Commentaries
Danny Glover Plays Chapel Hill

The Hollywood gadfly brought his unique brand of radical politics to UNC-Chapel Hill's Martin Luther King celebration.

By Jay Schalin

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February 02, 2010

UNC-Chapel Hill obviously considers Martin Luther King, Jr. to be important, since the school devoted an entire week of activities to his memory.

Why, then, did its officials choose an unscholarly celebrity—actor Danny Glover—to deliver the keynote speech about King? He was not an associate of King’s, nor has he established himself as a King “expert” by writing a biography or series of articles about him.

While Glover has had a solid career on films and stage, he has kept himself in the national spotlight in recent years mostly by making inflammatory statements and keeping dubious company. His activism has placed him in the far left of American politics. He has a longstanding friendship with the communist Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and has also developed close ties with Venezuelan socialist despot Hugo Chavez, who is funding Glover’s pet film project about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture.

It must therefore be Glover’s politics that led the university to invite him to Chapel Hill to speak on Thursday, January 21. Approximately 1,000 people were in attendance.

And Glover did not disappoint. He presented King in a different light than he is commonly perceived—not as a uniter of people and civil rights advocate, but as a socialist who wished to “radically restructure the architecture of American society.”

This is not to say that Glover falsified his portrait of King, but rather showed King at his most radical. Glover said that one should not focus on King at any particular point in time, since King experienced an “evolution” from a “civil rights leader to a human rights leader.” As King perceived different situations, he took advice from “all directions, from those who were mystics and those who were socialists,” Glover said. As Glover revealed, the Martin Luther King who led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 was not the same as the one who in 1967 wrote Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?—a paean to  the distribution of wealth and income.

Glover heartily endorsed this transformation. To students who are not well versed in political theory and the rhetoric of the political left, this change of focus from civil rights to human rights may sound positive, more inclusive. But these terms have very specific meanings. Civil rights are those rights that confer equality under the law—they disallow discrimination and guarantee equal access to legal redress. Human rights, as defined by the political left, go way beyond civil rights by seeking to institute government-mandated economic equality, which is socialism. Glover highlighted the King who called for the creation of a “guaranteed income” which he wanted to be set at the median income in the country.

Certainly, King’s later forays into radical leftwing theories do not detract from his earlier efforts. Other American heroes have done something similar. Thomas Jefferson supported the French Revolution, despite that event’s shaky philosophical foundations and devolution into vindictive bloodshed, corruption, and, with the rise of Napoleon, despotic military dictatorship. Thomas Paine actually became part of the French government briefly during the Revolutionary period, and later called for nations to provide guaranteed income to their citizens.

Even though these Founding Fathers followed the false promise of French radicals for a while, we continue to honor them for their earlier contributions. And while we do not revere them any less for their mistakes, we don’t exalt them because of these errors, either. And thus it should be with King, whose greatest contributions occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s, as a breaker of unjust barriers and as a uniter of men, whose resolve and eloquence as a spokesman for the universal dignity of all humanity won him a place among the giants of American politics and letters. He should not be venerated for his last few years, when he moved decidedly to the left, with his opposition to the Vietnam War and his calls for wealth redistribution.  

Yet Glover turned the traditional perspective on its head by suggesting that the later King is the one who truly merits our attention and admiration. In doing so, he almost dismissed the traditional King from the 1950s and early 1960s, when King led the fight for integration and wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and “I Have a Dream.” At one point Glover suggested that the protests and marches that broke the color barrier were “easy,” that “minor embarrassing incidents like desegregating a water faucet” were “easily accomplished.” What King eventually decided was really important, according to Glover, was attacking “structural racism,” and that required radical restructuring of the nation and its economy.

Glover tried to convince the audience that King’s later radicalization was part of the natural progression of history—a “movement” of human advancement that began with the Magna Carta and continued through the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. Including King’s shift leftward in this advancement would suggest that the entire thrust of historical advancement, particularly in America, is leading to socialism.

This perspective of the flow of history happens to mesh nicely with Glover’s own trendy politics. In the question-and-answer period following the speech, he said that “capitalism is not a science, merely a relationship,” and, after some comments about plastic and the environment, said that “we’re going to have to find another relationship just for the species to survive.”

He also cited his current influences for those wishing to pursue this line of thinking further, such as the radical anti-business huckster Jerry Rifkin, who is perhaps best known in recent years for his campaign to stop beef-eating due to cows’ output of methane gas. Rifkin’s work, which currently depicts mankind as on the verge of extinction unless we change our economy to be less consumption-oriented, has been described by the late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (hardly a political conservative) as “anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship.”

That sort of facile pseudo-intellectualism has long characterized Glover’s activism. Most recently, he drew ridicule and incredulity from around the world for suggesting that the failure to do something about climate change was responsible for the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. At UNC, he tried to explain that he meant not that mankind’s failure to enact regulations on global warming caused the earthquake, but that the same attitudes that prevented worldwide agreement on regulations made the outcome of the earthquake worse.

Yet, despite such undisciplined thinking, UNC selected him to be the centerpiece of the week-long King celebration. This raises a major problem: For many, if not most, of the American people, it is not possible to honor Martin Luther King as he was presented by Glover, as an advocate of leftwing human rights policies, and as somebody who had already decided that extreme forms of wealth redistribution are imperative. They will rightfully reject calls to radically restructure the very system that enfranchises our liberty. Call it socialism, communism or any other kind of “ism,” the kind of economy proposed by King in his last years has long proven to enslave and impoverish rather than uplift and enrich, as demonstrated by every “Worker’s Paradise” ever instituted.

And this places many people in a difficult position: while they fervently desire to honor the earlier King, the one who penned the words “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” they cannot honor Glover’s version of Martin Luther King without offending their principles of liberty.  

How ironic it is that, if we accept Glover’s thesis, King’s legacy is to be a divider of men, and an usher of tyranny, rather than a freedom fighter. For consider what King’s proposal for a guaranteed income really means—the forced seizure from the producers of wealth, at the point of a gun through taxation, to be distributed to non-producers. After all, no rational people will work at necessary but undesirable jobs if their incomes are guaranteed at the average level of society. Most people would do so only if compelled by the point of a gun; such Utopian schemes are the gateway to totalitarianism.

Last year, UNC-Chapel Hill established its commitment to free speech by defending the rights of speakers invited by conservative student groups. But when it comes to speakers invited by the university itself, as is the case with Danny Glover, it is still serving as a crooked referee on the playing field of ideas, favoring the political left with every toot of the whistle.

Will the university invite somebody to counter Glover’s unique take on Dr. King? Will the university invite, and pay for, any black conservatives to talk on any subject? Will it invite any conservatives at all? Until the university brings a Thomas Sowell for every Danny Glover, or a Richard Lindzen (a prominent MIT climatologist who questions the extent of man-made global warming) for every James Hansen (a global warming advocate and NASA scientist who spoke at UNC on Monday, February 1, and participated in a campus anti-coal protest the next day), it is merely pretending to participate in the free and objective inquiry that should be at the heart of every university.

 


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