Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Smoothing out the Rough Edges of History and Heroes

Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. While I have respect for the civil rights leader I do not usually pay much attention to it as it is an American holiday and I do not feel the need to appropriate him as a Canadian. However, I was surprised at some of the commentary I read about Martin Luther King on my Twitter feed that day.

Some of the commentary I read suggested that the celebration of Dr. King was worship at a false idol, and the imagery built around him bears little resemblance to the man. King is accepted as a conciliator between the conflicting races as embodied in his famous “I have a dream” speech. 

King’s other remarks fit far less with the consensus ruling modern America. As a sample, here is a post I read on Laci Green’s tumblr account. In today’s terminology King would be a hard-left-wing activist. His type of rhetoric is rarely heard on the national stage. As a leader King was not merely interested in legal equality, but social and economic equality. This has been lost in the decades since his death.

Joan Walsh in Salon contrasts the “sanitization” of Martin Luther King to that of Nelson Mandela. Walsh argues they share a common ideological strain, but their core values are ignored in preference for simple legal equality. Walsh decries the forgotten legacy of King and trumpets it in her piece.

History and heroes are fascinating creatures. History is an incredibly powerful tool. Strip people of their history and they can be left culturally impotent and listless. However, history is different than fact and heroes are different from the men and women they purport to be. They shape who we are, how we see the world, what we deem is right and what we dream is possible. If history is misremembered it cripples us, or can be shaped to inspire. When events are adopted into the public history or consciousness the rough edges are smoothed and the less pleasant details are put aside. There is certainly a self-interest purpose, but it is fascinating how much reviled villains become heroes and forgotten chapters or events become critical touchstones, or how once critical stories slip from collective memory.

Where this becomes even more important is when we consider who is telling (or retelling) the story and to what ends. Given the power history has to shape so much of the culture and political life there are clear vested interests. Frankly, I prefer the rough edges, and history that cuts when you handle it. The truth is messy and unpleasant and rarely fits into comfortable narratives.

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