Some folks in these parts—maybe in yours, too—were dismayed when the Congress awhile back whooped through a national holiday on Martin Luther King’s birthday. That one of Dr. King’s close associates was in all likelihood a card-carrying Commie had just been documented in a book by David Garrow (who somehow contrived to view that fact as a criticism of the FBI). My senior senator, Mr. Helms, didn’t like that one damn bit and argued that the reverend doctor was not the sort of American who ought to be honored with a holiday.

This kind of thing is why some of us find our senator endearing: he always stands up for his principles without considering political advantage, good taste, or even common sense.

“There is a higher truth, beyond the merely empirical.” I wrote that in this magazine once, and nobody wanted to argue about it then. For Senator Helms to put the historical facts on the record did no harm, of course: later generations may wish to consider them. At least in the short run, though, those facts were rather beside the point, which was to welcome Black Americans into full citizenship by giving them what Columbus Day has become for Italian-Americans, or St. Patrick’s Day for Hibernians.

Nobody likes a party pooper. From his experience as a critic of Abraham Lincoln, our mutual friend Mel Bradford could have told Jesse that. Whatever the amalgam of good and bad, wise and foolish, in Martin King’s actual, empirical character, he was a great leader of his people. Like Lincoln, he has become a symbol of the cause he led; criticism of him is now taken to mean opposition to his cause—and often rightly.

In any case, those who disapprove of his holiday will have their revenge soon enough. It can’t be long now until the same people who have trivialized George Washington’s birthday get to work on Dr. King’s:

“Stock up on sheets during the MLK Birthday White Sale . . . “

“Free at last? Not quite, but greatly reduced . . . “

“I have a dream: Twenty percent off all items in the store . . . “

That sort of thing. When it happens, it should surprise no one. It will be entirely in keeping with ads that show little George with his hatchet going around cutting prices.

Anyone who feels there is a false analogy here—that some intrinsic difference between George Washington and Martin Luther King will protect the latter’s memory—should consider what our culture has done to yet another winter birthday, the one we celebrate on December 25. The festival of conspicuous consumption that Christmas has become is enough to bring out the Puritan in even a lackadaisical Anglican like me.

There’s no point in whining about “greed.” Although the sheer effrontery of our commercial civilization has driven many sensitive but weakminded souls into the arms of antidemocratic movements of both left and right, the alternatives, without exception, have proven to be worse. We simply have to accept the fact that the manifold blessings of freedom come at a price. Fish got to swim, birds got to fly—and merchants got to sell things.

And don’t get me wrong: when I want to buy something, I’m glad they’re there. If sometimes they get carried away—well, they wouldn’t do that if it didn’t pay. The appropriate response to commercial excess is not to outlaw it, but, if possible, to make it unprofitable; failing that, to ignore it.

There is something to be said against the public observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday, and the same could be said about Washington’s birthday, or Our Lord’s: the worth of these exemplary figures doesn’t depend on Caesar’s recognition, and their commemoration shouldn’t depend on his favor.

That’s too rigorist for me, though. If Caesar wants to recognize these holidays, I say let him. But those who want to honor Martin Luther King or George Washington—a fortiori, those who want to worship Jesus of Nazareth—shouldn’t allow their mode of commemoration to be established by political fiat or commercial interest. They should teach their children why these men are worth honoring and nurture their devotion privately (which is not to say individualistically), in their households, in their churches, with their friends. If these holidays become nothing more than excuses for a day off from work or for store-wide sales, then I’m with the abolitionists.