January 17, 2005 Leave a comment
When I was growing up, there was no more obvious candidate for hero-saint than the Reverend “Dr.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gandhi was a close-second — at least in 1970s New York City — but Gandhi wasn’t black and he wasn’t American, and we desperately needed a black American hero, especially one who decried the use of violence.
Marcus Epstein writes, “The slightest criticism of him or even suggesting that he isn’t deserving of a national holiday leads to the usual accusations of racist, fascism, and the rest of the usual left-wing epithets…”
When I first moved to Virginia and learned that the Monday following January 15th was officially Lee-Jackson-King Day, I jerked my knee in the predictable fashion and chalked it up to redneck racist resistance. They just can’t move on! That sort of thing.
But even back then, I would have seen the truth in Epstein’s conservative-libertarian article, Myths of Martin Luther King, which I assume many of my friends would have dismissed as right-wing fabrication or worse. You see, other than the evidence of plagiarism, which is relatively new to me, or the long history of womanizing, which is what we just expected of such great men as JFK and MLK (although I suspect there was also a little bit of the guilty-liberal-unspoken “those people” sense in MLK’s case), all of the evidence for King’s outspoken opposition to free markets, his well-known Communist affiliations, his outspoken (well, quietly outspoken, but open nevertheless) advocacy of “democratic socialism” and even his very quiet self-labeled Marxism were all points of pride among the leftists who raised and educated me. These things were even a source of anger at the postmortem mainstreaming image-management that made King look like a gentle, soft and cuddly lover of universal freedom and equality.
There were two sides to the American civil rights movement, roughly aligning with two historical stages. There was what I call the libertarian side and the socialist side, or the rights agenda and the privilege agenda. To grasp the distinction and conflation it’s useful to look at the term “civil rights” — which means the rights of the citizen, an individual under the State. It does not mean individual liberty or natural rights, nor any of these “abstract freedoms” as MLK might have called them: “[The] Negro today is not struggling for some abstract, vague rights, but for concrete improvement in his way of life.” Not liberal freedoms: socialist “freedoms”. Not negative rights — the freedom from coercion — but artificial, positive so-called rights. Before the middle third of the 20th century, black Americans were fighting for the real-world consequences of abstract rights: an end to persecution by the State and the State-sanctioned (or ignored) private coercion perpetrated against them. I’ve known many people to confront my libertarianism with the history of blacks in America, which as far as I’m concerned reveals either their complete historical illiteracy or unpardonable intellectual laziness. There is nothing in the ugly history of race in America that isn’t the direct or indirect result of institutionalized coercion. The civil rights movement went directly from telling government “Leave us alone!” to “Take care of us!”
Who knows what’s behind this shift. One definite factor, as I see it, is the fact that while the labor-union Left fought for racial privilege for whites and against blacks, the Communists and Establishment Left reached out to blacks on civil-libertarian grounds, establishing a historical and emotional link between protection of blacks’ liberties with state centralization and economic interventionism.
Zora Neale Hurston is celebrated by the African-American Left for her literary works, but her individualist “Old Right” politics are treated as an embarrassment to avoid mentioning in public.
And of course, any contemporary free-market black writers are vilified as sell-out Uncle Tom race-traitors. This makes Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams personal heroes of mine, whatever conservatism of theirs I might disagree with.
But we won’t be seeing national holidays for any of these heroes.
Martin Luther King used civil disobedience and nonviolent protest to fight oppressive government. For this, I continue to consider him heroic. But there was much more to him than that, some of it quite ugly. His goals were far-reaching and very destructive: grow the State, kill off capitalism and erode freedom in the name of freedom.
His economic vision was childish, his positive political agenda was despicable, and, as Epstein notes, if we are really to judge a man “by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin” then it seems to me that any honest, decent person would have to give King the thumbs-down.