The anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is supposed to be a time of celebration – a time to reflect upon how far we’ve come in fighting racism in the U.S., and soberly assess how far we still have to go before a “post-racial” society is achieved. Glenn Beck, however, didn’t travel to D.C. for a rational discussion of current-day racism. The Beck-Palin rally at the Lincoln Memorial this last weekend drew tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of right-wing activists, and few of them were interested in hearing about the structural , institutionalized system of racism that continues to operate under the noses of America’s “colorblind” conservatives.
The American right traveled to D.C. to cheer a Fox News icon who believes that the only racism in America is that shared by Obama and liberal allies – those with a “deep hatred” of white people (in Beck’s words). Conservative paranoia and reverse-racism conspiracy theories have long been the norm on the right, but they are taking on an even more perverse tone in light of Glenn Beck’s efforts to rebrand the legacy of Martin Luther King under the banner of the Tea Party and the right wing “populist uprising.” During his “restore America” event, Beck attacked Obama as “a guy who understands the world through liberation theology” – an interpretation of Christianity explicitly based on combating poverty through the promotion of social justice, empowerment of the poor, top-down redistribution of wealth, and the dissemination of socialist ideology. Beck told his audience that “people aren’t recognizing his [Obama’s] version of Christianity” – characterized by a dichotomy of the world into “oppressor and victim.”
Beck claims that Obama’s alleged liberation theology traces back to his onetime pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who has preached the need for the African American community to throw off oppression and promote social justice. What Beck appears to have missed (assuming he’s not simply a pathological liar) is that Obama divorced himself from Wright long ago, rejecting his former pastor as divisive and unhelpful (perhaps detrimental is more accurate) in his run for the White House. Also missing from Obama’s rhetoric is any sort of association of Christianity with socialism, or support for grassroots rebellion as a cornerstone of his policy agenda. This is largely beside the point for Beck, however, who is more interested in increasing his ratings through demagoguery and manipulation than he is in facts.
While I’m correcting blatant misinformation and propaganda from the right, a few other points are in order. The idea that Beck’s partner-in-crime Sarah Palin could somehow draw upon Martin Luther King in her defense of U.S. militarism should be appalling to those who know anything about the civil rights hero. In her calls for a campaign to “restore America,” Palin declared that the U.S. military is “a force for good in this country, and that is nothing to apologize for…here today, at the crossroads of our history, may this day be the changing point…look around you. You’re not alone. You are Americans! You have the same steele spine and moral courage of Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It is in you. It will sustain you as it sustained them.” Palin’s manipulation was greeted with adulation from a crowd that chanted “USA! USA! USA!,” apparently too ignorant to know that MLK himself was an avowed anti-imperialist, and one of the strongest opponents of U.S. militarism and foreign aggression.
MLK famously attacked the Vietnam War as part of a larger effort by the U.S. to further an imperial agenda in yet another “American colony.” He condemned his country for being “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and distrusted the U.S. for sharing “no concern for the social betterment” of poor countries.
King understood unchecked militarism to be one of the greatest threats to the American people. He warned that “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 supported an end to the bombing of North and South Vietnam, recognized that the Northern Liberation Front was a legitimate representative of the Vietnamese people, and sought a total withdrawal from Vietnam, in accord with the demands of the anti-war movement.
Beck and Palin’s attacks on social justice are equally insulting to those who have even a minimal knowledge of Martin Luther King. King was an advocate of socialist ideals. He spoke out against the shallowness of materialist, consumer culture, and sought a renewed empowerment of unions (which were seen as vital in terms of easing African American suffering), while also supporting policy initiatives such as the living wage, affirmative action, and massive redistribution of economic resources from the rich to the poor. While Glenn Beck is ardent in his rhetorical defense of individualism and his attack on the welfare state, King stressed the vital importance of collectivity in the black community, the necessity of strengthening black communal institutions, and the value of “building a greater economic base” to fight poverty in poor black and white communities. He highlighted the problem of “Negroes [who are] pressed into the proliferating service occupations – traditionally unorganized and with low wages and long working hours.”
King was deeply suspicious of capitalism. He condemned “the dislocations in the market system of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination” for “thrust[ing] people into idleness and blind[ing] them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.” King wondered: “why are there forty million poor people in America? When you begin to ask that question you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
The Beck-Palin attempt to co-opt Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement is, simply put, a wretched Orwellian hoax that has been played upon the people of America. It represents an inversion of everything Martin Luther King stood for. This campaign also blatantly misrepresents the policy goals and worldview of the Obama administration. The reversal of reality is really quite stunning: whereas Martin Luther King was a socialist who opposed U.S. imperial wars, Obama is the exact opposite, explicitly disavowing socialism in his bailout of the banks, his support for corporate friendly health care reform, and his spearheading of an escalation of U.S. violence in Afghanistan. It takes a massive victory for propaganda for Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin to convince millions of Americans otherwise.
I probably don’t have to remind my readers that the perversions discussed above are only possible because of a larger media and educational system that purposefully misinforms Americans about the real Martin Luther King. King’s identity as a militant anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist is deemed too “controversial” for America’s youth to learn about in their history classes; as a result, it’s scrubbed from textbooks and public commentary – yet another casualty in the war to wipe from the American mind any critical consciousness or serious challenge to current systems of corporate-capitalist cronyism and unchecked imperial aggression.
Beck and Palin are merely the most recent political opportunists who exploit American ignorance for personal fame and fortune. What we should really be calling for on this anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech is a renewed commitment to critical inquiry and social dissent. It’s no pipe dream to say that we can push for real educational reform, in which the public is educated enough to reject out of hand the falsehoods and distortions perpetuated by those with active contempt for the ideals in which King fought and died for. When all is said and done, we deserve better than the fake revolution being offered by the Glenn Becks of America.
Anthony DiMaggio is the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com), a daily online magazine devoted to the study of media, public opinion, and current events. He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and North Central College, and is the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He can be reached at: [email protected]