Thursday, January 10, 2008

In Advance of Martin Luther King Day

More than a week early, but I heard some of this speech on the radio yesterday, and so I looked it up again. It was Dr. King's speech at Riverside Church, "Beyond Vietnam." The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an American secular saint. Everybody loves him because he had "a dream." What we don't love to remember is the radical content of that dream:

Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. 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.
There it is, right there. The "poverty program." We don't think of the Rev. Dr. King as a fighter for economic justice. We remember him as a man with a dream, as a man who sought racial equality. Because we've accepted racial equality now; more or less. But financial inequality; well, that's just the way it was meant to be.

Taxes, of course, take money out of the economy. This point is such a commonplace that Charlie Gibson could make it during the Democratic debate, and no one batted an eye at the assertion. Taxes that go for social spending especially take money out of the economy. As opposed to, say, taxes for military spending; presumably. So the lesson we've learned from Vietnam and the Civil Rights struggle of the '60's, which was also an economic rights struggle ("Shhhh! That's 'class warfare' talk!") is that government spending on war is good, and government spending on poverty, is bad. And aren't you glad we don't have a draft anymore, so this doesn't happen?

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.
And, of course, people learn violence from each other; or from TeeVee and "mass media." They certainly don't get it from governmental example:

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and 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.
But where Dr. King really gets radical is in his revisionist history. After all, everybody knows Vietnam and/or Iraq and/or 9/11 and/or Afghanistan are not our fault at all, because there is no history but American history, and no governmental action but American governmental action, and it's always "good" because anything any other country does is "bad," by definition. Just ask William Kristol. He knows, and he writes for The New York Times now. The New York Times, by the way, called this speech "Dr. King's Error." The Washington Post made a mountain out of a molehill, focussing on perhaps the most irrelevant point in order to condemn the speech:

He flatly charged the Government with sending Negroes to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. But Negro troops constitute 11 percent of the enlisted personnel in Vietnam (10.5 percent of the population was Negro in 1960). Negro casualties are higher than this (22.5 percent of killed in action) because of higher Negro enlistment for elite corps and higher rate of Negro re-enlistment. No doubt these figures reflect in part the fact that civilian employment opportunities are not as great for the Negro. But they also reflect, in part, the zeal and courage of Negro soldiers. And they reflect the fact that in this war the Negro in uniform is not limited to work battalions...
These rhetorical tricks were not invented by the right wing for use on the Internet. And reality is what really stirs people's ire; which is perhaps why this is the least remembered of Dr. King's speeches. Imagine anyone getting a public platform today, to say this:

They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.

Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not "ready" for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.

For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.

Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.

After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators -- our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem's methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change -- especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy -- and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us -- not their fellow Vietnamese --the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go -- primarily women and children and the aged.

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one "Vietcong"-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them -- mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
Who wouldn't dismiss that kind of talk today? Good thing Vietnam is nothing like Iraq, huh?

In the north, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in the French commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which would have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed again.

When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered. Also it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military breach of the Geneva agreements concerning foreign troops, and they remind us that they did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.

Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard of the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the north. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.
Yeah, it's a real good thing history never repeats itself:

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.
And it's also sad that no one, absolutely no one, has claim to the national pulpit and can take the national stage and say things like this, if only to stir the ire of the editorial pages of the majore newspapers. That is, perhaps, the most striking change in conditions since 1968. The poor who are always with us have are still in Appalachia and the ghettos and rural areas, where they remain invisible. The only real change in 40 years is the visibility, and invisibility again, of the poor in New Orleans, and all along the Gulf Coast. We still have wars and rumors of wars. What we lack is anyone with the national standing to bring this situation within the field of his or her "moral vision." Woe be unto the pastor of the church who tries, of course. The other change since 1968 is that our pastors without pulpits are all TV evangelists; or they are only concerned with what God can do for you!

The rest of the speech is here. There is an audio version here. When I listen to the slow, careful cadences of Dr. King, I am reminded that John Donne once spoke to standing room only crowds, preaching in his shroud to remind everyone of their mortality. His sermons were careful, profound, dense products full of meaning and insight and ideas, much like Dr. King's speeches and sermons: ponderous things that could not be taken lightly or quickly or punctuated with ready applause lines. Scholars tell us no one would listen to such sermons today, and we imagine such rhetoric had to belong to a time long ago, a place far away. Yet King details world history, catalogues goals for ending the Vietnam conflict (he doesn't merely condemn the war and leave others to figure out its end, though that's all we finally did); he even quotes John F. Kennedy and responds to "the Nietzsches of the world" by giving a powerful pronouncement on the nature of love:

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. 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."
Who talks like this today? And why not? Many historians will note that Dr. King was killed exactly one year after giving this speech, on April 4, 1968. They seldom note that he was in Memphis to lead a protest of striking sanitation workers. We canonize saints in order to take away what they lived for, and to replace it with what we want to remember them for.

Maybe I just answered my last question.

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