Once we have established an individual or event as an American myth, marketers, the news media, politicians and others slowly hollow out the person or event of its content, so that it can come to represent anything—and everything.
I analyzed how the hollowed-out myth can be used as a symbol of anything when the new Robin Hood movie came out about six months ago. The original Robin Hood was a kind of medieval version of an autocratic socialist, with the King replacing the state. Hollowed out by frequent mutation, the Robin Hood myth bends to the will of the makers of the new movie, who reform Robin into a proto-Tea partier.
But how do we hollow out the myth in the first place? Let’s take the example of Martin Luther King, certainly our greatest civil rights leader, although those who make a claim for Malcolm X are entitled to their opinions. We currently celebrate his day without really knowing what he stood for. We know that he stands for civil rights, but civil rights means different things to different people. If you check out what politicians and writers have said about King these past few days, you’ll see most refer to his legend without defining it or attempt to morph that legend into the beliefs of the speaker or writer. That’s the great thing about big empty words such as civil rights. They can contain so many ideas!
This expatiation on myth-making leads to my encounter with the mainstream news media celebration of MLK Day this year: a short quiz titled “Martin Luther King Day: How much do you know about MLK? Take our quiz.”
This Christian Science Monitor online quiz comes one question at a time online and each question is immediately answered, which means that to learn what all 10 questions are or complete the multiple-choice survey you have to click through 20 screens, which gives you 20 chances to see (and click-through to) all of the advertising on each of these 20 pages. Very irritating, but hey, without the ads, there wouldn’t be a survey! And then we wouldn’t know how much we do and do not know about Dr. King.
We’ll be more user-friendly and give you all 10 questions, sometimes with the wording slightly different. Each question comes with four possible answers:
- Where was he raised?
- Why did Attorney general Robert Kennedy order MLK’s phones tapped in 1963?
- What early event established MLK as an important civil rights leader?
- MLK earned his doctorate from Boston University in what field?
- What action by MLK angered President Johnson?
- MLK served as leader of what organization?
- Which of the four listed awards did MLK not receive?
- The name of MLK’s final speech?
- True or False: Malcolm X teamed up with MLK to organize the March on Washington in 1963?
- When was MLK Day declared a federal holiday?
Even with the answer to these questions, one knows very little about what MLK believed in, except that it had to do with civil rights. The last question, “When was MLK Day declared a federal holiday?,” is merely the most extreme example of the irrelevance of all the questions and their one-fact answers to who Dr. King was and what he believed in.
We can infer a little extraneous information from the answers, e.g., that King may have been in contact with communists (question 2) and that it was under President Ronald Reagan that his birthday became a federal holiday (question 10). In other words, while we learn nothing of his beliefs, we do get subtle reinforcement of right-wing cant.
In our minds, the factoids that Christian Science Monitor presents as knowledge about Dr. King come to replace the ideas that made MLK one of the greatest of 20th-century Americans. Let’s recall some of them:
- A complete belief in non-violence as the most appropriate way to change society; Dr. King was profoundly Gandhi’s most important disciple.
- An understanding that overcoming the great divide between rich and poor (which shrank in the 60s and early 70s and has been increasing ever since) is at least as important as overcoming racism; the two in fact are closely intertwined as social objectives.
- A belief that the government should intervene to improve social ills, to equitably distribute wealth and to manage the economy.
- An opposition to all warfare.
- A belief that it was a central mission of organized religions to advocate and work to end the illnesses and inequities of the world.
We do come away from the survey knowing that Dr. King was important and deserves to be honored. But the price tag for allowing Dr. King into the pantheon of Great Americans is to homogenize his beliefs.
Making MLK a day for volunteering also distorts the good Dr. King’s views. While spending the day collecting for the poor, performing a charity show, reading to the elderly, cleaning up city parks and doing all the other things that people did yesterday are all admirable, this volunteering relates only in the most nebulous of ways to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers whom King enraptured and engaged 50 and 60 years ago. Those volunteers did two things and two things only: Walk for peace and justice and sit for peace and justice. Just as the news and marketing media transform King the social revolutionary into a nebulous civil rights leader, so volunteering for social action morphs into volunteering in ways that attend to social ills without addressing how to cure them. King becomes a fatherly figure who reminds us to help out others, a kind of Smokey the Bear of volunteerism.