January 29, 2006

MLK & Conservatives

I didn't really respond to the last issue of The Review because there was only one article I really wanted to talk about, and I've been finding it hard to get started.

Scott Glabe argued that conservatives are better "stewards" of King's legacy for a host of reasons, all of which put King on the conservative side of today's spectrum, most stemming from the fact that he was, among other things, a deeply religious and Christian man. His stress on faith would make a lot of libs today uncomfortable, there is no denying that. But Glabe also gives one other reason for dressing up King as a conservative—his commitment to equality.
We are all familiar with Dr. King’s dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” but we often forget, as Garris reminds us, that King still wishes them to be judged—by their moral turpitude [sic—I think Glabe may have meant fortitude?] rather than race. “Today,” she writes, “this is the conservative message.”
I found it difficult, initially, to mount a criticism that was more than just, "King's vision hasn't been achieved, and we can't act like it has. Thus, some compensation for the detrimental activities of other people and other adverse circumstances is demanded, and denying that is a denial of King's efforts." I think that's a fairly strong answer, but I know it doesn't really say something that hasn't been said before. Here's a better effort, I hope:

It is in the very juxtaposition of the two points Glabe highlighted that we find an entry into the spirit of King's wish that we would all one day judge on the content of someone's character and not on the color of their skin. I believe that King understood equality in a Christian context—in other words, he understood it as Christ practiced it.

Christ was stunningly, shockingly partial in his ministry. He hung out with harlots and tax collectors while deriding priests and scribes. He stated, famously, that the first must be last and the last, first (Matt 19:30). He demanded much of those who had much: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48) This, however, was all in the service of creating a society where God's equal distribution of love could take root equally. Sometimes this takes permanent partiality, as the Sermon on the Mount would attest. There is no "Oil executives are as blessed as the persecuted" there. And yet, grace is available to all, equally. This equal love, unequal attention is Christ's idea of fairness, or equality, and I am pretty sure that it was also close to Dr. King's.

But does it square with the conservative ideal of color-blindness? No, certainly not. Rather, that ideal resembles (a simplistic form) of the veil of ignorance of liberal philosopher John Rawls, a heritage which must be kind of ironic. I will admit that there is a certain moral logic to Rawls, but I am not certain that it is the logic Dr. King would have employed (and I'm not sure it should be employed—flaws are legion within that original position). I think what we can say is that conservatives are far better stewards of Rawls's legacy than that of Dr. King.

Edit: I didn't explain myself very well. Please read my comment below for some clarification (I hope).


  1. Anonymous5:00 PM

    I'm not entirely sure where you're going with this, and maybe it's because I don't completely understand what you mean to be Christ's concept of equality.

    The ideas that those who are more blessed on earth have a greater responsibility, or that Christ focused on the poor don't seem to me to either support or undermine the "color-blindness" ideal. To the poor, Christ said "God loves you too," and to the rich he said "God loves you, but expects a lot from you." I understood Christ's message to be, in part, that everyone will be judged by how much good they did in their lives, and that this judgment will take into account the relative ability of each to have done good. Perhaps I misstate the premise, but I don't see that as bearing on color-blindness.

    I think what Glabe is referring to is largely things like affirmative action and slavery reparations. When King says "content of their character" rather than "color of their skin," he seems to mean that he wants his children to be seen as human beings and evaluated according to their morality (as Christ said humans would be judged), rather than to be seen as "black" human beings and have skin color factor into the evaluation.

    Conservatives say that race-blind social policies are the way to implement Dr. King's message.

    I think that the liberals' best responses to this are: (1) color-blindness is a great ideal, but the principle shouldn't stand in the way of progress toward achieving it, and (2) current race-conscious social policies don't evaluate anyone's moral worth or judge them, but rather try to repare the damage of past malignant race-conscious social policies. Once the damage is more fully repaired, then we can do the race-blind thing.

  2. Yeah, I sacrificed clarity at the expense of concision. Let me clarify.

    My point is simply that equality has different necessary and sufficient conditions in regards to rights (where race or gender or whatever should never matter) as opposed to responsibilities (where race or gender or whatever might be a temporarily useful category to target in order to improve certain real-world conditions). This was part of Christ's message, and I feel it is likely, therefore to have been part of Dr. King's view on the matter.

    The ideal of colorblindness ignores the above distinction. And that ignorance—which is intentional—prevents the achievement of the conditions for either equal rights or equal responsibilities.

    And as you allude to, "content of their character" is a red herring in terms of colorblindness. It certainly doesn't seem like that's the criterion under concern in judging someone's aptitude for a job in most places (including Washington).

    The fact that Christ and King might have shared similar understandings of equality therefore is important if that understanding was antithetical to the colorblind ideal. Colorblindness shares a good bit with the idea of equality that I have expressed, but what it lacks makes the shared parts inoperable.