The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, November 14, 2008


How Lincoln, King, and Obama Will All End Up Selling Viagra

Supporters of Barack Obama awoke this morning to find themselves attacked by two established and venerable institutions – the estate of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Roman Catholic Church. Twin stories by the Associated Press explain.

In the first story, Father Jay Scott Newman, a Catholic priest from South Carolina, has warned his parishioners to refrain from receiving Communion if they voted Obama for President without first doing penance. Catholics will be “putting their souls at risk” if they fail to do so, Father Newman warned in a letter.

Obama supports a woman’s right to choose. Fifty-four percent of Catholics voted for him on November 4, according to national exit polls.

“Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exits constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil,” Father Newman declared.

Father Newman insists his stance has nothing to do with political partisanship and says he would take exactly the same stance had a pro-choice Republican prevailed over an anti-abortion Democrat.

Presumably, Father Newman believes his condemnation applies to all U.S. Catholics and not just the ones in his parish. Therein lies the rub, as U.S. Catholic bishops differ over whether they should refuse Communion to Catholic lawmakers and voters who diverge from Catholic teachings on abortion. Some national Catholic leaders have already criticized Father Newman, arguing no single priest or nun or monk can claim to speak for or against the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, such acts of individualism have precedence even within the strictures of Catholicism (see Luther, Martin for one such historical example).

In the second AP story, the King estate is upset with Obama supporters of the street vendor and consumer variety, who have taken to hawking and buying merchandise depicting Obama alongside the slain civil rights leader without permission or a sharing their profits with King’s estate.

King’s writings, image, and voice are all intellectual property, and almost any use of them is subject to approval by his estate, now run by his three children. The three say they are seeking an “elegant solution” to the problem. Past successful solutions on their part have included cease-and-desist letters as well as lawsuits.

“They are probably one of the most careful, concerned and on-top-of-it groups of image protectors I've ever met,” said Philippa Loengard, Assistant Director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts at Columbia University.

As with the Catholic Church, there is internal disagreement among King’s children over what to do and the extent to which each of them individually can speak for the estate. They are also mindful of outside criticisms that their aggressive pursuit of royalties in this matter looks more than a little crass.

“Some of this is probably putting food on people’s plates. We're not trying to stop anybody from legitimately supporting themselves,” said Isaac Newton Farris Jr., King's nephew and head of the nonprofit King Center in Atlanta. “However,” he continued, “we cannot allow our brand to be abused.”

I was struck by the parallels between these two stories and the two institutions upon which they report. I see them as coming from very much the same place.

I grant both of them the benefit of the doubt in acting on principle. Father Newman is correct that the Catholic Church has long opposed abortion as a sin. Likewise, although Reverend King was active in politics during his lifetime, we can never know with certainty what politicians and issues he would endorse today. Given the continued extraordinary regard with which he is held, why should any candidate be able to claim, entirely of their own accord, that “King would stand with me” as a means to achieve an instant civil rights high road on their position(s)?

At another level, however, this is about an attempted exercise of power by the institutions effected. In the case of Father Newman, it is the power of the Catholic Church to dictate proper moral behavior to its followers with absolute authority. The Church ostensibly lost this fight a long time ago, at least in the United States.

In the case of King’s estate, it is a fight over both economic power and its role as a premier voice for the U.S. African American community. Like the Catholic Church, the King estate is destined to lose its fight.

Sometimes institutions fade away because their own ineptitude and corruption cause them to lose relevance with their followers. Sometimes they fade away because a new idea comes along that is perceived to have more relevance, or at least more immediacy, to their followers. Often it is a combination of both factors operating simultaneously.

Conversely, their own success can sometimes marginalize institutions. I am sure the heirs of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln can relate to the problem facing the King estate. I am sure they are tired of watching their forefathers’ images used to hock everything from appliances to used cars to Viagra every year during Presidents Day sales. Yet the more successful that institutions are at turning the individuals they promote into icons, the more ownership of those icons slowly slips into the public domain.

Vatican II attempted to open up the mysteries of Catholic dogma, making them more accessible to ordinary parishioners and U.S. Catholics seized upon that idea like no other. The result is less authority for priests, such as Father Newman, when attempting to impose moral dictates on their followers over whom they may or may not vote.

Likewise, Obama actualizing part of King’s dream for America makes the latter’s voice no less important and due no less remembrance and respect but it does inevitably make it a little softer. The more King’s extraordinary vision becomes ordinary reality, the less he – and his family – individually remain part of current events and instead reposition into history, unless, of course, they achieve more relevant and immediate accomplishments in their own rights.

So while the censures and threats of Father Newman and the King estate against Obama supporters still have their sting, there is no denying the gently rounded bluntness of their stingers’ tips, the product of time’s inescapable erosion. The huge body they seek to wound may slap back at them in the irritation of the moment but will ultimately forget about them as we soon forget the bites of gnats we endure while sitting outside on a warm summer’s evening.

The good news is that time’s corrosive effects as well as human foibles visit all institutions. Obama is currently the flavor of the month, his picture on the cover of every newspaper, magazine, and TV news show. Still, it is only a matter of fifty years, more or less, before his loyalist supporters and heirs find his image reduced to appearing in glossy sales circulars and low-budget television commercials selling Viagra (you know what they say about men with big ears, don’t you?).

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