- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2006

Leave it to George Orwell to go beyond the superficial. Rather than join the chorus of praise for a political martyr, he asked the hard questions, and even proposed some plain answers. Orwell began his 1949 essay, “Reflections on Gandhi,” with this sentence and provocation: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

Saints, heroes, men-on-horseback, politicians on pedestals … all aroused the skeptical journalist in Orwell — especially the notion of a saint in politics. How could that be?

When saintliness conflicts with power, the English essayist had little doubt which would win out. And yet, Orwell had to admit, there was something about Gandhi … something that evoked not skepticism but admiration.

Martin Luther King Jr. is our own Gandhi. But on this birthday of Martin Luther King — he would be 77 now if not cut down in his prime — where is our own Orwell to peer through the customary eulogies and raise the hard questions, maybe even propose some plain answers?

Again we are inundated with praise for the hero, but analysis is scarce and criticism scarcer. And without analysts and critics, any historical figure is reduced to a two-dimensional poster, just as King has been. Even now he becomes only another Great Man, not a living presence, an incantation rather than an influence. Dr. King is still quoted, extensively, as he will be today, but who is listening, really listening?

That is something Martin Luther King Jr. has in common with other American icons. Their birthdays may be proclaimed a holiday, and their words rolled out for decorative purposes, but what they stood for may be only assumed, not debated and therefore not discerned. And he becomes a spent force.

What a strange, sad destiny for a leader whose greatness lay specifically in moving people. First as a Baptist minister, then as the organizer of the bus boycott that some say started it all, and finally as the voice and embodiment of the demonstrations that reached their zenith in the massive March on Washington in 1963, when, standing before the Lincoln Memorial, he galvanized a nation.

Lincoln lives. His life, his times, his every decision 1861-64 remains part of the fiber of the Union he saved, and the nation he redefined and even re-created in law and conception amid a terrible civil war. He yet lives because controversy still swirls about him.

Lincoln remains ever relevant not so much because his thought is ever applicable in a republic of laws, though it is, but because his vision is so ever-fruitful. Martin Luther King’s is there waiting for us, too, as it was a half-century ago, but we have not cultivated it as we have Lincoln’s. Perhaps because our intelligentsia has developed an almost visceral, and certainly an aesthetic, distaste for ideas that spring from a spiritual basis. Revelation breeds an almost automatic suspicion.

But Dr. King’s legacy lies untended, fallow, sprouting weeds. His memory becomes parochialized, largely limited to one community, much like Robert E. Lee’s. Year by year, like Lee, he becomes more and more their hero, not ours.

What a sad fate for a leader who set out to unite, not divide, and whose strength was tied up in his absolute faith that he had an ally in the heart — and soul — of his adversaries. Yet we begin to think of Martin Luther King not as a prophet but as an American social reformer of the mid-20th century, which is like thinking of Gandhi as an Indian nationalist.

At the end of his essay, after reciting all the things that irritated him about Gandhi, George Orwell, born Eric Blair in the British India of 1903, saw there was something else to the Indian fakir: “One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims for sainthood made on his behalf [he never made any such claim himself, by the way], one may reject sainthood as an ideal … but regarded simply as a politician, and compared to the leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”

It was the ultimate accolade: a rare exclamation point from George Orwell. To bring Martin Luther King’s spirit alive again will take that same kind of open-eyed examination of the man and the prophet, warts and all. But now any questions go unanswered, even unasked. Out of respect for the dead, we keep them dead. And so long as we do, Martin Luther King Jr. will not again become the living presence — controversial but never ignored — that he once was. And needs to be again.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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