Dave Zirin wrote this for us last year, we think its important, so we’re pleased to post it again!
If there is one thing we can say about the United States, it is that this is a country that adores, celebrates, even luxuriates in our rich history of dissenters—as long as they are dead, silenced, or “brought to you by McDonald’s.” Call it “the King Kool-Aid.”
People in power love Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr as long as they can cherry-pick or decontextualize certain quotes so his words sound as gooey and inoffensive as a Hallmark card. The King who says “I have a dream” and little more is fine. The King who said, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered” is less quoted.
For corporate America, Dr. King’s name and memory are a branding exercise. He is used as an instrument to breed conformity not dissent, often in a nauseating fashion. Look no further than Apple, a company that put out a tribute to Dr. King on the holiday that bears his name… while refusing to give its workers the day off. Or look at the ever-so-progressive city of Seattle—in King County, officially named after Dr. King in 2005—where police at a peaceful BlackLivesMatter march blasted my friend, the teacher and author Jesse Hagopian, in the face with tear gas on the King holiday. Jesse’s offense was stepping away from the march to answer his phone.
Or look at the movie Selma, which has been subject to a media onslaught of criticism, its great crime not being deferential enough to Lyndon Johnson as a civil-rights hero. Or look at a cover of the liberal New Yorker magazine, an artistic rendering of Dr. King marching arm-in-arm with Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who were both killed by police—as well as with slain New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.
“It struck me that King’s vision was both the empowerment of African-Americans, the insistence on civil rights, but also the reconciliation of people who seemed so hard to reconcile,” the artist, Barry Blitt, wrote. He titled the work “The Dream of Reconciliation.”
Yes, King believed in reconciliation. But he wasn’t seeking consensus between those who were victimized by state violence and those who perpetrated it. He fought for reconciliation by dragging in front of white eyes just how repellent the treatment of black Americans had become, by provoking the police to reveal how brutal they could be. To match the epidemic killing of black men by police with the horrific murders of Officers Ramos and Liu is a false equivalency that only the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association could love.
In the corner of journalism where I practice, the wide world of sports, we revere Jackie Robinson and speak of the abuse he endured by fans with solemn, hushed tones. Every year, Major League Baseball commemorates the memory of his breaking the color line in 1947, and mouthpieces from the owner’s box belch platitudes about how baseball has, in the words of former commissioner Bud Selig, “led the way” in the march toward civil rights. They leave out that when the owners of 1947 voted collectively on whether Robinson should be signed by Brooklyn, only Dodgers owner Branch Rickey voted in the affirmative. Owners did not want Jackie Robinson to be a part of Major League Baseball, and progress for them was a dirty word.
We also revere Muhammad Ali in a way usually reserved for Nobel peace laureates. Yet ignored is that in his own time, Congress, the courts, the leading newspaper people, and the fight promoters who stripped him of his title all whipped much of the public into a frenzy against him. Promoter Bob Arum called Ali “a dead piece of merchandise.” Richard Nixon had his phone bugged. But with the decline of the civil-rights and antiwar movements and Ali’s own failing health, he now becomes someone safe enough for George W. Bush to invite to the White House and for Barack Obama to have a poster of over his desk. The Muhammad Ali who said, “I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality….
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years” is forgotten. The reality is that every right we hold dear was won by those who dared challenge the status quo. As Howard Zinn said, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in”—and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change. Changemakers always meet resistance because they are challenging the status quo.
They also do what the boutique bombers like Bill Maher cannot comprehend: they kick up instead of down. They understand that it is a great deal easier—and profitable—to fashion yourself as a “renegade” who with great courage from a television studio in the wealthiest nation with the largest military on earth, calls for the slaughter of others. Changemakers also invariably pay a price. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years behind bars for letting the world know the extent of U.S. war crimes through Wikileaks. Edward Snowden is living in forced exile in Russia after blowing the whistle on the National Security Administration’s spying.
What is so striking about these cases is the ways in which many of the same media pundits who praise the whistleblowers of the past, such as Daniel Ellsberg, heaped scorn upon Manning and Snowden. The same sportscasters who praise Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Muhammad Ali sling arrows at those athletes who attempt to use their exalted brought-to-you-by-Nike platform to say something about the world today. The same politicians who hold celebrations for Dr. King gas people in the streets for speaking about Michael Brown and raising the deceptively simple request for people to acknowledge that black lives do indeed matter. The great labor leader Mother Jones once said, in a line adopted from the humor columnist Finley Peter Dunne, that her mission was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’s a pretty good metric to follow if one wants to practice the art of dissent. It comes with a price, no question. But doing nothing carries its own cost as well.
Dave Zirin is a political sportswriter. Named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World”, Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine. He is their first sports writer in 150 years of existence. Winner of Sport in Society and Northeastern University School of Journalism’s ‘Excellence in Sports Journalism’ Award, Zirin is also the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show, Edge of Sports Radio. He also co-hosts the radio program “The Collision: Sports and Politics with Etan Thomas & Dave Zirin.” You can find all his work at www.edgeofsports.com.