Every year, right around the time between Martin Luther King Day and the beginning of Black History Month, the effort to distort Dr. King’s life and legacy seems to intensify. Some years, we see conservatives preposterously assert that if Dr. King were alive today, he would join today’s neo-confederate Republican Party. Other years, it is deception via omission — we see replays of Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, but do not see any of his speeches about war and poverty.
Princeton professor Cornel West accurately labels all this the “Santa Clausification” of Dr. King, and if you have ever heard or read a snippet of King’s 1967 Riverside Church speech, you will understand how apt the label is. You will also understand why this year’s most grotesque attempt to Santa Clausify Dr. King’s life is at once abhorrent and yet somewhat encouraging.
As The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald first reported, the United States Air Force’s Global Strike Command last week posted an online essay saying that Dr. King would cheer on soldiers “ensuring the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense. “Further, claimed the Air Force, “maintaining our commitment to our Global Strike team…is a fitting tribute to Dr. King.” At the same time, the U.S. Marines commemorated Martin Luther King Day by tweeting out a famous King line — “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live” — in a not-so-subtle attempt to depict him as a war supporter.
That was a follow-up to a 2011 article posted on the Defense Department’s website with the headline: “King Might Understand Today’s Wars, Pentagon Lawyer Says.” That gets us to the special relevance of the Riverside Church speech — the one that the Santa Clausifying Pentagon so obviously wants suppressed. In that oratory, America’s most famous preacher of nonviolence deplored, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
He argued that militarism is not the way to protect America and decried “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.” And he insisted that “there is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”
Comparing the Pentagon’s historical revisionism with King’s words, Greenwald says: “The U.S. military is actually publicly claiming that the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner and steadfast critic of U.S. imperialism would be an admirer of its massive stockpile of nuclear weapons, its global assassination programs, and its covert use of violence in multiple countries around the world, including where no wars are declared. Merely to describe this agitprop is to illustrate its repulsiveness.”
He’s absolutely right, but in that repulsiveness there is a promising revelation from a political system in which lies reflect desperation. In this particular case, the Pentagon’s willingness to so boldly lie about Dr. King betrays its desperation to reverse accelerating public opinion trends. Specifically, Pentagon spinmeisters seem to realize that, according to polls, more Americans are raising King-like questions about our government’s profligate defense spending and its attempts to preference militarism over other priorities.
This suggests that for all the propaganda attempting to Santa Clausify Dr. King and make us forget what he was all about, we may, in fact, be starting to honor Dr. King’s legacy. That’s no excuse for the propaganda, of course — but it is a promising sign that we may actually be closer than ever to realizing Dr. King’s dream.