Saturday, February 22, 2014

#MLK Day, Trump, and the incomplete national conversation

The friction that you still get from some people when you stand up for the non-negotiable-ness of the Martin Luther King holiday points to an interesting, incomplete national conversation. Here is a recent post from someone on Twitter reflecting the kind of friction I'm talking about:

It's my experience that most of these people -- I've talked to more than my share of them over the years -- continue to think that this is a holiday for black people, which is our problem.

Actually, I could understand someone opposing the idea of taking a day off in honor of one ethnic group, because that's a deep-stupid idea. You would have to follow it up with Serbo-Croatian-American Day, or whatever. To the extent that Columbus Day is perceived to celebrate Italian-Americans, it's a deep-stupid idea. (It's a deep-stupid idea in other ways, but that's another rant for another day.) And that's what a lot of people seem to think the King holiday is for: honoring black people. "Giving" them something.

That's false. It's also a distraction. A lot of the people who spread this idea know full well that that's not the point. They know, in their hearts, that this is really not what we should be talking about, nearly four decades after this great man's death. 

Our incomplete conversation about the equality of citizenship in America continues every year, on this holiday. 

Today is the chance we get, once a year, to celebrate ALL the moments of American history where we said, "Look, around here, we are equal citizens of one nation, not just in theory but in fact. And we are no longer putting up with any bullshit to the contrary."

Period. No debate. No wiggle room.

There are no second-class citizens in this country. You have to go to another country if you want that kind of life. 

Martin Luther King Day dares us to open that conversation. Martin Luther King Day says, "Listen up. We don't care how comfortable or familiar it may feel to think about certain classes of people as being inherently superior to others. We tried that. It doesn't work. We rejected it. We don't care how many traditions or secret societies or jokes you've gotten used to over the years. We chose, as a people, to reject all that nonsense, so get off it, and if you've got a problem with getting off it, here's a day off to think about it."

Personally, I think this should be a MANDATORY holiday for EVERYONE: public sector, private sector, everything in-between sector. If you've got an objection to taking a day off to celebrate diversity, you're the person who needs this holiday the most.

I say all this not because I have some special love for African-Americans as a group, but because this conclusion is central to modern citizenship in this country. 

This is something we figured out on a cultural level, following significant trauma, thanks to Dr. King's life's work and his sacrifice. 

So. You can't hate the Irish, or the Jews, or the Japanese, or the Muslims, or the blacks, or any other group, and claim to be in the mainstream anymore around here. That's what this day celebrates. That's what we talk about today. Because we need to.

That conversation is relevant to black people, yes, but it's just as relevant to the descendants of the Japanese who got stuck in concentration camps in World War II, and to Jews who still fight anti-Semitism. In fact, it's relevant to everyone in the entire country, specifically including immigrants and Muslims, the ones set up now by certain fascist demagogues as the occupants of the lowest spot on the American totem pole. 

This holiday says it's not cool to hate on those groups. It's not cool to single them out. It's not cool to blame them for the country's problems. And it's not American. So cut it out.

The fact that the holiday still draws lots of sneers and grumbling and overt opposition online tells me that this conversation is relevant all year long. But somehow we manage to step over it. Today, though, there's no stepping over it.

Sometimes societies have a little growing up to do. We are still growing up in America. This ongoing, once-a-year conversation matters because it can help us to grow up. 

Yusuf Toropov is the author of the novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY.