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The Giant Triplets of Racism, Materialism, and Militarism
January 14, 2011 7:57 AM   Subscribe

At a Pentagon commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Defense Department general council Jeh C. Johnson argued King, a strident opponent of the Vietnam War and of militarism generally, would acknowledge a justification for US military actions around the world. Justin Elliot of Salon responds.
posted by l33tpolicywonk (31 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
King referred to the United States, in the speech linked above, as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world."
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:58 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hahaha! If there's one thing we like to do, it's pretend that MLK Jr would totally agree with our shitty actions if he was still alive! Sort of how Glenn Beck wants to pretend that MLK Jr wasn't an economic socialist who advocated for a living wage, or how politicians celebrate MLK Jr. day by 'volunteering' while gutting the social platforms he fought for.
posted by muddgirl at 8:06 AM on January 14, 2011 [21 favorites]


Well, that's certainly kind of a disgusting, hubristic pile of hypocrisy.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:07 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


What a sickening display of jurisprudence on principle. For the Pentagon to give him an award for his speech is doubly poison on King's message of peaceful resistance, which was not just resistance to violence but resistance to sensation.
posted by parmanparman at 8:08 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he understand why the United States is at war?

I'm pretty sure he would. Whether he accepted or opposed it, I can't say. But I'm leaning towards 'opposed'.
posted by carsonb at 8:10 AM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that both Martin Luther King and Jesus would like exactly the things I like and hate exactly the things I hate. I'm pretty cool that way.
posted by PlusDistance at 8:11 AM on January 14, 2011 [24 favorites]


Well, Greeley-Evans (CO) School District 6 Board of Education member Brett Reese recently approvingly read aloud a letter on a radio broadcast that called MLK a "sexual degenerate, an America hating communist and a criminal betrayer of even the interest of his own people," so the point's moot, right?
posted by blucevalo at 8:11 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's Salon article's not a rebuttal, it's just a big NUH-UH!!

I'm not saying I agree, but like any good lawyer, Johnson's made a strong argument.

"Johnson said King criticized those who are compassionate by proxy, noting the civil rights leader told the audience in Memphis that night, “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, 'If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?'"

Johnson compared today’s troops to the Samaritan, who chose to help instead of taking an easier path.

“I draw the parallel to our own servicemen and women deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, away from the comfort of conventional jobs, their families and their homes,” Johnson said.

Volunteers in today’s military, he said, “have made the conscious decision to travel a dangerous road and personally stop and administer aid to those who want peace, freedom and a better place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in defense of the American people."


To me, the mistake he's making is conflating what King might say about the souls of the soldiers with what he might say about ANY use of violence to achieve worldly ends. I do think King would praise the courage and self-sacrifice that many military folks exhibit in choosing to serve their country. But that doesn't change that King fundamentally believed that violence is never justified, even if the cause itself is just.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:11 AM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


If MLK were alive today he would totally support my drinking the last of the coffee and not making a fresh pot.
posted by Legomancer at 8:11 AM on January 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Wait, we're administering aid to folks in Afghanistan and Iraq?? The duplicitous mainstream media gave me the impression we were over there killing people.
posted by Nahum Tate at 8:17 AM on January 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


The idea that American soldiers are helping the people of Iraq and Afghanistan is about as plausible as the idea that they were helping the people of Vietnam. I doubt that American soldiers during the Vietnam war thought of themselves as ruthless murderers, I don't think that King's criticism of the Vietnam war rested upon the idea that U.S. soldiers had evil hearts or wanted bad things for the people of Vietnam. It was that factually speaking, U.S. policy was to drop bombs on the people of a much weaker nation that posed little or no direct threat to America.
posted by Humanzee at 8:20 AM on January 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


The real question is, what would Martin Luther think of our wars. Cuz Martin Luther was a real bad ass, not a pussy-ass commie pinko upppity such and such like MLK and his "Junior".
posted by spicynuts at 8:28 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


MLK would have noted that only two letters separate "Jeh" from "Meh."
posted by brain_drain at 8:37 AM on January 14, 2011


If MLK were alive today he would totally support my drinking the last of the coffee and not making a fresh pot.

I've been justifying doing shit like that by figuring that the terrorists would win if I did not eat that last piece of cake. But your rationalization is much more positive, I'll use that if you don't mind.
posted by marxchivist at 8:41 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ugh - I am so sick of people using the "If he were alive today, he would...". So many people use it to justify their opinions. It's such a non-fact that get substituted for actual information, especially with the founding fathers, MLK Jr, JFK, etc. Let's stop deciding what dead people would think of present-day situations.
posted by elvissa at 8:42 AM on January 14, 2011


Potomac: I don't think it's a strong argument at all. It's deceptive and dishonest, certainly, but not strong.

His argument boils down to "If we use rhetorical tricks to corrupt the biblical parable of the good Samarian to the point that military action against hostile political entities, in favor of ourselves and our allies, can be viewed as the same thing as aiding a wounded man at the side of the road without regard for his faith or tribe, then we can say King would support what we're doing based on his citing that parable".

It relies on the listener's ignorance, willful or otherwise, of the story of the good Samaritan, and the activities of the US and NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan to even begin to work.
posted by Grimgrin at 8:42 AM on January 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


People generally have a hard time "getting" non-violence. It means "non" as in "no","nix", "nihilum", "nyet", "uh-uh", "absoutely not", "over my dead body", "no way, baby", "nein", "no means no", in the absolute negative ... and "violence" as in physically invading another person's space. Taken together, the terms non and violence mean ... non-violence. A person who goes down in history as an apostle of non-violence, generally doesn't approve of so much as a noogie, much less a full scale war, complete with rapes and massacres of civillians, predator drones, executions, tanks, aerial bombardment and ... uh ... violence.
posted by Faze at 8:43 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Justin Elliot: "I cannot find live people to exploit."
posted by clavdivs at 8:44 AM on January 14, 2011


Faze: ""over my dead body""

For many practitioners of non-violence, literally.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:45 AM on January 14, 2011


If MLK were alive today, it would be a lot harder for right-wing extremists to speak on his behalf.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:45 AM on January 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


I do think King would praise the courage and self-sacrifice that many military folks exhibit in choosing to serve their country. But that doesn't change that King fundamentally believed that violence is never justified, even if the cause itself is just.

I agree with this sentiment.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:06 AM on January 14, 2011


If King were alive today the right would probably hate him.
posted by delmoi at 9:14 AM on January 14, 2011


If King were alive today the right would probably hate him.

They hated him when he was alive back then. So, yes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:16 AM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack,” he said.
Because, it's not like MLK Jr. actually had some experience with responding to terrorist attacks? So, we can conclude that MLK Jr. was actually Huey Newton's mentor?

I do think King would praise the courage and self-sacrifice that many military folks exhibit in choosing to serve their country. But that doesn't change that King fundamentally believed that violence is never justified, even if the cause itself is just.

Well, let's ask him and see what he says:
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.

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.

and continuing...
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military "advisors" in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he 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 -- 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 investment.

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, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Yup. MLK would totally understand why we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:38 AM on January 14, 2011 [12 favorites]


Ugh. Wow.

In my own heart of hearts, although everyone rightfully lauds the "I Have a Dream" Speech, it was neither his most poignant or bravest speech. I have to give that title to "Beyond Vietnam."

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
. . . .
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 this 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.

Perhaps a 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. And 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. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
. . .
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 . . . . But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask 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 the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
. . .
Now, 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.
. . .
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls "enemy," for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
. . .
speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
. . .
Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon, the only solid -- solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call "fortified hamlets." The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.
. . .
Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. . . .Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence.
. . .
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
. . .
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

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 of the -- 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 one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
. . .
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality...and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing "clergy and laymen concerned" committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala -- 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.

And so, such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
. . .
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he 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, 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 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...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.
. . .
On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
. . .
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
. . .
Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice.
. . .
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
. . .
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. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.


TL;DR version:
I disagree. And so, probably, would Dr. King.
posted by absalom at 9:42 AM on January 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


The "Defense" department is there to weaponize anything and everything possible against all perceived enemies, whether foreign or domestic.

Here it weaponizes and co-opts the legacy of MLK, and attempts to use it against the domestic population.

War is peace.
posted by anarch at 9:47 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh that MLK, the one that lived in the parallel universe where Hitler terrorized the world with an incremental healthcare reform package. Yeah he loved him some fightin'.
posted by condour75 at 9:48 AM on January 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


If MLK Jr was still alive today he would say "AH MY GOD GET ME OUT OF THIS COFFIN HELP I'M STILL ALIVE IN HERE!"
posted by fuq at 10:41 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


So basically, nothing's really changed since Vietnam and King's time, and the Pentagon is completely clueless of their role in the world as perceived by non-Americans (and some Americans too).

Great job, fellow citizens! *headdesk*
posted by zoogleplex at 10:58 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm waiting for Jeh Johnson to reply in-thread.
posted by banished at 12:15 PM on January 14, 2011


We learned about MLK's commitment to nonviolent protest in school, but not his opposition to war in general. I was flabbergasted when I read a biography and found out he considered them equally important. I think it's amazing how the establishment has successfully embraced some of MLK's principles, while completely forgetting the ones that were most important to him.
posted by miyabo at 7:10 PM on January 17, 2011


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