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Posted February 6, 2018 12:10 a.m. EST

King’s Words Turned Upside Down

William Bernbach, a titan of Madison Avenue who died in 1982, said, “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.” The spinmeisters for Ram trucks must have taken Bernbach’s admonition to heart. With a Super Bowl commercial on Sunday that used as its soundtrack a sermon delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years earlier to the day, they got the notice they wanted. Much of the reaction, though, amounted to a richly deserved thumbs-down.

The sermon was King’s “Drum Major Instinct” speech, given in Atlanta in 1968 two months before his assassination. Everybody, he said, had this instinct — “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.” But it had to be harnessed, he said as he went on to equate greatness with service to others. Ostensibly, the Ram commercial was an appeal for people to serve. But who’s kidding whom? The goal was to sell trucks, with King’s voice as pitchman.

The sheer crassness led to instant condemnation on social media, including speculation about what might be next — maybe trotting out James Baldwin to hawk “The Firestone Next Time”? Critics were hardly mollified by word that Ram had the blessing of Intellectual Properties Management, the licenser of King’s estate. The estate has not always been his staunchest guardian against posthumous commercialization.

It might serve history a tad more faithfully to note other appeals that King made in that Feb. 4, 1968, sermon. For one thing, he was appalled by the way many people went into hock to buy vehicles they couldn’t possibly afford: “So often, haven’t you seen people making $5,000 a year and driving a car that cost 6,000? And they wonder why their ends never meet.”

While we’re at it, he also didn’t think highly of advertising gurus — “you know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion.” He continued: “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. 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.”

For that matter, King might well have been talking about a president a half-century in the future when he expounded on the need to rein in the drum major instinct, for otherwise it becomes “very dangerous” and “pernicious.”

“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?” he said. “And they just boast and boast and boast. And that’s the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct.”

In the sermon’s finale, King said that he thought about his own death and funeral. It led to these ringing words: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

He did not ask to be a huckster for a line of trucks.

China, Elbows Out, Charges Ahead

Not long ago, America and its democratic allies hoped to integrate a rising China into the political and economic system they built after the Cold War. Instead, China is creating its own institutions, or reshaping existing institutions and norms, to suit its own needs.

The Pentagon is so concerned that it named China, along with Russia, America’s top security threats for seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions."

It makes perfect sense that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, wants to see his country play a greater international role. China, with its model of central economic and political direction, enjoys a growing economy, substantial military strength and stable leadership. But that should not give it license to unilaterally reorder the Indo-Pacific region to its advantage. A focused and forward-looking American president would counter such moves. President Donald Trump, blinded by Xi’s flattery, just cedes more power to Beijing.

Xi has the advantage of knowing where he wants to lead his country. Trump vacillates between declaring economic war on China and wanting to be Xi’s friend.

Trump lavished praise on Xi while in Beijing in November, and declared that he did not blame China for the out-of-balance trade relationship. Weeks later, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he seemed to forecast a trade war, saying, “The United States will no longer turn a blind eye to unfair economic practices, including massive intellectual property theft, industrial subsidies and pervasive state-led economic planning.” Last month, he put tariffs on solar panels, which will hurt Chinese businesses but is unlikely to make American companies more competitive.

It was alarming to watch Trump quickly cede diplomatic ground to China. He withdrew from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement, questioned the North American Free Trade Agreement and rejected the Iran nuclear deal, alienating allies.

Meanwhile, China is exercising influence in others ways, like creating an Asian infrastructure bank and building artificial islands in the South China Sea for military bases. It has eclipsed the United States as the leading trading partner for Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Peru.

China’s biggest play could be a plan to spend more than $1 trillion on roads, power plants and other projects across the globe to expand markets and political influence. Despite concerns that this “One Belt, One Road” initiative could burden participating countries with debt, many countries are already involved or intend to become involved. By contrast, Trump is cutting America’s modest foreign aid budget.

Beijing even took aim at democracy, saying via a state newspaper that while the American system is supposed to be politically superior, the recent federal government shutdown showed it was rived by chaos and “chronic flaws."

It may have a point. In the past year, public faith in America’s major institutions collapsed, according to a survey by the Edelman communications firm. Whereas in China, faith in the government jumped 8 points, to 84 percent, in the United States it fell 14 points, to 33 percent, the steepest decline ever among Americans and the biggest decline of all 28 countries polled. That’s a warning for democracies to resolve their internal conflicts, though, not an argument for authoritarian rule.

To an extent, Trump is pushing back. American ships have stepped up patrols in the South China Sea to assert freedom of navigation. The White House persuaded China to support tighter sanctions on North Korea.

So far, though, it’s not clear that Trump has a strategy to manage these policy strands effectively. Most Asian countries want the United States to lead both in cooperating with and counterbalancing Beijing, and no one wants to have to choose between the two behemoths. The Chinese-American relationship has become more competitive and fraught, and will remain so. It will be up to both powers to prevent competition from sliding into confrontation.

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