Cultural Caviar

Statue of Limitations

August 29, 2011

Multiple Pages
Statue of Limitations

To begin with, it’s white.

In an era when “‘black hole’ is the new ‘niggardly’,” you’d think that particular objection to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Washington, DC would come up more often.

The focal point of a $120-million memorial, this 30-foot-tall marble figure was scheduled to be unveiled on the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered at the nearby Lincoln Memorial (the MLK statue is 11 feet taller than that iconic seated Lincoln), but the unveiling was postponed due to Hurricane Irene.

No doubt it will also be the only one spared (virtual) destruction in future Hollywood blockbusters. From Earth vs. the Flying Saucers through Independence Day, filmmakers have orchestrated the collapse of the White House and the Washington Monument with palpable glee. (My favorite example is set a ways north: In The Giant Claw, the titular vulture perches atop UN headquarters and takes a bite out of it.) The specter of Al Sharpton bellowing through his bullhorn, “They assassinated Dr. King a second time!” would keep even the most amytal-addicted studio exec up at night.

“To begin with, it’s white.”

Given the statue’s size, real-life aliens may conclude that this Martin Luther guy is Earth’s literal “king.” An honest mistake: As King’s deification enters its sixth decade, he remains the only American with a national holiday to his name.

However, while the King statue was spared during last week’s freak earthquake, cracks have developed in the man’s reputation. These flaws are common knowledge on the “right,” yet they are finally being discussed in (almost) mainstream venues, too. This in-your-face memorial feels like a heavy-handed ploy to distract attention from King’s diminishing sainthood—a kind of clumsy left-wing table magic.

We’re not saying that King wasn’t an incredible person who did more to advance the human race than most of us can ever hope to do. We’re just saying that he was also a plagiarizing butthole.

No, American Renaissance wasn’t hijacked by drunken fratboys. That’s an excerpt from a article called “5 Great Men Who Built Their Careers on Plagiarism.” OK, so that popular humor site isn’t exactly The New Republic, but what about Mental Floss, an award-winning magazine with a devoted hipster Utne Reader-ship? They’ve covered King’s “borrowings,” too, albeit in a gentler fashion.

These plagiarism “talking points” were once confined to “white supremacist” chat rooms. Today, the topic (as well as King’s serial adultery) is approaching “everybody knows” velocity. Perhaps now someone will ask King’s litigious, avaricious estate why they charge exorbitant licensing fees for the use of his speeches in everything from academic papers to TV commercials if those words never belonged to King in the first place. Helpfully, excerpts from those speeches are carved into the memorial, inadvertently turning it into a monument to intellectual-property theft. (King’s family billed the memorial foundation $800,000 for that privilege.)

As King the man recedes into history, he is becoming just another famous “olden days” figure in the dead-celebrity pantheon, to be animated on The Boondocks or slotted into a Sarah Silverman stand-up routine (“Guess what, Martin Luther King? I had a f***ing dream, too….So maybe you’re not so f***ing special, Martin Loser King.”)

Earlier this year, when a Laguna Beach surf shop marked Martin Luther King Day with a sale offering “20% off all black products,” the stunt made international headlines. The store issued one of those “We didn’t mean to offend anyone” apologies, but the shop thought nothing of taking out such an ad in the first place.

Why, even mocking a statue of Saint Martin of Selma would have been taboo in my 1970s childhood. However, the new monument has exposed a vein of pent-up iconoclasm.

For one thing, the commission was awarded not to an African-American artist, but to Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, best-known for his towering “Social Realist” statues of Chairman Mao.

“So,” Steve Sailer observed, “the USA ends up with a Maoist colossus between the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial, with MLK looking like he’s about to dispatch to the pig farms any bourgeois revisionists who doubt that backyard steel mills are a great idea.”

Indeed, the United States Commission of Fine Arts complained that the finished work “recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries.”

Others “even remarked that Dr King appears slightly Asian in Mr. Lei’s rendering”—“Chinegro,” in fact—prompting one writer to “recall the episode of M*A*S*H in which Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan commissioned a bust of Col. Sherman Potter. The Korean sculptor’s rendition resembled…the Korean sculptor.”

One wag temporarily hijacked the monument’s Wikipedia entry and typed in:

By having the memorial made in China, the designers also hoped to set a tone of irony. After all, the man who stood in front of the tanks in China’s Tiananmen Square was never seen again. So of course it made perfect sense to send millions of dollars in work to a repressive regime that would have imprisoned Dr. King the second he began preaching his philosophy there. The Chinese also held up their end of the bargain by creating an image of Dr. King that suggests he is a somewhat squat, partially Asian man who may or may not be wearing a Mao jacket.

Then again, one could argue that King’s Marxist sympathies make communist China the perfect source for the sculpture.

One thing’s for certain: Some celebrations on the Mall are messier than others. Compare Obama’s garbage-strewn inauguration to Glenn Beck’s squeaky-clean Tea Party rally. When the statue is finally unveiled, I’m betting National Park Service employees will rack up plenty of overtime.

When it comes to Martin Luther King, complains Sarah Silverman, “People only talk about the good things. They don’t mention—he was a litterbug.”


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