Saturday, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington, Glenn Beck held a conservative rally on the National Mall. Civil rights activists called it a fraud. "He's mimicking Dr. King, in some sense humiliating the tradition," scoffed Jesse Jackson.
Relax. Nobody's going to mistake the tea party for the civil rights movement. And there's nothing unseemly about the right's embrace of King. This is America at its best: A man once disowned as a partisan and rebel now belongs to all of us.
Beck and the other speakers at Saturday's rally don't share King's views about states' rights or the role of government. But their invocations of his legacy were sustained and serious. They affirmed his central message — equality — and grouped him with the country's founding fathers. The rally's first featured speaker, Sarah Palin, praised "Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King." Beck urged his followers "to reflect on what these great men did." The crowd applauded at length when King's work and teachings were mentioned.
Palin told the crowd that King, "two score and seven years ago, gave voice to a dream that would challenge us to honor the sacred charters of our liberty." On this view, King wasn't defying tradition; he was calling us back to it. One video played at the rally emphasized the "faith" King shared with the country's founders. Another exalted King as an American loyalist: "His dream is the American dream."
Did these portrayals whitewash the sins against which King campaigned? No. In fact, the rally was full of apologies. "It was you, Lord God, who called us to account when we broke the treaties with the first peoples," Pastor Paul Jehle confessed in the opening prayer. Palin followed Jehle to the podium, calling slavery "our greatest shame." Beck told the crowd, "Let's be honest: If you look at history, America has been both terribly good and terribly bad." A video reviewed the ugly era of segregation and concluded that King "awoke our nation's collective consciousness." Awoke our consciousness! That's a line straight out of the 1960s.
In exchange for their candor, the speakers put a positive, pro-American spin on the errors of the past. Beck lamented our tendency to "concentrate on the bad instead of learning from the bad and repairing the bad and then looking to the good that is still out in front of us." He urged his followers to "choose whether we wallow in our scars" or "learn from the past and ask for redemption."
Consciousness, shame, redemption, change, impatience. These are more than concessions. They're ways of thinking and living. They're the core of the progressive world view.
If you think this isn't enough — if you're holding out for an endorsement of carbon taxes or subsidized health insurance — you're looking at the rally the wrong way. This is how conservatives embrace progress. First they resist it. Then they lose to it. Then they assimilate it. They frame it as a fulfillment of long-standing values. They emphasize common threads between reformers and founders. They reinterpret the nation's origins to match the new ethos.
In the short term, such vague concessions can feel meaningless. And it's clear from Beck's record that he still has a lot of growing up to do. But watch the King tribute video that was played at the rally. There, in the background of an old photo, you can see signs that were carried in demonstrations against the civil rights movement. "Race Mixing is Communism," they warn. To anyone who has seen Beck's TV show, the rhetoric is familiar. He often caricatures President Barack Obama and the new health care law as "socialist."
The resemblance doesn't mean that Beck wants to take us back to the days of segregation. It means the opposite. Crying "socialism" is what conservatives do before they yield to change. It's a stage in the process of defeat. But the process doesn't end with defeat. It ends with absorption. It ends with the political descendants of George Wallace embracing the legacy of Martin Luther King. Beck today is just catching up to where King was 50 years ago. That's because King was in the front of the civil rights bus, and Beck is in the back.
King, once spurned as a communist, is now canonized as a peer of the founding fathers. Fifty years from now, when conservatives gather on the National Mall, they'll be celebrating the integration of American Muslims. On the hologram projector, they'll show dimensionally enhanced video of an antimosque rally from the bad old days of 2010. Their tribute won't be insincere. It'll just be a little bit late.
William Saletan is Slate's national correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.
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