I hate to be a killjoy, but I don’t think Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday Observed is a very important holiday. King was a very important man with great ideas that we should celebrate and discuss whenever possible, but – and maybe I’m just getting cynical in my old age – the holiday itself seems a rather hollow gesture. Civil rights, easing human suffering, peaceful collective action – we should talk about this stuff every day, weave it into the fabric of our society. If we need a day off from school to do so, perhaps that says more about the failings of our education system than about our commitment to everything King stood for.

Paul Wong
Aubrey Henretty

I could never say this too loudly on the streets of this hypersensitive college town without getting verbally body-slammed by the nearest group of hypersensitive student activists; some of these people are unhealthily obsessed with appearances. Usually the ones who think Women’s History Month is also a stellar idea, though they object to the word “history” because it begins with the same three letters as the male possessive pronoun, so they often pointedly say “herstory” instead.

(Sidebar: There are two ways to handle the “herstory” police. The first and more responsible is to inform them that the English words “his” and “history” respectively have Germanic and Italic roots, meaning anyone who thinks the etymology of “history” has anything to do with gender is wrong. The second – less responsible, but infinitely more satisfying – is to point out that “woman” and “wombat” also both start with the same three letters or that “racist” and “feminist” end with the same three. Then laugh jubilantly and try to get away before their heads explode all over you.)

As individuals, organizers mean well. The speeches during MLK Day, Women’s History Month, Black History Month and other such feel-good calendar designations are generally very inspiring. We hear about heroes past and present, people who single-handedly defined movements or brought them to life, people who spoke up for the little guy (or girl). It’s all quite positive. But implicit in all of these public awareness campaigns and bank holidays is that society somehow needs them – that no one bothers to talk about Dr. King any other day of the year, that every other month is White Men’s History Month.

And in that vein, these holidays are about assigning responsibility. To what degree do we hold ourselves responsible for the bad things people did before we were born? For the bad things people still do? Some argue that setting aside a day or month to illuminate a few of our forebears’ more obvious mistakes is essential, that there’s always something we could be doing now to make things better. It’s our duty, they say, as human beings to make the world fair for the formerly oppressed and the currently disadvantaged.

Ah, but there’s a statute of limitation, isn’t there? As long as the injustice was great enough and the requisite number of centuries has gone by, it’s perfectly PC to sweep the issue under the podium. Just ask the descendents of the people who lived in what is now the United States when Christopher Columbus and his fleet of heavily-armed, disease-infested buddies showed up. Or better yet, ask proponents of slave reparations; their take on the European engulfment of the land is sure to be more entertaining: “We believe in equal opportunities for all! The righting of past wrongs! The – I’m sorry, who? Well, we can’t be expected to just hand the whole country back over, can we? That’s ridiculous! Now run along, smartass – I’m busy. Ahem. We must rectify the sins of …” and so forth.

It’s a tough call to make. While I have profound respect for King and his political predecessors (e.g. Gandhi) and anyone who strives to change the world in a similar manner, I fear that MLK Day itself contributes to a perception that King and his ideas are somehow separate from what we ought to be thinking and doing all the time. Extra-educational. “Suggested” reading. A symposium to attend if you’re not sleeping off a hangover or playing video games or catching up on homework or whatever else it is that most (yes, most) University students were doing yesterday.

Which brings me back to my original point: The man and the movement were great; the ideas and accomplishments for which he paved the way are great; but the holiday is all about appearances. Look how far we’ve come.

Aubrey Henretty can be reached at ahenrett@umich.edu.

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