Don't ridicule Glenn Beck's tribute to MLK. Celebrate it.

How you look at things.
Aug. 30 2010 7:44 AM

It's Good To Be King

Don't ridicule Glenn Beck's tribute to MLK. Celebrate it.

Also in Slate, David Weigel reports from the weekend's Tea Party events in Washington. Christopher Hitchens describes the rally as a mass exercise in white self-pity

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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 longstanding values. They emphasize common threads between reformers and founders. They reinterpret the nation's origins to match the new ethos.

Christianity helps. Its message of repentance helps people admit their mistakes, inviting them to surrender to God rather than to their political enemies. But pride is still hard to swallow. Conservatives need a way to distinguish their apologies from the apologies of progressives. Hence their contrast between looking forward and "wallowing."

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 Obama and the new health care law as "socialist."

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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.  And it's a really slow bus.

But it's moving forward. King, once spurned as a communist, is now canonized as a peer of the Founding Fathers. ("We haven't carved him in marble yet," said Beck, adding the "yet" as tribute and prediction.) And in Beck's closing speech, you can see where the bus is headed next. Four years ago, Beck, on live TV, told the country's first Muslim congressman: "What I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.' And I know you're not. I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel." On Saturday, however, Beck told his followers: "Our churches, our synagogues, our mosques—we must stand for the things that we know are true. … Go to your synagogues, your churches, your mosques—anyone that is not preaching hate and division, anyone that is not teaching to kill another man."

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 anti-mosque rally from the bad old days of 2010. Their tribute won't be insincere. It'll just be a little bit late. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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