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MLK and Washington Monuments

Battered by politics for some time now, the nation’s capitol was visited by a rare earthquake of another kind the other day, and the Washington Monument was closed down as it appears to have acquired cracks in the upper area.  The monument is the tallest stone structure in the world.  Given the present fractious state of the nation, this is perhaps a fitting alteration, symbolically betraying the truth in a city incapable of uttering a single honest word.  Washington’s monument to its first President is crumbling, and likewise is America.  But we can’t say it out loud.

MLK Memorial

Washington DC is a city which, according to recent (probably a bit incorrect) government data, is 50.7 percent black.  I think it is likely a bit higher, and certainly before Washington changed from the sleepy southern provincial city of my youth – I lived my high-school years nearby in Fairfax Virginia – and grew phenomenally into the imperial capital of the Empire-that-can’t-be-called-one (until the neo-cons of the New American Century did so in the very late 1990’s), it was much higher.   In the racist 50’s of Virginia, there was a local joke, that said the 14th Street Bridge, which crossed the Potomac from Alexandria Virginia into DC, was the longest bridge in the world:  it went from Virginia to Africa….

DC is 38.5% white, 19% Hispanic, 3.5% Asian, and .3% Native American, then there’s some others.  Perhaps some of this can be explained by the fact that Mr Washington, the city’s namesake, along with most of the founders of the nation, all owned black slaves, who, for political reasons at the time were legally regarded as 3/5ths of a person, but like women, those not owning land, and other such things, they could not vote in their new “democracy.”  They could only work for their masters, like Mr Washington.  Washington, like many of his peers, had a black mistress.  He also smoked hemp and had wooden false teeth.

George Washington

On August 28th, 2011, the new Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington will be commemorated.  In about every way it tells far more about America than it is intended to, though only by ironic metaphor.   Like most such monuments, it’s existence was instigated by public pressure, and an organization formed to direct that pressure.  A competition was held and a committee chose a design.  In this case the winner was Chinese, Lei Yixin.    As it happens Mr Yixin, whatever his talents or absence of them, had also in his earlier career, made some statues of Mao.  Looking at this “sculpture” one cannot but be reminded of certain characteristics found in Soviet/Communist style monuments – a certain imposing monumentality, a stiffness, a forceful pompousness.

MLK by Lei Yixin

The unhappy truth is that this is a rather bad sculpture, even within the strictures of a public monument – seldom are they good.  Nor does it really have much likeness to Mr. King himself, being more a kind of generic “black man,” somewhat akin to the generic “Chinese” to be found in much Chinese propaganda, or even in some of the “fine arts” of China, ancient and new.   That an American committee found it sensible to outsource this job to China seems counter-intuitive.  And then, to add insult to injury, the block of granite, virtually white, also comes from China.  It is said because there is no granite of equivalent quality in America.

It is no little irony that a sculpture of one of America’s most important black men should be made of a near-white stone.  Nor that the quotes taken from the man’s life, which bedeck the monument, are all carefully selected for their seeming innocuousness:

“Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Feb. 4, 1968, Atlanta, Ga.

“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” April 16, 1963, Birmingham, Ala.

“If we are to have peace on Earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” – 24 December 1967, Atlanta, GA

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” – 18 April 1959, Washington, DC

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – 16 August 1967, Atlanta, GA

Loc 4: “I oppose the war in Viet Nam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example.”- 25 February 1967, Los Angeles, CA

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – 1963, Strength to Love

“We are determined here in Montgomery to work until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”‘ – 5 December 1955, Montgomery, AL

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is strongerthan evil triumphant.” – 10 December 1964, Oslo, Norway

“To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence ofevil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough tocut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.” – November 1957, Ebony Magazine

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds; and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” – 10 December 1964, Oslo, Norway

“We must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace.” – 24 December 1967, Atlanta, GA

“…The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy.” – 25 February 1967, Los Angeles, CA

“Hatred paralyzes life, love releases it. Hatred confuses life, love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life, love illuminates it.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are cauaght in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” – 16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” – 16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL

For another view on this Hallmark card emasculation of King’s often fiery rhetoric, see this item from Princeton’s Cornel West.

Cornel West

But the ironies do not stop at the outsourcing of the carving of this imported Chinese granite to a Chinese “artist” or the failure to seek and find a black American to make this monument (certainly such artists do exist here) – which merely stand emblematically as corporate America’s practices of the last decades – the practices which have left wide swaths of Americans, especially black Americans, without jobs.   That China laced “the deal” with a 25 million dollar contribution only adds to the revealing aspects of this monument and how much it tells us about our country.  In another time this 25 million would have been called “corruption.”   Today it is just “business as usual.”

Sometime ago, a young French aristocrat came with a friend, to visit America and write a treatise on the nation’s prisons.  He ended up traveling a bit, and returned to France where he wrote something quite other than on our prisons, circa 1835.  He was Alexis de Tocqueville, and the book was Democracy in America.   Among the perceptions he had come these thoughts:

Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more he loves it; for the instability; instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.

As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?

America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.

I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.

When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education . . . the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint . . . . It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. . . . they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters.

The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colours breaking through.

There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.

Alexis de Tocqueville

How’s them for some Freedom Fries?   Given his prescience about things American, one must still wonder if Alexis would be surprised to return and find so many of his predictions having come to fruition.  And certainly now would be an auspicious time to do a study of America’s prisons:  if the nation has been slipping from its self-congratulatory #1 position in many things, it can proudly lay claim to Prison Nation of the World.

# 1 United States: 2,019,234 prisoners
# 2 China: 1,549,000 prisoners
# 3 Russia: 846,967 prisoners
# 4 India: 313,635 prisoners
# 5 Brazil: 308,304 prisoners
# 6 Thailand: 213,815 prisoners
# 7 Ukraine: 198,386 prisoners

Of course this statistic doesn’t mention the population of the nation, and hence the sense of proportion is lost: China, #2, is 4 times our population.   It doesn’t mention that American Blacks, about 13% of the country’s population are overwhelmingly disproportionately represented in the American prison population:  almost 50%.

In a few days another seemingly alabaster – not in color tone, but culturally – American black, educated in Harvard, Princeton and having taught at the University of Chicago, and reputed also to have soaring rhetoric, will be present to formally open the Martin Luther King monument.  This man is America’s first “black” President, Mr. Obama.  Though, seemingly like the out-sourced generic statue of a white Mr King, he seems only to have been allowed onto the Washington Mall (and into the White House) by turning himself into a white-guy, despite his skin color.  His policies thus far have been white conservative, pro military-industrial complex, pro-Wall Street and the only thing black to be noticed is a certain jive-and-shuck, directed mostly at his ostensible “base” of the liberal-left.   Were Mr King to hear what will doubtless be an eloquent if neuterized eulogy that Mr Obama will probably deliver on Sunday, one imagines he’d thunder back with some thoughts on Afghanistan, the militarization of America, and other serious problems which he had far back in the 1960’s with the “sickness” of American society.   In the real terms which Doctor King took seriously, our nation is far more sick than it was back then – mired in wars, in corruption, in economic imbalances, in poverty, and his fellow black citizens are only symbolically better off – yes, there are more rich black entertainers, sports figures, and even businessmen and even a President.  But there are more blacks trapped in poverty, in prison, and wearing the fraudulent straight-jacket of America’s shabby version of “democracy” than there were in Mr King’s day.   Mr Obama himself is a living symbol of this moral and political corruption.

Change you got tricked into believing would come

However, it appears that nature may well this weekend deliver to the nation’s capitol (and much of the East Coast, even the holy canyons of downtown NYC, home of the untouchable Wall Street) yet another trauma in the form of Hurricane Irene.  In keeping with the global warming predictions of our scientists’ computer models, the warming atmosphere is making for larger, more dangerous weather systems, as in the massive tornadoes of this spring which leveled Tuscaloosa Alabama, and half of Joplin, Mo.   Whatever the refusal of some of our politicians and citizens to believe in scientists instead of other texts, the mean average temperature of the globe is incrementally moving higher.  And warmer air is able to hold more moisture; the collision of moist warm air masses produces a variety of effects, including tornadoes and hurricanes.

Thus, perhaps metaphorically, nature will deliver a message of a different kind on Sunday.   The newspapers indicate that the commemoration is likely to be cancelled in deference to Irene.

And speaking of Irene, prisons, and blacks in America:  here’s Huddie Ledbetter, more commonly known as Leadbelly, or in his own version Lead Belly.  He was a Louisiana Delta blues-man of the very early 20th century, with a temper to match a hot-pepper sauce.  Discovered in Angola State Prison by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, myth has it he was released from prison by the governor after the Lomax’s and others petitioned on his behalf.

Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly

Huddie sings on YouTube

Hurricane Irene, August 25, 2011

And to wrap it up before hurricane Irene hits the coast, or peters out, or does whatever it’s going to do, here’s another note on a Hurricane, about a black man framed by American “justice,” sung by a white (Jewish) guy from Minnesota:


[To add to the ironies, I write from Amsterdam, where I am staying with a long-ago friend of mine, who is black, and whom I met in prison in 1965.  We were both “doing time.”]

Sept. 2:  Irene came and went, spent as a hurricane, it instead morphed into a tropical monsoon storm dumping water in massive amounts in New England, which is going to be digging out for a long time.   Of course this has nothing to do with man-made weather changes and global warming – just ask the current leader of the pack of Republican Presidential nominees, Rick Perry.   I am sure he feels it was only a God-directed punishment for certain liberal tendencies up there in the original colonies.  Just deserts.



  1. I read the op-ed by Cornel West you posted, and, though I always enjoy his rhetoric, I’m not sure he’s truly a man of his word. He speaks of revolutions and civil disobedience… something a “philosopher” of his stature can easily speak of. Yet, rather than an op-ed, perhaps a more effective method of inciting the flame of revolution would be some actual civil disobedience performed on his part.

    I’m a 23-year-old, college “educated” white American (Protestant background) and I feel nothing but bitterness toward this country. Particularly towards the previous generation of the so-called baby boomers. And I certainly feel nothing but bitterness about college. I found it meaningless at the time, and in hindsight can see the four years lost from my life. The most edifying experience I had during my four years at the University of Massachusetts was working for a large scale dry cleaner, working mostly with illegal El Salvadorian immigrants in a borderline sweatshop environment. College is a culture of lies that creates a fabricated environment disassociated from the real world and the plights that befall those outside such an environment. Privileged college kids can take classes on Illegal Immigration–they can take seminars on the Immigrant Experience… yet, how many of these degree-bound minds ever truly experience what it means to be an immigrant and to work in sub-human standards? I couldn’t relate to college students–gutless, spineless, thoughtless.

    Having experienced portions of the real world, I can see largely the folly of the American education system, especially the University system we hold in such ruthless esteem.

    So, though I enjoy seeing Cornel West on the talk-show circuit, I can’t help but feel distrustful and skeptical of the man–an Ivy League man. I’m glad someone is speaking out, but I just wish it wasn’t someone safe like Cornel West. We’re living in a world where the only thoughts that matter come from college professors. We are, effectively, professing an environment where independent and original thought is subverted by the authority bestowed to the college professors. Having been there, I know professors refuse to hear anything contradictory to their sermons, and they try to convince you that your thoughts are wrong if they aren’t the same as their own.

    Thank you, Mr. Jost. In days of plight I find solace in your writing–to realize that true thought doesn’t have to come from advanced degrees and Ph.Ds. In your own way, I think you represent civil disobedience far more than Cornel West probably ever will. West can talk a revolution, but I think we can safely assume America a month from now won’t look like London a few weeks ago. Sigh.

    With admiration,

    David Lombino

  2. Hi
    Still in Amsterdam where this morning I picked up my new passport – now an embarrassing document filled with Hallmark card type patriotic graphics – flying flags, bald eagles, Mt Rushmore and more. Each page a paean to “Freedom” and such – all rhetorically lathered on as step-by-step all these things are being stripped from us. It is a rule of thumb that rhetorical language is usually inversely proportionate to its reality – be it patriotism or religion…
    I agree with you David that from the safety of Princeton and I think a tenured position, West, like some others in similar situations, is a bit hypocritical in his views. I agree completely about academia – I quit my job in Seoul largely because in being inside it I felt polluted. I think and know by my own experiences – prison, down and out poverty, and other things – that life is a far better teacher. The academic world – in America, Europe and Asia – in the present world is mostly a fraud and contaminates more or less everyone who touches it. In America, the university and college systems have largely been captured by corporations, and their function is to feed corporate needs, not to really educate in a meaningful sense. I noted long ago (1970’s) in California that new colleges were designed seemingly to train you to live in a shopping mall. I would advise any young person to skip piling up the debt, and go live – low if you must, poor even if you don’t have to. Learn some useful craft or skill. It’ll serve you later more than a degree. And you’ll get a taste of what most of the world lives, not by choice, but by reality. And in any event most likely the allegedly good job awaiting you with your degree won’t be available to you, but if at all existing, to someone from a globalized labor market where the wages are as low as can be found. The corporate way! And you’ll be stuck with the bill and endless paying of “interest.”

  3. A revolution in America? Please! Americans are nothing but a bunch of pushovers.

    • Well, at the moment I would say it appears Americans as a big fat generality are indeed hornswoggled, bamboozled and otherwise falling for all the tricks put before them. But I suspect as the economic pincers continue their job, at some point all the right-wing armed rednecks out there will finally figure out just who is screwing them and… Well, maybe. It might require a helicopter to drop in on your gated community next to Yellowstone since driving might be dicey. We’ll see.

  4. This country is too fractured to have a revolution. The people have been done in by the powers of marketing. As a result, the culture is in bad shape emotionally and spiritually. We know that advertising masks the elite. So you know, it’s hard to see the king. I think we’re finished as an experiment. I can feel it in my bones. The rednecks will probably come out of the woodwork, but look at the power of the U.S. government. Do you think the peasants stand a chance? Probably not. So yeah, it could be bloody. Forget about the progressives starting anything. The progressive element has been done for a long time. Maybe I’m jaded?

    • I agree it is a fractured culture (see my films of the last 30+ years on that) but while “revolution” is perhaps not on the table as called for by West, some kind of rebellion likely is brewing right now. For historical recent example we could suggest, say, the old Soviet Union, which was demoralized, fractured and in many ways like the USA is now – and while it didn’t have a revolution, it did toss out the embalmed masters of the CCCP. However, as the song goes, “meet the boss, same as the….” History seems always to trick everyone so we’ll have to wait it out. My prediction for some time has been that the USA will decay more, become more internally divided along myriad lines – economic, cultural, geographic – become more dysfunctional, fall for a while into a militarized police-state (already well on the way), and then collapse. Sometime in the next 20-30 years for the whole scenario. I might see part of it.

  5. Having just moved to Corvallis, Oregon, to begin graduate school in English–and also as someone who has suffered the inevitable downside of institutionalized education–I just thought to add my two cents, for what they’re worth. Like most things in this life, education (whether in college or “life,” though I don’t see the scism the way others do) is what you make of it. It’s far too true, as David and Jon have pointed out, that college has become other blip of culture that young people are expected to experience, buy T-shirts celebrating it, attend football games to cheer, hiss, boo… But to stamp a totalizing emblem of “college is shit for abstract thinkers, for revolution!” on all-things-university strikes me as a bit too far and naive. I won’t deny that the education system in America is largely broken, corrupted, steered too much by the bottom line and athletic departments, but there are pockets of positivity and enlightenment–things I hope to pass on as a meager teaching assistant. Personally, had I not attended university, I don’t suppose I would have whatever grasp I think I have on this thing called life (and I wouldn’t have met you, Jon) that I do. I’m not saying it’s for everybody, but it’s not for nobody, either. That said, it’s obviously outside-the-classroom struggles/failures/lifestyles that cement truths of living for many, myself included. I like to combine the two: I’m going to recommend my students experience other cultures, that they put themselves outside of their comfort zones, that they consider how their actions affect the larger world around them, that they look deep inside to ponder who they are and what they can do as sentient beings. I think that’s the true goal of education, and any educator worth their salt hopefully does, as well.

    Jon–been meaning to write to you for a couple months now. When I’ve unpacked and settled down in town (I arrived only yesterday!) I will compose a more detailed letter your way. Glad to hear of our travels, not so glad to hear of other things. Hope you’re well.


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