‘. . . a society gone mad on war . . .’
Nearly 38 years ago, the 38-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the lectern at Riverside Church and spoke against the Vietnam War.
It was April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated in Memphis.
As a piece of oratory compared with King’s August 28, 1963, “I Have a Dream” speech, his words in New York City don’t compare. He rambled in the 1967 speech—but could you blame him? There was a hell of a lot to talk about: war in Vietnam and war in the streets of America.
On the King holiday of 2005, just a few days before the coronation of George W. Bush, once again we’re immersed in stories of Americans torturing people of color with dogs, water, and nightsticks. This time, it’s in Iraq, instead of in America.
Why is anyone really shocked at what our soldiers did in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay? Our own prisons and jails are brutal places, and we lock up more people than any other industrialized nation. Our institutionalized racial injustice has trained us how to act toward the world, particularly toward others whose skin color isn’t white.
As long as racism sits in us, it can be tapped by politicians as a source of fear. Race keeps apart those vast numbers of us who have common interests, dreams, needs, and desires. It keeps Americans divided, thus easier to manipulate.
So King means more than just a day off. Listen to his speeches. They’re readily available on the web. American Rhetoric, a very good online warehouse of oratory, has “I Have a Dream” (mp3, text) and the ’67 Riverside speech, “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence” (mp3, text). Put them on your iPod before you become a pod person yourself.
As I said, nothing matches the power of King’s ’63 oratory, “I Have a Dream.” But the ’67 speech juxtaposed a war on foreign soil with homeland insecurity and speaks directly to us about the wasteful war we’re now fighting. The death tolls are smaller now than they were in Vietnam, but in some ways, our country is in worse shape—yes, worse
In my recent Voice story “The Numbers Beyond the Bling” (a sidebar to Greg Tate‘s searing essay, “Hiphop Turns 30: Whatcha Celebratin’ For?“), I pointed out that “income inequality in the U.S. began climbing 30 years ago, reversing a nearly 50-year trend.”
At least when King was alive, a tide was generally lifting all boats, although many of them much more gradually than others. The anti-commie liberals in that Cold War era could point to social programs and “progress” of sorts. Now we’re helping spread authoritarianism across the planet, and our homeland is ridiculously insecure, terrorists aside. The poor and the middle class are getting shafted and getting poorer, while the rich are growing richer at an even higher rate than in King’s day.
Just because you’re being sated by material goods and placated by drugs that soften your dejection and stiffen your erection, don’t think you’re better off.
Bought a house lately? Paid off your student loan yet? How’s your pension doing? Or your health insurance?
America’s illin’ while that bankrupt chump Trump is chillin’ and being fawned over. When King was alive, we were losing a war abroad but making some progress at home. Same shit, different century? No. Now we’re clearly losing on both fronts.
So King’s words still ring true. He had a remarkable way of combining eloquence with immediacy. He got to the point with style. In his sixth sentence of his ’67 Riverside Church speech, King said:
Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war.
He’s speaking about Vietnam, of course, but we can apply it to Iraq. King continued:
Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on. …
In the following passage, once again please substitute “Iraq” for “Vietnam”:
There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor—both black and white— through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
Time out for some forensics. Here’s a memorable piece of stultifying speechifying from 2004 by George W. Bush. Unlike King, Bush gets to his points accidentally:
Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.
Back to King. In the following, change “Southeast Asia” to “Southwest Asia” and “burning” to “bulldozing.” Throw in “women” and “Latinos” and add “Fallujah” where appropriate:
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
King was speaking more than a decade before Russia’s Vietnam: the Afghan War. Thanks to Reagan’s cold warriors, we pushed that conflict along by creating and funding an army of Muslim “holy warriors” and are reaping the whirlwind now. Despite that, our arms sales, and our more distant history of slavery, “manifest destiny,” and colonialism, we have a hard time grasping the idea that our country sells violence. Here’s King again:
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
In the next passage, King again plays forensic scientist. All you have to do in this autopsy of America’s soul is write in “and Iraq” after “Vietnam”:
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
That’s right, Brother King. Not even those shamefully inept and cold pre-execution memos from soon-to-be Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the goobernatorial George W. Bush—the hangingest governor in U.S. history—can do that.
Don’t you just love the way King spoke of human beings in terms of their commonality, no matter what their skin color, class, bank balance, or country of origin? And the way he extolled civil rights and freedom as global concepts?
He won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for saying stuff like that. That was when civil disobedience still had some cachet. But even in these stranger times, when protest is less common, Nobel winners like George Akerlof (in 2001, for economics) are calling for dissent in the face of the Bush regime.
Scorn has become another global concept, especially after we wrongly invaded a country. You’ll see some anachronism in the following passage of King’s ’67 speech, but keep in mind that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz smugly predicted that Iraqis would greet us with flowers instead of homemade bombs. And it’s now true that you can’t even drive along the highway between Baghdad and its airport without getting killed. And, uh, observers are planning to monitor the upcoming Iraq election from Jordan. As King said in ’67 of the Vietnamese:
They must see Americans as strange liberators.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
Now there is little left to build on—save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these? Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These too are our brothers.
When you talk like that, the jingoists naturally accuse you of too much sympathy with “the enemy.” King addressed that quite well:
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.
Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.
King’s remarks about “the brutalizing process” and “cynicism” make me think of David Grossman, an Israeli peacenik who recognizes full well how an entire society can be corrupted by the cycle of violence and recrimination, of how “terror” is a tool used by radicals, not an object of war. In January 2002, after Israel had just seized a Palestinian ship filled with weaponry, Grossman wrote in Haaretz:
These are disgusting days. Days of total befuddlement of the senses. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will wring every possible drop of propaganda out of this ship. The media, for the most part, will run panting after him. The Israeli street, too exhausted and apathetic to think, will adopt any definite conclusion that will solve for it the internal and moral contradiction in which it lives and reinforce its sense of righteousness, which has been undermined at its base.
Who has the strength these days to remember the beginning, the root of the matter, the circumstances, the fact that what we have here is occupation and oppression, reaction and counter-reaction, a vicious circle and a bloody circle, two peoples that are becoming corrupt, violent and crazy with despair, a death trap in which we are suffocating more with every passing day?
The right-wing Israeli government and its right-wing American Jewish establishment supporters forget that one person’s terrorist is another person’s hero.
Just before Israel emerged as a state, American Jews smuggled weapons and money to Israel, in violation of U.S. law. If you can’t get hold of Leonard Slater‘s 1970 book, The Pledge, read my 1997 story “Pipeline to Palestine.”
Terrorist or hero? Depends on where you sit. King answered such questions indirectly, by looking at himself as a citizen of the world, not as a nationalist:
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
But of course how can we do that if we just re-elected the liars who put us in Iraq? South Africa and Rwanda have had “truth and reconciliation” commissions or some such attempts at healing, and so have Tulsa (because of its 1921 race riot) and Mississippi (because of its being Mississippi). We’re still pouring troops and money into Iraq—no time to think about reconciliation. Here was King, speaking eight years before we finally withdrew from Vietnam:
The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
Meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.
Back in King’s day, when there was a military draft, protest was popular, as he had the courage to note at Riverside Church to his hosts, the group Clergy and Laity Concerned. But King also had the smarts to look further into the future and deeper inside American society:
There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
One thing King understood was the interplay of race, money, and class in America. Makes sense, when you think about any country that depended on slavery and colonial-style land-grabbing as engines of economic progress. Here he is again:
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
King was speaking during a time of ferment, when anti-colonial movements were spreading across the globe. Now, of course, it’s the opposite. We’re the ones in thrall to the radical reactionaries of the Bush regime. The human side of globalization is forgotten. But not by Howard Wachtel; in “The Vanishing Corporate Profits Tax,” a brilliant and brief article this past August on the website of the Transnational Institute, Wachtel unmasks the scheming by corporations that allows them to evade taxes. Bear with me while I excerpt some of Wachtel’s prose. He’s no orator, but his points about the corporate numbers game are important:
In an anomaly of the balance of payments accounting systems, products manufactured by a global company that are re-imported back to the home country show up as imports, and, similarly, services provided by the home country to itself in other parts of the globe show up as exports. For the U.S., nearly half of all recorded imports and exports involve American companies trading with themselves.
Global profits are distributed across countries in order to minimize tax obligations, thereby reducing the tax base in high-tax countries. While tax rates can remain high in the EU and the U.S., if the tax base is lowered in these places, government tax receipts fall or do not keep up with the growth in the profits of their global corporations.
The problem arises from a uni-dimensional and dated definition of profits, which allowed for an effective tax base for several decades after World War II when corporate taxes on profits produced a fair share of revenues for governments. Globalization, however, has rendered profit taxes increasingly difficult for governments to capture because of the mobility of capital and the ability of multinational companies to escape high tax jurisdictions through transfer pricing, buying and selling to itself with more or less fictive prices. Key to this is the nature of profit, an elusive concept and a slippery accounting category for tax purposes, because it involves both revenues and costs and the costs can be shown to originate in the corporation’s country of choice.
All the more reason to listen when King says of profit and other motives:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
If King were alive today, he’d see right through the phony “compassionate conservative” Bush and the phony “values” and “morals” bandied about. King said:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
We’re talking about different “values” and virtues here than the ones that Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett are always braying about. In the following passage, forget the stuff about “Red China.” Oceania’s at peace with China; in fact, Oceania’s always been at peace with China. We’re also talking about a different “ism.” Just replace the word “communism” with the word “terrorism”:
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
Just a reminder: Substitute “fear of terrorism” for “fear of communism.” Oh, and forget that Marxism stuff. Please continue with King:
It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept—so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force—has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.
I’d almost forgotten that someone could invoke religion without sounding like a sanctimonious shithead. King wore his Christianity on his sleeve, but he was not the kind of crusader that Bush and his ilk are. King could even invoke St. John without making secular Jews like me piss themselves:
Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
“Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
There’s no question that he was somehow referring to the Bush regime.