of the arguments I have put forth, here.

    Scarborough’s line of critique, then, as not venturing into all those dynamics, would both avoid direct challenge to the president (one thinks of Blackstone noting that one might challenge ministers-of-the-crown and their actions on behalf of the crown, but not challenge the crown itself), would also then seem to subtly de-plume an ascendent version of “E pluribus Unum?” (Where the NBC host draws focus to the ‘pluribus’ (and who said we should look to the actions of the driver (like ‘ein Fahrer’) of ‘the bus (?)’), and away from the ‘Unum?’)

    Under such a dynamic, where the executive might be challenged in court, the likely response of the administration could be that internal due process (within the executive branch on the points of consideration prior to drone attacks) is underway, after-a-fashion (as sometimes after-the-fact, perhaps, in some respects), and, that needs-of-the-moment in the security arena require a more flexible response than determining military action as by committee (even if of the sort set-up under Wesley Clarke’s command), such that the due process justification as to cause (of drone attacks), and the like, might be made, after-the-fact, rather than being submitted for scrutiny, beforehand, as is customary.

    (Due process is thereby somewhat altered from our regular understanding of such matters?)

    Such an argument, though, would seem to point to that another kind of review, after-the–fact, should be underway, as well, within a Congressional investigation regimen, and that with THAT not occurring, again, Joe Scarborough’s implication regarding the ‘pluribus’ continues to resonate…

    Finally, as to the ‘Unum,’ I wonder, if the animating spirit of these critiques was something which Stanley Ann Dunham tried to instruct her son in during her 3AM calls about ethics and civics, but whether he just rolled-over and went back-to-sleep during?

    If so, are we not then now ALL more living in the United States of Indonesia?

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