Monday, January 16, 2012

Beyond Vietnam: In Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 
"Abba, Amma, did you know we used to have to ride on the back of the bus?" our five year old daughter Mira Husnara emerged from her Kindergarten class full of indignation.  "And," she added breathlessly, "did you know, that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks fought for us so we can swim in a swimming pool and not in the Mississippi?"  We smiled - our dark skinned daughter, born on the South Side of Chicago and growing up in  pale Palo Alto, appeared to have found her sense of belonging and community. Celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday was her introduction to the gross inequalities and divisions of the United States, but also to a rich heritage of social justice, human rights activism, and non-violent resistance.

Our daughter is now 18 and on the cusp of a new adventure as she readies herself for college.  She has grown up watching King's dream for greater racial equality in the United States is on its way to being partially realized.  In her sophomore year at high school, a black man with a Muslim middle name that sounds close to hers, Barack Hussein Obama, was elected President of the United States.  Yet, she also has grown up in a world where the United States has been at war for the greater part of her childhood.  It still is.  

Pakistan, home to my husband’s family is known to her friends for being a scary place - home to Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, military dictatorships and coups.  She has grown up traveling between the US, Pakistan and India and is used to being pulled aside for special security screenings because she and her father have names that match suspects on the "list".  The United States, which we once viewed as valuing social equality in ways that could be models for India and Pakistan, has become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.  Mira has been exposed to great wealth and privilege in this suburban town, but barely a mile away across Route 101 in East Palo Alto, Latino and African American families live from paycheck to paycheck, without access to good schools or healthcare, and vulnerable to violence in their everyday lives.   

In other words, the other part of King's dream, his hope for a more egalitarian and peaceful world, is far from being realized. On his birthday most of us hear and read excerpts from King's famous "I have a dream" speech.  Yet, it is King's “BeyondVietnam” that is the one that goes beyond the issues of racial equality and civil rights.  He bluntly denounces the US invasion in Vietnam, challenges the direction of global capitalism and calls for a  "a true revolution of values”.  This new approach he asserted, “will look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. 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."

King goes on to argue that it is only through such a transformation of values that communism can be challenged.  It is easy to substitute Islamic fundamentalism or terrorism for communism in the following passage: "This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops." 

The year that has just ended began with remarkable and largely peaceful protests by common people on the streets of Tunisia and Egypt that led to ousters of dictators and serious challenges to military regimes long propped up by the United States. These struggles are far from done and here again King's words have much resonance: "These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. We in the West must support these revolutions. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” 

This is not a popular message in today's world where force is regularly used to settle conflict and where the United States has the world's largest defense budget and remains the world's most significant military power.  He minced no words when he said, "A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." He went on to add, "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."  He might easily be speaking about the despotic governments that the activists of the Arab Spring sought to topple, many of which remain allies of the United States. Saudi Arabia recently received a commitment of over $60 billion in armament sales

In an ironic twist, the Obama administration has been forced to redo King's quote on the newly innagurated memorial in DC.  It  is an apt metaphor for how totally we have forgotten King's radical call to action. "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."  These words were not written or spoken in a post 9/11, post Arab Spring, post Occupy Wall Street world but they were never more relevant than they are now.  If Mira and her generation are to have a fighting chance to transcend the wars of Iraq, Afganistan and Pakistan and realize King’s dream, they will need the wisdom, humility and courage of "Beyond Vietnam"
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