#MLK Day

How our 140-character culture re-narrated Dr. King’s thinking.

Jason Adams

What would MLK say about mass imprisonment and drone warfare? (David Erickson / Flickr / Creative Commons).

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.”

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.

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 pover­tyforms 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 Reviews 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 Dayif 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.

Dr. Jason Adams teach­es in the Depart­ments of Phi­los­o­phy and Lib­er­al Stud­ies at Grand Val­ley State Uni­ver­si­ty, in Allen­dale, Michi­gan. Most recent­ly, he is author of Occu­py Time: Tech­no­cul­ture, Imme­di­a­cy and Resis­tance (Pal­grave Macmil­lan) and co-edi­tor of Deleuze and Race (Edin­burgh Uni­ver­si­ty Press). Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Marx_Zuckerberg.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH