Two Nobel Prize acceptance speeches. Two splendid orators. Two African American Men. Forty-five years apart. One was 48 years old and President; the other 35, a preacher and leader of the civil rights movement. For both, war was the backdrop. Dr. King grappling with the war in Vietnam, President
Obama with seven wars, notably Iraq
Dr. King’s speech is brief. The transcript fitting on less than 2 pages. President Obama’s us a carefully constructed edifice with a transcript 9 pages long.
Dr. King focuses on the reasons the prize was awarded. He concludes that it was “a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time − the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.”
Simple and profound.
Three years later, on April 4, 1967, Dr. King would ascend the pulpit of Riverside Church and deliver his answer to President Johnson’s war in Vietnam, “A Time to Break the Silence.”
Exactly one year later on April 4, 1968, he would be gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
In “A Time to Break the Silence,” Dr. King fleshes out his acceptance speech with a much more detailed explanation of his vision for a renewed America, “a new way beyond the darkness that seems to close around us.
He reminds us that America has become the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Today then and today now.
The American way of war, he tells us, is the sorry spectacle of “the most powerful nation in the world speaking of aggression [by the “enemy”] as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.”
Would Dr. King have been persuaded when we bombed a sovereign nation, Libya, into ruins destroying peoples’ homes, their businesses, and ultimately their lives. We tell ourselves and our victims that we are doing it in the name of our “interest” and “values” — in reality nothing less than a war crime.
Would he have been any more impressed by the recent presidential decision to re-engage in Afghanistan with yet more troops, more bombs, more death and destruction? How about the 139 countries, 70% of the world, where the U.S. has a military presence. “The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society and our leadership in the world.” Always the same self-serving lies as if “struggle” (aka war) promotes anything other than “violent extremism.” A civilian, who watches his whole family incinerated by a fireball dropped out of the sky, wants only one thing — revenge. The way he and hundreds, maybe thousands like him get it is by “violent extremism.”
Dr. King’s answer to President Obama and to the Presidents who preceded him and certainly to his successor is in his acceptance speech. “[N]on violence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.”
Morality was on President Obama’s mind as well. It might even be on President Trump’s. A different kind of morality, not the substantial kind you can point to and say “I’ve got it,” but something made-up on the fly, unreal, imaginary. Neither Obama nor Trump nor any president since 1945 could tell us what it is, but rather what it is not. It’s not tribalism, not religion, not sectarian conflict. It’s…well, they’ll know it when they see it.
We all know the history of transforming ideals into reality. American presidents historically have always taken a dim view of transformative power, particularly when there’s a nice juicy war in the offing. In America, that’s too often the case. Obama nailed the American way of war in his Nobel acceptance speech “we can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us and still strive for justice…we can understand that there will be war and still strive for peace.” A pack of lies invoked by every president to give meaning to meaningless war.
Dr. King would have seen right through that. In fact, he did. “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction…unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
The post-war generation of American presidents is not sure about wishing away that “hell of thermonuclear destruction, preferring to nibble away at the edge of the problem as they did in countless arms control treaty negotiations over the last seventy years which can best be described as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
For Dr. King, peace was always the lodestone by which a country’s morality could be measured. For a gaggle of post-war presidents, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Far too complex for us ordinary mortals to comprehend. Like plain old war, plain old peace won’t do. “[P]eace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.”
Which bring us back to earth with a thud on the doorstep of America’s dismal human rights record. President Obama’s acceptance speech has that covered with bizarre and untrue statements that we’ve heard time and time again from every president, republican or democrat, in every venue since 1945. Truth to tell, have we really elected thirteen presidents since then who believe that “America has never fought a war against a democracy and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.” A whole lot of American history would have to go dark for that to be even remotely accurate.
As Dr. King might have asked if he were alive today, Mr. President, what is a just war?
And the standard answer is “Evil does exist in the world…Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s [insert terrorist du jour] leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism − it is a recognition of…the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
The xenophobic logic keeps coming, moving quickly away from war to climate change. President Obama, speaking on behalf of his brother Presidents, floats this whopper…”[T]he world must come together to confront climate change.” A view, he asserts, shared by “the military leaders in my own country.’ Hard to imagine since most of the world’s largest polluters wear a couple of other hats — presidential campaign contributors and beneficiaries of government largesse.
When they’re not making billions despoiling the planet, they extract more billions by making armed drones to kill “evildoers” and anyone else unfortunate enough to be near an evildoer, including a 16-year old American boy. Their targets — the Middle East and Africa including Afghanistan, the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya and any other country that pisses us off.
High minded presidential addresses ramp up when a public relations disaster looms be it climate change, freeing people from the scourge of communism, the Taliban, terrorism or whatever “ism”is on trial, or when all else fails “responsibility to protect” a sure fire crowd-pleaser. President Obama had many opportunities to trod that well-worn oratorical path, Trump mired in the weeds of his makings, not so much.
Where did Dr. King take his message of peace, love and brotherhood. To Oslo (“Nobel acceptance speech and lecture), Riverside Church (“Beyond Vietnam,”), Washington D.C. (“I have a Dream), Memphis, Tennessee (“I’ve been to the mountain” April 3, 1968)
Two brothers united by race and stature, divided by you tell me.
For one — I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of …war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of man.”
For the other — We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice…[W]e can understand that there will be war and still strive for peace…So part of our challenge is reconciling …two seemingly irreconcilable truths − that war is sometimes necessary and war at some level is an expression of human folly…Even as we make difficult decisions about war, we must also think clearly about how to fight it.”
Whose vision does the world need?
We are headed to Twitter! . . . finally taking a plunge into the world of social media. Follow us at @SUSPIANGELS Though deciding on our first official Tweet has been a bit stupefying. . .
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