MLK Day Meditation: The Left, The Right, The Reverend—Which Side Was He On?
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Rick Perlstein, [email him] a left-wing historian of the conservative movement, has a piece in The New Republic [Day of Reckoning January 10, 2007] on how "conservatives still don't get Martin Luther King". Pearlstein notes that conservative heroes like Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley were, historically, not particularly fond of King—yet today the Conservative Establishment tries to make King one of their own.

One of the conservatives he takes to task for trying to conservatize King is Ashbrook Center fellow and Claremont McKenna Professor Andrew Busch. [Send him mail]

I was pleasantly surprised to see Professor Busch's response in National Review Online. He countered that he did not try to portray King as a man of the Right and insisted that "conservatives cannot embrace King without reservation". In addition to King's support for civil disobedience, Prof. Busch wrote:

"His late endorsement of racial preferences ran counter to his earlier professions of color-blindness; despite his devotion to freedom at home, his co-option by the antiwar movement made him, like thousands of other misguided Americans, accessory to the Stalinization of Indochina; and his personal conduct was not what one would hope for from a Christian minister". [Remembering Which King?, January 12, 2007]
Like Peter Brimelow four years ago, Busch is even pessimistic about the whole King holiday: he suggests it may very well end up "legitimizing the ethnic balkanization of America and of crowding out holidays that might better serve as a national glue than a solvent".

Of course, I would also add that King was a self-professed socialist, surrounded himself with Communist advisors, demonized conservative heroes like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and plagiarized his doctoral thesis. But for National Review, which has indeed run King-as-conservative stuff in its more ignominious moments, it's a pretty good start (or recovery).

With all these negatives, one would wonder why any conservative would bother to invoke King's legacy anymore.

Nevertheless, Professor Busch still tries. He still maintains that there are three grounds where conservatives can (and should) claim King:

  • "The first was his original grounding of his civil right efforts in a vision of a nation that lives up to its Founding ideals and treats its citizens as individuals rather than ciphers defined by their pigmentation."
Prof. Busch goes on to suggest this is consistent with conservative opposition to affirmative action and group identity politics.

Yet even he concedes that King went on to support racial set asides and affirmative action. Now one could hypothetically say that we should revere the earlier King who stood for color blind policies, rather than the later misguided King. But the truth is that King began to argue openly for the more radical policies almost immediately after the Civil Rights Act were passed. The perceptive conservative critics who Mr. Perlstein denounces saw colorblindness as something that King meant to only apply one way that once achieved would be used for anti-white policies.

  • Next reason: King is supposedly a conservative because he appealed to a “moral and religious view that eschewed relativism”.
While this is true, it does not make King a conservative. As the late M.E. Bradford observed even tyrants like Hitler have appealed to natural law. The UN Declaration of Human Rights proclaims "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care— and necessary social services." But you won't see any conservatives praising that.

Many serious conservative scholars like Paul Gottfried and Sam Francis have argued that "moral relativism" is not a leftist value. But even if it were, those laws and natural rights would only be conservative if restricted to principles like the rule of law, private property, and freedom of association. Given that King was a self proclaimed socialist, who practiced civil disobedience, and organized sit-ins on private property, it's hard to see him as embracing those ideals.

  • The final reason Prof Busch gives: "Like the abolitionists and Congregationalist clergy of the 1770s [King] had no qualms about bringing religious language and arguments to bear at the issue of hand".
Busch argues that it is "difficult for liberals today to embrace King while attacking conservatism for…daring to mix religion and politics".

But liberals do not have a problem with importing God into politics. Hillary Clinton is more than happy to say immigration restriction is "certainly not keeping with my understanding of the scriptures". Barack Obama has chastened secular liberals: "[I]f we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand their personal morality and social justice". What liberals have a problem is when you invoke religion to oppose abortion, homosexual marriage, or to support anything they don't like.

King certainly did not use religion in that way. He opposed school prayer and praised Planned Parenthood. His Christianity was, to be kind, rooted in the Social Gospel.

If this is the best Prof. Busch can come up with, it's hard to see the King as having even the slightest conservative credentials.

The efforts Mr. Perlstein, Michael Eric Dyson, and other leftists to publicize King's radicalism are an amusing tool in arguments with the King-worshipping neoconservatives who have led the Conservative Establishment's complete 180 since King's death—another example of the leftward drift of what's left of the conservative movement.

But we should be aware of the bait-and-switch going on here. The truth of the matter is that it was not conservatives who domesticated King—it was liberals. From the 1950s until his apotheosis into a national Holiday in 1983, most conservatives did not denounce him on segregationist grounds, but rather because of his far Left beliefs and associations. It was liberals who insisted that King was just a moderate reformer, and that critics like Jesse Helms were nothing but McCarthyite segregationists.

Had this not happened, the Civil Rights Movement certainly would not have gotten as far as it did, nor would King's birthday become a National Holiday. In fact, responding to Governor Meldrim Thompson of New Hampshire's objections to King's radicalism, then President Reagan responded: "I have the reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality. Indeed, to them the perception is reality." [Dear Americans: Letters from the Desk of Ronald Reagan, p. 129]

After enough conservatives bought into that perception, King became a secular saint that no one in polite society could dare criticize. Now that this reputation is set in concrete, the Left is moving on to insist that we must all embrace King's real, radical legacy.

King worship is a phenomenon that cannot be "domesticated". Instead, we ought to put it to sleep.


Alexander Hart (email him) is a conservative journalist.

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