Glory and penitence

Eugene Volokh reflects on the character of the Martin Luther King holiday:

Most American holidays (and, I suspect, most holidays in other nations) are either relatively nonideological cultural or religious affairs (e.g., Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Christmas, Easter), or are unalloyed celebrations or glorifications of the nation or its people (July 4, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day). Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — and possibly to a lesser extent Labor Day, when it was first created, though I can’t be sure about that — is different: It celebrates a great man and a great success in American life, but the greatness of both comes from their fight against a great American failing. The message of July 4 is “What a great country!” The message of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday is at least in large part “What great crimes our country has committed, but what a great thing it is that we have largely overcome them.”

I think that it’s not bad for the nation to have at least few holidays that are occasion for self-criticism or even self-doubt, mixed with confidence in a better future. Self-congratulations are important, too, but they should be mixed with some official and repeated acknowledgements of past wrongs. But it’s important to recognize that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday is a different sort of holiday, which is supposed to create a different mood and contribute something different to the national psyche than other holidays do.

I had never thought of the matter in those terms, but it seems to me that Eugene has captured an important aspect of the truth. One historical quibble: Memorial Day is originally Decoration Day, on which the graves of the Union dead were strewn with flowers, so it shares with the King holiday the combination of celebration and penitence. [Decorating Jefferson Davis’s grave with flowers is a different sort of action, conveying a different message.]

But I would give primary stress in each case to the celebratory aspect. From the viewpoint of African-Americans, the King holiday is purely a celebratory one, I would think, with a message more or less like that of Passover for the Jews.

But speaking as a white American, I can reflect with more than a little pride that not once but twice in our history a substantial number of white Americans made it their business to end the oppression carried out by other white Americans against black Americans. In each case, only a minority felt strongly enough to make it a crusade, but at crucial moments they were able to command majority support for first ending slavery and then ending Jim Crow.

Chattel slavery was not a uniquely bad institution in world history — though it ranks high up on the list — but the struggle against it was, I believe, absolutely without precedent. Has any other country experienced a civil war fought within a dominant ethnic group over the welfare of a subordinated ethnic group? I can’t think of one.

So Memorial Day and the King holiday, and the events they commemorate, don’t fundamentally strike me as occasions for national self-criticism or self-doubt. Instead they make my heart swell with patriotic pride.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: