The Corner

Re: Clinton: King Didn’t Die For Heirs to ‘Whine About Political Gridlock’

Sterling — you write that, today, Bill Clinton said that:

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not “live and die” so that his successors could complain about gridlock in Washington, D.C., former president Bill Clinton said today.

Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Clinton acknowledged that while Americans “don’t face beatings, lynchings, and shootings for our political beliefs anymore,” he argued that “Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock.”

Clinton concluded that it is time for Americans to “put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back.”

This is a bizarre thing to say. I don’t want to tread on Jonah’s toes here, but it strikes me that this is exactly why King did die. King’s argument was that black Americans had been systematically excluded from American civic life and that they were entitled to be included in the political and national arena on an equal footing with all other citizens. His was an extension of Lincoln’s observation that the problem was not so much America’s founding principles, but that they had not been universally applied:

All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

King, as Frederick Douglass had before him, was claiming his birthright.

He did not, however, come to claim “unity,” whatever that means. One of the features of American life, by explicit design, is that the country’s political systems do not guarantee or force consensus. When filtered through the constitutional system, political differences that will always exist — and should always exist — produce what we call “gridlock.” This is not only acceptable, but virtuous. As the old joke about extending marriage to gays goes “let them have it, they won’t like it,” so are black Americans as deserving of the right to whine about gridlock as anybody else.

Why on earth should extending the natural rights that were denied to black Americans for so long have any bearing on this whatsoever? Insofar as it’s an argument at all, as opposed to meaningless pabum, Clinton appears to be arguing here that the extension of the franchise and the destruction of segregation should yield a nation without serious and legitimate political differences. He appears to be implying that it is somehow offensive to the memory of a great man if Americans refuse to march in lockstep with the executive branch.

Nonsense. And dangerous nonsense at that.


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