This week over at Culture on the Edge, I have a piece up on the controversial RAM commercial and other contests over the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Most of the pieces I have seen blast RAM for appropriating excerpts of King’s words to sell trucks. I want to move the conversation toward the way competing groups use MLK for gate-keeping and trumping each other.
So here we have a battle over King’s legacy. RAM Trucks follow the ultimate community servant who would dream a prosperous and diverse America into reality. Meanwhile the company’s critics champion the non-violent, anti-capitalist activist who questioned nationalist groupthink.
And both groups believe themselves to have identified the quintessential King.
The piece gets into some conspicuous plays with King in order to show a tragic irony–that a champion of agency gets objectified (or in Peter Berger’s words, “objectivated”) by those claiming to be his true adherents.
If you read the piece, I hope you’ll see the similar plays being made on both sides of the political aisle. Admittedly this was unnerving given my own leanings. At the same time, I don’t see my scholarship as a place to make anyone feel comfortable, let alone myself.
As a teacher, I recognize the learning process to require a slightly different tact. A student asked me the other day whether King’s legacy is something to be given up since it can be used for contrary ends. My piece doesn’t answer this with a clear answer. I do hope that it leaves readers asking that question. To me that question is a prior step to ruthlessly careful and self-conscious criticism. I think that’s probably in order today. But maybe that’s just me.
Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods