The esteemed Cornel West has previously noted that America has "Santa Clausified" Martin Luther King, Jr., effectively removing what the man clearly stood for from our psychological memory of him. We have, in other words, turned him into a cartoon -- one that teaches us to ignore much of what he stood for, because what he stood for remains such a threat to the political establishment in this conservative country.
But, then, what does "Santa Clausifying" really look like in practice in 2011? On this Martin Luther King Day, here are two good examples, one big one from the Pentagon, one smaller more mundane one from a major metro daily newspaper.
The first comes in the from of an article prominently displayed on the Defense Department's website:
King Might Understand Today's Wars, Pentagon Lawyer Says
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2011 - If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he understand why the United States is at war?
Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department's general counsel, posed that question at today's Pentagon commemoration of King's legacy. In the final year of his life, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Johnson told a packed auditorium. However, he added, today's wars are not out of line with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner's teachings.
"I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack," he said.
Dr. King, of course, was not just outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War -- he was outspoken in his opposition to violence and war as a concept. As he said in his Riverside Church speech (a speech that is often ignored by the national media): "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 also spoke out specifically against America joining civil wars on the other side of the planet -- wars just like the one we are fighting right now.
So the idea that he would nonetheless support our global wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen today is, in a word, preposterous. And yet, our own Pentagon is now able to make such a suggestion without much of a peep from our media and political establishment -- an establishment focused on Santa Clausifying Dr. King.
The second example of such Santa Clausifying is much more subtle -- but equally as telling. It comes from the Denver Post, whose editorial board today uses standard flowery language in rightly urging readers to "celebrate" Dr. King. Yet, 24 hours before -- on the Sunday of Martin Luther King Weekend -- the same Denver Post editorial board published a scathing lead editorial demanding the state government immediately rescind a basic law that lets public employees unionize and collectively bargain.
Why, you ask, does that conflict with the paper asking us to "celebrate" Dr. King? Because Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis while explicitly supporting public employees right to unionize. That's not a theory; it's a historical fact. King was in Memphis specifically to support sanitation workers in their strike.
Obviously, timing an op-ed attacking public employees right to unionize to the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend is insensitive, to say the least. I'm not, of course, saying the Denver Post meant to time it that way -- perhaps they didn't know the history of King's life. However, regardless of motive or intent, you simply cannot say you want to honor Martin Luther King, while also using the Martin Luther King holiday as an occasion to oppose the very cause Dr. King was fighting for at the moment of his death.
But that's what Santa Clausifying really means -- wiping away who Dr. King really was, because who he was is too inconvenient for the powers that be. Whether that process of cartoonizing Dr. King comes from the highest reaches of government or from a local newspaper, and whether it is deliberate or inadvertent, it all serves a destructive purpose: To make us forget the true nature of Dr. King's dream.