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David Sirota
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Saturday 2 February 2013
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.”

Santa Clausifying Martin Luther King Jr.

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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 Claus-ify 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 Claus-ifying 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 signal 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 Claus-ify 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.


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ABOUT David Sirota

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado.

Even otherwise-progressive

Even otherwise-progressive media notes Martin Luther King Day in middle class terms, censoring out his core message about poverty. He talked about the fact that corporations really don't care about the color of those they exploit, and it is in the best interest of the poor of all races to unite to push back (note: He did point out that while minorities were disproportionately poor, the majority of the poor are white). We've redefined his amazing Poor People's March in strictly racial terms. Liberal media of recent years have engaged in a panderfest to the bourgeoisie; even the Occupy movement was quickly redefined as a movement of middle class workers alone, so the rest of us walked away, and Occupy died out. But never mind all that -- Martin Luther King Day today is one of our biggest annual sales days, with discounts on everything from toilet paper to cars.

This "Santa Clausification"

This "Santa Clausification" is certainly repulsive, but I think it is the inevitable blowback from establishing a holiday in Dr. King's honor. Creating a national holiday for the symbol of one political faction compels everyone, including people whose attitudes toward the faction are hostile, ambivalent or apathetic, to bow down to that symbol. Initially, it gives a political advantage to the faction that set it up, since anyone who opposes them is then out of step by going up against the new god that is being publicly worshiped. But the following political generation, people with other interests will be conducting the ceremonies, and they will make the god speak on their behalf.

Jesus surely wouldn't have supported any of the crusades launched in his name either. We may make our own favorite leader into a god, but future leaders will remake that god into their own image.

MNhistoryfan's picture

What is the one faction

What is the one faction you're talking about? Who are they? Who are those who "bow down" to that symbol? Are all of us who believe in equality going to die out since this is a false god. Are you talking about my children, grandchildren? What are we worshipping?
I gather you are talking about Black people--not people like me (white) who believe that this country has an enormous amount of work to do to overcome the racism that hinders all of us. You too although you appear not to know it.
We lose so much in this country when we spend so much energy, time, resources, money, and the abilities of people to maintain racist policies, Jim Crow. Slavery is our "original sin," and we are a long way from healing it. Racism is alive and well--even though we have a Black president.
I'm curious about who that "new god" is. Is it Martin Luther King, Jr., or me, or members of the NAACP, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the various civil rights commissions of the federal and state governments.
What some of us hold in our heart and mind is a world of equality, fairness. justice, equal opportunity.
I'm sure that's just a temporary thing and we will in the next years quit paying attention to things like equality, things that were driven (not started) by MLK. And, actually, we may do just that, the way the conservatives have tried to take over and redo our conversations and definitions.
Here are a couple of suggestions to help your education along: The New Jim Crow, a PBS program called Slavery by Another Name. Maybe a little basic history of the United States, starting in the 17th century as the United States brought slaves here, made them property, kept them as slaves, and when they lost that battle, began systematic abuse and discrimination and made sure they were kept an underclass. Try reading Howard Zinn's History of the United States -- or any of his books.
Meanwhile, where do you live and where did you go to school?

Actually, the defining issue

Actually, the defining issue today is class, and a legitimate discussion of American poverty (if we ever had it) would present a FAR greater threat to those in power than a discussion of race. As a matter of policy, we have legalized stripping people of a number of fundamental civil and human rights strictly on the basis of class. Even the ACLU has yawned with indifference.



The "one faction" I'm talking about would be the one that you seem to be an avid partisan of. I am not arguing against your position. I'm simply observing that it is a faction. Not everyone in the country agrees with your view of the world, or makes it their central issue of concern. I'm not talking about race. I'm talking about political beliefs and attitudes.

The "new god" is Martin Luther King, Jr., employed as a symbol. As a symbol, his meaning can be twisted into anything that people in a position to direct the national dialogue wish it to be, even something directly contrary to what Martin Luther King, Jr., the man, actually stood for. The article we are commenting on shows how this is being done.

I didn't use the term "false god", since I'm not contrasting it with a "true" one. The point of any god, in my view, is to pressure people to bow down and acquiesce to the demands of the people who speak for it. In other words, the primary purpose of gods is to intimidate political opposition, which is also the purpose of creating national holidays in honor of our distinctive factional symbols. You would recognize this very well if the issue were, e.g., a national holiday in honor of Strom Thurmond favored by segregationists.

I won't try to predict whether "all of us who believe in equality [are] going to die out". But our generation will, and the world will change over time into configurations that would be unrecognizable to us today. At the rate things are going, the legacy of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday may be no more than the occasion to celebrate our government's ability to blow up its enemies anywhere in the world.

Thank you for your educational suggestions. I am a history fan too, and have read a little on the subject, though I agree that there is much more I could learn. I live in Nebraska, and have gone to school here and in Michigan. I love your state of Minnesota, and take vacation to visit cherished relatives there every summer.

All the best,

Have you been to DC since the

Have you been to DC since the monument went up? As a stone sculptor the accomplishment and size are monumental but the notion of the mountaintop as depicted and the carving itself appears to me a comedic rendition of a cartoon character...the granite is Chinese as well as the carver and it lacks modesty; in my opinion it is a buffoonish sanctification of some imperial projection of what he was supposed to be...though his memory is well preserved as a 3 day holiday in the middle of winter...our country "tis of thee, land of liberty of thee I sing"...

Who is worse, Republicans or

Who is worse, Republicans or Democrats?
At the rate Obama is bleeding and raping Africa I can say, as an African, that even G.W Bush must be impressed with this killer with a smile. Obama is the Blackman's worst nightmare.

Who is worse, Republicans or

Who is worse, Republicans or Democrats?
At the rate Obama is bleeding and raping Africa I can say, as an African, that even G.W Bush must be impressed with this killer with a smile. Obama is the Blackman's worst nightmare.

And then there's the

And then there's the Department of War's attempt to whitewash the history of American involvement in the Wars Against the Vietnamese People.

MNhistoryfan's picture

Maybe some of us should start

Maybe some of us should start a true celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., day, that puts the emphasis on peacemaking. Maybe Occupy MLK day or something. Or go shopping. Oh, that's right, that's what we do already. There should be a counter to the mainstream megavoice.

MNhistoryfan's picture

I found his 1967 speech on

I found his 1967 speech on the internet recently and re-read it. I recommend it. It is powerful and at least as pertinent today as it was then.
I agree with greggerritt. We can add a few more to that list--everyone making big profits off of our military industrial complex, and, though I hate to say it, and have never said this before, President Obama, who needs to stop sending drones out and chipping away at our civil liberties. He is such a disappointment to those of us who believed that, as a constitutional lawyer, he would be in a wonderful position to defend our civil rights, and that as a former community organizer, he'd be more of a peacemaker (a Nobel Prize--my eye!) than Bush or preceding presidents.
I can only assume he's sold himself to all those corporate warlords and wall street.

Reply to MNHISTORYFAN - Rev.


Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. - April 4, 1967 - Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence [Full Speech]

What the military is doing

What the military is doing isn't Clausification. It's rewriting history and ignoring reality. "Clausification" is reducing Dr. King's essential and courageous work into a "National Day of Service". Nothing wrong with a National Day of Service, but ignoring Dr. King's transformative work of speaking truth to power, non-violent civil disobedience, standing with the disenfranchised, protesting the root causes of poverty, racism and exploitation is to dishonor him by sanitizing his life's work to make him more palatable to us.

The Pentagon always lies.

The Pentagon always lies. The generals and civilian leadership are war criminals and ought to be prosecuted. Free those held at Guantanamo and put George Bush , Dick Cheney and their ilk there instead.

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