Can we reclaim the real legacy?
I’ve been travelling a lot lately so I missed a number of portentous events this past month. First there were the inauguration festivities. (Hats off to all of you who made it there to usher in the new regime.) Then there was the Women’s March on Washington. (What could be worse than listening to Trump, except perhaps Madonna?) And then, what was the third thing? Oh yes, the Martin Luther King Day celebrations.
All those songs and speeches, public dignitaries paying homage, and someone, a child perhaps, reciting I Had a Dream. It’s enough to warm the soul for a few minutes on a frigid January day. But I must confess I usually abstain from these ceremonies. It’s that I’d like to talk about.
Martin Luther King is a lot like Jesus Christ. He’s been so thoroughly sanitized, sanctified and generally scrubbed up that, if he were to come back when mid-January rolls around and listen to what people say about him, he might not recognize himself.
But he’s made it big. He’s got his own day on the calendar, kids get to skip school, mail carriers get a day off, and every major city (and many minor ones) has a street named after him. But something tells me all this hullabaloo is a disservice to the man. Just like with that guy Jesus. (What did he ever do to deserve Christmas?)
And there’s no better way to make you irrelevant than to make you a saint. The person who really showed Martin respect was J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had the sense to recognize King for what he was, a real legitimate threat, and so Hoover did everything in his power to ruin King’s reputation and attempt to neutralize or destroy him.
Neither King nor Jesus was all that popular in his day, particularly with the powers-that-be, but both were eloquent and knew how to move a crowd. Both were also radicals, agitators, troublemakers: a threat to the power structure.
There are also some similarities between King and our former president. Both happened to be black. Obama could talk pretty. King could talk truth. Both were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. King earned his for fighting for peace and justice. Obama got his for promising peace and justice and then making war.
Well, I guess they didn’t have much in common after all. But, like many public leaders, Obama professes to be inspired by King. Just not sufficiently inspired to emulate him.
On April 4th of 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination, King delivered a bold and compelling speech at the Riverside Church in New York City in which he strongly denounced the Vietnam War and called for a “revolution of values” in the United States. Although the majority of the ten-page lecture focused specifically on the history and evil of the savage war the US was waging in Southeast Asia, King also used it to continue and expand his critique of violence, racism, militarism, imperialism and capitalism.
He summarized a “pattern of suppression” and counter-revolutionary activity that the nation had been engaged in for the preceding decade, including military advisors in Venezuela, American forces in Guatemala and Cambodia, and the use of napalm and Green Berets against rebels in Peru. He quoted the late John F. Kennedy, who five years earlier had 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,” King said, “the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and 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.”
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth,” King continued. “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.’
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”
Martin Luther King
Of course, neither King’s many detractors nor his many supporters wanted him to speak out about the war, or capitalism, or even about class and income disparity. But King saw that ultimately all these issues were connected and that violence and militarism were the mechanisms that kept an unjust system in place, both at home and overseas.
“I knew 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,” King declared in his 1967 speech.
It is now nearly 50 full years since King delivered his speech at the Riverside Church. Not much has changed. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan aside, the United States is still “great”, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, by far. The radical revolution of values that King called for appears to still be a distant dream.
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Perhaps the revolution that Bernie Sanders advocated in his campaign was a hearkening back to King’s message, but Sanders scrupulously avoided any critique of US foreign policy, save for one brave but cautious comment on the Palestinian issue during the last primary debate. Universal health care, a living wage, free college tuition and, of course, global warming and energy policy are all important and pressing issues, but none of these domestic concerns are likely to be resolved satisfactorily while the nation’s wealth is squandered on war and preparation for war.
And, as King pointed out so eloquently, it is not just the material and economic waste of perpetual war that is at issue, but also the spiritual cost.“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” King said in his speech.
“A rotted national soul enables leaders to wage endless war, but endless war also rots the national soul.”
I would argue that when an architect of genocide like Madeline Albright is considered a “feminist,” fit to admonish young women for supporting a Democratic Socialist running for president, then we are probably already spiritually dead as a nation. If not dead, then at least comatose. When a woman who consorts with war criminals and architects of genocide such as Henry Kissinger is considered an acceptable presidential candidate by the majority of the population, we are probably already spiritually dead.
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Journalist Glenn Greenwald, (who broke the story of Edward Snowden’s revelations on national security surveillance), wrote a column four years ago on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president. It also happened to be the Martin Luther King holiday. Greenwald pointed out that Obama, our first African-American president, would always be linked in history to King because King’s activism made a black president possible.
But Greenwald noted that this symbolic link had a negative side: “Obama’s policies are a manifestation of exactly the militaristic mindset which King so eloquently denounced.” He added that Obama had often lifted King’s phrase “fierce urgency of now” from his anti-war speech, a speech “that stands as a stinging repudiation of the continuous killing and violence Obama has spent the last four years unleashing on many countries around the world.” (Greenwald noted that journalist Max Blumenthal had suggested that Obama’s inaugural speech be titled “I Have a Drone.”)
Greenwald went on to say that he felt the most powerful aspect of King’s speech was how he repeatedly linked American violence in the world to the poisoning of the nation’s soul. “The debasement of the national psyche, the callousness toward continual killing,” wrote Greenwald, “the belief that the US has not only the right but the duty to bring violence anywhere in the world that it wants: that is what lies at the heart of America’s ongoing embrace of endless war. A rotted national soul does indeed enable leaders to wage endless war, but endless war also rots the national soul, exactly as King warned. At times this seems to be an inescapable, self-perpetuating cycle of degradation.”
The same day that Greenwald’s column was published there was another article, an interview by Paul Jay of The Real News Network with Anthony Monteiro, an African-American Studies professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Monteiro traced King’s life and evolution as a radical, from his early days in a seminary near Philadelphia to his death in Memphis, Tennessee, helping to organize sanitation workers.
Jay and Monteiro wrap up the interview by talking about how King’s legacy is co-opted and defused by members of the power structure. (I don’t know about you, but it always irked me to turn on the boob tube on the evening of MLK Day and see footage of the Obamas volunteering in a food pantry or some other foolishness. First of all, they actually had the power to change something, if they chose to. Second, both of them were intelligent enough to know that, instead of serving Spam to some homeless people, King would have been asking why the wealthiest nation in the history of the world had so many homeless and so many food pantries. Martin Luther King was not about charity, he was about radical change, and this self-serving grandstanding by the “first family” was an insult to his name.)
“King’s legacy is a gift not only to black Americans or to America but to humanity.”
Professor Anthony Monteiro
Here’s what Professor Monteiro had to say about it: “That (MLK’s) legacy is too powerful for the elites. They have to minimize it. They have to distort it. They have to cheapen it. Besides, you know, First Lady Obama calling for people to do service. I am particularly offended by the fact that the president will be sworn in using Martin Luther King’s bible. To me it’s a cheap PR trick. The president has nothing in common with King the man, and his presidency is the opposite of the great legacy of Martin Luther King.”
“You know,” he continued, “King’s legacy is a gift not only to black Americans or to America but to humanity. And here we have a president who in many ways is George Bush on steroids—wars in every part of the world, preparation for war, economic wars against nations like Iran, actual wars in Africa, and so on and so forth. This is the very opposite of what Martin Luther King represents.”
If this indictment of Obama seems too harsh, we should consider that these comments were made only halfway through his presidency. The worst was yet to come. While American liberals slept, content that there was a black man in the White House, much more mayhem would be unleashed at home and overseas. The war against immigrants, the war against Muslims, the war against blacks on the streets of our cities and, most critically, a war against democracy itself with the establishment of a police state, a military state and a surveillance state. It would all lay a solid neo-fascist foundation for Trump to build on.
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Every morning when I boot up my computer, it opens up to the Yahoo! “news,” such as it is. Amidst all the gruesome stories about some man or woman or child savagely slaying the rest of their family, or a mother or father keeping a child locked in a closet for a dozen years, there is always a tidbit (perhaps intended as relief) about an actress or model or Kardashian sporting the newest, ground-breaking bikini. So what does a flimsy swimsuit have to do with the dark side of the American psyche?
For the answer you need only turn to the award-winning Australian journalist and filmmaker, John Pilger. It’s in an article titled A world war has begun that was published on April Fool’s Day this past year. But the story is no joke. According to Pilger, the bikini was named to celebrate the nuclear explosions that destroyed Bikini Island. The United States unleashed 42.2 megatons of nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for a dozen years. Pilger probably knows a few things on this subject, having made two documentary movies about the heinous crimes of Britain and the US in the Indian Ocean. (The population of an entire archipelago was expelled by the Brits in the 60s and 70s, and later the US would use one of the islands as a military base to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Now that I have your attention with the sordid history of the bikini, I’d like to quote at length from Pilger’s article, in which he argues that a world war of catastrophic proportions is right around the corner, if it hasn’t already begun:
In 2009, President Obama stood before an adoring crowd in the center of Prague, in the heart of Europe. He pledged himself to make “the world free from nuclear weapons.” People cheered and some cried. A torrent of platitudes flowed from the media. Obama was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was all fake. He was lying.
The Obama administration has built more nuclear weapons, more nuclear warheads, more nuclear delivery systems, more nuclear factories. Nuclear warhead spending alone rose higher under Obama than under any American president. The cost over thirty years is more than $1 trillion.
In the last eighteen months, the greatest build-up of military forces since World War Two—led by the United States—is taking place along Russia’s western frontier. Not since Hitler invaded the Soviet Union have foreign troops presented such a demonstrable threat to Russia.
Ukraine—once part of the Soviet Union—has become a CIA theme park. Having orchestrated a coup in Kiev, Washington effectively controls a regime that is next door and hostile to Russia: a regime rotten with Nazis, literally. Prominent parliamentary figures in Ukraine are the political descendants of the notorious OUN and UPA fascists. They openly praise Hitler and call for the persecution and expulsion of the Russian speaking minority.
This is seldom news in the West, or it is inverted to suppress the truth.
In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—next door to Russia—the US military is deploying combat troops, tanks, heavy weapons. [And just last month the US participated in military exercises in Poland as part of NATO, the largest armed military brigade in Europe since the Cold War.]
This extreme provocation of the world’s second nuclear power is met with silence in the West.
Pilger goes on to document similar provocations toward China, alleging that the US is surrounding that country with a network of bases, ballistic missiles, battle groups and nuclear-armed bombers. A little later, Pilger writes:
In the circus known as the American presidential campaign, Donald Trump is being presented as a lunatic, a fascist. He is certainly odious; but he is also a media hate figure. That alone should arouse our skepticism.
Trump’s views on migration are grotesque, but no more grotesque than those of David Cameron. It is not Trump who is the Great Deporter from the United States, but the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama.
According to one prodigious liberal commentator, Trump is “unleashing the dark forces of violence” in the United States. Unleashing them?
This is the country where toddlers shoot their mothers and the police wage a murderous war against black Americans. This is the country that has attacked and sought to overthrow more than 50 governments, many of them democracies, and bombed from Asia to the Middle East, causing the deaths and dispossession of millions of people.
No country can equal this systemic record of violence. Most of America’s wars (almost all of them against defenseless countries) have been launched not by Republicans but by liberal Democrats: Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama.
In 1947, a series of National Security Council directives described the paramount aim of American foreign policy as “a world substantially made over in [America’s] own image.” The ideology was messianic Americanism.
Donald Trump is a symptom of this, but he is also a maverick. He says the invasion of Iraq was a crime; he doesn’t want to go to war with Russia and China. The danger to the rest of us is not Trump, but Hillary Clinton. She is no maverick. She embodies the resilience and violence of a system whose vaunted “exceptionalism” is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face.
As presidential election day draws near, Clinton will be hailed as the first female president, regardless of her crimes and lies—just as Barack Obama was lauded as the first black president and liberals swallowed his nonsense about “hope.” And the drool goes on.
Described by the Guardian columnist Owen Jones as “funny, charming, with a coolness that eludes practically every other politician,” Obama the other day sent drones to slaughter 150 people in Somalia. He kills people usually on Tuesdays, according to the New York Times, when he is handed a list of candidates for death by drone. So cool.
I’ll stop there. Read the article. Maybe it takes a journalist from outside the US to see us as we really are. But I want to focus for a moment on this concept of “cool.”
Besides the Yahoo! news, my computer presents me each day with a list of literary journals seeking poems and short stories and other kinds of serious literature. Recently an announcement was posted by a journal called Booth, published by Butler University. The notice indicated they were planning a special issue called Birth of the White House Cool: Reflections on the Obama Years.
My first thought was that It’s Cool to Kill might make a better subtitle for their upcoming collection, “a robust gathering of works that illuminate this new intersection between American politics and popular culture.” But I don’t think that’s what they have in mind. They’re more impressed with how “Obama has slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, freestyled with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the White House lawn, sung Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at the Apollo Theater, and rebuilt the White House tennis lawn into a basketball court.”
All this talk about Obama being “cool” made me recall how Toni Morrison had referred to Bill Clinton as our “first black president,” presumably because he played his sax on the Arsenio Hall TV show. I’d still like to know how a woman who is arguably one of our greatest contemporary writers could utter such an utterly, pathetically, stupid statement.
I’m not sure why some literary folks seem so clueless, but I have a theory on why so many Hollywood types (and the mass media) are enamored with the Clintons and Obamas. I think it has to do with the fact that their world is all about appearances and personalities, not substance and structure.
I think it’s encouraging that so many people and organizations are confronting Trump, but I think the danger is that many may be responding to his personality and may be deluded by the notion that getting rid of Trump will get rid of the problem. In the same way that electing Obama or Clinton was supposed to solve the problem. They will judge Trump as they judged Obama, based on superficial qualities, failing to look deeper at structural issues and the nature of the real beast.
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Ajamu Baraka, the founding director of the US Human Rights Network and the Green Party candidate for Vice President in the 2016 election, pointed out recently that Obama signed into law a new Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) just before Christmas, further strengthening the repressive capacities of the state. “With the left’s attention fixed on Trump and its fear of the “new” authoritarianism that he is supposed to introduce, it has failed to confront or even be aware of the fact that the foundation for any kind of “neo-fascism” that might emerge in the US was constructed over the last 15 years of the combined Bush and Obama administrations,” he wrote.
Baraka’s article seems to seethe with anger as he talks about what he calls “Neo-McCarthyism,” the legislation and repressive actions of the Obama administration to curtail speech and control information. He accuses the “latte left” and their liberal allies of being in collusion with the power structure. His anger is understandable.
As he and others have pointed out, the “dark time” of the Trump administration is not a new predicament for oppressed communities and people. It is business as usual. Black liberation movements in the US have been ruthlessly repressed for many, many years. Baraka ends his essay with the challenge: “commit yourself to build a revolutionary movement or get out of the way.”
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Sometime between the election and the inauguration, I happened to hear an NPR interview with some foreign affairs “expert”. By this time, the project among neoliberals and the mainstream media to demonize both Trump and Putin was well underway. The person being interviewed proceeded to bash Trump—not for being authoritarian or a fascist or bellicose—but because Trump wanted to get along with Russia. In unequivocal language that I found a little shocking, he asserted that it was not the role of diplomacy or foreign affairs to get along with other nations. He disparaged Trump in an almost mocking tone for his naiveté in thinking that friendly relations might be a reasonable goal of foreign policy. The NPR interviewer failed to challenge him or ask for clarification.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Negotiation with foreign powers might run the risk of peace breaking out. The solution to every problem is violence and war. The only legitimate questions to be asked are: What kind of violence? What kind of weapons or tactics? How much violence will be enough? It’s all part of what theologian Walter Wink calls “the myth of the domination system”.
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No, Donald Trump did not unleash the dark forces of violence. Any idiot should be aware by now that this nation was founded on violence, with the genocide of native people and the brutal enslavement of black people. The nation grew, and grew wealthy and powerful—some would say great—by persistent and systemic violence against people all over the world, and at the expense of many other people here at home.
Yes, let’s honor King. Let’s honor his real legacy by challenging this shameful national legacy of institutional violence. Let’s begin with the revolution of values that he called for, and then move on to a revolution in the way we relate to each other and the rest of the world.
Don’t worry. You’ll never be accused of being “cool” for being a revolutionary. King was not cool. Thank God for that.
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While traveling the last few months, I’ve been reading a book of essays about poets and poetry by Robert Hass, a former US Poet Laureate. At the end of an essay that has nothing whatsoever to do with this particular post, Hass refers to the Vietnam War and one of the inventions of American technology that came out of the war. He says it “was a small antipersonnel bomb that contained sharp fragments of plastic which, having torn through the flesh and lodged in the body, could not be found by an X-ray.”
Although Hass may not have intended it, it occurred to me that the shards of this pernicious little bomb, hidden from sight or X-rays inside the body, could serve as an apt metaphor for the malady of the body politic, the national soul, if you will. “It seems to me,” Hass goes on, “that there really are technics on the side of life and technics on the side of death.” (Hass actually uses the word technes, but in any case, the word comes from the Greek for art.) He ends his essay with the assertion that the “active and attentive capacity for creation that humans have” is finally the only freedom that we have.
They say that what distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to create. Should we create something that is about life, or something that is about death? That seems to me to be the ultimate question.
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