Using MLK to Keep You in Your Place

There are all sorts of rationalizations people will offer for not envisioning a better future. “It’s utopian,” some will say. “You’re dreaming. The best we can do is make small improvements on what we’ve got.”

“Why try to create a blueprint for what a better society will look like? Shouldn’t we let the process of social change determine what the future looks like?”

“It makes you look crazy,” still others will say. “We’re so far away from what you envision, that it makes you look hopelessly ungrounded in reality.”

On January 21, 2002, Martin Luther King Day, the Boston Globe came up with yet another reason why we should forego our dreams. To put it simply: we’re not capable.

To “honor” Martin Luther King, the Globe took out a full-page ad. They divided the page into two columns, one with the heading “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the other with the heading “Most People.”

Under the former, the Globe reprinted King’s famous “I have a dream speech,” in which he imagines a day when the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”; when his four children will not be “judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character”; when “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with the little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

The speech resonates with dignity, hope and vision. But the Globe’s point isn’t to remind us of King’s desire to one day see the dismantling of race, class and gender boundaries, and to invite us to share in that dream. No. The point is more to contrast King’s magnificent dream to the meager dreams of the rest of us.

Under the heading “Most People,” the Globe lists what it imagines our dreams to be. “Most People” means you and me, of course, the rest of us, those of us who are not Martin Luther King. What are our dreams? They are apparently limited to three: winning the lottery, owning a nice home and a nice car, and becoming a movie star.

I’m not sure where the Globe gets its information. Did they send out a special investigative team to ask “most people” what they dream of? Or did they peruse their own product, which is majority advertising with content designed to be favorable to the advertisers?

In other words, do Automotive, Real Estate, Home, and Travel warrant their own sections and voluminous pages because “most people” are constantly out buying cars, homes, furnishings, and vacations?

Or do they warrant their own sections because that’s the best way to sell advertising space? What better venue for car ads than a whole section of the newspaper dedicated to reporting on — what? — people driving cars!

What better way to entice real estate ads than sending journalists out to write balanced stories about the joys of homeownership, fixer-upper tips and tricks, and strategies for procuring mortgages.

Not sure it really matters what kind of kitchen gadgets you own? Think again. The paper reports extensively on the relative merits of all sorts of consumer goods, doing a lot of free legwork for the advertisers who now don’t have to justify their promotion of consumerism, but can focus instead on imprinting their particular brand on your brain.

What about the news sections? Don’t they help us understand the world so that we can more responsibly participate in it? Not likely.

The spectrum of debate offered through the mainstream media is narrow; Defense Department press releases are quoted as fact; mainstream institutions — particularly the marketplace — are immovable, inevitable, untouchable. You don’t hear too much about human agency in the front page; subjectivity is reserved for the “Home” section, where you can find full-page spreads on window treatments. The newspaper invites us to make choices about where to take our vacation, which car to buy, and which recipes to sample.

Let’s face it. The Globe — as well as every other mainstream media outlet — takes its mission of being user-friendly to advertisers very seriously. What better way to help us feel responsive and accepting of the legions of ladies’ underwear ads than to convince us that we don’t think about anything else!

Martin Luther King’s birthday provides a special opportunity to reinforce the directive that our mission in life is to be consumers; that the only outlet for active engaged minds is decisionmaking in the marketplace; and that dreams revolve around picking the right lottery number, gaining personal fame, and owning high-priced commodities.

Contrasting his dream with “most people’s” turns MLK’s vision into a weapon — a marketing tool to convince us that personal ego trips and material gain represent the limits of our collective imagination.

In fact, the Globe ad tells us nothing about “most people’s” dreams, but it says a lot about how hard elites work to keep us in our place. Look what they’re up against, after all — real people, most of whom have a moral center, value generosity, and care very deeply about realizing mostly non-market dreams.

The custodians and nurse’s aids in the Adult Basic Education class I teach in Boston’s big public hospital are passionate about things like being able to adequately support their families, sending their kids to college, knowing their neighbors, finding work that is less tiring, draining and demeaning, addressing discrimination on the job, and giving back to their communities through volunteer work.

These are the true “most people” — in addition to you, me, and just about anyone we know. Our dreams actually have a great deal in common with Martin Luther King’s, and they have very little to do with buying things, which is why corporate interests work so hard to convince us otherwise.

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