Posted by Professor Ruth O’Brien & Frederic D. O’Brien (a.k.a. Fred Schwarz, Deputy Managing Editor, National Review)
My, my. It is Presidents’ Day again. February is that kind of month—polarized, that is, and I’m not talking about needing goggles or glasses (ski or otherwise). Nor am I kvetching about the vacuousness of that truly silly civil holiday—Groundhog Day (Bill Murray made that one boring, no?). Nor am I making any oblique 1970s or ’80s references about ice storms or polar climates in our polarized or bipolar world. Rather, I’m comparing apples to oranges, or religious-rights leaders to presidents, and it does seem that the former (surprise, surprise) comes up short in the recognition department.
On one hand, George and Abe get to merge and create a faceless yet stronger four-day weekend. On the other hand, Martin Luther King gets short-shrifted.
To be sure, MLK gets mean name recognition and a catchy acronym. Yet not only was this holiday not enjoyed in all states (such as Arizona) for many years, and not only is the holiday merged in several southern states with one for Robert E. Lee (born January 19), but even in states that embrace it completely, it depends on your workplace whether you will get the day off.
What I know is that MLK, as a stand-alone in mid-January, is short-shrifted, given that we have had 40-plus white male presidents and only one prominent religious-rights leader, even though we’re supposedly a predominantly Christian state?*
Is this reverse discrimination? Or is it reverse-reverse discrimination if you were part of the religious police? (I’m thinking of the Hobby Lobby Roberts Court here.)
I can’t imagine what this Court would say, but I can imagine what the Log Cabin Republicans might say about all these twists and reverses. But then again, would I want to be at either president’s or religious rights leader’s parties on any Friday or Monday?
*In-house development editors found a small logical leap. Find it if you can.
Well, it’s difficult to quantify whose shrift is shorter, but remember that Presidents’ Day is shared by two men, whereas King gets a day all to himself (except in those few Southern states Ruth mentioned that bring in Lee, thus borrowing the civilian civil-rights hero–plus–slaveowing general template from Presidents’ Day). In fact, if you consider Presidents’ Day to be a day for all presidents, then Washington and Lincoln have to share their glory with 41 others, most of whom are distinctly low-rent in comparison.
Moreover, George and Abe have long since been conscripted as pitchmen for holiday sales at appliance dealers, whereas the respect accorded King because of his inherent dignity (and his heirs’ zealous guarding of his personality rights) has kept him in the public mind as a hero instead of a kitschy figure.
But perhaps the biggest factor working against King’s holiday is the timing. It falls in the fallow period after the Christmas/Kwanzaa/New Year’s bacchanalia, leading to a general attitude of “What, another holiday?” Not to mention the weather—which is just as bad for Presidents’ Day, to be sure. Perhaps the solution is to celebrate important winter birthdays on an arbitrary day in summer, as the British do with Queen Elizabeth.
There’s a case in favor of restricting birthday holidays to presidents and Revolutionary figures, to keep them from multiplying too greatly. Yet even if you accept this, the unique status of slavery and its aftermath in American history would argue in favor of making an exception for King. Washington, Lincoln, and King all risked (and two of them lost) their lives to create and preserve freedom for Americans. But comparisons are futile; their lives and achievements speak for themselves, far above our poor power to add or detract with ski holidays and blockbuster weekend sales events.
Frederic O’Brien (a.k.a Fred Schwarz, Deputy Managing Editor, National Review)