Activism is not a popularity contest

“He wears the clothes of a dissenter, but there’s a logo on his back.” — from “Damn It, Rose,” by Don Henley.

When he died, Martin Luther King was likely the most hated man in America.

This is a fact obscured by decades of veneration so intense that even conservatives now try to claim him as one of their own, but it’s a fact, just the same. A 1968 Harris Poll found King’s disapproval rate among white Americans at 75%. Roughly half of all black Americans also viewed him negatively.

And yet, 53 years later, his birthday is a federal holiday and he is arguably the most respected warrior for social justice who ever lived.

Point being, activism is not a popularity contest.

Or at least, it wasn’t.

Because now, the zeitgeist has vomited forth “The Activist,” a reality show premiering next month on CBS. Co-hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough, it will spotlight six activists who, in the words of the press release, “compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events” to promote their causes, with success “measured via online engagement, social metrics and hosts’ input.”

Global Citizen, the anti-poverty group that is producing the show, has taken a lot of entirely-predictable flack for turning battles over healthcare, education and climate change into “Dancing With The Stars.” But the group swears its critics have it all wrong. As it told Deadline.com, “This is not a reality show to trivialize activism.”

But that’s exactly what it is, and it’s hard not to find that offensive. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for his activism, Cesar Chavez and Alice Paul undertook hunger strikes, Fannie Lou Hamer endured a horrific beating, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head, but yes, by all means, let’s discuss “online engagement” and “social metrics.”

The competition offers contenders a chance to make their case before world leaders at the G20 Summit in Rome with the team securing the biggest commitment emerging as the winner. Some will argue that trivialization is a small price to pay for potential exposure and funding. In the short run, they might have a point. But there is a long run here, too.

You know how you kill a social revolution? You take it off the street. You turn it into a commodity. You slap a logo on its back. The hippie movement was effectively dead the moment it became possible to buy tie-dyed shirts at JCPenney.

Which is not to say there isn’t a role for corporate or political actors to play in the push for social change. There is. But it is important to remember that the corporation, the politician and the activist answer to different masters. Activism is often a threat to the status quo, while business and politics are its bedrock. And while business and politics are about appealing to people in mass numbers, activism is designed to make people uncomfortable.

One struggles to imagine John Lewis or Gloria Steinem competing in contrived stunts pitting voting rights against women’s rights between car commercials on CBS. One suspects they’d have too much respect for their causes — and themselves — to participate in such foolishness. And that they would understand the difference between fighting for change and being co-opted into irrelevance.

CBS is betting most of us won’t understand — or care. Lord help us if they’re right, if we really are as shallow and unserious as that. Because you know what’s worse than a country where activism is entertainment?

A country that no longer knows the difference.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.