January 18, 2012

Martin Luther King & Derek Jeter: Look To The Cookie

ESPN's Wallace Matthews boldly claims that Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter
is a symbol of the kind of America Dr. King hoped one day to live in.

When he said in his most famous speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, "I have a dream that my 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," he could well have been talking about Derek Jeter.
The sentiment is bizarre and barf bag-worthy, for sure. It is also a gross misreading of history.

Matthews's scant evidence for linking Jeter to King is the fact that Derek's father is black and his mother is white. Which, I hasten to add, Derek had absolutely nothing to do with. (How many other professional athletes come from mixed-race parents? David Ortiz's wife is white; why doesn't cute little D'Angelo embody anything noble?)

King was not the avuncular can't-we-all-get-along figure - the fuzzy flipside of angry Malcom X - for whom we now thank for a day off work. In the 1960s, he was considered a dangerous radical. He risked his life constantly and minced no words when it came to criticizing the United States for its shameful and criminal record on human rights and war.

In 1967, King called the US "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world", a country on "the wrong side of a world revolution". And while he did wish, as Matthews notes, that every person should be judged by the content of his or her character and not by skin colour*, he also urged everyone to "move beyond ... smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent".

* - Or, for that matter, by UZR.

King made the clear and obvious connection between the US's increased militarism and the poverty of millions of its people:
We are spending all this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development . . . when the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.


A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.


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.


There's something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, "Be non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark," but will curse and damn you when you say, "Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children."

One of King's aides, Reverend Hosea Williams, called him "the militant of the century". The FBI tapped his phone, and threatened and blackmailed him, suggesting that to avoid unseemly details from his private life becoming public, he might want to consider committing suicide. ... After his assassination, decades pass, his militant statements get white-washed from history books and/or dumbed down for mass consumption, and he becomes a "hero" on a postage stamp.

In Vietnam, King said the US had once again "fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long".
Now they languish under our bombs and consider us ... the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.

So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. ... So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?...

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
That speech could just as easily apply today to Iraq or Afghanistan. Or any of the other countries the US is currently (or will soon be) bombing. When I hear a baseball player speaking those words to the nation - not once, but many times - then maybe I'll consider a comparison to Dr. King.

Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and activist, says that Jeter's absolute avoidance of saying anything substantial should be seen as a sign of racial progress, not a character flaw. "It is unfair and uninformed to expect 21st-century athletes to replicate the kind of stands taken by past generations of athletes." That is unadulterated bullshit.

The next interesting or controversial thing Jeter says will be the first. To the public, he is a bland, cardboard cut-out of a man, a cipher content to play baseball and offer up the most cliched, content-less statements. (He was photographed welcoming a known sociopathic war criminal to the Yankees clubhouse, though.)

Through a quirk of fate, Derek Jeter was born into a mixed-race family. He has faced racism and has gone on to have a successful baseball career. (Back in 2005, another ESPN writer, Gary Gillette, called Jeter the "second coming of Jackie Robinson". Now we have a King connection. When Jeter is inducted into the Hall of Fame, I predict he will be portrayed as more important to humanity than Jesus Christ.) But the mere fact of his existence has nothing to do with Martin Luther King.

A more appropriate analogy for Jeter would be:
It's half black, half white, and totally bland and unsatisfying.


laura k said...

Jeter as the embodiment of King's ideals is part of the post-racial bullshit.

I have no doubt that some, maybe all, of the people writing this stuff actually believe that that's what MLK was about. So many USians are so misinformed about history, and their notions about history come from popular media.

nick said...

* - Or, for that matter, by UZR.


I've also been disappointed by black & whites. They're OK, but they never taste as good as they tantalize.

Way to push the stupid back by kicking awesome contextual truths!

laura k said...

Way to push the stupid back by kicking awesome contextual truths!


Geoff said...

Glad you took the time to point out the idiocy of Matthews' statements. And for taking the time to point out some of the real reasons MLK is awesome.