A Speech About Dr. King

by Ben G. Price bengprice@aol.com

January 18, 2000-- Martin Luther King was devoted to peace and justice for all people. It is ironic that the accomplishments of such a life dedicated to non-violence can so easily be marginalized by political bombast meant to prove the opposite lesson to each new generation: that might makes right. History is written by the victors; and history mentions Dr. King, but who can deny that the history books spin the story in favor of the militarists?

I don’t want to seem pessimistic, but who hasn’t noticed that the forces of social justice are less and less identified as the “victors” of our times? In fact, the very concept of liberality has been publicly demonized to the point where it is generally acceptable to ridicule the very notion of equal justice. The suddenly fashionable critics of justice will tell you that justice has been replaced by the far more pragmatic virtue of economic opportunity for the incredibly competitive. We are expected to believe that American democracy is better in a downsized economy version that only protects well-connected entrepreneurs with chutzpa and a subscription to the Wall Street Journal.

Well, it is time for people of good will and devotion to peace and justice to push back against the glacier of cold indifference that threatens to overcome our culture and create a new ice age of robber barons, McCarthyites, and Strom Thurmond wanna-bes. It is important that we keep alive the words and deeds of good people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King who spoke truth to power and who won victories for human rights and civil society. But those with a will to power have a vested interest in silencing the truth and in muzzling those who would speak plainly of our common humanity. To those who prefer unfair advantage and privilege, it is strategically necessary to create a social consensus that classifies at least one segment of humanity as less valuable, less deserving of our empathy, less real in their anguish, less human than are their betters; less human than WE are, if we fall in with the deception of those seeking an elevated place among us. At home such deception amounts to civil war. The Drug War is such a civil war. It pits neighbor against neighbor, parents against children, and the self righteous against those fallen from society’s grace. Looking at our national prison population of over 2 million, clearly it is a camouflaged substitute for open racism institutionalized as domestic pseudo-justice. The Trent Lott of social jurisprudence.

Internationally, war is what passes for foreign policy these days. Dehumanizing the foe is the first salvo in any war. And the first casualty of war is the truth that we are all equally deserving of life, liberty, and happiness. So why do we now hear the drone of television’s talking heads every night comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler? We remember just before other military attacks hearing Mouammar Khadafi being compared to Hitler, Manuel Noriega being compared to Hitler. Why does the current Bush administration adopt a policy of stripping its enemies of their humanity by comparing them to villains who devalued humanity as a matter of policy? Is it now also American policy to devalue humanity, the more easily to brutalize it?

Happily, the more interesting question to ask is this: Why are so many people of good will challenging the Bush administration’s militaristic foreign policy? Maybe it’s because the bombast of aggression has met its match in the confidence of ordinary people to stand up for decency in a passionate flourishing of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Maybe because too many of us know about Martin Luther King’s stance against another American act of international aggression. Maybe because the history books have not yet been purged and we can still read that in April 1967, Dr. King spoke at Riverside Church in New York City. What he said in part was this:

A time comes when silence is betrayal. Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness so close around us... We are called upon to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

Dr. King admitted he was at first reluctant to openly oppose the foreign policy of the United States and to call for an end to the War in Vietnam. He wrote that:

As I look back, I acknowledge that this end of faith was not sudden; it came like the ebbing of a tide. As I reviewed the events, I saw an orderly buildup of evil, an accumulation of inhumanities, each of which alone was sufficient to make men hide in shame. What was woeful, but true, was that my country was only talking peace but was bent on military victory. Inside the glove of peace was the clenched fist of war. I now stood naked with shame and guilt, as indeed every German should have when his government was using its military power to overwhelm other nations. Whether right or wrong, I had for too long allowed myself to be a silent onlooker. At best, I was a loud speaker but a quiet actor, while a charade was being performed.

The charade has never ceased.

Speaking with all the humility that is appropriate to my limited vision, I think George Bush’s foreign policy is about as far-sighted as the big fish eating the little fish. And it’s an apropos image, because I have come to think of modern technical warfare as nothing shy of sublimated cannibalism. No, I really mean that. The truth that has to be rescued from the avalanche of public deception that is war…is that wars of aggression are nothing less than sublimated cannibalism. The soldiers we fund, clothe and arm consume the enemies’ lives, their hopes, their riches, and their futures. We may appease our consciences by conjuring reason upon reason for supporting the abstraction of war. But abstracting the humanity of the enemy from the process of eviscerating him unavoidably and undeniably removes our own humanity and puts “on hold” our claim to intelligence and civility as individuals. If we can cure the individual of mad cow-like symptoms that make war appear to be an acceptable option, we might finally rid the race of its foulest habit and create a society where people supersede power as a priority.

When we debate the pros and cons of war from any perspective but the true one, we do so in a fog of abstract euphemisms. If we were honest we’d say: “I am willing to kill Ahmed and his wife Fatima, as well as their son Abu, who is walking in the door smiling just now, in order to destroy the radar installation nearby.” Instead we say, “Some collateral damage must be expected.” We don’t allow the truth to spoil our intellectual debates about the advantages and disadvantages of invading Iraq. We prefer to buy our red meat on Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane, not direct from the slaughterhouse.

This euphemistic fog that distances our consciences from the humanity of our victims is like a post-op patient’s view of the world on Precodan. Reality stripped of its details. All the rough edges rounded out. The pain is masked. No ethically or morally inspired decisions can be made in this kind of stupor. And no one should claim they could handle themselves responsibly under the influence of visceral loathing, or sociopathic indifference. When George Bush says we can trust him on the road to greatness, we’ve got to stop him before he does irreparable harm. Striving for hegemony while intoxicated by power is dangerous. Greed kills.

The opposite of this sublimated cannibalism is the re-humanization of humanity advocated by Martin Luther King. The civil rights struggle was all about re-humanizing African Americans in the eyes of American society as a whole. We can less easily, less palatably cannibalize members of our extended family, so it behooves us to include all people in the human family if we truly advocate for peace and justice. Human rights are really a matter of acknowledging the humanity of all people and rejecting the epithets of racism, homophobia, chauvinism, xenophobia, and individual animosity that falsely mask our common humanity. None are pack animals. None are guinea pigs. None are pets. None are for consumption either directly or indirectly through economic exploitation. This is the truth, as I know it. And it is a truth that I am more certain of than I might have been had not Martin Luther King showed the way.

He wrote:

As I moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart – as I called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam – many persons questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concern, this query has always loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I nevertheless am greatly saddened that such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling…

He went on to say: “No matter how many people disagreed with me, I decided that I was going to tell the truth.”

Speaking Truth to Power is the prerogative of free people, liberated from the slavery of fear and insecurity. It is the business of a free people to instruct their government to act responsibly and to preserve the good reputation of the nation in the community of nations. Dr. King said of the nation’s militarism in his day:

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 determined that ‘America will be’ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

Today there is a new war looming that threatens to poison the soul of the nation with the crime of militaristic tyranny. Many of us here today have recently joined the procession down the path of dissent. Some others have covered many miles along the way. And with the turning of the years it would not be unusual for some to begin to ask: “What good does it do? Have we ever stopped a war, for all our efforts?”

It is true that we now have a regime in power that works diligently against the ideals of human nobility advocated by Dr. King. But we also live among those who understand what justice really means. Look around you. These are friends to whom the words and ideals of Martin Luther King are familiar and welcome.

He wrote that, “ A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

He wrote that:

The war is a symptom of a far deeper malady in the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing…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.

Some here in this room remember protesting the Reagan administration’s crimes in Nicaragua, the Gulf War of Bush the first, the torcher academy in the School of the Americas, and other symptoms of the sickness at the heart of America’s spirit.

King was right, and he seemed to understand that as a nation we must find a new set of principles to live by, or else be doomed to an unending repetition of violence around the world.

He wrote:

ncreasingly, 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 concerned 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.

But Dr. King was not simply an idealist speaking in generalities. He wrote as if he had seen from the mountaintop of his final days the dehumanizing effects of neo-liberalism in the form of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He wrote as though he had already seen what IMF imposed “structural adjustment” policies can do to nations like Argentina and Venezuela. He wrote as if he could foresee the bitter resentments of people ruled by the proconsuls of Western capitalism without regard for native cultures.

He wrote:

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.

And he warned us about a time to come that increasingly looks like the time that is now upon us.

He said: “We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace and justice throughout the developing world. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who posses power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

But thanks to Martin Luther King, many more of us see and speak the truth than ever before. We will not go into the darkness of tyranny’s night gently. We will not be silent. We will not be “good Germans.” We will not remain in our indecision and fear. We will speak, and we will march. We will write and we will sing. We will dispute and we will dissent. We will defy the will to power with the sheer power of human decency. We will be loud speakers and forceful actors. And we will reclaim the nation for the people and from its bad influences. Can all our efforts stop a war? I do not know. But I do know which side of the revolution I am on. It’s the one that respects living people and strives for a world that will honor their common humanity and oppose the cannibalization of their lives and dreams.