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The Drum Major Instinct

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To my mind there were only two really memorable commercials to come out of last night’s Super Bowl. (David Harbour’s Tide ads were pretty funny, I guess, but I doubt I’ll remember them in a month.)

The first was the Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Dirty Dancing spoof. It was fun and funny.

The other was the Dodge ad that copped part of a speech that Martin Luther King gave in Detroit fifty years ago. It was atrocious.

I recognize that my criticism of Dodge here is not an especially hot take. The ad was skewered on Twitter immediately after it aired, and the blowback has been the subject of numerous news stories today. It turns out that, no matter how low we’ve sunk in 2018, coopting the words of one of the greatest freedom fighters in American history in order to sell trucks still strikes a lot of people as wrong.

It’s nevertheless worth noting the unique stupidity of Dodge’s choice of King speech, though. Entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” this particular speech finds King exploring people’s materialist impulses, with “the drum major instinct” being human beings’ innate desire to be noticed and recognized. For King, who by this point in time had become fiercely critical of capitalism, this tendency toward conceit and self-regard was dangerous, and particularly so in contemporary America as everyone labored to stay one step ahead of their neighbors and sometimes ruined themselves in the process:

But now the problem is, it is the drum major instinct. And you know, you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. (Amen) They got to get this coat because this particular coat is a little better and a little better-looking than Mary’s coat. And I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. (Amen) I know a man who used to live in a thirty-five-thousand-dollar house. And other people started building thirty-five-thousand-dollar houses, so he built a seventy-five-thousand-dollar house. And then somebody else built a seventy-five-thousand-dollar house, and he built a hundred-thousand-dollar house. And I don’t know where he’s going to end up if he’s going to live his life trying to keep up with the Joneses.

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. (Make it plain) And that’s where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted. I guess that’s the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn’t harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that—you know, and I’m sure you’ve met them—that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. (Amen) And they just boast and boast and boast, and that’s the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct.

Perhaps unbeknownst to the ad team at Dodge, King explicitly calls out advertisers in propelling this psychosis:

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. (Make it plain) In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. (Yes) That’s the way the advertisers do it.

Among the endpoints of this “drum major instinct,” for King, was that it helped explain poor white complicity in systems of racial repression:

Now the other thing is, that it leads to tragic—and we’ve seen it happen so often—tragic race prejudice. Many who have written about this problem—Lillian Smith used to say it beautifully in some of her books. And she would say it to the point of getting men and women to see the source of the problem. Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. (Make it plain, today, ‘cause I’m against it, so help me God) And they have said over and over again in ways that we see with our own eyes. In fact, not too long ago, a man down in Mississippi said that God was a charter member of the White Citizens Council. And so God being the charter member means that everybody who’s in that has a kind of divinity, a kind of superiority. And think of what has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man.

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”

Now that’s a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white.

So all of that is by its very nature enough that the Dodge ad team should have known not to use it. But as if that wasn’t enough, King closes the speech by imagining his own funeral and eulogy. (He was murdered exactly two months later.) Nice work, Dodge.

POSTSCRIPT: The sad understory to this is that King’s son Dexter approved Dodge’s use of the speech. The King children have by and large been bad to the point of embarrassing when it comes to the handling of their father’s legacy.

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