“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mid-January means it’s time to commemorate the birthday of a true African-American peacemaker who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for actual peacemaking work. But once again, as they do every year, our politicians, our pundits, and our corporate media will narrow down Dr. King’s life and legacy to that of strictly black-white civil rights with convenient clichés such as “slain civil rights leader” and countless, predictable references to his “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, as though that was the only important speech he ever made. That way, they can manage to make it seem as though his development as a world, not merely U.S., thinker and leader was frozen in that summer of ’63, and that his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize was the “capping off” of his public career. And the key word in the previous sentence is “manage,” as in managing or controlling.
But inconveniently for those in power who still attempt to control perceptions of reality, King continued to grow as a thinker and leader for the last five years of his life till his murder on April 4, 1968. And in those five years, what he learned and realized transcended the issue of black-white civil rights and was crystallized in the speech he gave at Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, New York City on April 4, 1967, a year to the day of his assassination, and, no doubt, one of the main reasons for his violent silencing. And that speech is now more relevant, and more valuable, than ever, if we will only pay attention.
In that pivotal speech, titled “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence” (https://dandelionsalad.wordpress.com/2008/04/04/a-time-to-break-silence-by-rev-martin-luther-king-jr-1967/), King powerfully expressed the connections he had realized between the struggle for minority civil rights, the plagues of greed and materialism inherent in our economic ideology, and the military violence and terror our ruling class uses to maintain its dominance over oppressed people here and abroad so it can maintain its power and wealth, regardless of the destruction it visits upon people and the planet. He knew the time had come for what he called “a true revolution of values” on the part of all of us, as to the way we live, the way we treat others, and the way we treat our planet.
He was especially mindful of the fierce ruling class opposition to this “values revolution,” and to the dire consequences of that opposition, when he quoted President John F. Kennedy:
Five years ago he said, ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.’ 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 investments. 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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
As dangerous and destructive as those “giant triplets” were in 1967, they are immensely more so now. King understood how our extreme materialism causes us, as Oscar Wilde said, to know, “…the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It causes us to commodify other people, especially dark-skinned ones who speak other languages than ours, and to commodify the earth, in both cases for what “resources” we can extract, be they cheap, de-humanizing labor or energy and minerals, regardless of the destructive consequences.
It was this extreme materialism which helped fuel the violent racism which exterminated millions of natives in this hemisphere beginning with the European conquests of what was arrogantly and ignorantly called the New World. It was this extreme materialism which also helped fuel the violent racism which ripped Africans from their homelands, forced them into the brutality of slavery, and killed millions of them on the Middle Passage to the New World and then in the Americas in the centuries since.
It is that same racism which, at its base, cannot see different-looking, different-speaking people as fellow humans, but prefers to dehumanize them as the alien “Other,” thus resulting in brutal mistreatment, always justified by ideology, culture, religion, or other rationales, all of which are “superior”, of course, to that of the “Others.” The more than three hundred treaties with Native Americans broken by the U.S. government, the “Indian schools” and the reservation system to “Americanize” them and keep them out of sight, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, legal discrimination, still-existing racist judicial system with its disproportionate numbers of African-American and Hispanic males incarcerated or executed, all resulted. That same arrogance, called “Manifest Destiny,” had also driven the U.S. to kill nearly one million Filipinos after the Spanish-American War because the U.S. wanted a secure military base in the Pacific near China and Japan, while the Filipinos naively expected independence after centuries of Spanish rule. Of course, that slaughter was euphemistically categorized by the U.S. government and its corporate funders as “uplifting” or “civilizing” or even “Christianizing” the natives of the Philippines.
Looking back at our nation’s roots and its bloody history, King had come to realize how the lust for power and resources, mixed with and justified by racism, and carried out with ever-growing deadly military force, had made the United States government, by 1967, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
What would he say now, in 2010, as the U.S. occupies Iraq and Afghanistan, with their proximity to oil and natural gas as well as to Iran, Russia, and China, having helped cause the avoidable deaths of more than one million Iraqis and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Afghanis (but, since we “don’t do body counts” of those Muslim “Others” whose countries we invade, we’ll never know the correct figures)?
What would he say today as our nation uses drones and mercenaries to kill people in Pakistan (strategically located near China and India) and in Yemen (a strategic chokepoint for oil)?
What would he say about the yearly $3 billion given to Israel in U.S. military aid and weapons, much of which is used on Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the West Bank in that 42-year illegal occupation?
What would he say about the U.S. military in Colombia, building more bases there to threaten the peoples’ revolutions (“Socialism! Socialism! How dare those people think they have a right to the resources in their own lands?) which have occurred throughout South America?
What would he say about the creation of AfriCom, the new U.S. military command which hopes to control the resources, mineral and human, of all of Africa, regardless of how many hundreds of thousands of African “Others” are slaughtered so our cell phones will continue to be mass-produced?
What would he say about the vast network of perhaps as many as 800 U.S. military bases, huge and small, intentionally built in dozens of foreign countries where our “national interests” (translation: corporate/geostrategic advantages) allegedly lie?
What would he say about nuclear-armed U.S. naval fleets on and under every one of the earth’s oceans, and our total nuclear arsenal of close to ten thousand thermonuclear weapons of mass destruction which could end most human life on the planet in 30 minutes?
What would he say about the tragic irony of the first African-American U.S. president presiding over, if not controlling, this menacing global corporate-military empire?
Here is what he did say, presciently, in “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence”:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Of course, in the supposedly “most religious” Western nation addicted to extreme materialism and too distracted by celebrity gossip, sports, and “reality” TV to care about the true state of their own declining country, let alone the planet, “spiritual death” is the very last thing on the minds of most U.S. consumers. Then again, we should never be so foolish as to confuse religion with spirituality, let alone consumerism with citizenship.
Not content, however, to only delineate our country’s bloody history and its violent flaws, King spoke about what we need to do in words that are timeless:
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 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 South 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 hand 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 the veins of peoples 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.
With these words, King became a true revolutionary himself, and, most likely, signed his own death warrant exactly one year to the day of that speech. These words, especially, challenge us to question capitalism, the very economic ideology and system which so many tout as not only the prerequisite for freedom and democracy, but as the basis of “The American Dream”: “…an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Imagine what he would say today, as we suffer with more than 17% total real unemployment (much, much higher among Hispanic and African-American males), more than six applicants for every job, increasing home foreclosures, growing numbers of hungry and homeless, a widening wealth gap between the top 5% and the rest of the U.S. greater than ever, and 45,000 dying each year due to lack of affordable health care in the wealthiest nation on earth, while Wall Street bankers get record-high bonuses, war profiteers see increasing stock prices, and climate change becomes life-threatening climate chaos for our children and grandchildren as well as for so many non-human species which share our precious planet.
King would most likely be at the forefront of a people’s movement to restructure our entire culture from a predatory, thing-oriented one to one of compassion, as he said. His reaction to his own Nobel Peace Prize is indicative of who he was and what he would be doing, and challenging us to do, today: “I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man.’ “
What a contrast to the war-justifying speech Barack Obama gave in Oslo when he accepted his own Nobel Peace Prize! And what an inspiration for all of us to keep working, each in our own ways, to help make King’s more transcendent “dream,” that of a true revolution of values, especially the anti-capitalist value of compassion, a reality some day.
We must remember Dr. King’s transformative speech as we celebrate his birth and life this week. His vision of a planet peopled by humans who value justice and compassion and each other more than shiny, expensive objects and the power to dominate or exclude or exterminate others, is a vision worth striving for more than ever as our nation struggles to restore what is left of democracy here, and as our species struggles with the global climatic consequences of its addiction to extreme materialism, racism, and militarism.
Remember what he said:
“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.”
2010 is the year we must begin to live his words, and to meet the challenge he gave us nearly 43 years ago. His true legacy lives on in the way we must now live our lives, and continue his struggle to make that long-overdue “true revolution of values” a reality. We can no longer rely on delusions and distractions such as Obama, or the Pentagon, or Democrats, or Republicans, or pundits, or the media, all of whom have vested interests in maintaining the morally corrupt, inhumane, violent, self-destructive, and insane status quo which now threatens us all. It is solely up to us to continue his great work. And we must, if we care about the future.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
– Frederick Douglass
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