I used to be disgusted; now I try to be amused
Elvis Costello, The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes
Well. The dust has settled on our annual day of silly rhetoric. Time to tally the score, attend to the wounded, hold the press conferences, and get to the after-party before all the good groupies are taken.
In his capacity as councilman for Washington D.C.’s Ward 8, Marion Barry, himself once a respected civil rights leader, postponed this year’s Martin Luther King Day parade due to cold weather. Last year’s parade was cancelled for the same reason. Originally the parade was rescheduled for April 1, but some residents, perhaps concerned they were being pranked, complained that this was April Fool’s Day. Some contended it was another attempt to deny Martin Luther King his due. Noting that the schedule change came from Barry and a group of black D.C residents understandably dismayed at the thought of standing in sub-zero temperatures, I presume the racist white devil works in mysterious ways.
What has this day become?
In professional bodybuilding tournaments there is something called a “pose down.” As a culmination, the bodybuilders take the stage all at once. They then are to use what time they have to pose for the audience in brutal, side by side comparison. They crowd and elbow each other, wearing those disturbing, forced, grimacing grins; preening and flexing madly. That is what MLK Day is like, as politicians all crowd the national stage at once, flexing their moral muscles, wearing horrible false smiles. Insincerity is the common denominator.
Hillary Clinton (an apparent mediocrity advanced beyond all sensible measure because of her name), seeking to replace George Bush (see previous parenthetical statement; alter gender) as the most powerful person on the planet, launched her bid for that promotion by telling an audience of African Americans (that is to say the healthiest, wealthiest, most democratically enfranchised, most culturally powerful population of Africans to ever exist) that they had an intimate knowledge of slave life on a plantation, and that they would therefore appreciate her deft metaphoric comparison of that to the current political climate in the U.S. congress. In a black church in Harlem on MLK Day, the uber-WASP Ms. Clinton, always uncomfortably stiff, looked as out of her element as an eskimo at Club Med as she valiantly tried to inflect with some reasonable approximation of folk-speak. The only way it could have gotten any better is if she had started rapping. “Excuse me while I bust a free-style.” Oh well, maybe next year.
I keep hearing about the legendary intellect contained behind those oddly disembodied eyes (someone once noted that Hillary shared with Gary Condit the unsettling trait of eyes that never seem to agree with her facial expression); “smartest person I ever met,” said one former Clinton staffer. In his embarrassing ode to the Clintons, Primary Colors, Joe Klein describes his first meeting with Ms. Stanton (Hillary); after a brief exchange of crass political analysis he declares: “she was breathtaking.” So, perhaps the woman’s lack of any actual achievement that would normally make her a presidential candidate, beyond marrying a bright and unimaginably ambitious man, is purely accidental. Seeing as she may very well be our next president, let’s hope so. Who would have thought, after George Bush Sr.’s precipitous decline in popularity put him out of office and Bill Clinton’s wild ride to the finish that these two political families would be charmed still? At least with the Kennedys you could see the charisma; that is until Ted Kennedy stammered his way out of the Democratic nomination on national television, trying to explain how the rescue of a young woman trapped and drowning in a car he drove into a lake was necessarily deferred for hours as he conferred with family at home.
I am inspired, but still too remote out here on the far northern fringe of the blogosphere as I type with frostbitten fingers, to propose an annual Martin Luther King Day award (not to be confused with a Martin Luther King award, of which I assume there are many) to be awarded to the most embarrassing genuflection offered on this, our most dysfunctional holiday.
Perhaps we will need a white and black category; these are two distinct traditional dramatic roles after all. This year’s winner in the black category would have to be New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, for remarks you all have no doubt heard repeatedly by now. To provide a little context, one must know that Mayor Nagin was elected with 90% percent of the white vote, and slightly less than half the black vote. He has been derided by black New Orleans for representing white business interests; often the criticism takes on a personal nature: he sounds white, he acts white. I don't believe his sounding "white" has anything to do with a nasal ("honky") inflection, indeed the mayor has a perfectly respectable, deeper than average timbre. I assume what is meant is that he uses a little more elocution than you would find in your average rap star’s MTV Awards acceptance speech. He sounds to me like too many political leaders, not quite articulate enough to inspire confidence. He does have an odd shaped head, and facial features that, from the right angle, appear suspiciously, disturbingly caucasian.
The point of all this is that Mayor Nagin’s purpose on MLK Day was to convince black New Orleans that he is an authentic black man, and that means that he doesn’t really like white people all that much, and that he parses God’s will at will. I wonder how much Mayor Nagin knows of New Orleans history; largely populated by the partially enforced migration of settlers there who had the misfortune of being drawn into John Law’s Mississippi Scheme. A grand scale con. How fitting for the Big Easy. I wonder why the infallible Almighty would even approve of a city built below sea level by way of one of the world’s greatest rip-offs. I’m sure the mayor is aware of New Orleans’ current history, a black run municipality with a homicide rate ten times the national average before Katrina.
It’s hard to take offense at all of this. One has to pick one’s battles, and all the reasonable but dog-eared disdain that always accompanies the perennial silliness of MLK Day bears the sad tone of acknowledged futility. Now, when a public official of high enough order to command a press consultant utters an absurdity embarrassing not only to him but to the nation he represents it is designed to elicit the braying of Limbaugh, O'Reilly, et al. Then the initiator can point to the scowling visage on the television screen and say to that part of the public he seeks favor with: Don't they just hate me? Don't you just hate them?
The shocked, shocked conservative commenators, already on the dance card, follow the lead with enthusiasm, with an implied wink of complicity. All as if by design to further harden the attitudes on both sides of these trumped up, irrelevant debates: would a white guy get away with that?; he said God wants what? Never will a mainstream conservative go any farther in refuting the annual absurdities other than to utter some ridiculous piety such as would Dr. King approve of this? It is a farce, in every sense of the word.
The real damage is not done to the sensitivity of white America, no one takes any of it seriously, or at least they don't take it literally, even as they vent their pent up frustration at the ongoing seriocomedy of American politics and its most bizarre subplot, race, by taking the occasion to allow themselves to feel offended; the degradation is to the quality of public discourse, the offense is to truth. It’s really just an unfortunate distraction from a reality regarding race in this country that grows more unpleasant the more evident it becomes.
In those heady days of the civil rights movement that this day ostensibly celebrates, nobody thought to ask what would happen if the country lived up to its promise to all citizens only to find that they wanted nothing to do with it. A true accounting of the last forty years in America, such as MLK Day purports to seek, would try to answer that question. What is so galling ultimately about the recognition of Martin Luther King's birthday isn't that his image has been inflated to diefic proportions, or that this or that public fool will say something incredibly stupid and offensive; but that there is so very little honesty to be found anywhere in all the lofty, grandiloquent shouting.
Yet we're all forced to sit still for it. It is an annual nation-wide flagellation, disguised as a celebration of an accomplishment, equal rights for all, that it refuses to acknowledge. An entire nation is cowed by the threat of censure for thinking the unthinkable; if you're white, the implication is how dare you question that black America suffers at your hands?; if you're black it's how dare you question that you suffer at white America's hands? Yet everyone knows there's never been a better place to be black than in present day America, or Canada, or parts of Europe. But the last place you want to be black is Africa; and if you are born in Africa, better you're born in South Africa. These disasteful truths are both plainly evident and ruthlessly suppressed by the ever-present threat of public disgrace. What sort of national psychosis does this mass repression foster?
It's as if the neighbors upstairs are going at it again, and we're planting the kids in front of the television with the sound turned up. Those grandiose phrases of the civil rights movement now sound embarrassingly melodramatic. Civil rights activists are like the fabled aged Japanese soldiers in the jungle unaware that the war has ended. The jungle is in their heads and the war is in their hearts, thus they cherish them as the irreplacable elements of identity that they are, fighting on with an unmatched zeal.
An entire nation sits and quietly nods, humoring.