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MLK Day Wrap
Meditations on inclusion and exclusion
President Ronald Reagan signs the bill commemorating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday on Nov. 2, 1983 in the White House rose garden.
Matt Yglesias wrote a good “true meaning of MLK Day” post a year ago, which he reprised today, about how King saw the next phase of the civil rights struggle as a moral struggle against poverty and for the dignity of labor. As he concludes: “I think this is quite different from — and much better than — both the washed-out version of MLK that you can from conservatives and the Tema Okun version of racial justice politics that has become faddish recently.”
I heartily agree. And yet, I think the actual true meaning of MLK Day is exemplified by the photograph above, of President Ronald Reagan—a man who stood foursquare against King’s agenda circa 1968—signing into law a federal holiday commemorating the civil rights leader’s birth. Making King’s birthday a federal holiday meant enshrining him in the American pantheon of national heroes, which put certain aspects of his legacy officially beyond respectable debate. But it also inevitably meant that the enshrined version would be to a considerable degree washed out. The alternative, though, was not enshrining King in all his actual radicalism, but leaving him out, and leaving the entirety of his significance outside the national consensus.
Our era’s iconoclasts like to think that, in calling for the expulsion from that consensus of certain once-heralded figures from our nation’s past, they are cleansing and reconstructing that pantheon, making sure that everyone who remains in it truly deserves to be heralded as a hero. But to be a national pantheon, whoever remains in necessarily gets reconstructed to speak to a broad national consensus, and that’s kind of incompatible with real radicalism. They should ask themselves whether they wouldn’t rather refuse the official inductions and commemorations, and stand not aloof, but defiantly outside. That is, after all, a far more plausible position from which to throw stones.
King and the Porcosapiens
One of the ways that MLK’s legacy was assimilated to the kind of conservatism that was ascendant in the George W. Bush years—and that is best represented today by a pundit like David French—was by identifying abortion as the next big civil rights battle. There are a variety of reasons why liberals might object to this turn, but the deepest problem with the stance, or so it has always seemed to me, is one that it shares with liberalism: that it grounds the common humanity that is supposed to be the basis of our equal and inalienable rights in common genetics.
Why is that a problem? I explain one reason why in this week’s essay at The Week, entitled, “Three Cheers for the Pig Man,” applauding the first successful transplant of a heart from a non-human mammal to a human being.
The article is a pretty full-throated endorsement of using genetic science to promote health. But I hope I don’t come off in it as dismissive of a host of legitimate concerns—whether about safety or about equality or about our relationship with our own children—that this kind of technology raises. What I’m pushing back on, fairly hard, is the conviction that policing the genetic boundaries of humanity as a matter of principle is going to be of any use in guiding us in this area.
Nor do I think it was ultimately dispositive in the Civil Rights era. Which is why I conclude the piece thusly:
Drawing hard lines around the human was crucial to establishing the regime of rights that we justly cherish; it was also strongly implicated in the development of race-based slavery which trapped Black people outside of those same hard lines.
If we are to be guided by anything beyond pure consequentialism, then, I suspect that guidance will have something to do with our relationship with the other with whom we are concerned. Whether that other is an embryo or a dying person or a pig, our openness to the reality of their experience, however similar to or different from our own, and to the web of relationships within which they are embedded, will do more to keep us from horror than a fixation on their proper status.
I encourage you to read the whole thing.
Democracy and Distrust
Securing voting rights was the most important achievement of the Civil Rights era, because it is the achievement that secured all the others. So I understand why President Biden went to the mat in Georgia last week for the cause of protecting and expanding voting rights in America, even though the reaction to his speech has been abysmal, and he appears to have only shot his administration in the foot by making it. I agree with those critics on the question of its political wisdom, as well as with those critics who argue that much of what is in the bills he was fighting for wouldn’t be especially responsive to the most important threats to democracy today.
But I’m still kind of sympathetic to the president’s decision. The right to vote is the most fundamental right we have in our political system, and we should be doing everything we can to make sure that right can’t be denied. As a matter of prudence, it’s not always the most important fight at any given moment—right now, in fact, the most important fight for democracy isn’t about the right to vote but about control of the electoral process and ending political self-dealing through gerrymandering. As a matter of principle, though, I think Biden is right, and anyone whose political stance is “let’s make it harder for the other team to vote” is in the wrong. Even if the Democratic Party substantially exaggerates the seriousness of the wrong—and I think they do, routinely—that doesn’t make it right. And that’s why I’m not nearly as irritated at the president as some folks with whom I agree pretty frequently on policy matters—including on the details of the voting rights bills that were the subject of his speech.
That having been said, the most important danger to democracy today isn’t legal obstacles to voting, but partisan refusal to accept the legitimacy of their opponents. That’s why control of the electoral process has become a key ground of partisan contest, with potentially catastrophic consequences. The nascent bipartisan effort to head off that problem was the subject of my only Substack post this past week. If Biden’s speech in Georgia winds up derailing it, then I’ll be angry.
Slow News Day
If you are interested in my thoughts on President Trump’s possible return to power, check out this “ThinkIn” panel discussion on the subject where I was a participant along with Geraldo Cadava, Greg Swenson and Sarah Baxter. Tortoise Media, as its name implies, is dedicated to the proposition that what we really need is slower news, and that is one proposition to which I can heartily assent. We had an excellent discussion, civil, multi-sided and well-informed.
I hope to be invited to do it again. In the meantime, I encourage you to check it out.