Because I Said So

Tony Phillips' Blog at Open.Salon.Com
SEPTEMBER 1, 2011 8:44PM

Outsourcing Dignity: MLK Memorial Made in China

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When I was a boy, if you maintained there'd someday be a memorial on the National Mall dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., you'd have won a lot of bets. The world's a better place now than it was then, in some ways at least. Nobody in my boyhood would have believed this country would erect a monument to the most notable figure from the 1960s civil rights campaign, but that's what happened. We raised a statue of the man three stories high and when I say "we," I mean a team of Chinese laborers.

I'm not making this up, but if you doubt me (which I'd understand) go ahead and check some reputable sources, like these British folks here. Check whatever you like; I'm telling ya, the King Memorial is a product of China. Swear and be damned, that's the truth.

Now you might be one of the many Americans who were already kind of perturbed about a matter related to the memorial in question, to wit, the fact that Dr. King's family extracted fees for usage of their deceased patriarch's likeness in the monument and its promotional material. That really happened. You can't make such stuff up. The foundation that developed the memorial paid the King heirs just a skosh over $800,000 in two installments to use Dr. King's face and words. I wish my daddy had a dream!

You might also be among those Americans mildly annoyed that a "quote" attributed to Dr. King and inscribed on the base of his statue is, in fact, a paraphrase, distilled from a sermon and yanked out of context. According to Maya Angelou, the line "I Was a Drum Major for Justice," makes King sound like "an arrogant twit." If a poet laureate told me she disliked my word choice, I think I'd be sensible enough to listen.

Then too, even if you had no idea about the King family's greed or the false attribution of a remark, you might be one of many, many Americans who see in the cross-armed, defiant stance King strikes in said statue an image far from the one you associate with the historical man. Try this: Go to Google images, search "Martin Luther King, Jr." and see if you can find a single photograph of Dr. King with his arms crossed. In every shot I've ever seen of him, his bearing matches his message, one of openness, peace, tolerance, acceptance, justice, faith and hope for a better day.

So what we've got in Washington is a statue of a man in a pose he never struck, emblazoned with words he never spoke, for which we paid a fee to those people who own the rights to his words and likeness. Add to that, it's foreign made.

It seems the U.S. produces piss-poor granite, or so we must believe given that the folks in charge of the King Memorial decided that stone from any number of American sites, including New Hampshire, The Friggin' Granite State, just wouldn't do. Domestic rock was good enough for all the other official monuments and structures in our capital, but for something as important as the King Memorial, we had to look elsewhere and lo and behold, the Chinese, as it turns out, well they've got themselves some top-notch sculpture type granite. And hey, as long as you're importing the stone, what about a sculptor?

Master Lei Yixin of Hunan, People's Republic of China, is well known in his homeland for his colossal depictions of, among other figures, Hunan's favorite son, Mao Zedong, founder and chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, bon vivant, man-about-town and judge of good whisky. One sees amply displayed in Lei's works the central axiom that forms the basis of communist public art; When in doubt, make it big. Lei, master that he is, hit that axiom on the gigantic head with a statue of Dr. King bears only a passing resemblance to the actual Martin Luther King, Jr. So what, it looks like Flip Wilson, at least it's big as all outside, so big in fact that we here in the Do-Nothing States don't have anyone capable of manhandling the constituent stone slabs and ergo, the statue got itself erected by a crew of imported coolies.
Wait Tony . . .

No. I'm serious. Evidently, the sculptor responsible for a featureless statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., rendered in high relief, in Social Realist style, ten feet taller than the statue of Thomas Jefferson across the mall, couldn't complete his project without importing his own Chinese assistants who, according to sources, were unpaid while in the U.S. Sez me, Chinese monument laborers need a better union. You'd have thought those people would have learned something from the whole railroad experience.

So what do we get when we take a dream and drag it through four decades of deregulation, global exploitation, sloganeering, decaying social awareness and shallow avarice . . .?

Just what we deserve.

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mlk had a number of weaknesses, but i'm inclined to forgive him because he was willing to stick his head up for his people, at a time when many were willing to knock it down.

as far as the chinese connection goes, perfectly appropriate: america goes where the price is lowest.

and mlk is memorialized by a sculptor who has made big images of big people. being in the company of mao is more honorable than being in the company of jefferson. mao freed slaves, jefferson sold them and screwed them.

all things considered, this is a good monument to dr king. don't be put off about minor historical inaccuracies, the difference between the founding fathers as they were and as you were taught about them is vast.
That's actually a nice perspective, Al. Thanks. All things considered, I suppose I'd just as soon be associated with Mao as TJ, ad infinitum. And aye - American business goes where it can most cheaply screw labor.