As the presidential candidates glibly exploit his name, and Americans memorialize him calmly and innocently, what do we have left of our nation’s singular moral icon and his Dream?
World peace would be the most profound gift we could give to Dr King’s memory; since that doesn’t look too likely, I guess we’re settling for the day off.
I didn’t get that either; I work in a hospital. So a day of service – probably more in keeping with King’s values anyway – is my holiday.
It is for me always a mixed blessing to witness the United States mark the birth of Martin Luther King – vacation envy aside. We are all grateful for what has been accomplished in terms of equal rights, and for the continued efforts of activists, teachers, clergy, community leaders of every sort, the police and even a few politicians (not to mention the occasional reformed gangster) to spread a little brotherly love, to make this land a bit more peaceful than it was before.
That’s all good. Let’s celebrate it, let’s keep doing the work. But let’s not forget what the work is. The Civil Rights Act was not enough. The troops leaving Saigon was not enough. The troops leaving Baghdad won’t be enough either. An end to police brutality, obscene economic disparities, and ethnic hatred would only be a good start.
What we are struggling for is no less than an end The War of All Against All. We are seeking the Kingdom of God. We are working for peace on Earth. That is the full scope of the Dream. Yet the conventional outlook dismisses or ignores this ambitious pursuit.
On this day, the day we remember King, it cannot be ignored.
King believed in the possibility of World peace. So was he a naïve dreamer? Was he crazed and messianic, or just far ahead of his time? Maybe we can take the parts that we like and forget the rest, and call him a good activist but a mediocre philosopher, deluded by utopianism. I suppose anything is possible; Fox News has him pegged as a conservative on Affirmative Action, and a Commie on everything else.
But I’m thinking King was one in a long line of messengers, yet unheeded, telling us the way forward, pointing down an open road we are apparently too proud, too afraid, or too lost to follow.
One of the foulest bromides of contemporary political thought is that pacifism – or anything like it – cannot work internationally. Conventionally – particularly on the right – the argument is that war is necessary to protect innocents from the enemy. And, of course, the United States is always on the side of the innocents, and is only defending itself, or freedom, or what is right.
Even those who will admit that the United States has sometimes strayed from the noble to the simply practical or even the plainly aggressive will cite the American Revolution, the War Between the States, and World War Two as examples of unavoidable, noble, or necessary wars. Even the Catholic Church, squeamish about killing sperm, murderers, or despots, espouses a concept of the “just war.” Americans are so terrified by the spectre of Jihad, few doubt the wisdom of an indefinite arms race, and the certainty that in an uncertain world, the United States is best protected by having a massive military machine straddle the globe.
Might may not make right, but without might, right will lose in The War of All Against All. But if it be mighty, Good has a chance.
So goes the story. And the story played out with Nazis, then with the Reds, and now here we are again, up against an evil, incomprehensible enemy, a grave threat to American interests and, in case that doesn’t move you treasonous internationalists, also to world peace and women’s rights (which are, famously, high on the list of Republican Party priorities).
Leo Straus, the legendary Cold-War-era professor of political science at the University of Chicago, understood the power of the “enemy” myth quite well, and taught it to budding neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol, who, with friends in high places like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, helped shape two decades of US policy. These Neocons knowingly exaggerated reports of Soviet power in the 1970’s, and kept Americans jumpy and irritable with stories of our powerful enemy’s terrible evil. They are the authors of our endless “war on terror”, with all its comparisons to past American triumphs, particularly those involving the gold standard of international tyranny and malefaction, Hitler and his fascists, and their defeat by the United States (with just a little help from the Soviet Union).
This is one of the most important supporting myths in the story of American destiny – the codified history of the Second World War. The conventional version of that event is a foundational column in the facade of American exceptionalism, and without the World War Two narrative, down comes the entire damnable thing – the whole absurd, interminable, destructive cycle of death we call military history, national defense, and foreign policy.
Let me say at the start that I have never fought in a war, and the bravery and dedication of those who have fought for a cause they believe noble is beyond my words to honor. That is why there are tears of gratitude on Veterans’ Day and why, I imagine, there are sometimes tears of anger at American anti-war demonstrations. People feel deeply moved by sacrifice, and service.
My quarrel is not with those who fought and fight, but with those who lied to them, and to us all. Still, if you are angry with me for what I will say here, I understand. Because yes, I am saying we’ve been, I am saying we’ve all been used. And that’s a bitter pill.
In the myth, a man of unprecedented evil decided – out of nowhere, for no apparent reason – he wanted to kill all the Jews and take over the world, and set about doing it – unbeknownst to the rest of the world, and certainly with no help from the good Christians of North America. This monster of a man, having somehow risen to a throne of total power in Germany, proceeded to invade neighboring nations, again with no rhyme or reason, simply out of malice and madness. The British – those noblest of allies, only a bit too trusting and good-natured, one supposes – were foolish enough to give Hitler a bit of real estate, thinking he’d be satisfied. He wasn’t.
And then, sinister cohorts in the East, psychotic with the Cult of Personality, infamously attacked the Land of the Free, our very own soil, (won by the blood of patriots even, right?), out of nowhere, for no good reason, only because they wanted to take over the world, and because we are good.
Why does this keep happening to us?
Yes the day was dark that evil rose, but America stood strong. Inspired to defend freedom at all costs, millions of young men volunteered their lives and in the mud of Europe and the sands of Africa and on the infested shores of Polynesia they fired hot metal at strangers and saw friends perish and bled in trenches for four years and dropped fire on cities and we didn’t want to do it but we had to, and we won, so the world is free.
But evil still lurks.
Does this myth sound correct? This is the impression I get from reading Time Magazine.
Appeasement couldn’t work; war was unavoidable. Hitler (Man of the Year, 1933) was unexplainably evil. The US had to get in the fight to save freedom, but there are more badguys – always more badguys. So war is unavoidable, necessary, and all we can do is be the biggest and baddest on the block – right?
The real Martin Luther King (not the Disnified icon) had a different vision of life on Earth. He saw hope where others see habit. He had faith where others fear the worst. Most sublimely, he actually believed in Love in action; he marched, broke the law, took beatings, went to jail, said what was taboo, went where he wasn’t welcome, riled up the masses, demanded justice, raised his voice, called the name of the Lord and died in the service of brotherly Love.
And he believed this: “War is obsolete.” That’s the real Martin Luther King.
Wait until I tell you about the real Adolf Hitler.