Saturday, January 22, 2005

Amber Alert: Dr. King's Legacy Reported Missing


Scott Ott's hilarious piece reminded me of the University of Chicago's recent King celebration at Rockefeller Chapel. Upon receiving the program schedule, it was obvious that this was not going to be a celebration of King so much as a celebration of being liberal, with a healthy dose of Bush-bashing for good measure. Here's a sampling:

Wading through a group of campus socialists in front of the Chapel, who were handing out their newspaper to the passers-by.

A reading from Qur'an that contained passing mention to the terrible fate that will befall nonbelievers (but that warm feeling inclusiveness gives everyone allowed the moment to pass).

A representative sample of King's writings: "On the Vices of Imperialism and National Hubris." No "I Have A Dream" or "Letter from Birmingham Jail" or anything like that. It's a little known fact that King's forte was international diplomacy. A completely unbiased choice by the event planners there.

An introduction to the keynote speaker by Cathy Cohen, director of the Center for Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. I don't really remember what she said, but I don't think she likes President Bush much - a cursory search of her literature brings up a lot of stuff about "oppression." One can only imagine who the oppressors are.

The keynote was by Kwesi Mfume. The Maroon described a portion of his speech this way:

"Audience members responded kindly to Mfume’s strikes against the Bush administration’s economic policy, whose emphasis on nation-building has ignored critical domestic problems. “Dr. King would want us to make the point that our country should be less concerned with building Iraq than our own country,” he said."

Actually, Mfume listed quite a few Bush policies King wouldn't like, including the partial privatization of social security. I had no idea King had staked out a position on that issue. Perhaps the organizers should've read that speech. I'm curious to hear what King thought about the Tsunami relief efforts and Randy Johnson's trade to the Yankees.

But even more vexing than Mfume's ability to channel King for insights into Iraq and the social security system is reconciling these views with Mfume's concluding remarks. The audience, after holding hands for a bit, were supposed to think of oppressed children everywhere living in fear and tyranny. Apparently we are supposed to care about helping children, unless they're in Iraq. Helping those children is just a pretext for getting oil. And what starving child on his deathbed wants to be saved as a pretext to enrich America? I'm sure the child appreciates the policy implications, and would rather just die. Let those Americans "build their own country" first - Chicago's impoverished South Side has a clear shortage of malls, for example.

And no King celebration would be complete without a shout-out to the "Counter-Inaugural Event" on campus. The event provides "an intellectual and physical space for reflection, analysis, and hope in response to the inaugural of George W. Bush. The events will have symbolic, political, intellectual, and moral import and are framed by two fundamental questions: What has happened? What can we do about it?" Sounds like a completely impartial intellectual endeavor.

What struck me about this whole event wasn't that organizers of a King commemoration would take such a tack on him - I'm sure many campus celebrations all over the country were similar. No, what disappointed me was that this happened at the University of Chicago. It's as if the organizers thought a King celebration couldn't go any other way, and that everyone in the audience would be receptive to the presentation. There was no reflection on the difficult questions King's "content of character" focus should provide to a true believer in diversity and multiculturalism as campus liberals understand them. There was no thought into the potential differences between Vietnam and Iraq, and how those differences might color King's views. Instead, we got a big gathering of people only looking to confirm their own beliefs and ignore the other intellectual half of the University. All told, it was a bit of an embarrassment.

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