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What Would Dr. King Say About...? I Don't Give a Crap

Rahul Mahajan

Pentagon general counsel Jeh C. Johnson recently created a stir on the left with a speech he gave on January 13 for "Martin Luther King Observance Day" (apparently, the Pentagon has to do everything differently) where, after impassioned reflection on King's legacy (and impassioned connection of himself with that legacy--apparently, he went to college with MLK III and they are longtime friends), he suggested that, although King opposed the Vietnam War, he would support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our Nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.

He went on to mention King's evocation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in his final speech, suggesting that the soldiers occupying those countries are living according to King's and Jesus' dictate.

This provoked predictable outrage on the left, many of them jumping to proclaim that, of course, King would oppose the wars (citing King's Beyond Vietnam speech).

My own reaction is different. While Johnson's proclamation is utterly fatuous, I don't give a crap what Dr. King would think. I am sick of the obligatory genuflection that so many bien pensants engage in on at least an annual basis.

There is no other figure in history, except Jesus, who is paid such constant, sycophantic tribute by American progressives; indeed, I would wager that all other historical figures put together don't get as much mention as King.

Martin Luther King died 42 years ago. There is no way to tell what he would think now or, if he was still alive, whether his opinion would count for a hill of beans. Certainly, nobody cares about the opinions of the lesser inheritors of the civil rights mantle.

King was a hero and he made the ultimate sacrifice for his cause (he was quite obviously aware of the risk). It is, I think, no disservice to his memory to point out that he is, with the exception of Rosa Parks (no disrespect intended to her, either), the most overinvoked (by Americans) activist ever.

It is a species of magical thinking to believe that, if King were alive, he would have some special wisdom to share that would dissolve our problems away. The world is bewilderingly complex, and the impulse to seek the shelter of the iconic figures of the past is natural, but it is not remotely helpful.

Actually, the "What would Dr. King say" line of thought is far more pernicious than simply some nostalgic notion that the great people of the past dispose of all wisdom. It is a species of political and moral cowardice (this piece is inspired in part by this post from Ta-Nehisi Coates). King has been made into a plaster saint, whose dicta must perforce be treated with reverence by the entire political spectrum (witness conservative invocation of "the content of our character"); once we wrap an argument in the cloak of King, then it must be accepted.

Except, of course, that it isn't, any more than arguments using Jesus to favor the right or the left are accepted by the other side. The truth is, there is no substitute for stating clearly what your principles are and arguing for them on their merits, not by some appeal to putative authority. It's not likely to work--especially in this political environment--but at least it shows you believe in yourself; invoking King is just a sign that you are not confident that your views can stand by themselves.

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Rahul Mahajan is publisher of the blog Empire Notes and author of two books about the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. He can be reached at

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