On Sunday I visited Dr. King’s memorial for the first time since moving to Atlanta and a deep sadness came over me. Not because Dr. King is dead — we all kick the bucket sooner or later and Dr. King did it sooner than most. That it came about because of Dr. King’s extraordinary deeds is a reflection of the esteem in which he was held domestically and abroad and the inviolability of his many messages advocating for social justice. No, my sadness stemmed from what I have come to realize is the dawn and perhaps the twilight of a new generation in which a figure like Dr. King and the kind of movement that he was partly responsible for bringing to reality are increasingly considered relics and legends suitable only as exhibits in a museum and not as examples from which similar demonstrations of indignation and outrage may be provoked. Today, such passions are instead openly and garishly displayed by those who perhaps embody beliefs and qualities almost diametrically opposed to those espoused and possessed by Dr. King. I need not name names or bandy about labels to underscore this point; in any event, to do so would be a great undertaking if the showing at the most recent Tea Party rally in Washington D.C. is any indication.
How did we get to this point? Did our economic system not just implode because of lax or nonexistent governmental oversight and a culture of greedy uber-competitiveness? Do we not have the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration and infant mortality rates among industrialized countries? Is income inequality in this country not at its highest levels in American history?
And yet those rallying in Washington this past weekend, in arguing for greater deregulation and fewer public-conscious programs, effectively thumbed their noses at all those who don’t have an offshore bank account or fortified tax shelter — that is, perhaps 95% of the American pubic, or more depending on how skewed one views the current wealth distribution in this country. No demonstration of equal fervor or organization sought to offer a counter-message. Al Sharpton and his contingent were present but that, for better or worse, is simply a non-event these days.
There are two theories, in my mind, that might explain the current state of affairs. I imagine first that the folks who are most likely to disagree with the recent demonstrators at the Washington Mall consider them to be crazy reactionaries out to vent some long pen- up frustrations. This being the case, we deem them to be mostly harmless; the human equivalent of a New Year’s noisemaker. And I must admit, I would include myself in that camp. Yet the truth is far less benign. At the very least, regardless of how asinine and backward the messages and proclamations of the Tea Party-ers and their fellow travelers might be, their simple existence and circulation in mass media is bound to have some persuasive effect on some person. To leave such messages unanswered and unchallenged is the equivalent of knowingly handing over the safe combination to a robber armed with a toy pistol.
The more puzzling phenomenon that seems to have enabled and is itself perhaps furthered by the recent rally is our current reluctance to advocate for the downtrodden and dispossessed, and to do so on a general scale without allegiance to a particular race or group. One doing so, it appears, often risks being labeled a liberal or even worse socialist, the consequences of which may prove dire with the near indelible mark almost everyone leaves on the Internet, whether intended or not, and our country’s irrational and unfortunate distaste for all-things even hinting of Socialism. Not that it is inappropriate to be outlandish or even radical in one’s messages as long as one leans to the right. This, I would venture to guess, is why President Obama has thus far given our outlandish neighbors to the right free reign in their collective display of what can be described, simply, as a massive inferiority complex. His weakness in this regard is unfortunate and concerning but by no means surprising.
It seems to me that until someone is able to discredit the Tea Party and similar groups in a systematic, comprehensive, and public fashion, their outrageously veiled message of apartheid (“taking back America”) will continue unabated and unchallenged. I don’t imagine this will be a hard task, but perhaps labor and resource-intensive. The more vexing issue is whether it will ever be possible for a Dr-King-like figure to dominate the public consciousness. I do not see this happening any time soon. As dire as our present circumstances are, most folks, even when confronted with the facts — a challenge in and of itself — are simply too oppressed by the rigors of day-to-day survival and distracted by the latest high-tech invention to give a damn.