Thursday, January 15. 2009
Went to a Peace Center event tonight, which is Martin Luther King's actual birthday -- as opposed to his phony governmental holiday birthday, this coming Monday. The organizers probably should have made a bigger point of the difference, since the topic was the real MLK, specifically his opposition to the war des jours: Vietnam. We played an excerpt from King's April 4, 1967 speech, A Time to Break Silence, decorated with video images from the period -- the most striking, I thought, were the aerial views of bombardment, quiet moments as the bombs tumble to earth, at which point they light up horrific explosions. Close-ups of their victims were more static and less effective. The speech itself is completely enveloped in King's sense of the gospel, reading at times like a theological tract. It strikes me that there are simpler and more compelling reasons to oppose war in general and that war in particular, but he felt pressured to make his case in terms that would be beyond mortal reproach -- e.g., among his more politically compromised colleagues and their allies among LBJ's war party. It does, nonetheless, make a powerful antiwar case. But what makes it more interesting is that the speech broadens King's political agenda beyond the conventional settlement that became the end state of the civil rights movement: a victory against certain legal discrimination while leaving every other aspect of US politics and economics undisturbed.
His antiwar stance was one step on King's path toward a true populism: one that didn't seek to "advance colored people" or any particular group, but rather sought to advance justice and equality for all people. One thing I don't know is whether King understood the profound relationship between war and inequality or whether he simply grasped that the antiwar movement was the sort of movement a movement leader like himself should take up. For instance, he still talks much about how the War on Vietnam takes resources away from the War on Poverty. A deeper insight would be that the War on Vietnam, indeed the whole exultation of the military-industrial compex, worked in favor of a right-wing political movement: defense expenses funded the right-wing and sapped resources away from social development and safety net needs -- rationalized by the cult of personal responsibility, and reinforced by a seemingly endless eagerness to punish deviants and miscreants; it subjected a large segment of the lower classes to military discipline; it expressed a worldview based on violent conflict and armed supremacy.
This point bears repeating: war cultures reinforce the current social and economic pecking order, promoting conformism, corroding democracy, reducing freedom, and discouraging cooperative efforts. King must have understood not just that war was wrong but that it was politically destructive to his movement, regardless of whether he defined it as promoting his race, advancing civil rights, or equalizing economic opportunity and justice.
On the other hand, when we look at what happened in the 40 years since King was assassinated, we see that the civil rights movement has been a qualified success -- i.e., that African-Americans who qualified could become immensely successful, while those who didn't remained stuck in more/less the same rut as poor whites, sometimes worse due to residual racism and/or the penalty of starting so far behind. We also see that King's linkage between civil rights and antiwar and economic populism has been effectively busted up, not least by his elevation to national holiday status: where each year we ritually celebrate the civil rights leader, patting ourselves on the back for progress made there, while pushing his antiwar and populist politics further into the fuzzy background. That is, after all, how holidays work: regardless of what inspired them, they turn into self-flattery, which has long been the stock-in-trade of the right. (It's not, after all, like they have anything tangible to offer most Americans.)
It was a smart idea to return to King's antiwar speech, not just to honor King by making him whole again but to try to bring the civil rights and human rights movements back into synch -- in a time when the US and its buddy Israel are stuck in wars that only promise more of the same. On the other hand, the post-speech discussion took another tack. There were two panelists: historian Gretchen Eick and NAACP-leader Kevin Miles. Eick did a good job of adding information on the historical context, but focusing more on the civil rights movement than on the antiwar movement. Miles, while no doubt strongly antiwar himself, steered even further away from today's wars -- he went so far as to dismiss current antiwar activists for talking about foreign wars while ignoring the problem of black-on-black violence in our cities. (One difference is that wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza are direct and simple results of superpower policy decisions, where domestic murders are not -- at best they are complicated by a wide range of policies including drug prohibition, inadequate education and insurance, cheap guns, and dead end prisons, none of which are easily remedied.) The net effect was to encourage people to talk about the current state of blacks, leading to widely divergent opinionizing.
That doesn't mean it was uninteresting; just that we missed the opportunity to expand upon an antiwar program. We could have used a panelist who could steer the discussion back to the core issue of war.
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