January 25, 2008

Ross’s keynote remarks don’t do MLK Day justice

Political partisanship in this country gets an unfair rap. Just about every election cycle—especially this one—candidates call for “bi partisan solutions,” an end to political bickering, and “unity.” (Of course, when politicians demand unity, they just want people to come over to their side, not actually meet half way.) In truth, our nation’s vigorous partisanship serves as an important check on corruption and is a sign of necessary policy debate and a healthy democracy.

There are, however, times when we should put politics aside and come together to celebrate an ideal that we can all agree with. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is one of those times.

In this regard, Monday’s University-sponsored speech in honor of King was an abject failure. Abortion-rights advocate Loretta Ross’s keynote address at Rockefeller Chapel mentioned King and his goal of civil rights almost as an afterthought. Her main point was that King’s legacy, mentioned only briefly, goes beyond civil rights and includes human rights. This seems fair enough. However, it’s with Ross’s definition of human rights where things get sticky.

What, according to Ross, is a human right? Just about everything, apparently. Human rights include abortion rights, gay-marriage rights, “fair” wage rights, immigration rights, and environmental-protection rights. They also cover the right to a free college education, the right of the disabled to easily access their neighbors’ homes, and the right to not go to war in Iraq. (Left unsaid, of course, were property rights, gun rights, the right to life, or the right to keep what you earn.)

Ross bemoaned the fact that there’s no coalition for all of these rights. But that’s where she’s completely wrong: That coalition is the Democratic Party. By Ross’s definition, human rights are synonymous with liberalism.

In relation to King, Ross’s argument is basically this: King supported human rights; therefore, he would have supported everything that I call human rights; therefore, you should too. Holding aside for a moment the lack of evidence that King would have supported, say, abortion rights or gay marriage, Martin Luther King Jr. Day should not, in my view, be about King’s views in general, but rather his thoughts on race, and he fought for those views.

Even if we stipulate that King would be a liberal Democrat today, he didn’t create a legacy based on support for a higher minimum wage. What we should be honoring is King’s specific ideal—one that people of all political stripes can embrace—of a non-racist society. We can also embrace King’s strategy of achieving his goal, and we can, of course, honor King as a person. However, taking King’s thoughts on all issues as divine truth only takes away important policy issues from the realm of public debate because nobody wants to criticize King.

Last year, the University chose former NAACP president Julian Bond to speak on Martin Luther King Day. Bond informed us then that it was Republican racism that led to the poor response to Hurricane Katrina’. This year, we were told by Ross that our economy is designed to “keep poor people poor.” The other headline speaker for the week, brought in by the Organization of Black Students, but promoted by the University, was Angela Davis, who has twice run for vice president as a Communist. (She lost.) The University should not take the day to promote someone who will villianize conservatives, or trash the free-market, or make other political arguments. Instead, it should select someone who will reflect on King’s legacy of civil rights, rather than use it to advance a political agenda.

In the end, the worst part of Loretta Ross’s speech wasn’t that it was too liberal, it wasn’t that she barely mentioned civil rights and Martin Luther King, and it wasn’t that she brought politics into a day that shouldn’t be political. The problem was that her speech was intellectually hollow. Devoid from it were any policy arguments, aside from a vague proclamation of everyone’s right to “human dignity.” Nowhere was there any admission of trade-offs—for example, giving one person a “living wage” restricts another’s entrepreneurial freedom or prevents the next worker from getting a job.

If everything is a human right, then ultimately, nothing is. Arguments for policy shouldn’t be cloaked under the guise of human rights. They should stand on their own.