Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Most People Think MLK Was a Good Guy

I was very surprised to see this stat in my daily Rasmussen Reports email:

Martin Luther King Jr.
What I'm surprised about is that it is only 86%. I've never heard a disparaging word uttered against the man. He's obviously a national hero and that's as it should be. The obvious answer would be that we have a lot of racists in the country. Well, you know, we certainly have some out and out racists, but I don't think they're more than a few percent of the country. Most of us are the closeted, "it's news to me that I'm a racist" kind of racists. And I don't even know that the term "racist" is the proper word to describe those types of folks..."human" might be a more apt descriptor.
But the most interesting thing about Martin Luther King's high favorability rating is the fact that in some ways he was a real piece of crap. Like Clinton, he was a womanizing, cheating bastard who couldn't keep it in his pants for love or money. But in the scope of his entire life, at least down here on earth, the good far, far outweighs the bad. I don't know how Jesus would call his case, but I'll take the moral clarity that sparked a movement that lead to civil rights for millions of the disenfranchised over a man who was able to maintain his fidelity any day, but clearly we call things differently than He does up there. How we measure people is quite arbitrary sometimes, but I don't have a suggestion for how we might improve that.

I don't think that we should dwell at all on MLK's infidelity, I don't think we should hold it against him in view of his entire life, but it is at least interesting that we don't, isn't it? Clinton will never fully escape the joke that he made of himself, and that's because his goodness didn't ever quite outweigh his creepiness. MLK is very much the reverse. Is that why we don't hold it against him? It just didn't make it into the popular mythology that evolved along with his memory. But perhaps it is more just a function of the time that he was in. Kennedy was a self-destructive maniac in a lot of ways, probably more so than MLK, but those things just didn't get talked about back then.

I guess the moral of the story is that the picture that we get of people is most of the time arbitrary, and very often the aspects of personality that are emphasized are more a function of the era and contemporary cultural narratives than they are particularly important in an objective, universal kind of a way.

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