Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Triple Evils

I've made no secret of that a recent blogging trend for me has been to start a post on one subject or another, and then lose track of time or get distracted by or preoccupied with something else and I end up putting off finishing the post for weeks. This one was originally started back on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 18th. Obviously, more than a month has passed since then. But, while we're in the last week of February now, it is still Black History Month, so hey, it's a relevant time for the subject in question.

I was reading an interview with Martin Luther King III last month that made me aware for the first time of the "Triple Evils" that Martin Luther King Jr. railed against. While we learned about him as a great civil rights crusader - and one of the most important historical figures in the American 20th century - the focus in public schools was largely placed on his fight for racial equality. This is all well and good, of course, but at the same time, one has to wonder why we didn't go over the other issues he focused on in addition to racism. Placing these issues under the microscope, it's hard not to feel there's some political motivation behind avoiding discussion of the other two of the Triple Evils.

These Triple Evils? To introduce them, a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., but a small part of his words on April 4th, 1967 at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City:
"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."
Articulated right within these words are the interrelated Triple Evils King did his part to lead the fight against: racism, materialism/poverty, and militarism.

On racism, while obviously we have made considerable progress in recent decades - King's beautiful, inspiring words playing no small role - we still have far to go. In 2008, we elected our first black president, who himself is multiethnic. In just that, he's the first president to more honestly represent the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States, both to the people and to the world.
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
On the political right, Republicans have spent years claiming that racism has been eradicated and that we now live in a "postracial" society where everyone is essentially colorblind. This, of course, is a baldfaced lie that anybody can see through. This is the same party that's attempted to use that sort of rhetoric to argue against the existence of Affirmative Action, a program that exists out of unfortunate necessity to level the playing field in American society and promote equality of opportunity because of how much open institutional and cultural racism still exists in this country. And while progress has been made, there's no pretending notable disparities in education, employment opportunities, and wages amongst other things do not exist in our society. These are problems which we cannot hope to resolve unless we are willing to address them - and that involves a willingness to acknowledge their existence. Of course, this ideology has also been backed with the rage-inducing fantasy that uneducated, unqualified African Americans are getting into colleges and getting jobs that upper crust conservative straight-A white kids with tons of work experience and moxie should be instead. Kind of like the rage-fantasy anti-choice conservatives like to cite wherein many theoretical women go out and get abortions for fun on a lark. Note that the rage-fantasy is not exactly uncommon backing for many Republican ideologies in recent decades. And obviously, both racism and misogyny take center stage in these fantasies.
“Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.”

This same party that calls our society "postracial" also embraces the support of fringe groups - like the teabaggers, whose size and influence are exaggerated by our corporate-owned newsmedia in its continued failures to serve the public with journalism of honesty and integrity - that openly express their own racism at their public gatherings. Some of them keep it extremely thinly veiled - such as those who focused on Obama's middle name as an analogue for another word they wanted to call him all throughout the campaign - while others are quite open. Some are convinced they're being clever. Others wear their racism on their sleeves without shame.
"A right delayed is a right denied."
The whole concept of a colorblind society is inherently ridiculous. There's no reason to put on airs and pretend we aren't different. Our racial and ethnic makeup is no less important to who we are as people and individuals than our sex, sexual orientation, or even the patterns of brain chemistry that make up our individual personalities. Our diversity on each of these levels is something to be celebrated. What the Republicans seek is the illusion of tolerance on the part of a white, wealthy, conservative, Christian patriarchy that has ruled America - and much of the western world - for millennia. These men are afraid to look at their own bigotry and work past it - let alone their fear of the collapse of this age-old patriarchy. Racists do not think of themselves as bigoted. They see faults in those different from themselves, and they fear those differences, having lost touch with the humanity we all have in common. And unfortunately, despite all the progress made over the past several decades, we still have our work cut out for us and many social problems to tackle to improve our society - many of which are wrapped up in Dr. King's Triple Evils - as many in the past few years have reminded us how much racism has boiled under the surface of American society over these decades. The problem of racism has erupted once more to the surface of public consciousness. As human beings of conscience, it is our duty to call out deceit and bigotry, and to do our part to educate those blinded by it, as hopeless a cause as it may seem. At the root of the matter, it is not by hatred that hatred can be extinguished. No matter how much we hate their hate.

"The dispossessed of this nation -- the poor, both white and Negro -- live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty."

Materialism and militarism have tragically become cornerstones of American conservative political philosophy in an especially pronounced manner in recent decades. Dr. King spoke in that quote of the threat property rights and profit motives posed to a focus on the development of a humanistic society. Today's Republicans write off anything humanistic as "Socialistic" or "Communistic," without a shred of respect or intellectual consideration for what we might have to learn from even parts of these political systems by which to improve our nation - which itself is a hybrid system all its own, like the rest of the western world.

"It is not only poverty that torments the Negro; it is the fact of poverty amid plenty. It is a misery generated by the gulf between the affluence he sees in the mass media and the deprivation he experiences in his everyday life."

Unfortunately, Dr. King's prophetic words seem to be coming true, as the value of human beings as individuals - let alone as people - seems to sink further each passing year as dangerous corporatist political ideologies and paranoia-driven security measures devalue our humanity. Even just last month, the Supreme Court unpopularly ruled that corporate money is free speech and that they could now freely spend as much money as they wanted on campaign contributions and propagandizing without limitation. This was sparked by the blocking of an attempted 2008 airing of conservative think tank Citizens United's "Hillary: The Movie," a straight-up political smear piece. This all goes back to the concept of corporate personhood - a notion by which corporations are essentially legally individual people, but without all the drawbacks. Though it legally happened all the way back in 1819, this is what Dr. King spoke against - the elevation of corporate, purely financially-driven entities being recognized as people. The 1819 ruling that led to this allowed corporations to effectively become giants towering over individuals in society and is still to this date one of the most damaging cases in American legal history.

"There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it."

Popular conservative talking points these days also typically include anti-worker ideologies, coupled with the notion that we should be able to simply "bootstrap" our way into success by working hard. That's always been the horribly trite American dream: work really hard and someday you'll be rich. In truth, this has worked for very, very few people historically. And for the vast majority of us - especially now - it is literally impossible. That hasn't stopped the flow of pro-corporate/anti-individual politics, though. In this line of thinking, the impoverished are only impoverished by their own weakness. Multi-billion dollar multinational corporations are treated like victims whenever regulatory and pro-worker/jobs legislation is introduced. And the impoverished are manipulated into voting against their own best interests whenever possible. We're caught in the midst of a deep economic recession, and at every turn, Obama is faced by Republican phalanxes attempting to impede any and all effort to improve the situation. They would rather see this country collapse into abject mass poverty - as it moved toward when the Republicans nearly annihilated the middle class under George W. Bush's administration's rule and sharply increased social stratification, poverty expanding further as the wealthy got much, much wealthier on the people's backs - than Barack Obama and the Democrats turn anything around. We're a nation divided by class warfare. The wealthy and the corporations are fighting against the rest of us fiercely, and as of far, they're winning in devastating ways. It's hard to have faith in any future where this country keeps it together and the government returns to serving the people. And as a culture, we continue to suffer from a crisis of personhood all our own, as we celebrate the notion of defining ourselves by what we own instead of who we are as individuals. We need to be reminded that we are not our cars, our houses, our apartments, our grills, our clothing, our guns, or anything else. We are who we are within the electrical impulses of our brains. We are who we are within the person within those electrical charges and chemicals. We are what we believe in, what we feel, who we love and who we hate. But no person is a material possession.

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
As for militarism, as I mentioned before, like materialism, it has become a cornerstone of modern American consciousness. You could scarcely swing a dead cat toward any block of TV commercials here without hitting some military propaganda. Be all that you can be. An army of one. There's strong and then there's Army strong. These are but a few of the slogans Americans have been constantly bombarded with over the past couple of decades, and our history of propagandizing goes back further than that. The message ingrained in our national consciousness is simple, but powerful: "Join the military and you'll be a better person. If you serve as a soldier, you're a superior human being. Now come, commit some atrocities for us."

We put our soldiers on a pedestal in this country. On one hand, that's understandable. Conceptually, there are some admirable ideas in joining the military: fighting to defend the people, to be willing to carry out and get involved in violence where many if not most wouldn't want to, and providing aid to nations who need it. The problem is, we've put our military to work on perhaps one of the three at most in the past half-century now. We've actually made some respectable use of our military in the past month - particularly in relief for Haiti, which I'm hoping to get to a blog post on yet too, despite how obviously far behind I am on that at this point. But getting back to the point, aside from this relief, we haven't fought anything you could call a "just war" since World War II. And we even committed atrocities in that, too. We weren't these great, amazing black-and-white heroes of World War II as many would like to whitewash history. Our presence in the Korean War was a twisted extension of the Cold War. Vietnam was a paranoid mistake, and secret illegal bombings we carried out there into Cambodia helped create the climate necessary for the Khmer Rogue to rise and commit genocide on the people. And to call our current incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan "just wars" would be insulting. Neither of these engagements are even officially wars - there is no organized opposition, war was never actually declared. They're simply cornerstones to a Republican political strategy of open-ended endless war. The enemy? Terrorism. You can't fight a concept. And while you can pursue terrorists, you can't exactly do that without treading into some very dark gray territory. Fear-based politics have devastated America, and ended hundreds of thousands of civilian lives. More than 1.5 million Iraqis have been seriously injured as a result of our conflict. That isn't protecting anybody's freedom. Most Americans seem to be blissfully unaware of just how many people's lives we've ended unnecessarily over the course of the past ten years.
"I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation... I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow... I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed."
Our military has an insanely bloated budget. We spend more on our military than any other nation on Earth. And so much as the suggestion that we should cut military spending is met with anger and derision, when defense spending is by far the largest part of our national budget year after year. Any cuts made to it and the ridiculous number of Military Industrial Complex (Something President Eisenhower warned us about as he left office. A president from an era where Republicans represented very different things.) pork barrel projects clogging it could be put toward deficit reduction and social programs to work on raising the standard of living for the American people. But again, the far right drives our continued imperialistic military ventures around the globe - which Dr. King railed on - and seems to prefer the bottom line standard of living in America to be squalor, with the government in no way serving the interests of the people. In a world where the people largely live in squalor, we cannot hope to elevate our society or make any kind of meaningful progress - dangerous stratification and widespread poverty are the enemies of progress. Excessive military glorification, imperialist campaigns, and global atrocities only paint a path to a bleaker future. All of these things come together, but to criticize our military, our military culture, and our nation's love affair with militarism is treated as virtually treasonous, while we lose sight of what the military is. Here, it's an entirely volunteer service - each and every person within it is a human being no different from the rest of us, regardless of the uniform they don, regardless of the mental conditioning they're put through. The military can be used for positive things, as we've seen with our Haitian relief efforts in recent days. But when it comes time to fight, America has a long-standing history of desperately searching for "heroism" and "glory" and ultimately abusing its soldiers. We send them to fight for terrible causes dressed up in high ideals, and many of them end up dying for nothing. And even more civilians end up dying in other countries due to our cultural lust for military glory and the way the political far right loves to exploit that very lust.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Just as Americans must come together as a national community in order to have any sort of future - to get past prejudice and uplift the impoverished, to elect leadership interested in serving the people instead of the greed of the wealthy and powerful - so too must the world. None of it is an easy task. In fact, it's the greatest challenge facing all of humanity. But if we as a species cannot rise to meet it, we have no future. Martin Luther King Jr. had a beautiful dream, and while we've certainly made some progress, we have a tremendously long way to go in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. In the least, we've still got Dr. King's son to look up to as well, trying to carry on his father's legacy as he is. The day humanity stops dreaming of something better, sinking down into the mire of greed, bigotry, and bloodlust, is the day we forsake our future. We can do better.


Ms. Sylaneous said...

*two thumbs up* very well said!

Benjamin Fennell said...

Thanks! :)

*T-Abby* said...

wow, just wow. (that's a good wow by the way)

Benjamin Fennell said...

I'm glad to've made a good impact with this one, then. :) Thank you.

Roger Ehrlich said...


Very insightful insightful and comprehensive post! I was writing and googled 'King Triple Evils" and came across it. Then I noticed that you also are in the Raleigh area? Have we crossed paths? Please follow our Swords to Plowshares Belltower project. Be great to work with you!