Earlier today, as the 50th anniversary March on Washington got underway, writer David Sirota tweeted the following:
You get the feeling that if MLK was around now and slammed a Dem POTUS like he did LBJ, much of the left would criticize him as an “emoprog”
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) August 24, 2013
This is a premise that Sirota has indulged frequently in recent months — that his own criticism of Obama’s foreign policy is in the tradition of Martin Luther King, and that Obama’s defenders are the modern-day equivalent of those who attacked King for speaking out against the War in Vietnam.
Many have objected to this tweet, and to those that followed. Goldie Taylor of MSNBC suggested that Sirota was applying a flawed “cultural lens” to the analogy, while Imani Gandy of RH Reality Check and This Week In Blackness suggested that describing King’s criticism as simply “slamming LBJ” misrepresented the nature of King’s critique.
Taylor and Gandy are right. While King was fiercely critical of US government policy — and, at times, of President Johnson himself — he understood the failings of the government not as individual or partisan failings, but as failings of American society and government.
King made this distinction forcefully in an appearance on Face the Nation just two weeks after his pivotal speech on the Vietnam War at Riverside Church, in which he had condemned the US government — “my government” — as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Asked whether his attacks on American policy might not be giving aid and comfort to the enemy, King responded, in part, that it was his view that ” in America we are in the tragic position of having a paranoid fear of Communism, an almost sick, morbid anti-Communism, which can be as destructive as anything.” When a panelist criticized the “implication” that “the President has a phobia about Communism,” King said the following:
“I did not specify any particular individual. I am speaking now of many, many people in our nation, and I do think that if we look at it from a historical point of view, many people in past administrations have had this view. I have felt that Mr. Dulles had it. I am not placing all the blame for this situation that we are in now on President Johnson. I think we have collective guilt here. After all, four administrations have participated in the development and the build-up, in a sense, of our present involvement in Vietnam. And I would not be so narrow as to single out President Lyndon Johnson. I understand the ambiguity of the situation that he faces. The only thing I say is that now that we are in it, we ought to admit that we have made mistakes — and it is very hard, as Reinhold Neibuhr said somewhere, for a nation to say it made a mistake. But this is just a fact. And I would hope that President Johnson will seek to rectify the tragic mistakes we have made in the past.”
Martin Luther King understood that the flaws he saw in the United States were not the flaws of one president, one administration, or one party. They were, he insisted, deeply embedded in our national culture.
When Sirota wraps himself in King’s mantle by imagining Obama supporters attacking King as an “emoprog,” he distorts King’s analysis and cheapens the debate that’s currently taking place in liberalism and the left around questions of American policy.
In imagining King’s critics as his own, moreover, he repudiates the approach that King himself took to the divisions of his age. Here, from that same Face the Nation interview, is King responding to a question of whether his antiwar statements had “split the civil rights movement”:
“I cannot conceive of a social revolution … that does not have debate. I think debate can be very healthy … I think every movement goes through that period when it reaches the peak of united activity and united philosophical thoughts, and … those valley moments when we go through searchings and philosophical debates … I think this is where we are at the present time … and it is a myth to think that this is something new in the Negro community or any community.”
On the substance of Sirota’s criticism of the Obama administration, I am closer to Sirota’s views than to those of his primary antagonists. But his relentless needling deployment of Martin Luther King as a bludgeon against America’s first black president is unworthy. It’s ahistorical, it’s obnoxious, and it does nothing to advance the causes that he and I support.