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You might call this a requiem for reverence.

It seems that one Jeffrey Darnell Paul, a graphic artist from Miami Beach, had been tasked with creating a poster for a strip club’s so-called “I Have a Dream Bash” last week in apparent “honor” of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. So this genius concocts an image of the nation’s greatest human rights leader holding up a fan of $100 dollar bills like some low-rent “playa” while a scantily clad woman looks on. Paul, let the record show as African-Americans duck their heads in mortification, is black.

But, though he’s the one whose transgression made national news and the one who has been fielding angry phone calls from sea to shining sea, let the record further show that he is not the only individual to use King’s image that way. A Google search reveals that clubs in at least two other cities (Pensacola, Fla., and Baltimore) also thought it a grand idea to pair King with barely dressed hoochie mamas to commemorate what would have been his 83rd birthday had he not been shot in the face and killed while fighting for freedom and economic justice.

Perhaps we ought not be surprised. It is not exactly a secret that America is a nation of illiterates where its history is concerned.

But Paul’s transgression speaks to more than just the shortcomings of the ignorant. It speaks also to an overriding shallowness, an obsession with the superficial and trivial that seems unfortunately characteristic of this era. It was difficult to look on that poster without feeling that, OK, here we are; this is finally it, the moment when reverence died.

But of course, one can hardly get through the day anymore without feeling that. Reverence dies repeatedly in a nation where ironic distance and postmodern cynicism are worn like armor to protect against the possibility one might accidentally feel something profound or hear some deep, affecting truth.

What a difference a generation makes.

Maybe you are old enough to remember when “reverence” became passe and its antonym, “irreverence,” became the byword of American culture. Like a blast of cold air into a stifling room, it blew away the tyranny of the excessively earnest and the stiffly proper, refused to bow before cobwebbed notions of propriety, skewered sacred cows with infectious abandon. It was culture as dividing line, the bright Rubicon between Bob Hope and Lenny Bruce, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda, Bing Crosby and Funkadelic. In a real sense, it represented the liberating of the American mind.

But decades later, it sometimes feels as if irreverence has instituted a tyranny all its own, a ban against holding anything above the fray, or regarding anything as too sacred for too long. Worse, this new tyranny seems to portend less the liberating of the American mind than the calcifying of the American heart against the very notion of sacred things.

So Paul’s poster and the event it advertises suggest not just ignorance, but a profound unseriousness, a sense of emotional retardation unworthy of grown-up people. In this, Paul is not unique. Rather, he is emblematic. For what it’s worth, he says it never crossed his mind people would find his poster offensive.

Actually, that’s the most offensive thing about it.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

(c) 2012 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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