Entry from August 29, 2013

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character,” said Martin Luther King back in 1963. Perhaps you heard about it. How wonderful! How sublime! How inspirational for Americans still today! But wait a minute! Hasn’t judging people by the content of their character gone — how shall we say? — somewhat out of fashion among Americans today? And isn’t judging people by the color of their skin — as, for example, in the reaction to the Trayvon Martin verdict — now back in vogue? Now it’s thought discriminatory to judge anyone’s character but de rigeur to judge them by their skin — at least so long as both the judgment and the skin are of the right color. What, then, was being celebrated yesterday at the Lincoln Memorial? The occasion but apparently not the content of Dr King’s great speech.

Ross Douthat in The New York Times had a good piece on the changed political context since 1963, but that seems to me less important than the changed cultural context. This was addressed by Juan Williams in The Wall Street Journal when he contrasted the folk, protest and other popular songs that inspired the civil rights marchers of 1963 with “the malignant, self-aggrandizing rap songs that define today”s most popular music.” It might be objected that he is not comparing like with like, but then it’s not as if there are any examples of inspirational or idealistic popular music today that he could have pointed to. I wonder, too, what Dr King would have made of the fact that, were his speech delivered to an American audience of any color today, hardly anyone under 50 would catch the allusion in “Let Freedom Ring.” Yesterday morning announcers at Washington’s news station, WTOP, had to explain it to listeners as coming from “a patriotic song.” Oh. One of those.

It’s one indication of the extent to which the cultural context has become part of the political context. That the original speech appealed to Americans of all races in the name of Americans’ own ideals of liberty and equality would once have seemed to me to be beyond dispute. But that’s not how Gary Younge of The Guardian sees things. He claims that “King didn’t dream of better people. He dreamed of a better system.” There is no evidence for this extraordinary statement beyond the bare assertion; it’s not anything actually said by Dr King in the speech. But I gather that Mr Younge’s is not intended as an historical or a literary critical observation. Rather, he is simply assuming that any ally in what has come to be seen, as civil rights has, as an American left-wing cause will naturally have adopted the customary subterfuge of the American left since the post-war anti-communist reaction now known as “McCarthyism” and disguised with innocuous idealism its project to overthrow or undermine the constitutional order under which it is elected.

Mr Younge does it himself in quoting approvingly from the unashamed communist Angela Davis without identifying her as a communist or a revolutionary:

When the inclusion of black people in the machine of oppression is designed to make that machine work more efficiently, then it does not represent progress at all. We have more black people in more visible and powerful positions. But then we have far more black people who have been pushed down to the bottom of the ladder. When people call for diversity and link it to justice and equality, that’s fine. But there’s a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.

Not that it’s very difficult to discern Mr Younge’s own revolutionary ambitions. That’s another way the culture has changed out of all recognition since 1963. Now when we read his conclusion — that “Obama was elected to run the system. And while he cannot claim King”s mantle, he can carry on his work” — we know at once that he means not “his work” but his work. I wonder whose work President Obama thinks he’s doing?

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