Perhaps the greatest lesson of MLK Day 2013 was summed up by the virality of a single YouTube clip: “Cornel West Explains Why It Bothers Him That Obama Will Be Taking The Oath With MLK’s Bible.”
The clip was shared by thousands of MLK-memorializing Twitter and Facebook users, as well as dozens of media venues, from the Huffington Post to the National Review. In the C‑SPAN clip, West asserts that POTUS’s swearing-in on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible devalues Dr. King’s critique of the “three crimes” of Jim Crow, the Vietnam War and targeted poverty—forms of racism, militarism and capitalism that have reappeared today as mass imprisonment, drone warfare and generalized poverty.
Given that Obama’s is the highest office of state power in the U.S., if not on the Earth, West asserted that without addressing the new forms of racism, militarism and capitalism in a serious way, POTUS is in direct conflict with MLK’s “challenge…to all of those in power, no matter what color they are.”
Despite its topicality, however, the virality of the clip hardly indicates that genuine political debate has suddenly become more visible in the age of social media. To the contrary; a closer look at how it was shared and received shows that digital culture has, in David Weinberger’s terms, reframed “everything [as] miscellaneous.”
This includes West’s attempt to set the record straight on the meaning of MLK.
For liberals, as West suggests, MLK has long appeared as an icon of collective progress, one summed up almost exclusively by the collapse of de jure segregation. The West clip, however, went viral not only because it pointed out the more radical aspects of MLK’s critique ignored by liberals, but also because it appealed to all of POTUS’s detractors, wherever they might stand politically.
For 21st century conservatives, the West clip was assimilable because MLK has also emerged as a primary source for the creeping opposition to civil rights. Within libertarian circles in particular, racial inequality is understood as having become so sufficiently minimal that it is now time to exclusively judge individuals “by the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin.”
This retold version of MLK is so broadly assumed among 21st-century conservatives that the National Review’s article accompanying the West clip didn’t even reproduce the substance of West’s argument. The paragraph-long piece simply recited the most compatible sound bite: that POTUS had invoked MLK’s “prophetic fire as just a moment in presidential pageantry”.
Not only MLK’s words then, but West’s too, were re-narrated by the power structures he sought to displace, only this time via the conservative media rather than the liberal POTUS. As one YouTube commenter would then go on to overconfidently proclaim, “MLK would have voted for Ron Paul.”
This may simply be the fate of ideas in the age of the social media sound bite. As Susan Sontag once remarked in a different context, abbreviated thinking often becomes “aristocratic thinking.” In other words, since sound bites are decontextualized by default, they lose their situatedness in existing power relations, allowing the dominant vantage point to define or redefine meaning. Thus, very differently positioned stakeholders may well end up appearing to agree.
Just as the abbreviation “MLK” accommodates 140 characters more easily than the extended “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” so too does concise rhetoric become sharable rhetoric. This, perhaps, is the meaning of the comment accompanying one user’s retweet of the West clip: “Do I even want to read what he said?”
Of course, MLK really did assert the inseparability of racism, militarism and capitalism — the question, though, is how this point remains so undigested today, even when reiterated by West. Does digital culture promise genuine political debate while delivering cloaked consensus, just as Karl Marx claimed liberal secularism promises theological diversity while delivering cloaked Christianity?
Perhaps the answer is to be found in MLK’s political theology, the intersection of the political and the theological. Shortly before his assassination, MLK gave one speech that, to invoke one of West’s terms, is characteristic of the “black prophetic tradition,” that in which an anticipated political emancipation resonates with the theological prophecy of Messianic return.
Indeed, his August 16, 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” is one primary source of the rumors that have circulated ever since the ’60s that MLK was an advocate of “democratic socialism,” a term MLK himself used. He said:
Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.
Just as West’s words were largely lost to the virality of digital culture on MLK Day 2013, the theological roots of MLK’s post-communist “democratic socialism” have also been lost, perhaps buried even more deeply than his politics. Twelve years prior to the “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech, MLK wrestled with the problem of collectivism vs. individualism in remarkably resonant language:
Wieman’s ultimate pluralism fails to satisfy the rational demand for unity. Tillich’s ultimate monism swallows up finite individuality in the unity of being. A more adequate view is to hold a quantitative pluralism and a qualitative monism. In this way both oneness and manyness are preserved.
The dissertation, accepted by Boston University’s School of Theology in 1955, was titled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” Concerned with the tension between impersonalist, “all-engulfing” monism and personalist “ultimate” pluralism, MLK’s theology, like his later politics, also asserted a “higher synthesis.”
West and scholars like Gary Dorrien, Dwayne Tunstall and others have helped to show how this higher synthesis grounded Dr. King’s political convictions, since for MLK, racism, militarism and capitalism (in whatever form) devalue the diversity of human personality while violating the divine oneness from which it is inseparable.
Translated to digital culture, if American society today seems as shallowly individualist in the conservative sense as it does narrowly collectivist in the liberal sense, perhaps the arrival of a better world that would be irreducible to either requires more than just annual shares of viral sound bites.
At the same time, that something may yet include precisely the streams of Dr. King’s quotes that flooded the Internet on MLK Day—if we can manage to read them as well as share them, in connection with genuine political engagement. Sontag’s contextualist argument serves that end, but it also ignores that the consumption of concisely stated ideas may take new forms, when new media as well as new social formations begin to emerge.
Which brings us back to West. Rather than bridging conservative individualism and liberal collectivism in order to merely reproduce existing power relations, his revisiting of MLK’s “higher synthesis” instead confronts mass imprisonment, drone warfare and intensified poverty. And that is precisely what more today should be doing: re-sharing in order to link ideas to reality, rather than to delink reality from ideas.
A version of this article was published at Truthout.