America’s progressive distilling, dissolution and dissolving of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and the accompanying appropriation of his words is truly a wonder to behold. It is like watching someone pour themselves a shot of Jack Daniels—but in a gallon jug instead of a shot glass. And then watching them add more and more ice to the jug until they’re left with tinted water with a slight whiskey afterthought. It would be fascinating and annoying—imagine sitting at a bar while someone next to you ordered a shot of Jack mixed with a pound of ice—if it weren’t so frightening.
Dodge, of course, is the latest entity to transform MLK into a Shirley Temple, using his words to shill Rams in an #AllTrucksMatter spot that aired during the Super Bowl. These types of commercials—with the inspiring and heart-wrenching images and the soaring dialogue and music—are specifically constructed to give us goose bumps. Instead, it gave us hives.
Of course, “us” in this context is not a collective, general “us.” It is just some of us. Because I am certain that there are many, many, many, many, many other “us”-es who watched that and were moved by it—who appreciated MLK’s message infused with vague instances of Really, Really Real Americans in Really, Really Real America and will buy and perhaps even fuck a Dodge Ram today.
And for that “us,” there is less and less distinction between Martin Luther King and Rodney King. To that “us,” MLK was just a guy who wanted everyone to get along so we could have bigger and more eclectic work potlucks. MLK wasn’t a radical freedom fighter who sacrificed his life for the advancement of justice, the amelioration of our condition and the furtherance of essential truths. He was Susan from accounting. And she really put a lot of effort into leading the company picnic committee this year.
It’s also prudent to remember that this is no accident. This is not your standard white cluelessness. It is an intentional weakening wrapped in performative obliviousness. It’s no different from hearing someone say, “Fuck you! Go kick a rock!” and transcribing it as “You rock!” Today MLK is Susan. Next year he’ll be a really vulnerable rescue puppy. In five he’ll be a pumpkin-spice latte. And by then he’ll be too hopped up on caffeine to even dream.