Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Some Thoughts on Islamophobia

The recent terrorist attack in Paris reignited the debate about the problem of radical Islam. This is an ongoing conversation that mainstream Western culture has been having at least since September 11, 2001, although incidents of Islamic terrorism go back further than that and hate crimes against Muslims (or people who fit a very general profile) go back further still. In the fourteen years since the 9/11 attack the conversation hasn’t gotten very far. With each new terrorist incident the debate becomes louder but it’s really just a reiteration of the same talking points: this is a war of civilizations (or it isn’t), groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS are fighting a contemporary religious crusade (or they aren’t), Islam is a religion of peace being perverted by radicals for their own agenda (or it’s an expression of the religion’s true values unencumbered by modernity). Out of this debate has come the term “Islamophobia” and it’s been used interchangeably with the word “racist” as a way to marginalize and dismiss critiques of the religion.

There are several problems with the term “Islamophobia” but the main problem is semantic. A phobia is “an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear.” It isn’t just to be afraid; to be a phobia, the fear must be inflated and irrational. Fear of religion in general and Islam in particular is not a phobia, not when it occurs in the context of terrorist attacks and beheadings as well as a cottage industry that exploits religious violence for the sake of television ratings and book sales.

Consider this example: a family from an unfamiliar subculture—let’s say they wear bathrobes all day, every day—moves into your neighborhood. You’ve never met anyone who dresses like this before and you don’t know anything about their background. The only media depictions you’ve seen of this subculture is in the weekly action-adventure television series in which the hero must foil the terroristic plots of bathrobe-dressed people. Shortly thereafter authority figures, such as a friend who is not prone to gossip and a reliable newscaster, tell you that people who wear bathrobes are a threat to you and your family. Then you discover that there are incidents of bathrobed people murdering those who don’t wear them; in fact, they video record themselves cutting off the victim’s head and upload these videos to the internet.

In light of this information you are afraid of the new neighbors. But this is not a phobia. If it turns out that the claims of your friend and the newscaster are wrong and the new neighbors are peaceable and friendly, your initial fear is not a phobia. And even if only a small percentage of the bathrobe-wearing believers are violent and this sect justifies their actions based on an arcane reading of ancient texts, your fear is still not a phobia. This is a rational reaction based on the information you have.

But the problem with “Islamophobia” goes beyond semantics. It isolates Islam and its beliefs, values, and practices from any discourse. The term preemptively shuts down discussion. But Islam—and for that matter any religious system—should be subject to analysis and critique. After all, religions are ideologies. Islam and Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism and Scientology and Satanism are each competing world views that offer distinct and, in many respects, irreconcilable dogmas. Imagine someone suggesting that we cannot debate the merits and defects of capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, or democracy. That would be absurd and we’d all call it that. But this is exactly what the “Islamophobia” defense claims.

In the long term the Islamophobia defense actually does more damage. Islam, like any other religion, is host to a range of opinions. For instance, there are Muslims (men and women) who believe that females should be covered from head to toe but there are also Muslims who don’t even think women are compelled to wear a hijab. The cries of Islamophobia shut down the discussion and prevent these groups from airing their differences. This ultimately silences the moderates and enables the radicals.

Let’s also do away with this nonsense that all religions are inherently nonviolent and harmless. This assertion, which is made by leaders from the President of the United States on down, is plainly untrue. Many sacred texts do provide contradictory instructions about violence, especially those of the Abrahamic faiths, but the histories of Christianity and Islam (to name two) are rife with examples of religion inspired violence. The root of human destructiveness may ultimately be biological but religion has a unique way of marshalling our destructive tendencies. Ignoring this doesn’t make it go away and pretending it isn’t so is just ignorant.

While I encourage intra and inter-faith criticism, I do so with some caution. Religion and culture in general are not so precious that they shouldn’t be critiqued. But just as religious debate tends to stir our violent passions it also tends to steer us toward stupid and irrational thinking. If the goal is to actually communicate and interrogate each other’s ideas (as opposed to self-righteously wagging our finger), then shouting down people from another culture and labeling all of them terrorists isn’t constructive. No one likes to be condescended to and religious critics have an obligation to do their homework and learn a little something about Islam’s history and beliefs before we start talking.

There is another concern. The so-called New Atheists, which is a proselytizing anti-theist movement, has made opposition to Islam a major priority. In the face of Boko Haram and ISIS, that makes sense. That’s where the most urgent fight is. But the movement spearheaded by figures like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is at risk of creating shelter for the Donald Trumps and Pam Gellers of the world. The latter aren’t really afraid of Islam. They are afraid of brown skinned people. That isn’t a fight about religion and ideology. It’s racism and should be called as such.

Therein lies the irony of the Islamophobia defense. The word is hurled at anti-theists and used interchangeably with “racism” when in fact racists have much more in common with religious fundamentalists than they do with anti-theists and other critics of religion. At their best, the anti-theists critique religious ideology by contrasting it against the tenants and values of classical liberalism, the foundation upon which all modern societies are built. Both racists and religious fundamentalists pursue a pipe dream of ideological purity that is antithetical to classical liberalism. The proof is found wherever they gain control of the levers of power. Invariably, racists and religious fundamentalists create remarkably similar nightmare scenarios.

Given what has happened in Paris and around the world, from Brussels to Chibok to New York to Nairobi to Sydney, we have to confront the problem of Islamic terrorism. But we first have to admit that there is a problem. Critiquing religion is tricky and doing so in a way that is honest and rigorous is going to be uncomfortable both for Muslims and for those who want to build an inclusive community. And as we have this debate it’s equally important that we not create a pedestal for racist stupidity. But we cannot shut down the debate for the sake of comfort or to entertain the illusion that all religious ideas are valid and benign. The Islamophobia defense, although well intended, is counterproductive and dishonest and must be abandoned.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween 2015

Most years I’ve posted a Halloween message on this blog and in many cases I have used the space to extoll upon the virtues of this holiday. As I have often put it, Halloween is the celebration of carnality and fear. It is a contemporary Dionysian festival that functions as a sacrament in a post-religious age.

I think of Halloween as a counter celebration to traditional religious holidays, namely Christmas, and its value is found in the way it challenges conservative puritanical ideas. That has been the trajectory of the holiday over the past generation and a half. In the 1980s, media hacks and populist Christian leaders attempted to destroy Halloween (and line their pockets) by whipping up hysteria about poisoned candy and demonic child abuse cults. The lies were eventually exposed for what they were but throughout the 1980s and 90s Halloween changed from an innocuous holiday geared toward children and families and into an autumn Mardi Gras that primarily catered to adults. Far from disappearing, Halloween has become among the most popular and profitable holidays on the calendar. 

But while rightwing religious zealots have moved on to other issues, Halloween faces a new challenge, one that is more complex and formidable: the patronizing protectionism of the liberal left, generally referred to as “political correctness.” Specifically, this threat has taken the form of bans and social shaming of Halloween costumes that are deemed to be inappropriate, insensitive, or offensive. Most alarmingly, this has primarily happened on college campuses, which are supposed to embody the essence of the marketplace of ideas.

This threat to Halloween is so insidious because it originates from a relevant and legitimate concern. Where the anti-Halloween ramblings of televangelists could be dismissed wholesale, the advocates of political correctness begin with a quite reasonable position: that certain costumes, such a blackface, reinforce stereotypes, insult minority communities, and strain the civility of the community. The advocates of political correctness argue that they are building a better and more inclusive community and on the surface that may be the case. Who wouldn’t prefer a world where people didn’t say stupid and hurtful things?

One of the popular phrases in the new political correctness movement is “safe space.” The very idea of the safe space is (to use another buzzword) problematic. Life is not safe. There is no gool. And instead of limiting the “safe space” to an appropriate context like the counselor’s office, the hypersensitivity of the safe space has spread to classrooms, online forums, broadcasts, and to private gatherings.

All crusades for social cleanliness eventually become absurd and ultimately eat their own tail. Just as there is a straight and relatively short line between obsessions with sexual purity and honor killings, efforts to create speech codes inevitably place certain words, topics, and ideas out of bounds. What’s more, the subjects that are partitioned are usually the things we need to talk about the most. Quarantining the issue does not make it go away. Instead it festers like an infected wound.

This brings me back to Halloween. As a holiday of evil, which is to say it puts us in touch with the uncivilized parts of ourselves, of our culture, and of life itself, Halloween exists on the boundary of social propriety. Costumes that channel and display sexuality, mortality, immorality, and the irrational are the most common and wearing these costumes is part of embracing those qualities.

Halloween’s allure is that it is simultaneously safe and unsafe. That’s its social function. Watching scary movies, attending haunted houses, and reading ghost stories puts us in a state of controlled fear. Wearing outrageous outfits requires a certain amount of social daring that is tempered by the knowledge that everyone else will look ridiculous too. It may not be a coincidence that the increase in Halloween’s popularity in recent decades occurred in tandem with a cultural obsession with safety that hedges on paranoia and takes the edge out of everyday existence.

Another important aspect of Halloween is its countercultural qualities. Where both religious and secular holidays pay tribute to the myths and institutions of our culture, Halloween destroys them. It is an irreverent holiday that tears down and desecrates the idols. Costumes are integral to that job. Not only do we adorn outfits that embody desires, heroes, and villains but we also inherently ridicule those archetypes through the act of dressing up. 

Because of Halloween’s irreverent nature, offensive costumes are par for the course. But there are tiers of offensiveness. Some outfits, like blackface, do channel ugly stereotypes and tap into and reinforce systemic racism. But the demands of sensitivity have grown ever louder as the sphere of protectionism swells. Now costumes that even hint of “insensitivity” are grounds for outrage by the social justice hive mind of social media.

I understand when people get angry about blackface costumes. I have a similar reaction. But let’s be clear about something: costumes don’t make people racist. Racist people choose racist costumes. And by wearing such an outfit we know exactly who those people are and what they believe. So let assholes be assholes and then we’ll all know who they are.

I also have to wonder who we think we’re protecting and from what. A costume may be uncouth but let’s not kid ourselves into pretending that someone’s Halloween costume is the epitome of social injustice or that berating that person makes us virtuous. Bad taste is not a hate crime and Twitter pile-ons are not community organizing.

We need to cut each other some slack on Halloween. The very essence of the holiday is inappropriate. But further, Halloween is a release. There are a handful of nights each year when we give ourselves permission to go wild and blow off steam. This isn’t just an amusing indulgence. It’s a matter of individual and collective sanity. If we don’t allow ourselves to be naughty and outrageous, even on Halloween, we not only spoil the holiday but we also risk creating an emotional pressure cooker that’s going to explode one way or another and it’s going to be a lot messier than the aftermath of a raucous Halloween bash.

This said, I want to be absolutely clear about something. I am not advocating that you dress in blackface or some equivalent costume on Halloween. But I’m not going to tell you not to either. Instead, I’ll pose two questions. First, why do you want to dress in this costume? It may be that you think it’s funny or it may be part of a grandiose social statement. You may even think that your outfit is a show of solidarity with a marginalized group. But like any other outfit, a Halloween costume is a social interaction that announces to everyone else how you wish to be perceived. That leads to my second question: are you prepared to accept the social criticism that comes with such a costume? Even if you think blackface is funny or that your Ku Klux Klan robes are ironic, I can assure you that other people won’t. And if you intend your costume to be a piece of performance art or a political statement, realize that your message will be lost in the drunken haze of a Halloween mixer.

If you conclude that a racial or otherwise offensive costume makes an unpopular statement that is important for you to articulate, then by all means do so. But please, spare us all from your persecution complex when everyone else thinks you’re an asshole and says so on Twitter.

Early on in 1978’s Halloween, the sheriff says of the holiday, “Everyone's entitled to one good scare.” While that’s certainly true I think we’re also entitled to one good outrage as well. So as the sun sets and you head out for your Halloween plans, suspend your moral judgement just enough to have a good time. That’s what Halloween is all about.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

89.7 KMSU FM Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its fall pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or believe in independent radio, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the the station's website.

The funds raised in KMSU's bi-annual pledge drive pay for the overhead cost of running the station, maintaining and replacing the equipment, and keeping KMSU on the air.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. In stressful and uncertain economic times we all have to take extra care in how we spend our money. But it is also important to remember that we demonstrate what we value by where and how we spend our money. Consider the impact that KMSU's content has on the community. Many of the programs, especially those that are locally produced, provide a very important service to the listenership and to the Mankato area as a whole.

It's also important to remember that pledges are not just about money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. When you make a pledge to KMSU you demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify its continued existence.

On Sunday, November 1, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled program.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Film Screening: The U.S. vs. John Lennon

The U.S. vs. John Lennon will be shown on Thursday, October 22nd at 7pm in the Stark Hall Auditorium on the Winona State University campus.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a documentary film about Lennon’s art and activism. The film recounts Lennon’s post-Beatles career and the way he used his star power to draw attention to political issues. As a result, Lennon was identified as an enemy of the Nixon administration and was targeted for deportation.

The movie utilizes Lennon’s music and archival footage as well as information from declassified FBI files and commentary from figures such as Yoko Ono, Ron Kovic, Walter Cronkite, Angela Davis, G. Gordon Liddy, and Gore Vidal.

Admission is free and open to the public.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon runs 99 minutes and is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.

This event is sponsored by the Winona State University Art Department, English Department, Mass Communication Department, Sociology Department, the Darrell W. Krueger Library, and Sounds of Cinema.

More information about the screening can be found here.

Join the Facebook event page here

Monday, August 10, 2015

Black Lives Matter is Doomed

August ninth was the one year anniversary of the shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and with it the protests and riots that followed. Brown’s death has become one of the key events in the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which protests the disproportionate and often unwarranted violence by white police officers on African American citizens. Although the facts in the Michael Brown shooting didn’t match the public story, the Black Lives Matter movement is an earnest and important social crusade—much more so than outrage-of-the-week clicktivism. Unfortunately, it is quite clear that this undertaking is doomed.

The first and most obvious problem is the lack of a specific objective. Any successful movement needs a goal or a series of goals that will focus and sustain the energies of the participants and shape the narrative in the press. There are potential goals that could be pushed: requiring racial quotas in police departments so that the ethnic makeup of departments reflects the diversity of their communities, requiring officers to wear body cameras, increasing oversight by state and federal agencies, and so on. The Black Lives Matter movement has not coalesced around a coherent goal and so there is no endgame for journalists and pundits to discuss nor does the movement have any concrete accomplishments that it can take credit for.

The lack of specific objectives may be due to the lack of an identifiable leader. Not that there has to be one leader. Much of Black Lives Matter has been driven by local grassroots groups and a more inclusive sense of community. No one, not even Gandhi or King, led a social movement all by themselves. But in the age of social media and television, movements must have a national spokesperson or a team of spokespeople with a single coherent message who operate as the public face and provide vision. This is where Occupy Wall Street failed and Black Lives Matter seems to be headed down the same path to its own marginalization.

The tactics used by Black Lives Matter have also been questionable or counterproductive. Protests are inherently obnoxious. That’s just a given. The tactics used by activists must be chosen carefully especially if they are going to disrupt the community. Successful protests are not staged in arbitrary places nor do they create new tensions.  The whole idea is to stage protests at the scene where injustice occurs and dramatize and draw out the preexisting tension. The civil rights organizers of the 1950s and 60s didn’t pick random diners to occupy; they specifically picked segregated lunch counters in places where they were most likely to create a disturbance and get press coverage. It was the images of black activists being abused by police and locals that put the public on the side of the civil rights movement. In more recent times, anti-abortion activists (who have consistently outfoxed the pro-abortion movement in showmanship and tactics) stage their protests at government buildings where laws are made and at the clinics where the procedure is carried out. This makes the issue unavoidable when the press discuss it later.

The early Black Lives Matter protests on the streets of Ferguson were very effective. The imagery of unarmed protesters confronted by police in paramilitary uniforms illustrated the issue perfectly. But many subsequent demonstrations have not been organized with this kind of focus. Events such as die-ins have been staged on highways and busy streets, bringing traffic to a halt. This has not drawn attention to police violence or other faults of the justice system nor does it win the hearts and minds of the audience. All it has done is piss off commuters who are just trying to get to and from work. As a result, Black Lives Matter activists do not come across as citizens fighting for justice. At best they they come across as a nuisance and at worst they confirm the prejudices and stereotypes of blacks held by white America.

The way the movement is seen by spectators, and especially by white spectators, should be of upmost importance. If Black Lives Matter intends to do anything constructive it must recruit white Americans and not just a few white college students.  Successful social justice movements don’t operate as a homogeneous group. They are successful by building coalitions. That means recruiting people from all other walks of life, especially the white middle class, and by getting established leaders to take up their cause.

Over the weekend, Black Lives Matter activists disrupted and overtook a campaign event for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. According to TIME, “two women and a man from a Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter shoved Sanders aside, grabbed the microphone, and addressed the crowd.” This is not the first time this has happened to Sanders. While he hasn’t handled the heckling very well, these Black Lives Matter activists are alienating their best hope in the presidential race. Sanders actually has a history of civil rights activism, including the issue of police violence, whereas Hillary Clinton has a more complicated relationship with race and law enforcement, and the issue was barely addressed in last week’s Republican presidential debate.

There is a reluctance to frame the Black Lives Matter movement in terms that are accessible to white Americans. This is understandable. After all, it’s African Americans and other ethnic minorities who are victims of police violence and whose lives are undervalued. Black voices must lead the discourse. But racialized police violence is ultimately a white issue or, more specifically, a product of white culture and an institutionalized system of white supremacy. Any systemic improvement between African Americans and law enforcement hinges on a change in white culture. For that to happen the Black Lives Matter movement must win over the hearts and minds of white citizens.

For the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting, The Guardian has published an oral history of the event. One of the constant refrains in the piece is that this event and the Black Lives Matter movement have somehow changed something. To the credit of activists’, the fact that we’re still talking about Black Lives Matter a year later is itself significant. But for all the press coverage and effort invested, there is very little that can actually be credited to this movement. In its current focus and form, Black Lives Matter is destined to fizzle out just like Occupy Wall Street before it.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Film Screening: Samsara

Samsara will be shown on Tuesday, April 7 and Thursday, April 9, 2015 in the Somsen Hall Auditorium at Winona State University. The event is free and open to the public.

The title of Samsara refers to a Buddhist idea that humanity is stuck in a cyclical existence of ignorance. Using the Buddhist concept as a starting point, Samsara is a non-narrative documentary that visualizes the whole of civilization including both the triumphs and failures of humanity. Shot over five years in twenty-five countries and photographed entirely on 70mm film, Samsara takes the viewer into deserts, mountains, factories, warzones, temples, prisons, supermarkets, dance halls, villages, and cityscapes. Playing like a visual poem, the imagery in Samsara suggests links between our environment and our behavior, between production and consumption, and between humanity and automation. What the film's visual juxtapositions reveal about ourselves and the world we live in are not always comfortable to view and Samsara is at turns beautiful and ugly, illuminating and confounding, soothing and disturbing. In sum, it is a stunning piece of work that is awe inspiring in its beauty but challenging in its implications.

Find a webpage with more information about the film here.

Samsara was named the best film of 2012 by Sounds of Cinema. 

Samsara runs 102 minutes and is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.

The screening of Samsara is sponsored by the Winona State University English Department, Mass Communication Department, Department of Theater and Dance, Sociology Department, Department of Art and Design, Darrell W. Krueger Library, Winona State University Sustainable Futures Theme, and Sounds of Cinema.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sounds of Cinema: Best and Worst Films of 2014

On today's episode of Sounds of Cinema I counted down my picks of the best and worst films of 2014.



2. Birdman

3. Whiplash

4. Noah

5. Gone Girl

6. Happy Valley

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel

8. Life Itself

9. Selma

10. Nymphomaniac

  1. America: Imagine a World Without Her 
  2. A Haunted House 2 
  3. No Good Deed 
  4. Persecuted 
  5. The Expendables 3 
  6. And So It Goes 
  7. Deliver Us from Evil 
  8. Sabotage 
  9. Transcendence 
  10. Men, Women & Children 

You can find more information, including rationales for each film and lists of honorable mentions and cinematic trends of 2014, here.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Should We Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

There are only two individuals in the calendar of the United States who have their own holidays: Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther King, Jr. There has been a growing and insistent opposition to our national recognition of Columbus Day but King’s holiday passes every year without question. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is marked with somber pageantry in which politicians and civic leaders recycle talking points of peace and extol the virtues of King’s idealism while making vague overtures toward his legacy. But it’s time that we question just what it is we are paying tribute to.

On the outset, recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr. makes sense. He was the primary leader of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, a movement that has become legendary in American culture. Further, King is a symbol of stability and moral clarity and his image stands in relief against a chaotic background of race riots, war, and changing cultural mores. That image was created and solidified in the combination of King’s nonviolent methods and the elegance of his literary and oratory works. Whether the man makes the times or the times make the man, King was the man for his time and for that he has been enshrined in the American consciousness alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
Like most public figures, Martin Luther King, Jr. has achieved the status of a cultural idol. When we lionize King we do so not for who he was but for what he symbolizes. King, as an idol, represents not what is but what we would like to be the case and his “I Have a Dream” speech articulates a belief in equality of opportunity, a lynchpin of the American myths of meritocracy and democracy. That speech remains one of King’s most frequently referenced works and every January it is replayed and recited in schools, at community gatherings, and as a part of political events.

The embrace of King by the mainstream has been incongruous with the life he actually lived. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a lawbreaker and a rabble-rouser. The sit-ins and the marches were deliberate violations of the law. Despite all the portraits of King featured in high school murals, if students actually followed King’s example and protested injustices in the hallways of their institutions the way that King did it is likely they would be suspended or expelled for being “disruptive to the learning environment.” That’s not to say King’s methods were wrong. Far from it. But there is clearly a disconnect between our idolization of King and what he actually said and did.

And that is part of the problem. King, as a symbol, has been made to serve the establishment. The way in which our politicians and other leaders extoll King’s legacy is not to fight for the dream of equality of opportunity but to defend the status quo. The way King’s biography has been retooled in American history textbooks reflects this. Most students will go through their entire education without being exposed to King’s opposition to the Vietnam War or his work on behalf of the poor.

The sanitized public image of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been used to distort our understanding of history.  The popular discourse around the Civil Rights Movement gives the impression that it started in 1955 with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. King’s assassination in 1968 is cast as a tragic postscript, a sacrifice that punctuates the end of an era. Of course, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t start in 1955 nor did it end in 1965 or ’68. But with several major battles fought and won during that period we tend to think of the movement as something whose time has come and gone.

This is where Martin Luther King’s public image comes to nefarious purposes. It is taken as gospel that King and his allies conquered America’s racial injustices, bringing a shameful period of our history to a close, and ensured that all of us who came afterward live in a glorious future that is divorced from the outrages of the past. Instead of inspiring American culture to achieve greater levels of justice and equality of opportunity, the successes of King and his allies have been used to oppose any further advancements. Suggesting that America has not overcome its structural and institutional racism is tantamount to slander against King’s name and, by extension, America. In this sense, the public image of King has been turned from a progressive hero who fought the establishment and into a tamed subject of it. In short, the idol of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been twisted into an Uncle Tom.

The sanitized public image of King, the one extolled in annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations, has been used to handicap the public’s ability to speak out. Reading or listening to King’s speeches, there is an undeniable righteous anger to his rhetoric but that has been sanitized from King’s public image. Contemporary liberal undertakings, such as the anti-Iraq War demonstrations from a decade ago and the Occupy Wall Street movement, have been neutered of their moral outrage. Leftists have convinced themselves that raising their voice and hurting someone’s feelings is tantamount to violence or organizing themselves hierarchically in order to get something done somehow violates the spirit of freedom. King’s legacy of pacifism has been turned into a tool of oppression by the powerful.

But perhaps the most damning thing about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr is this: the Civil Rights Movement was a failure. The fights of King’s time were defined by two major accomplishments: opposing and outlawing segregation and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. While segregation is no longer officially codified, American society is as segregated now as it was the day that King was shot. It is an open secret that the justice system in this country is stacked against people of color and the educational system has become the cornerstone of an oligarchical power structure, especially the Ivy League institutions that are clearly more interested in the legacies of their most powerful donors than in the legacy of Dr. King.

The other major legislative pillar of the Civil Rights Movement was the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In the past year, the act was gutted by a Supreme Court decision. Something very important to understand about the reasoning of the majority opinion in this case is that it was based upon a belief that institutionalized discrimination is a thing of the past, a belief that is at least partly rooted in the popular understanding of the Civil Rights Movement which is indistinguishable from the image of Martin Luther King, Jr. With the Court’s decision, states immediately enacted voting restrictions with discriminatory effects, putting us right back where we were pre-1965.
With the major accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement either thwarted or dismantled and the justice system used as a legalized lynch mob, it is incumbent upon all of us to ask just what it is we are celebrating on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Politicians and civic leaders will spit platitudes of peace but for the oligarchy that truly runs this country, and their spokesmen in the mainstream press, “peace” is really a way of telling people to shut up. Anyone with any grasp of King’s actual ideas and methods can see that peace was never his purpose. King was interested in justice and that requires disturbing the peace.

King’s holiday may have started as a well-meaning recognition of a respected leader.  But when we’re celebrating the legacy of King, we’re really buying into a myth that has nothing to do with reality. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has become a form of nationalistic idolatry, one that I doubt the man himself would partake in.