In a post on the anniversary of MLK’s assassination, Matthew Yglesias writes that:

…to some extent I think the creation of the King Myth and the displacement of the more authentic radical King is a good thing. A country doesn’t get official national hero types without mythologizing and sanitizing them to a large extent, and it’s a good thing, at the end of the day, that King has moved into national hero status.

To be fair to Yglesias, I’ve ripped the above quote, without context, from a longer post in which he actually presents a more radical depiction of King than we usually see. Still, I tripped over the section I’ve quoted, and I want to respond to it here.

I should begin by saying that two-thirds of what Yglesias writes is true enough: this country doesn’t memorialize its heroes without first mythologizing and sanitizing them; and it is a good thing that we remember King. But I’m not sure that Yglesias’s transitive logic works from there. I’m skeptical, in short, that “the creation of the King Myth and the displacement of the more authentic radical King is a good thing.”

And here’s why: David Blight argues that, in the the wake of the Civil War, whites in the North and the South reunited without grappling with the war’s causes. Getting back to the business of doing business was easier and more appealing than sorting out why 620,000 people had died in the nation’s most brutal conflict. Notherners and southerners arrived at a convenient series of shared myths about the war: both sides had fought hard, both sides had fought well, and both sides had fought for just causes. A few skeptics, notably Frederick Douglass, challenged this emerging conventional wisdom about the war. But most Americans ignored the naysayers. As a result, the root rather than proximate causes of the fighting — slavery and racial inequities — dropped out of contemporary discussions in service of easy reunion.

Americans, in sum, postponed a national conversation about race. Reconstruction then failed. The South revived its antebellum social and economic castes: tying African-Americans to the land, disfranchising freed people, segregating public facilities. Notherners looked on, profited, and often participated in similar processes. Only the Civil Rights movement eventually overturned those entrenched hierarchies.

Which is why Yglesias’s post doesn’t sit well with me. Collective memories, ephemeral though they may be, have consequences. Our common understanding of the past helps to shape our behavior in the present. It matters, then, that the MLK of American memory is, as I’ve suggested before, too simple and too safe. It matters that this deracinated MLK is a byproduct of corporate sponsorship. King’s critique of American imperialism, racism, and, most of all, capitalism have all been replaced by cuddly calls for unity, for Christian fellowship, for reconciliation. Those are, to be sure, pleasant memories. But they may forestall discussions of what divided us in the first place; they might stand in the way of King’s goal of social justice for all people.

* I kid. My original title was a quote from Yglesias’s post. But then I re-read what I’ve written here and realized what a scold I sound like am. Thus the new title, which is, perhaps, better than Eric’s suggestion, “Matthew Yglesias: Bad for the Jews.”