Monumental Hubris

Will work for national honor.

We don’t know if the Chinese stonemasons who built the new Martin Luther King memorial got the job by shoving a sign bearing that message into the faces of its overseers. We know only that unpaid, nonunion, foreign nationals built the massive shrine on the Mall. They toiled for “national honor” and “to bring glory to the Chinese people,” one of them explained to an investigator hired by the DC-area stonemasons promised the job. 

Happy Labor Day!

Martin Luther King died in Memphis supporting a strike by the city’s garbagemen. So it’s not a stretch to assume that he would be horrified that imported workers making the Chinese minimum wage constructed an American tribute to him. Hurricane Irene postponing the monument’s opening ceremonies last weekend, and an earthquake moving a service scheduled for the National Cathedral, suggest that maybe the Great Shop Steward in the Sky wasn’t pleased, either.

The National Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, like those who commissioned the pyramids, hope future visitors to their stone temple won’t wonder how it was built. Alas, the slave-labor scandal is just the most discussed way that an honor has become an insult to Martin Luther King. 

King’s children charged the foundation building the memorial for the use of their father’s words and image in the project’s fundraising. A clue to their indifference to history came when Bernice King, at an event celebrating the new memorial, noted her father’s place on the National Mall not far from Abraham Lincoln, “remembered for signing the Declaration of Independence.” Confirmation came when they skipped history for economics by burdening the overburdened organizers of the monument with an $800,000 bill.

Is that why the foundation had to go cheap on labor?   

Martin Luther King had a dream. His children have a scheme.

One of the quotes attributed to King etched into the memorial actually comes from Theodore Parker, an antebellum reformer who helped bankroll John Brown’s Kansas activities. Should Parker’s descendants seek their cut from the King family?

Another “quote”—I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness—is a cut-and-paste job compressing several sentences into one. Unsurprisingly, the words that King didn’t say do not reflect King’s sentiment, which was the opposite of a congratulatory self-eulogy. “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” poet Maya Angelou, a consultant to the memorial, reacted. “He was anything but that.”

You get what you pay for. When Chinese Communists write your history, don’t be surprised when your history is neither yours nor history. Commissars vanish from the picture and words get erased from the quote. Outsourcing reportedly saved the project $8 million. It cost the remembrance its integrity and authenticity.     

The arrogance of rewriting history to fit a granite slab is matched by hubristic art and architecture. The monument’s social realist style meshes as well in neoclassical Washington, DC as an igloo might in King’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Lei Yixin, a Chinese sculptor known for a cult-of-personality statue of Mao Zedong, crafted the centerpiece of the new memorial. Social realism appealed to mid-century totalitarian narcissists, who ridiculed a deity above them as a blasphemy against man, demanding that we accept the truly ridiculous idea that we should worship men as gods. But a man of god can never be a god of men.

The stone relief may have nailed King’s image. It is a grotesque distortion of his soul.

As off-putting as entombing a liberator’s likeness in a style evoking the twentieth century’s great oppressors is the not-so-subtle juxtaposition of this King with the King, the King of Kings. Visitors emerge from a “Mountain of Despair” to glimpse a “Stone of Hope,” a journey from King’s struggles to our national redemption. Along the way, those making the pilgrimage to the Washington, DC holy place pass through a 14-station Inscription Wall.

Why not cut the pretense and just call it the Via Dolorosa?

Eric Hoffer famously wrote: “What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.” The MLK temple is a stone-cold reminder that the civil rights movement has become all three.