BY MATTHEW HERBERT
As a child I was a profligate liar. I lied to exaggerate my accomplishments at school, to decorate my past, and in many cases to try to get out of trouble. It was probably in the course of that last effort that I finally figured out lying was more trouble than it was worth. To be honest I don’t remember when I finally broke the lying habit, but I do recall I was old enough to feel shame. I should have known better.
Anyone who has ever lived with a long-term lie knows the relief of putting an end to it. The lie in question doesn’t have to be a whopper; it could be the smallest of omissions or distortions, kept up for the sake of comity or covenience. But the fresh start of breaking with falsehood and living up to the truth is a healthy, cathartic experience. It can hardly be a coincidence that one of the most enduring books in Western civilization is St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in the fifth century, still in print today.
George Orwell captured the tonic power of truth-telling in a single phrase. In one of his essays (possibly “Why I Write”), he was inventorying his talents when he mentioned that his main gift was not so much a skill or technique as it was a certain power for facing unpleasant facts. The more you read Orwell the more clearly you see the quality that most of his “unpleasant facts” had in common–they were lies the English people told themelves about how good and great they were.
In America, it is Martin Luther King Jr. who plays the unwelcome but deeply necessary role of puncturing our most cherished myths. Without King, our whole national story remains a lie. The Founders declared with a great flourish that all men were created equal, even as the slaves they owned worked under the whip and built the mercantile power on which our country as founded. Certainly men with eyes as clear as Thomas Jefferson’s could see the depth of this lie. It took a lot of effort to keep it covered up for so long.
I don’t have time or space to trace the lie and all its variants down through the course of American history. We all know it well enough to acknowledge its presence. Besides, I want to keep my point short, and it is this: for exposing this lie, Martin Luther King is an American hero on par with the founders of our republic. He saved the national project. Without him, we would still be telling ourselves that our experiment in political freedom had succeeded. We would still think slavery was a mere aberration, and its consequences would eventually blow over if we just let time and forgetting do their work.
I grew up in places where people saw King as “belonging” to the civil right movement. He was made out to be a special-purpose activist, someone who helped right wrongs that existed somewhere else but not here. Since then, I’ve come to see King as he truly is: a leader and prophet for all Americans. In fact he is possibly the greatest American of all.
Anyone can create national myths and purvey national values, but it takes a true hero to hold the nation to account for them. If, some 50 or 100 years from now, Americans look back and perceive that we have crossed over into the promised land of political equality, I am convinced it will be King who deserves the credit for it. His power for facing unpleasant facts means we don’t have to live a lie anymore, and we don’t have to be ashamed of ourselves. We can still reach the promised land, but only if we admit we are not there yet.