I wish Martin Luther King Jr. mattered more right now. I'm not saying he's been marginalized, but we seem to see him now from a great distance, as if from far off in the gauzy clouds, or as if he's entered the realm of legend, like the murdered dragon-slayer Siegfried in the Song of the Nibelungs.
I'm going to take a little bit of a risk here. Many people out on the wild 'n' wooly tubes of the Internets don't know it, but it's illegal to quote more than a few paragraphs of someone else's work. So those people you see reposting whole articles on forums "for the convenience of others," or whatever, are actually breaking the law. This maybe skirts the edge of what's permissible. But I'd like to share with you a few teaser paragraphs written by one of my favorite writers, Louis Menand [below, left], in an article titled "Been There: The Presidential Election of 1968":
In close elections, such as those of 1960, 1968, and 1976, the vote is essentially the equivalent of flipping a coin. If the voting had happened a week earlier or a week later or on a rainy day, the outcome might have been reversed. But we interpret the result as if it reflected the national intention, a collective decision by the people to rally behind R., and repudiate D. Even when the winner receives fewer votes than the loser, as in 2000 and 2016, we talk about the national mood and direction almost entirely in terms of the winning candidate, and as though the person more voters preferred had vanished, his or her position barely worth reporting on.
Millions more Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and in 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016 than voted for Donald Trump, but the Trump voter is now the protagonist of the national narrative. People talk about how Americans want to roll back globalization—even though most Americans who voted appear to want no such thing. The United States is one of the few democracies that does not have a coalition government, and a winner-take-all electoral system breeds a winner-take-all punditry.
Later in the same article he continues:
People who write and argue about politics are ideologues. They hold a coherent set of positions that they identify as liberal or conservative (or some variation, like libertarian or leftist). But, to millions of voters, those terms mean almost nothing. These voters do not think in ideological terms, and their positions on the issues are often inconsistent and lacking in coherence. Given the option, they will sometimes identify as moderates or centrists, but that tells us very little about how they will vote.
The fact that voters are often responding to nonideological cues helps to explain the volatility of the electorate.
1968, as is often repeated, was a pivotal year in American history; whole books have been written about it, including ones by Mark Kurlansky and Charles Kaiser. It was the year of the My Lai massacre, the year the Beatles' White Album came out, the year Bobby Kennedy was killed, the year American cities burned in widespread rioting, the year the movie Planet of the Apes was released, the year Yale University went coed, the year Richard Nixon became President.
Menand's article argues that "Politically, the most important event in the United States in 1968 was...the assassination, on April 4th, of Martin Luther King."
Puts MLK back into context, on MLK Day. Good article. Reading it is a good way to remind ourselves of the remaining relevance of Martin Luther King.
It was in The New Yorker, the issue of Jan. 8, 2018; published online as "Lessons from the Election of 1968."
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
B.J.: "On M.L. King day, I do not think one can do better than read M.L. King himself. I recommend 'Letter from Birmingham Jail.' It is easily found on the web with a Google search."
Ray Hunter: "A Louis Menand reference on The Online Photographer! It doesn't get any better than this! As a long-time fan of Menand's writing (and The Online Photographer), I find his considered opinions concerning the American culture thoughtful, even wise, sometimes very witty, and always beautifully-written. I also would recommend his American Studies and The Metaphysical Club to individuals who enjoy good writing that concerns American history. Thanks!!"
Ned Bunnell: "One of my favorite MLK quotes..."
Chuck Albertson: "I can see Menand's point about MLK's murder being the most significant political event of 1968, but my clear recollection of that year is of an endless series of equally Bad Things that hit like bowling balls rolling off the roof. Except for Apollo 8 and the Stones' release of 'Beggars Banquet,' but they were both at the end of the year.
"Given his theme, I was a little surprised he left off the late Joe McGinniss's The Selling of the President 1968, which was a great behind-the-scenes look at Nixon's television campaign (overseen by Roger Ailes!), where the rubber of his law 'n' order pitch, among others, met the road. The book's publication was met with about the same reaction that Fire and Fury has been today."
Mani Sitaraman: "Without getting too far away from the topic of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is worth noting that 1968 was a pivotal year, not just in American political and cultural history, but in many countries around the world. General strikes and student activism in France, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the year the Cultural revolution in China really picked up steam, the emergence of Maoist rebels in India; the whole world seemed to be going up in flames.
"The French have a term for the socially activist young people of that time: Soixtant Huitard, literally, 'Sixty-Eighter.'
"An excellent broad-survey history of that year is Year of the Heroic Guerrilla: World Revolution and Counterrevolution in 1968 by Robert Daniels, published by Harvard University Press."